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Occupational Risks of Handling Animals

Approximately 10 million workers have jobs that require constant contact with animals or animal products. About 33% of animal handlers have allergic symptoms and approximately 10% have symptoms of animal-induced asthma.

Animals or animal products such as dander, hair, scales, fur, saliva, and body wastes contain powerful allergens that cause both respiratory and skin disorders. Workers at risk include veterinarians, laboratory researchers, livestock workers and others who have prolonged, close association with animals.

Exposure to airborne animal allergens may at first result in nasal, eye, and throat irritations as well as skin hives. As many as 50% of workers with those symptoms go on to develop asthma symptoms such as recurrent episodes of coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. Nasal symptoms usually develop first; occupational asthma without nasal symptoms is uncommon. Once an individual has become sensitized to animals, allergy symptoms can occur after only a few minutes of exposure, or they may be delayed up to eight hours or more. In severe cases anaphylactic reactions, including shock, may develop.

Appropriate safety precautions include:

  • Modifying ventilation and air filtration systems to increase the ventilation in the animal housing and handling areas
  • Directing airflow away from workers and toward the back of animal cages
  • Installing ventilated animal cage racks or filter top animal cages
  • Using work clothes that are cleaned and left at the workplace
  • Keeping animal cages clean
  • Using absorbent pads for bedding in animal cages (If these are unavailable, corncob bedding instead of sawdust should be used.)
  • Using gloves and lab coats as well as approved particulate respirators with face shields to avoid contact with animal products such as dander,serum, and urine

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