Meet the vets who are allergic to their pets

Dominic Dallago , allergic to cats, cuddles Oliver, a Maltese poodle, at World of Animals Veterinary Hospital. JENNIFER KERRIGAN / Staff
Dominic Dallago , allergic to cats, cuddles Oliver, a Maltese poodle, at World of Animals Veterinary Hospital. JENNIFER KERRIGAN / Staff
Posted: March 09, 2016

Veterinarian Dominic Dallago pets his patient, a domestic short-haired cat with diarrhea, as though she can't harm him.

But lurking in the dense black fur of the purring 10-year-old feline (Dallago won't name her for privacy reasons) are allergens that don't pussyfoot around - microscopic proteins poised to attack like throat-choking commandos, to lay the allergic doctor low by triggering his asthma.

"I usually sniffle, snort," said Dallago, 37, who works at World of Animals Veterinary Hospital in the Rittenhouse Square area. "Cats will do it to me. But animal allergies and asthma are the norm for me. And it's pretty common in the profession."

Who doesn't love their veterinarian? Vets know what we don't about our babies' aches and maladies. They risk bites and beastly scorn. They care.

And now there's another reason to crush on the corps of Doctors Dolittle throughout the land: Turns out many of them are sickened by the very patients they are striving to heal. Yet, they go to work anyway. That's dedication.

"An allergist said I'd be in misery all my life as a vet," Dallago said. "But it's ingrained in me to do this."

Nearly 90 percent of veterinarians who were skin-tested for allergies were diagnosed with one, University of California, Davis researchers reported. They also quoted a study saying that veterinarians have a higher mortality rate for asthma than the general U.S. population.

A Canadian study found that 39 percent of veterinarians who did not have prior allergies developed one during their careers.

And the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology lists veterinarian among 15 professions considered high-risk for developing occupational asthma. The academy is a professional membership organization based in Milwaukee.

Anecdotally, veterinarians reference a range of animal-borne difficulties, from coughing and sniffles to nearly dying from asthma and allergies, as Cornell University veterinarian Lila Miller reported.

Many vets had to give up their practices because of the endless suffering four-legged clients brought them, said Sharon Curtis Granskog, a spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medicine Association, a nonprofit in Schaumburg, Ill.

Closer to home, Becky Ehrlich, 29, a veterinarian at Radnor Veterinary Hospital in Wayne, has her own harrowing tale to tell.

Ehrlich once passed out when allergies spurred by a guinea pig swelled her eyes shut and closed her throat. To this day, she can't enter a room at her hospital that has been occupied by a guinea pig until the space has been bleached.

"But I keep working because this job is what I need to do," she said. "I couldn't do anything else with my life."

Ehrlich remembers scoffing as a young woman when doctors informed her that she was off-the-charts allergic to every animal species.

"I was told by doctors my career was not going to happen because of my animal allergies," said Ehrlich. "But it just pushed me harder."

What may work in veterinarians' favor is that selfsame love of animals that keep Ehrlich and her nose-blowing colleagues going.

So many of them had pets as kids, and that early exposure to germs and microbes may have strengthened their immune systems, said Corinna Bowser, an allergist (for humans) in Narberth.

"Rural German studies show growing up with a cow is good," she said, unable to resist prescribing a possible allergy antidote: As a child, "have a cow in your bedroom."

Experts say many veterinarians report developing allergies while working in laboratories with mice and rats. There are more reports of such allergies because those are the animals most used in research studies, according to the University of Virginia Occupational Health Program.

Ultimately, allergies will not chase away the vast majority of veterinarians, said Pamela Mueller, a colleague of Dallago's at World of Animals.

"I take Zyrtec and carry a lot of tissues," said Mueller, 56. "It never crossed my mind to restrict my work."

Mueller said pet owners rarely empathize with her. "No one's ever expressed sympathy for me, or said, 'Oh, that must be hard,' " she said. "Maybe they're involved [in] talking about their sick pets."

For his part, Dallago said, owners laugh when he tells them he has allergies, as though it were something that would never have occurred to them.

No big deal, he said. "Being a vet is a very fun job," he said. "Allergies are just a part of my life."

alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969@AlfredLubrano

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