Can my guinea pig make me sick?

16 Jan

A little while back I noticed this article about people getting strep from guinea pigs start making the rounds on the internet. Now, this article is done pretty tastefully and tries to explain that there’s really nothing to worry about, but you know how it is — some people panicked anyway and started telling others to never let their kids near a guinea pig, etc.

I was already well aware of the fact that there are certain diseases that can move from cavies to people from time to time, but I hadn’t heard about the strep connection. Furthermore, I suspected that it was far more common for guinea pigs to catch ill when handled by their people, not the other way around. After all, most guinea pigs stay home in their pens all day. It’s us humans that wander around, interact with one another and bring our germs home with us.

To get to the bottom of the issue, I decided to go to the experts — in this case, my friend Cynthia Bishop, a research veterinarian who studies guinea pigs.

According to Bishop, while it is possible for some diseases to move from people to guinea pigs, it’s not as common as you might thing. In fact, she said you’re more likely to catch something from a dog, cat or rat than you are from your guinea pig.

Bishop said whether a disease can spread from one species to another depends largely on what causes the disease. Parasites, for example, are usually species-specific, which is why humans don’t get lice or mites from guinea pigs, even though guinea pigs do on occasion get lice and mites from one another. Cavy lice is actually a different species that the stuff that makes humans itch, and while this particular kind of lice can make guinea pigs miserable, it can’t live off human blood. Mites can get on humans, but they won’t stay for more than a few hours and you’ll only notice if you have an allergic reaction to them.

Likewise, viruses usually can’t infect a species they weren’t originally designed to target. So your guinea pig isn’t likely to develop something like, say, the chicken pox, and consequently you’re not likely to catch chicken pox from your guinea pig. However, there are a few viruses that may be common to both guinea pigs and humans: the jury is still out on whether the flu and the common cold can spread to guinea pigs. Cavies are used in scientific labs to study the flu, but it’s uncertain whether the flu will spread to guinea pigs without scientific aid. Some studies, however, found native populations of guinea pigs in Peru carried antibodies for common human strains of the flu, so it is possible that transmission may occur from time to time.

Bacteria, on the other hand, adapt to different species more easily. So it is possible that bacterial infections, such as strep, could spread from guinea pigs to humans. Humans and guinea pigs are also known to share certain types of eye infections, Bishop said.

Fungi are the most likely disease-causing agent to move from one species to the next. Ringworm, for example, can be especially problematic because it likes both humans and guinea pigs and will move from one species relatively easily.

But note that I say relatively. Bishop said zoonosis, that is, the spread of a disease from one animal to the next, really isn’t all that common. Even with something like strep, if a colony of strep is already used to living in a guinea pig, it would much prefer to stay in a guinea pig. In most cases, Bishop said the people who catch diseases from their pets are immunosuppressed . That is, they had an elevated risk of getting sick to begin with.

In general, Bishop said, basic precautions such as hand washing should be enough to prevent sharing diseases with your guinea pig and vice versa, even among people who are, say, taking drugs that make them more susceptible to infection. If you’re feeling paranoid, extra care can be taken if you know you have something that might make your pet sick (like the flu) or if you know your pet has something you could catch (like ringworm).  But even in those circumstances, basic precautions such as wearing a face mask (like the kind you can buy at the hardware store) or gloves and making regular use of soap should be sufficient to keep you, your family, and your pets safe, Bishop said.


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