WashU is committed to providing a safe working environment for all personnel, including individuals who have contact with animals.

Enrollment in the Occupational Health & Safety Program is required for those who:

  • Work directly with, or in close proximity to vertebrate animals.
  • Work directly with unfixed animal tissues or body fluids, including non-human primate cell lines.
  • Work in animal housing areas.
  • Work in the vicinity of animals and have health or safety concerns.

Employees who indicate on their New Employee Health History form that they will have interactions with lab animals as part of their employment will have an Animal Handler Survey loaded into their ReadySet Inbox. More information about that survey can be found here.

What are the risks?

Animal-related allergies are one of the most wide-spread and serious hazards faced by individuals working with laboratory animals. Animal or animal products such as dander, hair, scaled fur, saliva and body wastes contain powerful allergens that can cause both respiratory and skin disorders, which may lead to permanent disability. Workers who have a personal history for asthma, seasonal allergies, and dermatitis are at increased risk, but individuals with no prior history of allergies and only brief work exposures can also develop allergic reactions to laboratory animals.

The allergens are unique to each species of animal, so it is possible to be allergic to mice and not to rats and vice versa. It’s also possible to be allergic to multiple species. In fact, a person who is already allergic to one allergen (animal or otherwise) has a greater chance of becoming allergic to a new allergen than a person that has no allergies at all. An allergy to animals is particularly common in workers exposed to animals such as rabbits, mice, rats, gerbils and guinea pigs.

The most important risk factor for the development of laboratory animal allergy is the level of exposure to animal allergens. Certain tasks such as changing cages and handling animals can cause the individual to be exposed to high levels of allergens, which may hasten the onset of allergic symptoms.

Symptoms of allergic reactions to animals
  • Nasal congestion or drainage, watery itchy red eyes; rash or hives
  •  Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness
  • Anaphylaxis: This is an extreme and sometimes life-threatening reaction which can include hives, generalized itching, throat tightness, eye or lip swelling and difficulty breathing or swallowing. Individuals with a past history of animal related anaphylaxis are required to consult with Occupational Health, prior to working with animals or entering areas animals are housed.

Employees who are experiencing allergic symptoms from an exposure to animals at work should report these symptoms to Occupational Health. In the case of severe symptoms with difficulty breathing, call 314-362-HELP, for transport to the emergency room.

Allergy prevention recommendations

The best strategy for reducing the likelihood of developing an allergic reaction is to minimize exposure to proteins found in dander, urine, and saliva.

  • When possible, perform animal manipulations in a ventilated hood or a bio-safety cabinet.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Avoid touching your hands to your face while working with animals.
  • Keep cages and your work area clean.
  • Wear protective equipment such as masks, hair and shoe covers, gloves, and long-sleeved gowns when cleaning cages or handling animal byproducts.
  • Shower and shampoo hair daily; allergens can cling to hair, exposing you and your family at home.

Zoonotic hazards

Infections of animals may, on some occasions, produce significant disease in people. These infections are called zoonotic diseases. They are communicated from animals to humans. In many cases, the animal shows little, if any, sign of illness. While uncommon, they represent potentially serious and sometimes fatal hazards to those working with laboratory animals.

Contact Occupational Health for specific animal zoonotic information.

Personal health status, pre-existing conditions, and reproductive considerations

Personal health status is another risk factor for transmission of zoonotic disease, as immune compromised individuals are at greater risk.

Pregnant and nursing women may be at increased risk for development of infectious diseases, pregnancy complications or fetal birth defects due to their exposure to animals, chemicals or biohazards.

All individuals with questions or concerns regarding personal health status, reproductive health and their work environment should contact Occupational Health.

Best practices for safely working with animals
  • Foster workplace communication, education and safety. Discuss with your Principal Investigator, Lab Manager or supervisor the functional demands and environmental factors of the work to be performed.
  • Seek medical attention promptly. Report workplace exposures to Occupational Health.
  • Participate and refer to the required web based animal training in Learn@Work.
Perform hand hygiene and wear the proper protective clothing
  • The single most effective preventative measure that can be taken is thorough, regular hand washing. Wear the appropriate gloves for the task and wash your hands after removing gloves. Wear eye protection.  Keep hands away from the mouth, nose and eyes.
  • Never eat, drink, smoke, or handle contact lenses in animal areas.
Avoid needle sticks and other sharp injuries
  • Avoid using sharp objects whenever possible.
  • Use safety needles, do not recap needles; use the proper disposal container for sharps.
  • Substitute manually operated pipettes for needles and syringes.
  • Practice the proper animal restraining techniques for injections.
Tell your physician you work with animals

Whenever you are ill, even if you are not certain the illness is work related, always mention to your physician that you work with animals or animals exposed to infectious agents. Many zoonotic diseases have flu-like symptoms, and your physician needs this information to make an accurate diagnosis.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S.) (Editor), Public Health Service (U.S.) (Editor), National Institutes of Health (Editor)

Chemical Hygiene Plan, Washington University.

The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals: 8th Edition. (Guide). National Research Council. 2011.

National Research Council. Occupational Health and Safety in the Care and Use of Research Animals, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1997.

Preventing Asthma in Animal Handlers. January, 1998. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-116.

Washington University; NHP: Precautions to Minimize the Risk of Herpesvirus simiae (B Virus) and Other Zoonotic Diseases to Personnel Utilizing Macaques.