The University of Iowa

Occupational Hazards Associated with the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals

Occupational Health and Safety Program

The Occupational Health & Safety Program is designed to prevent unnecessary occupational hazards in the work environment and maintain a safe environment for personnel working with or around laboratory animals. This program involves various practices including personal hygiene techniques, wearing protective clothing/equipment, and utilizing the services of the University Employee Health Clinic (UEHC).   The UEHC is located on the first floor of Boyd Tower in the General Hospital (1097-1 BT; 356-3631).

All personnel working with animals must participate in the Occupational Health & Safety Program.  Requirements for participation in the Program:

  • Complete the Occupational Health & Safety questionnaire for risk assessment.
  • Make an appointment with the UEHC if required.

Program elements offered by UEHC vary depending on exposures or concerns and may include:

  • Medical and Work History
  • Physical Examination
  • Q-fever titer levels drawn yearly
  • Serum banking once as a baseline
  • Toxoplasmosis titers yearly on women of childbearing age
  • Spirometry
  • Audiometry
  • Rabies vaccination or titer verification
  • Other vaccinations (e.g., Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, vaccinia, Diphtheria-tetanus, measles, influenza)

Report of Injuries

All injuries are required to be reported to a facility supervisor or supervisor designee even if medical treatment is not required.  This includes animal bites or any other injury which occurs on the job.  

A “First Report of Injury” form must be completed within 24 hours of the injury/illness.

  • Form must be completed by the employee/supervisor on the Employee Self Service site under HR Application

If medical treatment is required, the employee must be directed to:

  • UI Health Works for treatment of acute injury/illness.
  • UIHC Emergency Treatment Clinic if medical attention is required after hours (Mon-Fri, 8am-5pm) or if the injury requires immediate treatment.
  • University Employee Health Clinic for treatment of nonhuman primate bites/exposures or BSL-2 exposures.

For acute emergencies, dial 911 for emergency personnel.  The injured individual should only be moved by medical authorities unless a delay in movement would prove to be detrimental to the individual.  

Potential risks incurred when personnel work with laboratory animals

There are several types of risks; however, the following are of primary concern:
1.    Development of allergies
2.    Zoonotic diseases
3.    Animal bites and scratches

Risks are substantially minimized by using appropriate handling techniques when manipulating animals, their tissues, and caging; wearing protective clothing/devices; and utilizing appropriate personal hygiene practices.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The Office of Animal Resources (OAR) provides protective clothing for animal care personnel which are laundered by the institution.  Animal care personnel are required to wear PPE while at work and are expected to change PPE as often as necessary to maintain a clean appearance and prevent contamination to other areas of the facility.  

Laboratory personnel must wear laboratory coats when working with animals in the vivarium. It is best practice to wear laboratory coats when working with animals in the laboratory as well. Protective clothing should be changed as appropriate to minimize cross contamination between species or activities in different animal rooms within the facility.  Protective clothing should not be worn outside of the vivarium or laboratories unless it is necessary to perform assigned duties.  

Additional PPE may be required depending on the animal facility, the species being housed in each room, and the designated biocontainment level.  Questions concerning appropriate use of PPE should be directed to the OAR facility supervisors.

Personal Hygiene

Hand washing is the most effective practice in reducing the potential of exposure to infectious material.  Hand washing should be performed:

  • at the start of the work day
  • upon leaving for breaks, before meals, or after restroom breaks
  • when returning to work
  • after handling of any live animal or animal tissue
  • after handling any other potential source of contamination

Eating and drinking are prohibited in animal quarters and other areas where laboratory animals or hazardous agents are utilized.  Eating and drinking within the vivarium is only permitted in administrative office space and in employee break rooms.

Other preventive measures such as not applying makeup (including lip balm application) or placing contact lenses while in the vicinity of laboratory animals can also reduce potential exposures.

Development of Allergies

Risk factors for development of allergies include a family history of allergies, a history of seasonal allergies, and smoking.  Common clinical symptoms of laboratory animal allergies include inflammation of the skin, nose, eyes; and urticaria (i.e. rash).  Individuals who develop allergies to animal dander and excretions are at increased risk of developing asthma.  

The major sources of allergens are:

  • animal bites, animal dander and excretions (e.g., urine, saliva)
  • airborne bedding dust
  • cautery fumes
  • other respiratory exposures

Exposure to allergens can be minimized by:

  • wearing protective clothing and gloves when handling animals
  • reducing exposure to airborne dusts, dander and cautery fumes (e.g. exhaust systems)
  • practicing good personal hygiene  

HEPA filter respirators or masks may help prevent the development of allergies.  Use of this type of PPE should be discussed with the UEHC medical staff as their effectiveness may vary on a case by case basis.

Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases (i.e. diseases which are transmitted from animals to man), although uncommon in the laboratory setting, can have significant health consequences for personnel.  Exposure to zoonotic diseases has been greatly decreased by the use of commercial animal vendors who have eliminated them from their colonies.

Persons most at risk:

  • Immunocompromised personnel (e.g., HIV, steroids, chemotherapy, post-transplant, certain arthritis medications)
  • pregnant employee or an employee planning to get pregnant
  • At risk personnel are encouraged to discuss these risks with their treating physician or the UEHC

Risks are substantially minimized by:

  • using appropriate handling techniques when manipulating animals, their tissues, and caging
  • wearing protective clothing/devices
  • utilizing appropriate personal hygiene practices
  • following proper sharps (needles, scalpels, glassware) management practices
    • Discard used sharps immediately after use in a designated sharps container
    • Do not recap needles or improperly dispose of scalpels
    • Do not overfill sharps containers


Toxoplasma gondii is a microscopic parasitic disease normally associated with cats.  Nearly one-third of the world’s human population has antibodies to Toxoplamsa.


  • Eating raw/ undercooked meat
  • Ingestion of infected eggs (shed in cat feces)
    • primary hazard to personnel working in laboratory animal facilities 
  • It takes several days for the eggs to become infective after fecal excretion
    • daily removal of feces eliminates eggs prior to them becoming infective  

Symptoms of infection are not common; however, some may develop symptoms similar to those of the flu or mononucleosis, such as:

  • Body aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • sore throat

Post-infection complication:

  • Infection, if acquired during pregnancy, can result in stillbirth or long-term damage.
    • The UEHC should be consulted to identify ways to protect the employee.
      • Recommendations may include temporary job re-assignment during pregnancy to avoid contact with cat feces.  


Q-fever is a highly infectious rickettsial infection caused by Coxiella burnetii and is associated primarily with sheep and other small ruminants.  


  • High numbers of organisms are shed during birthing (e.g. within reproductive fluids and placenta)
  • Infection of humans usually occurs by inhalation of the airborne organisms 
  • Organisms are viable in the environment for long periods of time

Symptoms of infection:

  • flu-like symptoms (may be severe)  

Post-infection complications:
Chronic heart inflammation (i.e. endocarditis) may develop, particularly in persons with pre-existing valvular disease. 
Infection, if acquired during pregnancy, can result in abortion.
The UEHC should be consulted to identify ways to protect the employee.
Recommendations may include temporary job re-assignment during pregnancy.  

How to minimize transmission:
Protective measures are most important when handling a ewe and the birth products at the time of parturition.
Access to ruminant areas is restricted to required personnel. 
Protective clothing must be worn in the animal housing areas and should not be worn outside of the animal facilities. 
Potentially contaminated materials must be disposed of properly (sharps container, biohazardous waste). 
Disposable gloves must be worn when handling ruminants or their tissues. 
Equipment must be decontaminated. 
Bottom of footwear must be decontaminated prior to exiting the room (e.g. walk through a chemical sterilant mat).  


Management of Bites

Bites or scratches received by personnel should immediately be washed with soap and water.  The supervisor/lab director needs to be informed as soon as possible after cleansing the wound.  The supervisor/lab director should:

  • Assist in obtaining medical attention. 
  • Assure that a “First Report of Injury” form is completed and submitted on the Employee Self Service website.

Bites received from rats and mice

Rats naturally carry bacteria in their mouth and can transmit them through bite wounds causing infection. A common rat oral bacteria in North America, Streptobacillus moniliformis, causes Haverhill Fever approximately 2-10 days after exposure.  If untreated, the disease can be fatal due to malignant endocarditis, meningoencephalitis or septic shock.

Symptoms of infection after exposure:

  • Inflammation around the bite wound
  • high prostrating fevers
  • rigors
  • headache
  • polyarthralgia (pain in multiple joints)

Bites from rodents should be immediately cleaned with warm, soapy water.  Any symptoms appearing after exposure should be taken seriously and immediately reported to a physician for medical management.

Bites received from dogs 

Dogs are purchased from USDA Class A dealers, have been vaccinated for rabies, and pose little risk to personnel working with them.  However, in the event of a bite:

  • Make a mental note of which animal(s) inflicted the wound
  • Immediately clean the wound with warm, soapy water
  • Contact an OAR Veterinarian so the animal(s) can be placed on observation  

Although highly unlikely, if death of a rabies suspect occurs,

  • Confirm identification of the animal
  • Place the animal in refrigerated cold storage
  • Contact an OAR Veterinarian immediately so they can establish a record of the incident and initiate procedures to have the animal checked for rabies by the University Hygienic Laboratory.

Bites received from wild animals

The animal should be identified as a rabies suspect and isolated by OAR personnel.  

An OAR Veterinarian should be contacted immediately to establish a record of the incident and to initiate procedure to have the animal tested for rabies by the University Hygienic Laboratory.