The Rat Fan Club

Coping with Allergies to Rats

by Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun

For those of us who love rats, I think one of the most dreaded situations we might have to face is developing an allergy to rats. Studies have shown that 20% of households include someone who is allergic to animals. Allergies to dogs and cats are most common, because exposure to these animals is greater, but allergies to rats can occur. For statistics, we must turn to a laboratory setting. One study found that 23% of those who work with lab animals were allergic to their charges. Rabbits caused the majority of the respiratory symptoms, while rats caused most of the skin reactions. Guinea pigs and mice also caused allergies. Another study found that allergies to mice and rats developed in 10-30% of laboratory animal handlers.

Of course, lab workers are exposed to larger numbers of animals than the typical rat owner, so I don’t think allergies to rats are that common among rat owners. But it is common for a person to get a skin rash after handling rats. Their toenails are so sharp, they actually penetrate the skin without the handler knowing it. This opens the skin to allergens the rat may be carrying on its feet. When I first starting working with rats in the lab, my skin reacted to the rats all the time. Anytime I held them, my skin developed an itchy rash. As the years went on, my reaction gradually diminished. Currently, I only react if a rat actually scratches me, and then the scratch welts ups and itches.

Rats produce three types of allergens: dander (dead skin cells), saliva and urine. (Contrary to popular belief, animal fur does not cause allergies.) When rats groom themselves, their saliva is spread on their skin and fur. They can also pick up urine on their feet or other parts of their body. As these allergens dry and flake off, they can become airborne. They can then land on furnishings where they can stay for years.

One study found that the major allergen in rat urine increases as the animal ages, and is more prevalent in males, so if you are allergic to rats, it would be better to have females. Another study found that black cats seemed to cause more allergies than light colored cats. It’s not known if this applies to small animals, but perhaps it would be better to choose light colored rats. Individual animals differ greatly in the amount of allergens they produce. For example, a few years ago a Rat Fan Club member reported that her daughter, Karyn, had an allergy to her first rat, a female black hooded named Sophie. When Sophie was kept in Karyn’s bedroom, Karyn had a stuffy nose and watery eyes. When Sophie was moved out of the room, the symptoms went way. When Karyn handled Sophie, the insides of her arms turned pink and her shoulder, where Sophie sat, turned red. A year later, this family got another rat, Gwenny, who was a rex, and this rat caused no symptoms at all.

However, you shouldn’t conclude that all rex rats are less allergenic. It could be that Gwenny just happened to produce less allergens. However, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that a hairless rat would probably cause less problems, simply because they have no fur on which allergens can stick. If there are any of you out there who have reacted differently to different rats, please let me know so I can build my knowledge base.

Other Causes

In some cases, what is thought to be an allergy to a rat or other small animal is actually an allergy or sensitivity to the animal’s bedding. Pine and cedar shavings, especially, can cause respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals due to acids that damage the respiratory tract. So, before an owner gives up a pet, they should first try changing to a different bedding. In addition, people who have one allergy commonly have other allergies as well. It’s possible for allergy symptoms to be caused by other sources either instead of the pet, or in addition to the pet. Allergies are cumulative. That means that the more allergens you are exposed to, the worse your symptoms will be. Even if you are truly allergic to your rats, if you can reduce your exposure to other allergens, this might reduce the symptoms significantly and allow you to enjoy your rats. If you suspect that you are allergic to rats, this can be confirmed by tests performed by an allergist. There are two types of tests that can be used. One is called a RAST (radioallergosorbent) test and is done on a blood sample. The other is called a scratch test where tiny amounts of allergens are applied to a small scratch or prick made in the skin. If you have an allergy to that allergen, your skin will react by forming a welt. The severity of the reaction tells you the severity of the allergy.

A few years ago, member Donna Berriman of Falls Church, VA wrote about getting tested for allergies to rodents. She said, “I asked my allergist to run a rat and mouse allergy test. These serums are not normally stocked in most allergists’ offices, so they had to be ordered. I tested highly allergic to mice and mildly allergic to rats.”

Reducing Rat Allergies

If you are allergic to your rats, and want to keep them, there are steps you can take to reduce the symptoms. Some simple steps may be enough to reduce your symptoms in mild cases. As Karyn’s example above showed, it is important to keep your rats out of your bedroom. Ideally, the rat cages should be cleaned by someone else. If possible, the cleaning should be done outdoors, or at least in a well-ventilated room, to reduce the number of allergens released into the house. If you must do these tasks, wear a painter's mask. Always wash your hands after handling your rats, and refrain from rubbing your eyes after touching them. Showering and shampooing your hair frequently will help remove allergens from you.

For those of you who have a problem with skin rashes or welts, you might try wearing fingerless gloves when you handle your rats. Some rat owners have reported success doing this. Wearing long sleeves of thick fabric can also help protect your arms. If you get a rash on your neck or shoulders, you should consider ordering one of my snuggle scarves from the Merchandise page of my website, which allows your rats to be with you but helps protect your neck and shoulders. If you still get a rash, washing your skin thoroughly after playing with your rats can help, and a skin lotion can also help soothe the itching and irritation.

For more severe allergies, additional steps may be necessary. Some studies have shown that soaking cats in plain water for 10 minutes even as often as once a month, or bathing an animal weekly, can help reduce the number of allergens shed. There are no studies showing whether this would work with rats, but it's worth a try. I have one report from a rat owner in Boise, ID that giving her rats a shower in lukewarm water once a week helps her respiratory allergy to them. There are also commercial products that can be sprayed on animals that can help reduce the number of allergens shed, and a product that can be sprayed on furnishings to prevent allergens from becoming airborne. One study found that a commercial spray of tannic acid was shown to reduce levels of cat allergens in carpets.

Wina Products, Inc. sells Dust-Seal for use on furnishings and Dander-Seal for use on animals. Their number is 800-445-4407. A mail order company called Priorities sells a spray for furnishings as well as a lot of other allergy products. They also sell Aller-Pet sprays for use directly on animals. Their catalog also includes lots of tips on reducing allergy exposure. 800-553-5398,

Reducing Other Allergies

Because multiple allergies are common, and because allergies are cumulative, it’s important to try and reduce exposure to as many allergens as possible, both airborne and food allergies. Allergies to house-mite dust is common, and steps to reduce exposure to this allergen can be very effective. These steps include reducing allergens in the bedroom by removing dust-catching drapes, furnishings, decor, and even carpets if possible, and covering the mattress, box springs and pillows in mite-proof coverings. Because allergens can remain in bedding for years, it's best to replace any bedding that has been in direct contact with an animal you are allergic to. The bedding (including blankets, bedspreads, and mattress covers) should be all be washed weekly in water at least 120 degrees F. Keep all clothes in the closet with the closet door closed.

Reduce exposure to airborne irritants such as perfume, cleaning products, smoke, moth balls and cedar closets. Frequent vacuuming, by someone other than the allergic person, can be helpful, but a vacuum that traps the allergens with either a HEPA filter or water (Rainbow vacuums) must be used. (When buying a HEPA vacuum, look for one that has a series of filters for smaller and smaller particles, otherwise the HEPA filter will quickly clog up, and a vacuum is only as effective as its air flow volume.) Using a HEPA filter to clean the air can also be effective. If you have central heat and air, you should use a HEPA filter in it, otherwise, it will be blowing allergens throughout your house, including into your bedroom. Electrostatic air-purifying units should be avoided because they produce ozone, a known allergen.

To reduce mold allergies, clean the pan under the refrigerator with bleach weekly, clear vine and lawn debris away from the outside of the house, and never put carpeting over concrete. Get rid of old books, or store them in closed cabinets. If your house is very humid, a dehumidifier will help. You can make a simple dehumidifier for small areas by putting charcoal briquettes in a coffee can with a few holes in the lid.

To reduce exposure to pollens, avoid being outdoors between 5 am - 10 am. Wear a mask when doing gardening. Install window filters when you want to let fresh air in. Don't dry laundry outside where it will pick up pollen, instead set up a drying rack indoors. Use the air conditioner in your car. After being outside for any extended period of time, shower, wash your hair, and change clothes, especially before going to bed.

Another source of allergies is foods. I am allergic to quite a few foods, as well as lots of pollens, house mite dust, and perhaps mold. I have found that going on the blood type diet, discovered by Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo, and rotating the foods I'm allergic to, has significantly relieved many of my allergy symptoms. If you'd like more information about this, please let me know.

Allergy Treatments

A survey about pet allergies found that nearly half the respondents didn’t know about prescription medications that can alleviate allergy symptoms caused by pets, so if you have allergy symptoms, talk to your doctor about these medications. Many allergy symptoms, especially nasal symptoms, can be controlled with over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. There are also nasal sprays that help block the histamine reaction at the source.

Another option is immunotherapy, commonly called allergy shots. This process injects tiny amounts of the allergen into the skin to help desensitize the body. The injections for an allergy to rats must be special ordered, or the results from a rast test can be used to prepare the injections needed. Donna Berriman wrote about receiving allergy shots for her allergies to rodents. “I was already getting allergy injections for grass, mold, dust, hayweed, etc. The injections don’t work overnight. You may have to take them for a long time, but you gradually become more and more tolerant of the animal. If you suddenly become severely allergic, this may not be an option. For example, my niece became so allergic so quickly that she was risking anaphylactic shock, and was under doctors orders to get rid of the rats immediately (I adopted them.) Some allergists allow you to give yourself your own injections which saves a lot of money. You order the serum from the doctor, then buy the syringes and inject yourself. You have to keep epinephrine in the house in case you have a reaction to a shot. The injections are subcutaneous; nothing to it. I give myself three shots a week, am feeling better in general, and have been able to keep my rats. So it has certainly been worth it.”

In some cases of severe allergies to rats, the only alternative is to place them in another home. But in many cases, with care and commitment, the symptoms can be reduced to the point that it is possible to keep your rats.

Footnote--Early Exposure to Animals Beneficial

A study reported in the professional journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy in May 1999 found that children who were exposed to pets during their first year were less likely to have hay fever at 7-9 years of age, or asthma at 12-13 years. They also found that the incidence of cat allergy among adolescents exposed to cats during infancy was nearly half that of adolescents without such exposures.  Ivory, K. Clinical and Experimental Allergy, 2008; pp 1-8. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology web site: "Rhinitis and Sinusitis Statistics."

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