Sleeping on animal fur in the first three months of life might reduce the risk of asthma in later childhood, a new study has found.
The new research, presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Munich, suggests that exposure to the microbial environment in animal skin and fur could have a protective effect against asthma and allergies.
Previous studies have suggested that exposure to a wider range of environments from a young age could be protective against asthma and allergies, but these findings have not been confirmed conclusively.
In this new study, researchers investigated children from a city environment who had been exposed to animal skin by sleeping on the material shortly after birth.
Using data from a German birth cohort called Lisaplus, the researchers collected information on exposure to animal skin during the first three months of life, along with information on the health of children until the age of 10 years.
Information on 2,441 children was used in the study, with 55% of those included sleeping on animal skin in the first three months of life.
The results showed that sleeping on animal skin was associated with a reduced risk of a number of factors connected to asthma.
The chance of having asthma at the age of 6 years was 79% lower in children who had slept on animal skin after birth compared with those who were not exposed to animal skin. The risk decreased to 41% by the age of 10.
Dr Christina Tischer, from the Helmholtz Zentrum München Research Centre, said: "Previous studies have suggested that microbes found in rural settings can protect from asthma."
"An animal skin might also be a reservoir for various kinds of microbes, following similar mechanisms as has been observed in rural environments. Our findings have confirmed that it is crucial to study further the actual microbial environment within the animal fur to confirm these associations."
Dr Samantha Walker, director of research and policy at Asthma UK, told the Telegraph: "This research appears to suggest that early exposure to animal fur may reduce the risk of a child developing asthma.
"This is interesting, although previous studies have not shown a consistent impact of exposure to animal fur in early life on asthma outcomes later on. Asthma is a complex condition so we welcome any new research that helps us understand what causes asthma as it brings us one step closer to curing asthma."