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Asthma and Allergy in Animal Handlers

General Information

Allergic reactions to animals are among the most common conditions that affect individuals who have contact with laboratory animals. One survey demonstrated that 75 percent of all institutions with laboratory animals had workers who had contact with animals having allergic symptoms. Workers exposed to laboratory animals can be categorized into several risk groups:

Risk Group History Risk of Allergic Reactions to Laboratory Animals Comment
Normal No evidence of allergic disease ~ 10% 90% will never develop symptoms in site of repeated animal contact
Atopic Pre-existing allergic disease Up to 73% Workers who become sensitized will eventually develop symptoms on exposure
Asymptomatic IgE Ab to allergenic animal proteins Up to 100% Risk of developing allergic symptoms or rhinitis, asthma, or contact uticaria with continued exposure is high
Symptomatic Clinical symptoms on exposure to allergenic animal proteins 100% 33% with chest symptoms; 10% of group might develop occupational asthma; even minimal exposure can lead to permanent impairment

Symptoms

Allergic individuals can display a variety of symptoms: allergic rhinitis (runny nose and sneezing); allergic conjunctivitis (irritation and tearing of the eyes); asthma (wheezing and shortness of breath); contact dermatitis (red, bumpy rash), or rarely anaphylaxis (ranging from mild generalized urticarial reactions to profound life-threatening reactions).

Prevention

Individuals who work with laboratory animals should be aware of the signs and symptoms of allergies and asthma. If you work with animals and start to develop any symptoms, you should report to Employee Health Services for counseling and appropriate treatment. The presence of pre-existing allergic conditions in a person (e.g., hay fever) might increase the likelihood of developing asthma in the occupational setting during exposure to laboratory animals.

The most effective way to minimize your exposure to allergens is to control your work practices. The following are steps you should take:

1. Do not wear your street clothes when working with animals; always wear dedicated, protective clothing (e.g., scrubs and lab coats)

2. If you already have allergies, wear an approved NIOSH certified N95 respirator when working with laboratory animals. Remember that, in order to wear a respiratory, you must be fit-tested by the Environmental Health & Safety.

3. Keep cages and your work area clean. The less exposure you have to animal dander and urine, the better.

4. Always wear gloves and long-sleeved lab coats when handling the animals.

5. Wash your hands after contact with the animals.

6. When possible, perform animal manipulations in a biosafety cabinet. A clean bench will not protect you- its function is to protect the animals you are working with.

If your job requires you to be exposed to something to which you are allergic, you should discuss this situation with your physician- what effect the allergy may be on your future health. Some workers are so severely affected that only a change in career will control their allergies.