Did you know that in a recent study, almost 90 percent of veterinarians tested positive for allergies? We can all thank University of California, Davis for undertaking this research on behalf of the teeming multitudes of sneezing veterinarians everywhere. Those of us masking a masochistic streak by hiding it in plain sight share more than just a profession—we can commune on the basis of a potentially career-ending illness, too.
Unlike the veterinarians in this study, I’ve never been skin-tested. Why would I? Since right around the time I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian (about age eight), I’ve suffered severe hay fever reactions to cats––itchy eyes, watery nose, nonstop sneezing, puffy face, generalized blotchiness, etcetera.
What’s more, I eventually discovered I had asthma after rescuing a pair of guinea pigs and attempting to clean their cage for the very first time. It was a near-death, one-histamine-molecule-shy-of-a-fatal anaphylaxis event. I had to be rescued from my pigs.
Did any of this deter me from becoming a veterinarian? Never. I may have snuffled my way through high school and college jobs and eventually through veterinary school. I might’ve even contemplated a future utterly devoid of felines… but I was otherwise undeterrable.
OK, so maybe I never get to practice, I reasoned, but I was making a go of veterinary medicine anyway. As it turned out, my symptoms subsided somewhat after having a baby, a quirk of my immune system that earned me both a physical reprieve and a place in clinical practice.
While my allergies have been progressively resurrected and my asthma has advanced somewhat, modern pharmacology has also kept pace. Between Flonase, Flovent, Claritin, and the rest of my drug buddies, we manage quite well. That is, unless I forget and rub my eye after touching a cat (a test for any mascara, waterproof or not) or manage to sustain a scratch (itchy, puffy wheals chastise me for my lack of caution). And, of course, I must clear the room if I happen to hear a wheek-wheek anywhere in my vicinity.
If the above study is to be believed, it’s very likely you’re allergic to pets, too, maybe even dangerously so given that research also reveals mortality rates for asthma are significantly higher among veterinarians than for the average person in the U.S. In fact, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) ranks veterinary medicine among the 15 professions at highest risk for developing occupational asthma.
What’s worse is that you might not even know it yet. A Canadian study determined 39 percent of veterinarians developed allergies after veterinary school. But somehow, it’s not even a little bit reassuring to learn that only 61 percent of we allergic veterinarians should have known what we were getting into… and did it anyway.
These findings court a couple of conclusions: a) that working with animals is a serious risk factor for developing allergies and asthma and b) continued high exposure exacerbates their severity.
What’s most interesting, however, is we never talk seriously about it. Sure, we may confess to our clients as we weep and sneeze our way through our physical exams, but only rarely do we discuss it in passing as more than personal curiosity or quirky factoid about veterinarians. Their mention is only rarely couched in terms of an occupational hazard. And even more rarely does any discussion include our veteran team members, who are no less at risk because they didn’t sit through four years of veterinary school.
Think about it. How often have you discussed it among your colleagues and coworkers? When have you ever seen a lecture offered? An article written? A set of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines? Does your workplace take any measures to address allergies and asthma?
Then there’s the correlated issue of stress to consider. Any illness contributes to stress in the workplace. This we know. But you’ll never know how much until you’re the one sniffling, sneezing, and dribbling on the inside of your surgical mask. (Gross, to be sure, but a very real problem nonetheless.) Likewise, you’ll never truly understand this unique stress unless you’ve felt decimated by lunchtime because feline dermatitis happens to be the diagnosis du jour.
Physical exhaustion and irritability are near-inevitable with allergies, as most any sufferer will disclose, which does very little to assuage the generalized workplace stress we typically endure. How much do allergies contribute to burnout and feeling overwhelmed, I wonder? Some, to be sure.
What to do, what to do
Given the abundance of data confirming the role of allergies and asthma among veterinarians, it seems as if we should be doing something about it already. But what, exactly? I mean, it’s not as if we’re going to make an impact on the disease process. Or can we?
Assuming prolonged, continuous exposure means more severe disease, reducing the amount of time we spend with animals would be the thing to do. And while we’re probably not going to start rationing our time with pets or patients, I can envision a set of recommendations that would help mitigate our cumulative exposure to allergens—everything from servicing our AC units more diligently and using allergy-control products in our cleaning regimens to reducing affected staff’s exposure to high-risk patients (itchy kitties come to mind).
After all, there’s plenty we sufferers already do to curb our exposure. Informing the entire profession of expert-recommended policies and procedures we could adopt might just help make a dent in our stress and improve our overall quality of life. Because, as we like to tell our clients, quality of life is everything. So let’s get cracking on this, shall we?
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.