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Bearded Dragons: Grasshoppers Bring Allergens Into Homes, Researchers Say

Nov 01, 2015 10:34 PM EST

Reptiles seem like the perfect household pet when family members are allergic to dogs or cats, but it seems these scaly pets come with allergy risks of their own, according to researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna, the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Vienna. 

Bearded dragons are a fairly common type of lizard kept as pets. They are known for their "beard," which is the skin located on the underside of the throat that turns black if the animals become stressed or sense a potential rival. In a recent clinical case, an eight-year-old boy developed shortness of breath for four months after adopting a bearded dragon, according to a news release.

After several medical tests, researchers concluded the boy's allergic reaction was not to the lizard itself, but to the animal's food, the release noted.

Pet lizards are often fed grasshoppers. In this case, the food carried allergens that set off a reaction in the boy's respiratory system. Researchers performed an allergy skin test, which concluded that specific Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies were the cause, the release noted.

"Even colleagues with allergologic expertise could overlook insects as reptile food as a possible cause of such allergic reactions," Erika Jensen-Jarolim, lead author of the recent study, said in the release. "Far too little is known about grasshoppers as a potential allergenic source in homes. We do know of cases, however, in which fish food has caused allergies. And insects are often processed in fish food."

Essentially, if a person has an allergy, their immune system reacts by producing IgE antibodies, which then travel to cells and ultimately trigger an allergic reaction.

To confirm their findings, the pet bearded dragon was immediately removed from the boy's home. Upon doing so, his symptoms subsided. However, four years later, the boy exposed himself to the allergens again. Even after all this time, the exposure triggered another asthma attack, according to the release.

"We were in the middle of a study investigating sources of allergies at pet stores. So coming upon the reptile food was pure coincidence," Jensen-Jarolim added.

This study ultimately helps researchers better understand asthma-related illnesses and their relationship to household pets.

"We are seeing a shift in the attitude towards reptiles from a pure hobby or biological interest toward a human-animal relationship with an emotional component. It is difficult to estimate the number of reptiles and food animals living in people's homes and the undisclosed figure is sure to be high," Jensen-Jarolim said in a statement.

One way to avoid allergic reactions to a pet lizard's food is to keep it outdoors. That said, the animals should also not be kept in rooms where people spend a lot of time since undigested insects could also appear in the animal's feces. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to IgE include asthma or skin inflammation, both of which could result from simply inhaling the aggressive allergens, according to the release.

"Grasshopper allergies have been nearly unknown to date. With our publication, it is our intention to sensitize the public to this matter," Jensen-Jarolim said in the release. "We are especially concerned about people who keep such animals, pet store employees as well as physicians, who should include questions regarding reptile pets and their food as a routine in their allergy diagnostic consultation."

Their study was recently published in the World Allergy Organization Journal.

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