Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Allergies to Reptiles and Herp-Keeping Products

©1997 Melissa Kaplan


As more reptiles are being kept as pets, there are increasing reports of people being allergic to them.

What is an allergy?
Animal allergies are not to the skin or fur, but to the proteins in the blood, urine (urates/feces) and saliva. With mammals who groom themselves, they get their saliva on their fur; it then dries and rubs off on humans who transfer it into their eyes, nose, mouth, and skin. The dried urine and saliva (and blood, but hopefully you don't come into contact with a lot of your pet's blood!) particles also float through the air when they come into contact with the eyes and skin, causing irritation, and the nose through which they are inhaled into the lungs. Both the contact/transference and inspirating the particles will cause allergic reactions.

Those who feel they or a family member are allergic to reptiles generally do so because of skin irritation. Further investigation into these cases of contact dermatitis shows that, rather than being allergic to the animal, the individuals are in fact allergic to something that they have introduced into their home along with the reptile. Symptoms include (but are not limited to):

- dry, chapped skin due to frequent handwashing, especially if using an anti-bacterial soap never used before.

- rashes, rhinitis, asthma attack, wheezing, eye irritation, blisters from contact with the substrate or a product being used in the iguana's enclosure.

- rashes, welts or hives due to the reptile's claws or skin chafing the person's skin. Some people are particularly sensitive to their skin being irritated, rapidly showing redness or welts when scratched or even pressed. (The condition is called dermatographia, something that makes my allergy scratch tests very interesting as I react to the sterile water control scratch, too!).


A Note On Dermatitis
Dermatitis is, literally skin (derma-) inflammation (-itis). Dermatitis generally exhibits as a reddening, itching, chapping, swelling, blistering, or cracking of the skin. There are different types of dermatitis:

Atopic dermatitis
This is a congenital condition, a chronic inflammatory reaction of the skin, especially on elbows and knees. Symptoms include heightened sensitivity to itching, exfoliating, crusting and thickening of the skin in those areas. There may also be increased susceptibility to allergic rhinitis and asthma.

Contact dermatitis
Contact dermatitis occurs when a chemical or other substance that has been in contact with the skin causes an inflammatory reaction. Poison oak oil, chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, household chemicals, pesticides, and more may cause these allergic reactions in some people.

Irritative Dermatitis
This isn't an allergic reaction at all, but a reaction to the skin from excessive stimulation or rubbing. "Dishpan hands" is a form of this, with the skin of the hands and often wrists and lower arms becoming reddened, chapped, even cracking, due to repeated and prolonged exposure to hot water.


Confirming Suspicions
When you suspect an allergy to your reptile, you can try some elimination testing.

1.    Try a different brand of hand soap.

2.    Do some patch testing: draw some circles on an inconspicuous place on the person's arm or leg with a felt-tipped pen (get the non-toxic washable ink kid's pens!). In each circle, either rub some of the soaps and dilute cleaners used in the reptile's enclosure (not bleach, iodine, ammonia, or quaternary ammonia compounds! - only do products that can safely come into contact with skin), and tape a small piece of substrate inside one circle, and a scraping from any wood furnishings in another circle. Just to make sure that any reaction from the latter isn't from the tape itself, put a piece of tape in a circle. Put a dab of the hand soap (especially if you are using a new antibacterial soap) in yet another circle. Monitor the responses in 24 hours - needless to say, if there is a reaction before then, you can take/wash everything off!

3.    If there is no reaction to the patch testing and the reactions are otherwise tolerable, restrict handling. Just allow touching, not holding, or wear protective clothing, and try to stay away from claws and tail, and to be sure to rub only in the direction of head to tail.

4.    If it still happens, you might want to try over-the-counter antihistamines or homeopathic allergy preparations to see if they alleviate the symptoms. If they don't, see an allergist.

I've known a few people who were indeed allergic to their reptiles and had to find other homes for them. Their symptoms included respiratory tract involvement (throat tightened due to inflammation, increased mucous production, difficulty breathing, serious asthma attacks), and rashes or hives. These symptoms, however, may also be experienced in allergic response to cleaning chemicals, wood, etc. Most cases of rashes and hives turned out to be a reaction to the antibacterial soap they started using at the same time they got their reptile, not an allergy to the reptile itself. So, before making any decisions about anything, test things out and see an allergist if indicated by your findings.


A note about dust allergies...
Many people already know that they are allergic to dust - which means that what they are really allergic to is the proteins and bits of exoskeleton from all the dust mites and their crumbly carcasses and feces (which is comprise 75% of the dust in our homes). If you are allergic to any or all of these arthropods and their relatives (such as the mites that live on our mattresses, eating the bits of dead human skin that filters down to them), then you may be allergic to other arthropods, such as cockroaches and crickets. While it may not bother you to never be able to eat lobster or their terrestrial cousin, sowbugs, it does make life difficult if you have an insectivorous herp at home.


Journal Citations - Allergies to Reptiles and Product
The following do not include allergies to venom or antivenins. For more citations, see

Patch testing to exclude allergic contact dermatitis caused by povidone-iodine. Kozuka T. Dermatology 2002; 204 Suppl 1:96-8. Povidone-iodine (polyvinylpyrrolidone-iodine, PVP-I) solution is an effective and safe disinfectant agent used throughout the world; however, prolonged exposure to PVP-I solution may cause irritation or rarely severe skin reactions. When PVP-I as is in the aqueous state is used for patch testing, a false-positive result is likely to arise due to irritation. Patch testing to exclude allergic contact dermatitis caused by PVP-I should be done with dried 10% PVP-I solution, 10% PVP-I gel, 8% sodium thiosulfuric acid and a mixture of 10% PVP-I solution and 8% sodium thiosulfuric acid. (Related Articles)

[Allergic bronchial asthma caused by lizard scales] B Uhl, J Rakoski. Hautarzt. 1985 Mar;36(3):165-7. [German]. A 23-year-old patient with chronic rhinitis suffered from attacks of asthma. We found positive reactions in the prick test and rubbing test to the scales of the lizard Egernia cunninghami and others, which the patient kept as house-pets at this time or earlier. The bronchial function test showed bronchial obstruction after the patient had been at home with the lizards.

Allergic rhinitis to turtle food. P. M. Gamboa, D. Barber, I. Jauregui, I. Urrutia, G. Gonzalez, I. Antepara. Allergy, April 2000; 55(4):405,

Atopic disease, rhinitis and conjunctivitis, upper respiratory tract infections, and insect stings and snake bites. Wood RA, Doran TF. Curr Opin Pediatr 1994 Oct; 6(5):607-19.

The disclaimer stuff
I am not a doctor (nor a veterinarian), nor do I play one on the 'net. The above information on allergies and patch testing comes from my personal experience with allergies (for which I have on more than one occasion sought the advice of allergists) and what I have learned and observed talking with others and doing a lot of reading. If you have any questions or hesitations, consult an allergist. Allergies can have far-ranging effects on your body, affecting all systems.

Additional information on allergies can be found at the Intellihealth allergy site, including their pages on Contact Allergies, Pet Allergies, and Skin and Chemical Allergies pages, the latter of which includes their Contact and Chemical Allergy Chart. You may also check out and MedlinePLUS. Another good site with extensive information on allergies is's Allergies site.

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