What You Can Do If You Have an Allergy to Your Gerbil

Science is proving that few things relax us or entertain us the way that pets do. Gerbils make us smile and laugh, and they even reduce our blood pressure. But, they also make many of us sneeze, cough and wheeze.

Roughly one out of four people suffers from chronic allergies, and animal allergies are among the most common varieties. Virtually any warm-blooded animal including hamsters, birds, gerbils, cats and dogs can trigger an allergic response. Even though gerbils are often thought of as hypoallergenic, they are not the exception to the rule. Gerbils may be less likely to cause allergies than other furred animals because they don't usually house the same allergy-causing fleas and proteins found in the fur and saliva of cats and dogs. However, "usually" doesn't mean "always," so there is still a chance you could develop an allergic reaction to your gerbil. There is also the problem of your gerbil's bedding and food, all of which can introduce dust, mold and other allergens into your home.

What is an Allergic Reaction?

An allergy is simply an abnormal immune system reaction to a substance, commonly called an allergen or antigen that most people dont usually notice. The immune system wrongly interprets the normal substance as a health threat and releases antibodies in response; these antibodies then attach themselves to the surface of special cells called mast cells, which respond by releasing a range of chemicals that cause blood vessels to expand and leak fluid, while the airways in the lungs contract.

Sensitivity to animals is one of the most common of all allergies, and while allergies to cats are the most common among animal allergies, virtually any animal with fur or feathers can cause an allergic reaction. Symptoms can include:

  • Red, itchy, watery eyes.
  • Itchy nose with nasal congestion or sneezing.
  • Breathing difficulty.
  • Chronic sore or scratchy throat.
  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Itchy or broken skin.

The main culprit of allergies is old skin cells of animals. Dander is shed into the air, and tiny particles cling to walls, carpets, drapes, furniture, hands and clothing. Not all animals or even genders are created equal, and the process appears to be hormonally effected. While cats are the most common allergic trigger, female cats shed fewer allergens than male cats do, and even neutered males shed less than non-neutered males.

How to Live with Allergies AND Your Pet Gerbil

Different people react differently to allergens. If you are allergic to your gerbil, your body might precipitate any of the following conditions:

  • Asthma -- a respiratory reaction that causes difficulty breathing.
  • Rhinitis -- stuffiness of the nose and subsequent sneezing.
  • Conjunctivitis -- an inflammation of the eye, leading to an infection also known as pinkeye.
  • Eczema -- an itchy skin rash, uncommon in response to gerbils, but still a possibility.

Although these conditions may not result in the happy, stress-relieving state of pet ownership that so many people enjoy, it is possible to get the best of both worlds. Or, how can you have a gerbil and an allergy and still be happy?

It is possible based on recent studies that have shown that allergies are cumulative. In other words, each trigger builds on other triggers, thereby increasing the severity of the allergic reaction. Therefore, if you are allergic to several different things, including your gerbil, you can possibly keep your reaction to your pet within tolerable limits by reducing your exposure to other triggers, such as dust, plants, pollens, molds and mildews.

You can further reduce the amount of allergens in your environment by taking several simple measures:

  • Keep your pet gerbil out of your bedroom. The largest amount of time you spend in your home is spent sleeping in your bedroom, so if your gerbil isn't there, you have a much better chance of controlling your allergies.
  • Don't be a martyr about cleaning your pets cage. Instead, ask a non-allergic family member to clean your pets cage because the cage is a prime source of allergens.
  • Reduce the places where dander can collect. Eliminate carpets where allergens can be deposited, and get rid of venetian blinds that trap dust and allergens and replace them with easy to clean vertical blinds or washable curtains that you can run through the clothes washer on a weekly or biweekly basis. Cover your mattresses and pillows with plastic casings; and reduce upholstery, throw rugs and wall hangings.
  • Install built-in high efficiency (HEPA) or electrostatic filters in your home. These can reduce the number of allergens in your homes air by up to 98 percent, and they are also effective at eliminating odors, including pet and cooking odors. HEPA filters are also available for your vacuum cleaner -- but it is suggested that you ask someone else do the vacuuming so that you are not exposed to the dust and dander that is kicked up.
  • Increase home cleaning and dusting frequency. Try using natural items to clean your home such as vinegar, water and club soda in place of heavily perfumed commercial chemicals, or use a commercial product specially designed for allergy sufferers.

If these measures fail, you can also consider medication alternatives. A wide range of new medication is available to treat the symptoms of allergic reactions.

  • Nasal steroid sprays can reduce allergic inflammation and help reduce the bronchial inflammation that leads to coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.
  • Immunotherapy consists of small injections of the allergen given twice weekly for six months, then every three to four weeks for three to five years. The result can be an improvement for up to 80 percent in allergy sufferers who take them.
  • A new etitope vaccine currently in trial at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine also looks promising. Derived from cat dander, the vaccine is a totally new direction in allergy treatment, and the hope is that ultimately just one under-the-skin injection would be able to treat a range of common allergens. The best part of the treatment appears to be that it is long-term and much faster than traditional allergy shots. Seventy-one percent of all allergy sufferers showed improvement after a four-week trial, and 75 percent of those individuals still showed results seven and a half months later.