My aunt has a nasty case of ophthalmia nodosa. Have you never heard of this before? Well neither had I, so let me explain. My aunt loves animals, any kind of animal, so when she heard that my cousin’s friend had a pet tarantula that he was not feeding or providing water, she reached out and volunteered to take in the poor tarantula. As she said, “No animal should have to suffer, even a giant spider.” So one day she came home after being away a few days and went to check on the tarantula. It wasn’t moving and looked dead, so she put her knuckle in and nudged it a bit until it moved, relief, it was alive! She then had an itchy eye, and very unfortunately for her, she used that same knuckle to rub her eye. A few days later, her eye became inflamed and she was in extreme pain. She went to the ophthalmologist who examined her eyes with a high magnification lens and was astonished to see many tiny, minuscule hairs protruding from her eye. Around this time they figured out that the hairs must have come from the tarantula and she was suffering from ophthalmia nodosa, a reaction to the urticating hair that grow on the stomach of a tarantula.
Ophthalmia nodosa is the condition of the eye reacting to vegetation or insect hair and was diagnosed as early as 1904. Urticating hairs come in four types, and type III are carried on New World tarantulas. Type III hairs are 0.1 to 1.3 mm long and have many barbs and a sharp point. They are like tiny pieces of fiberglass. In addition, the hairs are like an arrow and tend to borrow deeply into flesh and rubbing makes it worse. Type III urticating hairs can cause all levels of the eye to become inflamed.
The ophthalmologist referred my aunt to a specialist who was able to remove some of the hairs, but not all as many had already worked their way into her cornea. She was treated with steroids and told that with the help of the steroids, hopefully her body would eventually dissolve all the remaining hairs. It has been several years now, and her eyesight has been damaged and she still suffers pain in her eye. It is important for people who own tarantulas, sell tarantulas or handle tarantulas to understand the dangers associated with them. All types of New World tarantulas have urticating hairs that they shoot out for defense. New World tarantulas come from North, Central and South America. Old World tarantulas do not have urticating hairs, so they tend to bite more and bite repeatedly as a defense. Old World tarantulas come from Africa, Asia and Australia.
Experts say that when handling a tarantula, you should always wear eye protection, and one owner suggests putting a cup over the spider when you are cleaning the cage. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the danger they are putting themselves in when they handle a New World tarantula.