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What are Lab Animal Allergies & How Do You Prevent Them?

Last week’s blog highlighted important safety-related considerations for work at off-site animal care facilities (ACF). The focus of this week’s blog is on laboratory animal allergies (LAAs),  an important concern for employees who work in both on-site and off-site ACFs.

Did you know that approximately 33 percent of people exposed to laboratory animals as part of their job develop symptoms of allergies? And, about 10 percent of exposed individuals have symptoms of animal-induced asthma?

Most employees who develop LAAs do so within the first 3 years of working with animals. Risk factors include having other environmental or non-work-related animal allergies. Employees that do not develop allergies within 3 years are less likely to develop them with prolonged exposure.

Anyone who is exposed to laboratory animals is at risk of developing LAAs, but the risk is a function of dose and duration. Employees are at greater risk if they have prolonged or high-level exposure. Inhalation is the most common route of exposure to animal allergens.

Animal allergens are proteins present in animal dander, fur, saliva, and body waste. Generally, with small animals such as mice and rats, it’s the urinary protein that’s the primary allergen. ACF procedures that create elevated levels of allergen include cage cleaning, animal handling, dosing, and surgery.

Animal allergy symptoms include itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, congestion, skin rashes, and hives. More severe symptoms may include asthma-related conditions such as chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

LAAs can be prevented with the use of engineering controls, personal protective equipment (PPE), and administrative controls. Engineering controls include the use of cage changing stations and biological safety cabinets for animal handling procedures.

PPE includes the use of hairnets, gloves, shoe covers, and lab coats or coveralls, and in some cases respirators. Employees at high risk should wear scrubs in the ACF and should shower when their tasks are complete to remove any allergen. 

Administrative controls include monitoring employees for the development of animal allergies by providing initial and annual allergy questionnaires that get reviewed by an occupational health provider. Based on the information provided in the questionnaire, certain employees may be required to wear respiratory protection, such as an N95 respirator, to help prevent symptoms from worsening.

Employee training is also key to preventing LAAs. ACF employees must clearly understand the risks of developing animal allergies and be aware of allergy symptoms. Knowledge of proper engineering controls, work practices, and PPE is also essential.

For additional information on lab animal allergies, or for assistance with preventing them among your ACF employees, please email us at [email protected].

This blog was written by Beth Graham, our Associate Director of Quality, Research, and Training.

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