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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.

How to identify two common cavy parasites

11 Jul

Generally speaking, in the cavy community there are basically two kinds of parasites with which most everyone is at least vaguely familiar: lice, and mites. Unfortunately, both are common enough that anyone who spends enough time caring for cavies will eventually encounter them. And usually once is enough — once you’ve seen lice or mites on your cavy, you’ll know the telltale signs when you see them again.

But for newcomers, signs of parasitic infestations on a guinea pig can be difficult to detect. Consequently, first-time cavy fanciers rarely notice symptoms before the infestation has become large and difficult to manage. If this is you, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad pet owner. It just means your new, and we’ve all been there before. However, it is important to note that, without timely treatment, some kinds of infestations can kill your cavy.

Because these common pests can result in permanent harm and even death in cavies, it is important to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of two common cavy parasites: lice, and mange mites.

Cavy Lice

What a lovely little cavy louse looks like up close. Beautiful, isn’t he?

First, let’s address that crawly feeling you’re experiencing right now: guinea pig lice is completely different from human lice. The most common species of guinea pig lice is known scientifically as Gliricola porcelli, and although there are a few other minor species of lice that live on guinea pigs, none of them can infect humans. All species of guinea pig lice rely completely on a single source of food — guinea pig blood. They can’t drink human blood, so even if they were inclined to wander from their host — and they aren’t — they’d starve to death on you in relatively short order.

While cavy lice can case your furry friends a great deal of discomfort, it isn’t nearly as destructive as mites. However, lice is also much more difficult to detect, and can multiply and spread to cause significant infestations before it starts manifesting any easily noticeable symptoms. In my experience, this is the most problematic part of dealing with cavy lice — it spreads quickly, easily, and silently. If you see it on one of your cavies, then it is safe to assume that ALL of your cavies need to be treated for lice.

Cavy lice are long, flattish, yellow or whitish creatures that are just large enough to be visible to the human eye. If your cavy has lice, you will see tiny, almost worm-like insects wriggling on you cavy’s skin underneath its hair. Large infestations will become obvious upon close inspection. But light infestations may be difficult to detect visually. Symptoms of lice include scratching, hair pulling, thinning hair, and rough or rashy-looking skin (as a result of scratching).

Cavy lice spread from one guinea pig to the next via direct contact with other guinea pigs or contact with other contaminated objects, which may include cage bedding, toys or other cage furnishings, grooming utensils and supplies, or, quite frankly, humans who have handled other guinea pigs with lice (like I said, the lice won’t live on you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a louse on your hand or shirt and drop it off in another cavy’s hair). Because they spread so easily, cavy lice is a chronic problem anywhere numerous guinea pigs may be found. Common problem spots include cavy shows, pet stores, rescues, and other caviaries. It’s worth noting that your cavy is not going to get lice from bedding or food bought at a store; but it may pick up lice whenever it enters a situation where there are other unfamiliar guinea pigs.

As a general rule of thumb, if I plan to take my cavies anywhere there will be other cavies with which I am are not familiar, I always treat those cavies that traveled as though they have come into contact with lice.

The good news is, lice is relatively easy to treat and get rid of. Common treatments include topical sprays, various over-the-counter topical medications, or prescription topical treatments you can get from your vet. If you feel your pet has lice and you are not comfortable treating it, please take it to your local exotics vet.

Mange Mites

The hair loss and scabby skin seen on the back of this cavy is typical of a mange mites infestation.

Given the two options, every guinea pig ever would prefer to get lice, rather than mites. Mange mites are nasty creatures — nearly microscopic arachnids known scientifically as Trixacarus caviae, and similar, though still separate from, the pests that cause scabies in humans. Like cavy lice, you can’t get mange mites from your guinea pig, because mange mites can’t live off human blood. However, mange mites are very bad news for your guinea pig, because if left untreated, the infestations can be fatal.

Unlike lice, mange mites do not just passively sit on the skin and drink your cavy’s blood. Mange mites lay their eggs beneath the skin, which means the mites themselves burrow into the skin and create passageways through the skin that can sometimes be seen as raised, web-like rashes on the guinea pig’s back or belly. This causes the cavy extreme discomfort. If infested, your cavy will scratch and bite at itself, will become sensitive to being touched or petted and may suddenly become aggressive toward its caretakers, and, as the infestations grows larger, your cavy may appear to have fits where it runs wildly about its cage or has convulsions.

Mange mites are not visible to the human eye. Observable symptoms include radical patchy hair loss, crusty skin, and patch-work open sores on the cavy’s back and sides. If you observe these symptoms in your cavy, seek treatment immediately, as advanced infestations often cause such discomfort that the cavy may stop eating and drinking, ultimately resulting in death. Additionally, even though the sores will heal with time and proper treatment, many heal over with scar tissue, and the cavy’s hair may never grow in properly. If you are trying to show your guinea pigs, the prevention and timely treatment of mite infestations is essential to maintaining your cavy’s competitive condition.

The good news is, mange mites do not spread as easily as lice. Like lice, mites are not inclined to leave the comfort of a host. Unlike lice, mange mites also spend part of their life cycle underneath the cavy’s skin, which means the mites and their eggs are unlikely to fall off a cavy and into bedding or other materials that might allow the infestation to spread. Most mite infestations result from direct cavy-to-cavy contact. However, the death of a host will cause the mites to seek out a new home. Additionally, overpopulation and unsanitary living conditions can aid the spread of mite infestations.

Topical treatment is not usually an effective means of getting rid of mites. If your cavy shows symptoms of mites, seek out over-the-counter medications that can be administered orally, or talk to a veterinarian to treat the infestation via a series of injections. While lice can in some cases be treated with a one-time dose of certain topical medications, mites will require more than one dose. Most medications that kill mites will not kill the eggs, and mite eggs can live in a dormant state beneath the skin for several months.

How to bathe your cavy, the less mess method

23 Jul

Cavies are generally pretty finicky about their personal hygiene, but sometimes, even the cleanest critters need a little extra help. Unfortunately, cavies aren’t always the most cooperative about bath time.

In recent months I’ve figured out a method I have found pretty effective at removing mess from my cavies without spreading that mess all over my bathroom, Dr. Seuss style. I just bathed one of my cavies last night, so I thought I’d share my new technique with you.

Note: While intended for and demonstrated by long-haired cavies, this technique should transfer nicely to short-hairs as well. Also note that start to finish, this process takes one to three hours. I would not recommend starting at 10 p.m.

What you’ll need:


Your guinea pig.

Your guinea pig’s comb.

An old towel.

Shampoo. Cavy hair is structurally identical to human hair, so if you have nothing else on hand, your own shampoo will suffice, just be sure to keep any and all soap away from your cavy’s eyes. If the thought of sharing shampoo with your cavy bothers you, there are a few cavy-specific shampoos on the market. Mane-and-Tail also works well, as does tearless baby shampoo.

Conditioner (optional). See above.

A jar, large cup, pitcher, or any similar container adequate for transporting water.

A shallow plastic bin. You can see what I mean in the picture above. Anything similar should work fine. And this doesn’t have to be expensive — I bought mine at the dollar store.

You’ll also need a hair dryer with variable temperature settings for later.

Once you’ve gathered all the necessary materials, fill the bin with a few inches of warm water. The water level should not exceed the height of your cavy. Pay close attention to the temperature of the water–it should be warm, not hot or cold. Cavies overheat easily, but they also quickly develop pneumonia if chilled.

Before you get your cavy wet, be sure to comb any tangles out of its hair. Wetting down knots only seems to make them worse, so I find it best to avoid knots entirely.


Once your cavy is ready and the bath drawn, you can take the whole operation anywhere you like. I set up shop in my caviary, where I’ve laid a tarp down to keep the carpet clean. But you could move anywhere with a water proof floor. You could even go outside if the weather is agreeable.

The bath itself is a pretty simple procedure. Be sure to lower your cavy into the bath feet first — he will appreciate that.


Wet his hair down, then work the soap through his hair, moving in the direction of the hairs’ growth.


To rinse your cavy, fill a jar, cup or pitcher with water and gently pour it over your cavy’s back. If the water level in the bin gets too high, use the jar to remove the extra water. Note: NEVER submerge your cavy’s head in water.

Rinse your cavy thoroughly. If any soap remains on his hair, your cavy may take the liberty of chewing it off for you. When your cavy is satisfactorily clean, lift him out of the bin, carefully wring as much water from his hair as possible, and wrap him in a towel.


While your cavy dries for a minute, go ahead and empty the bin into a drain, or go outside and water some dry grass with the bathwater. Rinse the bin and store it away for later use.

Even if your cavy is short-haired, you should never let it air dry. A wet cavy is a cavy at risk of pneumonia. Also, wet cavies attract dirt like magnets.


Unwrap your cavy, comb out his hair and start blow drying, using warm air that is neither hot or cold. For long-haired cavies, it helps to go at it one section at a time. If your cavy’s hair curls (and isn’t supposed to) you can use the flat edge of the comb to help straighten it.


Take your time and be patient. This entire process can take an hour or more. If at any point your cavy gets frazzled or you find yourself getting frustrated, take a quick time-out and let your cavy relax for a minute. With patience and persistence, your cavy will look handsome as ever before too long.


Special thanks to Marshall for being especially patient during his bath last night.

Summer heat a serious hazard for cavies

9 Jul

If you live in the U.S., chances are you’re experiencing a heat wave like what we saw in Utah last week. With high temperatures across the nation, it’s high time for a reminder about the potential danger heat poses to our cavy friends.

Cavies are indigenous to the Andes mountains in South America and are not equipped to tolerate a wide range of temperatures. Guinea pigs evolved in mountain top prairies and grasslands near the equator, absent the seasonal changes we see in most of North America. They adapted to live in a stable environment with temperatures that rarely drifted outside 65 – 75 degrees, with relative humidity below 50 percent. Consequently, cavies never really developed an effective cooling system that would allow their species to thrive in higher temperatures.

Because guinea pigs cannot cool themselves, heat is a seriously limiting factor for the species. Problems can arise when temperatures exceed 80 degrees — males are known to become sterile, and pregnant females can develop toxemia (an infection that develops in the uterus after the death of the fetuses) within three hours if deprived adequate water. Temperatures above 90 degrees can prove fatal.

Heat stroke is almost always fatal in cavies. Warning signs include excess drooling, extreme lethargy, and poor body condition (the cavy’s muscles will relax and, as described by the ACBA husbandry article, assume the characteristics of wilted lettuce). If your cavy develops these symptoms, a warm bath should be administered immediately. This may help cool the cavy sufficiently to save its life, though, again, heat stroke is almost always fatal. Never use cold water to attempt to rapidly cool a heat-distressed cavy. The sudden change in temperature may cause the animal to go into shock. Syringe-feeding a small portion of room-temperature water, or even Gatorade, may also prove helpful.

On the other hand, guinea pigs cope relatively well with cold temperatures. Cool weather between 40 – 50 degrees does not seem to pose much of an issue — if they do get a bit chilly, cavies will huddle together to keep warm, and generally do just fine. Brief exposure to more extreme temperatures also does not seem to be an issue; however, prolonged exposure to cold can cause cavies to develop respiratory infections.

An interesting observation I have made: of all the common breeds of cavy in the U.S., the Peruvian seems by far the most susceptible to heat stroke. Cavies, like many related species, do have one limited method of cooling — they disperse heat by circulating extra blood through their ears. If you pay close attention, you can actually see blood flow in the ears increase during hot weather. This is, in my unscientific opinion, possibly the reason why all guinea pigs have bald spots on their necks, just behind the ears. Hair over the ears would prevent even this limited means of cooling from functioning effectively. The Peruvian’s thick frontal completely covers the head and ears at maturity. If you have Peruvians you are showing, keep a close eye on them during hot weather, especially if you are travelling, and consider pinning back the frontal with some bobby pins. If you’re not showing, trim the frontal back away from the ears.