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The Making of Medicine

The Meat Allergy: What’s It Like?

One day you enjoy a hamburger with no problem and the next time you eat one you have a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Scary stuff, huh?

This is the meat allergy, one of our discoveries that attracts perpetual interest. Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, the chief of our Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and his colleagues determined that bites from Lone Star ticks can cause people to suddenly become allergic to meat from mammals.

UVA Today recently interviewed Dr. Platts-Mills about the work, and you can read that here. But I thought you might enjoy hearing from someone who has the allergy. What’s it like? Let’s find out.

(I’ve omitted the person’s name and other personal details to protect their privacy. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

How did you first discover you had the meat allergy?

I think it was 2010. I started to break out in hives every day for two weeks straight, and I didn’t know what was causing it. I finally went to the allergy clinic [at UVA]. … Three days later, I got the phone call from the doctor, and she said, “You need to stop eating beef, dairy, pork, venison and lamb.”

They had me come back in and put me on a cocktail of medications for two months and put me on a restrictive diet for two months, to watch what I was eating.

The funny thing, for me, is that every time I tested for [the meat allergy], I tested negative. They had me come back in at some point in those two months to do skin testing and they put those [allergen] patches on my back. Cats and dogs showed up, which I’ve never been allergic to.

Then they gave me a milk test. After the first tablespoon, within 30 minutes my leg broke out into hives, so they had to stop the test.

I ended up going to see Dr. Platts-Mills. I think they may have reached out to me, because they were doing a study. They discovered I have what is called “pork-cat syndrome,” which is really weird. What they told me was I’m allergic to cat saliva, and they told me if a cat licks me, my body thinks I have consumed pork, because of something in the cat saliva. … They told me that I was in a very small group of people who have this condition. Dr. Platts-Mills told me, “You will never eat pork again, or at least you shouldn’t, because it can cause anaphylactic shock.”

I still have my cat.

So did they determine you got the meat allergy from a tick bite?

They tested for alpha-gal [the cause, or a cause, of the allergy] at least three times. Every time it comes back negative. Dr. Platts-Mills told me I most likely have the [meat allergy], because there are false negatives. So I don’t know for sure, but it would make sense, because all of a sudden I’m allergic to meat, stuff I used to eat all my life.

What can’t you eat now?

I do not eat beef and pork, no hamburger, bacon, ham, pepperoni. Any of that stuff, I can’t eat. I never eat venison or lamb, so I don’t have to worry about those two. The dairy allergy is a little bit tricky. I’m drinking coffee right now with half-and-half. But if you were to put a glass of milk in front of me and I were to take a drink, it would make my whole mouth and throat itch. Certain types of ice cream I can’t eat. Turkey Hill doesn’t bother me. I’ve switched to almond milk for cereal. I don’t do milk at all. Cheeses are OK. I can eat yogurt.

The last time I saw Dr. Platts-Mills, he said, “You would probably be OK eating a hamburger, if you want to test it out.” … But I don’t want to take the chance.

What are your symptoms if you eat meat?

For me, it was hives, most of the time. [My throat] has never completely closed, but it just starts to feel like there’s something in there. I keep liquid Benadryl, because they say it gets in your system faster. I’ve never had to resort to the EpiPen, which is a good thing.

How has the meat allergy affected your diet?

Now I eat a lot of chicken and fish and turkey, and I have to say I’m glad it’s the other meats I’m allergic to and not these, because I’d rather eat the chicken and turkey anyway. But now and then I do crave a juicy cheeseburger.

I used to eat hot dogs and now I have to be really careful. I was eating turkey and chicken hot dogs [for a while] when I noticed one tasted off. As soon as I bit into it, I knew the taste was different. And I didn’t like it. I turned the package over and they had encased my chicken hot dog in a beef casing.

I can’t eat marshmallows. I think we were doing s’mores one night over the firepit. I noticed after eating them that my throat felt really odd. I did some research and it had to do with the gelatin in them.

Jell-O is OK. But I can’t do Rice Krispy treats.

Do you have to take medicine regularly?

Mostly it’s avoiding food. They told me to take like a Claritin every day, but the problem with that is that my eyes became chronically dry, so I don’t take the allergy medicine every day. I just avoid the food, and I’m constantly using eye drops.

Any other unusual experiences?

We had like a Thanksgiving potluck [at my office]. I knew I was allergic to pork, but it was before I knew I had the pork-cat thing. … I was trying to eat the food and take the medicine to see if I could eat the food. I remember eating a piece of ham and then I went to the gym. On the way back, I started to itch from head to toe.

When I mentioned it to Dr. Platts-Mills, he said, “If you’re going to eat pork, you have to wait at least four hours to exercise, because you’re pushing the allergen through your system faster.” But he said don’t eat it again, so I don’t.

Thank you for sharing your story!


Image by  Katja Schulz, published under creative commons. It has been cropped and recolored.

Reply & View Comments

  1. Tim Opiela says:

    It may be possible to keep a pet such as a dog or a cat in your home with alpha gal, despite them being a mammal. Note all mammals contain Alpha gal, it is present in their dander, salvia, and both forms waste.

    Pet owners have experienced a reduction in alpha gal related reactivity by switching their pets to an “alpha gal friendly diet” of chicken, turkey, duck, and seafood. Note this effort will only reduce the amount of alpha gal, for it is contained within your pet’s DNA.

    Continued pet ownership is an individual decision and should be based upon individual reactivity.

    If tested for a dog or cat allergy, please be aware you are being tested for the protein NOT alpha gal 1,3 which is a carbohydrate. This should be interrupted as you potentially experiencing allergic reactivity to dogs and cats.

  2. Amanda says:

    I have had alpha gal for 4 years now and within the first two years I couldn’t figure out why my stomach still felt icky and a lot of discomfort in my belly. I was going through newsletter about other peoples experiences with alpha gal and this lady was talking about how she couldn’t take over the counter or prescription medication because it contained animal by products like beef and pork. She was having the same symptoms I was having. I called the manufacturer on my meds and come to find out it contained animal by product in it. All that time I couldn’t figure out why I didnt feel good and lead to intestinal infection twice. It was causing allergic reaction in my belly, but not enough to show hives or anaphylaxis. Now not everyone with alpha gal is allergic to medications like I am. I have a pharmacy that makes my medication, takes the binders and fillers out and puts in a vegan capsule. I carry a medical card with me in case I have to go to the er. They would have to call the manufacturer before they give me any kind of medicine and find out if it contains beef or pork before they administer it to me because I will go into anaphylaxis. Have to look closely at ingredient labels. You will have to look up ingredients to know what is made from beef and pork. Like if the label says 100% Turkey, but you look at the ingredients and it is put into a beef or pork casing. Watch out for gelatin, magnesium stearate (some are made from palm oil from a palm fruit), anything beef flavoring, whey, glycerin (some is made from plant base or animal), just to name of a few, but there are several more ingredients to watch out for. I could go on and on and have been educating some doctors about the alpha gal and getting to set up an appt to speak to the hospital administrator on how to handle a person who has this type of allergy and medication.

  3. Susan Deal says:

    I ate a hamburger patty about month and a half ago. Got sick to my stomach, DIahrea, and itchy. Had no clue what it was. I ate grass fed beef. Last nigh I had a homemade hamburger. Broke out in what looked like bug bites. Also durring the night hands swelled and could barely bend my fingers. Looked up hamburger allergies. I live in Oklahoma in the country and often am bit by ticks. No more beef for me. Chicken and fish are our usual diet anyway. No problems with these.

  4. Alex says:

    I suddenly started breaking out in hives after eating a dominos veggie pizza with no cheese months ago. I thought maybe the water filter that I bought had some chemical causing me to break out BUT here we are and now I can’t eat meat or cheese without hives! Even chickpeas can cause an issue.

    With the negative tests, how do you know it’s from a tick bite?

  5. Kip says:

    I developed an allergy to meat recently. It causes itchiness, hives in some cases but the worst is itchiness in the joints that is almost unbearable. I happens usually within 30 to 60 minutes after eating. It took me about a year to figure out what food(s) cause it. It seems like all meat, seafood, (and dairy if I eat a relatively a lot) cause it. A regular allergy prick test didn’t give any conclusive results. It’s strange because I ate these foods for most of my life without trouble, although I was basically vegetarian for a few years in my 20’s. I still don’t know the cause, and I don’t think it was a tick bite, as I live in a very urban area and don’t go camping or hiking etc. I wouldn’t rule it out completely because I did go to Texas on a business trip within a few months of when it all started, though I don’t ever remember getting bitten by anything.

  6. Will says:

    I’ve had this allergy for about 25 years. Figured it out myself (allergists knew nothing about it back then). Some years ago I was pleased to be a volunteer for Drs. Commins & Platt-Mills (history, blood samples, lung capacity test, etc.). I’d happily volunteer if Erikson and/or Platt-Mills and/or others need human subjects again. (Easy for me as Iive near UVa/Charlottesville.)
    Over the years the allergy has worsened. Started as just mammalian meat, then meat byproducts, whey (they put the s*** in everything), etc., and very recently, gelatin. That sucks – – no more gummi-bears, and I may have to look at med capsule composition. (I’ll weep if cheddar cheese becomes an issue.)
    My allergic reactions are severe & scary, but I avoid them. I read food labels very carefully. Dining at restaurants can require asking questions. (“Are the eggs fried on a griddle that also cooks pork bacon?”) Pot-luck dinners are out, unless I’m prepared ask around for who made what and what goes into it – – and get accurate answers.
    I want to know more about the mechanics of the allergy and what causes the sensitivity. I especially want to know what is causing the increasing incidence of this allergy. Something in lifestyle or environment is contributing. Some thing or things.

  7. Marcy says:

    Two key things to look in to are, according to most of the allergists I’ve seen,are: how sensitive your personal immune system is, and your own “tolerance” level. In my mid 70’s now, began having episodes in childhood, & besides having at least 3 pages of allergies, including foods, meds, insects, seasonal,ETC.,& am still here & kicking! My system happens to be extremely sensitive, so am taking a 24hr non-drowsy allergy med as a “management”. Next, is to try to find out, if you’re reacting to something, if you’re getting close to, or have already reached your tolerance level. Once you’ve reached that level, then, generally, there’s no “going back”. Most of my food allergies, like shellfish, for one example, I had loved them, ate a lot, and often. Then, eating a fav, lobster, after the second forkful, my mouth, tongue, and lip began swelling, along with coughing. Mom got up, being as others in the family had allergies too, got the liquid benedryl, gave me a couple bug glugs to swish & swallow, which stopped the reaction. No epipens yet that I remember. The allergist said that was “it”, off the food list. Over the years, avoidance has not diminished it, & in fact, has reached a point where I can no longer go in restaurants that have open grills, or anywhere having sushi bar because breathing the “smoke” kicks off a rexn. Just lately, had angioedema of the lip with tongue/throat itching & beginning to swell right while chewing a Tums for light indigestion! Why? Checking the ingredients, saw Calcium”carbonate”…which is made from the bones of shellfish & animals (also allergic to beef, & now pork). Can tolerate other forms, like C-phosphate, but for how long, who knows. So just be careful, do your research, have liquid benedryl on hand & your epipen, and never trust the contents of anything, what they were cooked beside, or in, (some places cook fries in the same oil as shrimp, etc), & you should be able to manage very well…

  8. Melissa says:

    My 13 yo daughter has pork-cat syndrome allergy (tested at allergist’s office). I remember asking the doc at her asthma appt. about her complaining of itchy tongue/throat/ears after eating a pork chop, and I said, “that’s not a thing, right??” – when she told me it was, I about fell out of my chair. We carry an epipen around now. Interestingly, she never cared much for pork anyway, except for bacon. She really misses bacon.

  9. Nancy says:

    I knew I was bit by a tick in May. That summer I started getting a few hives but had no idea why. I try to stay away from red meat most of the time. In October, I later I ate a beef burrito. I started getting hives all over and ended up in the ER with low BP, oxygen and fainted. At that point, I had no idea what caused it until I remembered meeting a lady 2 years ago who had told me of her weird allergy to meat.

  10. Ty Moore says:

    Two years ago, I had a cheese burger for dinner around 6:30 pm. At 12:30 am, I woke up with an upset stomach and had to go to the bathroom immediately. After that, my legs began to burn and itch. I then began to break out in hives and my throat began to swell. I woke up my wife and was rushed to the ER. They did not know what caused this reaction. I followed up with an allergist who diagnosed me with the alpha-gal allergy. I now carry an EpiPen and avoid eating the four legged animal meat. My wife is more upset over my new diet than I am. Avoidance has worked well for me. On February 5, 2020 I had an ice cream from McD’s at 8:00 pm. I woke up at 12:30 am with the stomach issues and began to break out in hives. Another run to the ER. I took benadryl and my wife drove me. I then looked up and found out dairy is on the list. Back to the drawing board for a new diet list.

  11. Victoria Addington says:

    My family is currently living near a mountain for years now, where our house is surrounded by farmlands. Since we’re used to the rural type of living, I’m concerned about how meat allergy can be life-threatening after coming across your article in Alpha-Gal Syndrome. I never knew that there are certain foods that trigger the allergy, especially pork and beef. Hopefully, my children won’t get this disease.

  12. Tracey McGee says:

    I found out in 2017 that I was allergic to pork. I had all kinds of wierd feelings of foggy headed, sick to stomach, lethargic, dizzy etc. Doctors did all kinds of tests but all was negative. I had to ask for an allergy test and alpha gal test, no one suggested it. Alpha gal showed only allergic to pork and so did skin test. I haven’t been told, but I am pretty sure I have cat pork syndrome as I am over 100 allergic to cats. Thing is I have always had cats in my household since I was 4 and never had a problem with pork until I was 47. I also found out that its not only pork, its prepared boxed foods, bakery foods, and the list goes on that I have to watch out. The ingredients such as gelatin, mono & diglycerides, enzymes, etc are made with either beef or porcine product and you don’t know which one it was made with. Those ingredients that are also made from animal bones i have to look for as well. 2 weeks ago I had an anaphylaxis episode. It was horrible…it started with an itch that turned into a whole body itch and burning sensations in my palms and groin area, followed by overall feeling of somethings wrong. And my blood pressure dropped quick to 88/58 and bpm 32. My ears were affected, I couldn’t hear right and I was panicking. Needless to say I went to the ER, but no one gave me an epipen injection…why I don’t know. I wasn’t carrying an epi yet, but after that episode I have one on me at all times. I haven’t found a doctor yet who can fully understand or diagnose me with cat pork syndrome or direct me on anything. Since I found all this out on my own, I am figuring thats is just how its going to be. Oh BTW, I have a pet pig too that I got in 2016, but I have no problems taking care of him…

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