Allergies to Exotic and Non-Traditional Pets

New Allergies But Same Allergens

Allergies to non-traditional pets have grown in recent decades due to the increasing popularity of exotic and traditionally undomesticated pets.

From ferrets and snakes to rabbits and pigs, the rise in pet-related allergies is as much associated with the way we live as the animals we live with. Certainly, with more people living in smaller apartments today, the likelihood of an allergy is increased simply due to the confined space the animal and owner share.

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While it may seem fair to assume that some pets are more "allergy-causing" than others (or that animals with less fur are less likely to cause allergy), this is not necessarily the case.

What we do know is that the main symptoms of pet allergies—rhinitis (sniffing, sneezing) and asthma—are the same for uncommon pets as they are for cats and dogs. Moreover, the allergens (the substances that cause allergy) vary little from one animal to the next.

How a Pet Allergy Starts

Especially in urban environments, the daily exposure to domestic animals can increase a person's sensitivity to pet-related allergens. Most of these are airborne particles we inhale. When this happens, the body will mount an immune response, which may or may not produce any outward symptom.

In some cases, however, repeated exposure can lead to a more aggressive response, releasing histamine and other substances into the body that produce allergic symptoms, some of which can be severe.

Allergens Associated With Exotic and Uncommon Pets

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), more than 13.0% of U.S. households owned specialty or exotic pets s as of 2016. These include rodents (rats, chinchillas, jerboas), other mammals (ferrets, rabbits, pigs, monkeys), spiders, reptiles, amphibians, and exotic birds.

Contrary to popular belief, it is dander (the microscopic skin cells shed from animals) and not hair that is the main cause of pet allergies. These shed cells contain allergens in the form of dried saliva and secretion from sebaceous glands of the skin. Allergies to pets are also caused by proteins found in an animal's saliva or urine.

Pet birds may be as great an allergenic problem as cats and dogs. Most of the exotic birds imported to the U.S. are members of the psittacine, or parrot, family. For birds, the source of allergens can be feather, dander, or excreta (bodily waste, such as sweat and urine), and the allergen can vary with the type of bird.

While the composition from one animal to another does vary, proteins that comprise pet allergens come from only three families:

  • Lipocalin is associated with both vertebrates and invertebrates and is easily dispersed in indoor environments.
  • Serum albumin comes primarily from mammals and is responsible for 20% to 30% of pet-related allergies.
  • Secretoglobins are the most potent allergen in cats but are found in other animals, as well.

What this tells us is that, while each animal is unique, the causes of a pet allergy may not be.

What to Do If You Have a Pet Allergy

To confirm that your allergy is pet-related, an allergy test can be performed. While the tests may not include your specific animal or breed, a positive reaction to common animal-related allergens can suggest whether your pet is the cause.

Having an allergy doesn't necessarily mean you have to get rid of your pet. However, certain measures may need to be taken in order to prevent or minimize symptoms.

If you have a caged pet, like a ferret or rabbit, try to keep it outdoors (or at least in a warm garage) as much as possible. Clean the cage regularly, ideally with rubber gloves, and wash your hands thoroughly afterward with an antiseptic soap.

Try to bathe your pet regularly, even if it's with a baby wipe. This can help prevent dander from becoming airborne. A bedside air filter may help, but as dander tends to settle quickly, it may only provide nominal relief.

If you intend to buy a pet, schedule an appointment with an allergist to see which animals you may be allergic to. This could save you a lot of headaches (and heartache) should your new best friend end up making you ill.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Díaz-Perales A, González-de-Olano D, Pérez-Gordo M, Pastor-Vargas C. Allergy to uncommon pets: new allergies but the same allergens. Front Immunol. 2013;4:492. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2013.00492

  2. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Pet allergy.

  3. American Veterinary Medical Association. AVMA releases latest stats on pet ownership and veterinary care.

  4. Díaz-Perales A, González-de-Olano D, Pérez-Gordo M, Pastor-Vargas C. Allergy to uncommon pets: new allergies but the same allergens. Front Immunol. 2013;4:492. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2013.00492

  5. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pet allergy: Are you allergic to dogs or cats?

  6. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Allergy to pet birds.

  7. Kuehn A, Hilger C. Animal allergens: common protein characteristics featuring their allergenicity. Front Immunol. 2015;6:40. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2015.00040

  8. Cleveland Clinic. How to live with pet allergies if you have no choice.

Additional Reading
  • Phillips, J. and Lockey, R. "Exotic Pet Allergy." J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009;123:513-5.

  • Diaz-Perales, A.; Gonzales-de-Olano, D.; Perez-Gordo, M.; et al. " Allergy to Uncommon Animals: New Allergies but the Same Allergens." Frontiers in Immunology. 2013; 4:492.

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.