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10/20/2002: At least it's not to cats

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During my first few years of college, since we couldn't have cats in the dorms, my roommate and I decided to get hamsters. Because hamsters have this annoying tendency to die if you look at them cross-eyed, we eventually gave up on trying to keep hamsters alive and got a mouse instead. For lack of a better name, my roommate named him Bradley. He was a fat and happy little creature, with black swirls on a white coat, much like a Holstein cow. When he was in his cage, woe be unto anything that touched the bars, because he would bite it. When we took him out, however, he sat quietly in our hands, preening or eating, and seemed to love getting attention.

In the last few years of my undergraduate tenure, I began working at a laboratory where they were doing research on brain chemistry and using rats. After all the hamsters and mice in my life, rats weren't all that different, just larger, so I could handle them just fine. And at first, it wasn't a problem.

But as I spent more and more time with them, things slowly began to change. I would start to itch where I'd touched them. The next stage, a few months later, were the hives that would pop up at any contact spot with the rats. I started wearing gloves all the time and washing my hands a lot, but it didn't stop there. By the end of my time at the laboratory, I couldn't be in the same room with the rat cages without a facemask, gloves, lab coat, and copious amounts of antihistamines. And the allergy had also gotten so bad that I could no longer care for my pet mouse. It's hard to clean a mouse cage when just touching it makes you break out in hives and sneezing.

Bradley was given to a friend and lived quite a long life for a mouse. I stopped working at the laboratory, and even though I ended up working with mice during graduate school, by then I knew enough to avoid any actual contact with them at all. But constant exposure just made things worse and worse.

This allergy often makes things, well, interesting. I can tell that there have been mice or rats in a room by the sheer fact that I start to sneeze or get hives (touching what they've touched). Walking into a pet store these days can sometimes be a gamble, especially if I have to pass by the rodent cages. The allergy is not nearly as bad for hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits, but it's still there. And it's still getting worse.

Earlier this week we stopped by the pet store to pick up a new bag of litter. We only use one type of litter and we can only get it at one store, but when you've got seven cats and two LitterMaids and you find a litter that not only doesn't smell, but also doesn't clog the electric litter box, you stick with it. Trust me.

I picked up the bag of litter, not even thinking that there might be a problem. We paid for it and carried it out to the car, then headed for dinner. And before I knew it I was sneezing, and worse yet, I could feel my chest tightening so that it was slowly getting hard to breath. Later that evening, when I had to touch the bag to open it, the sneezing and shortness of breath kicked in almost immediately.

This allergy used to just be a nuisance. I can't have any pet mice or hamsters any more? I can live with that. If a friend has one I just can't touch it, and should stand at a respectful distance. But now that it's gotten to the point where I react simply by being in a room where they've been, or touching something that probably was just set near the cages and not actually touched by a single mouse foot, this allergy is starting to get a bit unnerving. That night at dinner when I realized that my lungs were closing off, I started getting a little scared - scared enough to finally break down and talk to my doctor about it.

So I am now the proud owner of my very own inhaler, and I've got a handful of prescription allergy pills in my purse. At least the next time this happens I'll be prepared.

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