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Suffering from allergies? So are zoo’s beavers, goat

Tacoma zoo begins use of allergen immunotherapy

By Vonnai Phair, The Seattle Times
Published: May 24, 2024, 6:07am

SEATTLE — It’s spring, and you’re sneezy, sniffly, stuffy and snotty.

Humans can scratch that irritating itch with over-the-counter allergy medication, and even our furry four-legged friends can find relief after a visit to the vet.

But for animals at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the typical treatment of antihistamines isn’t enough. For the first time in the zoo’s history, keepers are using allergen immunotherapy — which, like vaccines, exposes the body to low doses of an irritant to build tolerance over time — to alleviate allergies for a goat, polar bear and pair of beavers.

Although the zoo has treated animals with allergies, it’s unusual to have several species suffering at the same time, according to Dr. Kadie Anderson, a veterinarian at the zoo.

Nowadays, rising temperatures prolong growing seasons and trap heat in urban areas, making allergens more prevalent in the air than ever, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Scientists predict the pollen for some trees, like birches in the Seattle area, will be eight times more abundant in our region by the end of the century, according to the state Department of Health.

That means bad news for both humans and animals who suffer from allergies.

Spice, an 8-year-old goat at the zoo, began showing signs of allergies — fur loss, dry skin and dander — last spring, according to zoo curator Jenn Donovan.

The zoo did a skin allergy test on Spice, where large hives indicate an allergic response or sensitivity to an allergen.

A shaved patch of fur and bare skin pricked with common allergens revealed Spice is allergic to seven different kinds of trees, four different insects and multitudes of grasses, weeds, molds/yeast and epidermal such as cat dander.

Several other goats — Spice’s brothers — also have allergies and experience dander, but “they’re nowhere near the extreme of Spice’s allergies,” Donovan said.

Spice’s keepers first treated her allergies with Cetirizine, or Zyrtec, a common over-the-counter allergy medication, but her hair loss continued to worsen.

Spice’s four-chambered stomach would destroy oral medication before it could be absorbed, and keepers were unable to keep sublingual medication under her tongue (or even in her mouth, Donovan said).

Keepers even tried removing allergens from Spice’s fur by wiping her down with wet rags — “which she did not care for at all,” Donovan said — and giving her baths.

So, this year, keepers opted to try giving Spice an injection.

The goats at the zoo are “used to being pet and brushed and scratched, but to have their skin pulled up is awkward,” Donovan said, so keepers had to train Spice to voluntarily accept her injections.

Spice progressed “much faster” than her team of 12 trainers anticipated. In less than a dozen sessions, Spice was comfortable having her skin pulled and prodded for injections in five locations: both shoulders — “that’s where there’s the loosest skin, they don’t seem to tighten up as much” — both hips and in between her shoulders, Donovan said.

Spice now receives her allergy injection once every two weeks, and “it’s actually very rewarding for her,” Donovan said. “She has a better quality of life, and that’s all we want to do for every species.”

For Walnut, an 8-year-old beaver, a daily oral immunotherapy spray proved most effective at combatting his allergies.

Zookeepers observed hair loss in Walnut and Nutmeg, Walnut’s 17-year-old mate, last year. Keepers initially thought one was grooming the other, but hair loss on both beavers continued.

“They get really itchy, and they pull out their hair,” Anderson said. “They don’t understand what’s happening, so they’re just trying to get to the itch.”

Zookeepers also discovered the pair wasn’t going in the water as often when they began losing their fur, which is waterproof and helps keep them warm and dry in water.

Left untreated, Walnut and Nutmeg “would probably become naked beavers,” zoo’s head veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf said.

The pair of veterinary dermatologists who treated Spice, Dr. Danielle Wyatt and Dr. Danielle Tulloss, performed skin allergy tests on Nutmeg and Walnut, confirming they are allergic to a host of trees, grasses, dogs, cats and even humans.

Walnut, ironically, is also allergic to walnut trees, according to the zoo.

Walnut and Nutmeg are the first beavers at Point Defiance to experience allergies. Butternut, the pair’s 5-year-old daughter, does not have allergies.

Still, it typically takes at least a year for immunotherapy to be fully effective — Walnut is experiencing some allergy flare-ups this spring — so keepers are managing the pair’s allergies by changing their bedding and providing flea and tick prevention.

Keepers are also training Astra, the zoo’s 3-year-old polar bear, for oral immunotherapy medication.

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She hasn’t lost any fur, but keepers started observing she was unusually itchy last fall.

The animals will likely receive allergy treatment for the rest of their lives.