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An eye-opening tale about the hazards of keeping pet tarantulas

January 1, 2010 |  6:00 am

Here’s a medical mystery – and a cautionary tale – for all you tarantula owners out there, courtesy of the new issue of the Lancet:

Tarantula A 29-year-old British man with a red, watery and photophobic eye sought treatment from his general practitioner. The doctor presumed the patient had conjunctivitis (also known as “pink eye”) and prescribed an antibiotic ointment.

However, his symptoms persisted three weeks later, so he went to an ophthalmology practice at St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds. The specialists initially considered a very similar diagnosis of viral keratoconjunctivitis, which involves inflammation of the cornea as well as the conjunctiva.

Then they examined the patient’s eye under higher magnification and found “fine hair-like projections” at “varying depths within the cornea.”

Yuck.

The ophthalmologists weren’t sure what to make of them, so they asked the patient. He instantly recalled an incident from three weeks earlier, when he was cleaning the glass tank (or terrarium) that housed his pet Chilean Rose tarantula.

Here’s what went down, as described in the Lancet:

While his attention was focused on a stubborn stain, he sensed movement in the terrarium. He turned his head and found that the tarantula, which was in close proximity, had released a “mist of hairs” which hit his eyes and face.

It turns out that many tarantula breeds, including this one, are known to shoot fine barbed hairs at their attackers as a self-defense mechanism. Mystery solved! The patient was diagnosed with ophthalmia nodosa, a condition in which the eye reacts to “insect or vegetable material,” the ophthalmologists reported.

The doctors tried to remove the hairs from the patient’s cornea but even their micro-forceps were too big. So they prescribed steroid drops, which he still takes once a day. The patient’s visual acuity has improved and he says he has only mild discomfort and intermittent floaters.

It was a rare diagnosis, but not unprecedented. The doctors were able to find three prior case reports of opthalmia nodosa caused by tarantula hairs in the medical literature going back to 1988.

At the end of the ordeal, the treating physicians offered this helpful guidance to their patient and others who may find themselves similarly situated:

We suggest that tarantula keepers be advised to routinely wear eye protection when handling these animals.

Sensible advice indeed, which the patient is reported to have taken to heart. But in my (admittedly non-medical) opinion, perhaps a better suggestion would have been to give up the pet tarantula altogether.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Handle with care – this pet Chilean Rose tarantula belongs to professional bug wrangler Steve Kutcher. Photo credit: Michael Caulfield/AP

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Comments (11)

Yes, this is a blog about unusual occurrences within the health world, but can you really justify an entire post about a trivial Tarantula incident?

I'm with you, Karen. Why do people want to keep such hideous creatures? A pet that returns one's affection is far more rewarding than a heartless and dangerous spider.

For the most part, a well-written and informative article, but was the ending jab entirely necessary? I don't suggest my friends give up their pet cats when they end up bloody after a too-rambunctious play session, or their dogs when they get barreled over playing fetch. Tarantulas make fine pets, provided the owner accepts the risks -- itchy hairs, included.

Huge spiders should not be in a little glass thingy in your house.

I completely agree. I've never understood certain human beings' insistence on making pets out of every wild thing out there. It carries risk of harm to the animal, and the people. Domesticated animals are such for a reason.

I saw this article on the Telegraph newspaper online. It is indeed one interesting fact that I would not expect from interacting with tarantulas. However, owning exotic pets can have its drawbacks such as this. I wonder whether this is mother nature's way of telling us to best leave these creatures in their natural habitat.

This is a excellent example of the importance of obtaining a thorough history in order to arrive at the correct medical diagnosis when faced with preplexing and rare physical findings.

Dammit, this is the same kind of tarantula I have. Mine is not very easily startled though; I rarely handle it, or clean it's cage (I don't think it minds a poorly kept cage, considering it rarely moves), but when I do, I can move it around rather quickly without any noticeable reaction from it.

Don't judge tarantula owners, especially in this case. Chilean Rose tarantulas are extremely docile and low maintenance. When I bought mine, I was able to handle it without being bitten or sprayed with hairs. I would rather be bitten by my tarantula, which from what I've heard is similar to a bad bee sting, than a dog or most snakes.

Sensible advice indeed, which the patient is reported to have taken to heart. But in my (admittedly non-medical) opinion, perhaps a better suggestion would have been to give up the pet tarantula altogether.

-- Karen Kaplan

Why? Most if not all pets carry some hazard. Do you tell catowners to give up cats because they may be scratched? I bet you don't. I would think you should say 'take appropriate safety measures'. This spider hazard is well known and he should have been prepared with the correct Protective Equipment from the start.



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