I’ve never really understood the appeal of tarantulas as pets. I’m sure there are some people that think they’re great pets and I can’t really counter with anything beyond "I don’t have any desire to have a massive spider in my house." Nevertheless, many people have them. Recently, a rather unusual health concern was reported at medpagetoday.com following publication of a peculiar case report (Norris et al) in the most recent issue of The Lancet.
Hairs on the hind end of the Chilean Rose tarantula, as well as others, have barbed tips. These spiders can release hairs as a defense mechanism. A British tarantula owner was leaning into the spider’s terrarium one day when it "doused" his face with a mist of hairs.
When he presented at the ophthalmology clinic three weeks later, his right eye was red, watery, and uncomfortable in bright light. His Snellen visual acuity had degraded to 6/9, versus 6/4 in his unaffected left eye.
Carrim and colleagues reported that initial low-power examination showed diffuse conjunctival injection and multiple corneal subepithelial infiltrates, "visible as scattered white spots."
They initially suspected a viral infection, but higher magnification revealed "fine, hairlike projections" at the center of each spot, with varying depths into the cornea.
At that point, he mentioned the tarantula hair exposure. After 6 months of intensive treatment, his eye problems have greatly improved, and he now wears eye protection around the tarantula.
It’s unclear how common this is. There have been other reports of this problem and certainly there must have been other unreported cases. Overall, it’s probably rare for tarantula owners to be affected but it seems like a pretty nasty problem and one you’d want to avoid. Pets like tarantulas often come and go in popularity, and any upswing in tarantula numbers could result in more eye injuries. People need to be aware of this problem if they own, or are thinking about acquiring, a tarantula. Animal exhibits that have tarantulas and any other places where tarantulas may be present (e.g. schools) need to think about this as well. Wearing eye protection when handling these spiders in close quarters, keeping your face of the terrarium, avoiding stressful situations that might make the tarantula release hairs, good handling skills and restricting close contact seem like logical and practical measures to reduce the risk.
Image: Chilean Rose tarantula (source: www.wikipedia.org)