Allergies to Exotic and Non-Traditional Pets

New Allergies But Same Allergens

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Allergies to non-traditional pets have grown in the past 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.

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 symptom 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 that 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, sometimes severe.

Allergens Associated With Exotic and Uncommon Pets

According to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), 10.6 percent of U.S. households own specialty or exotic pets. 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 the 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.

While the composition from one animal to another does vary, the family of proteins that comprise the allergens only come from 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 percent 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 or not.

Having an allergy doesn't necessarily mean that you have to get rid of your pet. However, certain measures would 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 the 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.

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  • 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.