Health

Lizards are Nothing to Sneeze At

Non-furry pet at home? It could be the cause of a pesky allergy.

Having pets around the house can be heartwarming. But when a family member has an allergy to dogs or cats, parents often go searching for non-furry friends.

Birds, fish, and reptiles are often seen as viable alternatives, and they eliminate any chance of an allergic reaction.

But maybe not.

Reptiles may need to be excluded from the allergy-free pet list, as new research shows the grasshoppers in their food may incite allergic reactions, too.

This finding emerged from a clinical case in which an 8-year-old boy in Vienna, Austria, began experiencing nightly attacks of shortness of breath nearly four months after his family adopted a bearded dragon.

At first, the boy was diagnosed with severe asthma and a respiratory infection called pseudocroup. But when allergists tested the lizard’s food, they discovered the grasshoppers in the lizard feed were the culprit. A skin test revealed the boy was producing specific IgE antibodies when in contact with the grasshopper allergen.

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Dr. Erika Jensen-Jarolim, an allergy expert at the Messerli Research Institute and lead researcher on the case, advised the boy’s parents to remove the lizard from their home. As a result, the boy’s affliction subsided. Yet four years after the cause of the allergic reaction was revealed, the boy exposed himself to the allergen once more and an asthma attack ensued.

“Far too little is known about grasshoppers as a potential allergenic source in homes.”

Jensen-Jarolim recommends keeping lizard food outside of the home to limit exposure to the allergen. She also urges lizard owners to not house the reptile in the living room because undigested grasshoppers show up in the animal’s feces, which can then be inhaled by the residents.

“Far too little is known about grasshoppers as a potential allergenic source in homes,” Jensen-Jarolim said. “We do know of cases, however, in which fish food has caused allergies, and insects are often processed in fish food.”

Since this is the first time a grasshopper allergy has been documented and other insect allergies are very rare, it may still be tempting to adopt a scaly or feathery pet. However, people with dog or cat allergies should still be careful about adopting non-furry companions.

Veterinarian Dr. Dorothy Farr told LifeZette that someone who is allergic to dogs or cats may also be sensitive to the bedding or debris generated by non-furry friends, such as dust and seed from a bird cage.

“Exposure to those items should be tested before adopting a new family member,” Farr advised. “I don’t think keeping an item outside will prevent a problem if the owner is truly allergic.”

Related: A Love Letter to Cat Haters

When it comes to cat and dog allergies, people are either affected by the proteins found in the animal’s dander or saliva, not its fur. While no truly hypoallergenic dog or cat exists, someone with allergy sensitivities may be able to find a breed they are less reactive to, depending on what aspect of the animal prompts an adverse response — for instance, one who produces less dander, if that is the cause of the allergy.

Additionally, dog allergies are less common than cat allergies because the cat protein that prompts a reaction can stay airborne for several hours. That is possible, because the protein is only one tenth the size of a dust allergen.

“To be honest, most people who have those sensitivities usually don’t have pets,” Farr said. “I do have several clients who have told me they have cat allergies, but they fight through their symptoms in order to keep their cats.”

Those with allergies do not have to suffer. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology suggests that if limiting exposure, washing the animal regularly and using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter does not subside symptoms, immunotherapy (allergy shots) can be an effective solution. The shots help the human body build up a tolerance to the allergen over time and ultimately diminish an allergic response.

Consulting a physician is the best bet for those who suspect an allergy to a new pet, Farr recommends. Jensen-Jarolim also hopes that the new discovery of a grasshopper allergy will encourage doctors to start an open dialogue regarding reptile food as a prospective irritant, as well as be on their minds during routine diagnostic consultations.

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