It seems like whenever a hit TV show or movie features an animal, there’s concern about the "101 Dalmatians effect," whereby there’s a mad rush to get the animal for a pet. When 101 Dalmatians was a hit movie, there was a huge spike in sales of this rather unusual breed – a breed which is certainly not for everyone. This results in unqualified breeders and puppy mills churning out marginal or poor quality pets and people getting a pet that really doesn’t suit them. The end result can be a lot of disappointment, heartache and abandoned pets. This pattern has been repeated with various other breeds and animal species, and there is concern that the same will happen with guinea pigs as a result of the new Disney movie G-Force.
In terms of human health, guinea pigs are relatively benign. Bites and scratches are probably the biggest concern, and are often the result of improper handling. Bites can become infected from bacteria in the guinea pig’s mouth or from bacteria on the person’s skin. Allergies are also a potential problem. The number of diseases that are known to be transmitted by them is relatively small, and the risk of disease transmission is rather low.
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) is a concern with all rodents. It typically only causes disease in people with compromised immune systems, but can result in fatal infection. The risk of a guinea pig carrying this virus is likely greatest in animals from large rodent breeding facilties and when there is contact with wild rodents.
Ringworm is perhaps the most common infection that people get from guinea pigs (apart from infections following bites). Even healthy guinea pigs can carry the fungus that causes this disease.
Guinea pigs can carry Salmonella, but they are quite susceptible to infection and usually get quite sick. The risk of a healthy guinea pig shedding Salmonella, especially for a prolonged period, is pretty low. The risk is presumably greatest shortly after purchase.
Rabies is always a potential problem in mammals but the risk is very low with small rodents such as guinea pigs. (Very low isn’t zero though, since hamsters have been sources of potential rabies exposure).
There are other potential problems too, but they are all quite rare.
The keys to reducing the risk of infection are:
- Purchase a guinea pig that looks healthy, is eating well, has no skin lesions or diarrhea, and is active and alert. Ideally, purchase an animal from a local breeder as opposed to a store that might have obtained the animal from a large breeder, via an animal warehouse, hundreds or thousands of miles away.
- Learn how to properly handle a guinea pig to reduce the risk of bites and scratches, as well as injury to the animal.
- Keep pet guinea pigs away from wild rodents.
- Use good general hygiene. Wash your hands after handling the guinea pig and after contact with bedding.
- Thoroughly wash any bites or scratches.
- Take particular care in the period shortly after purchase.
- Even though the cost of the guinea pig is less than the cost of a vet visit, a veterinary examination is important when the animal is sick. Apart from our ethical responsibility to take care of our pets, it’s important to make sure that illness isn’t caused by a disease that can be transmitted to people.
More information about the diseases mentioned above is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page. While we don’t have a specific guinea pig info sheet yet, much of the information on the hamster information sheet also applies to guinea pigs.