guinea pigs colds and flu

Do guinea pigs catch colds or the flu like us? Can we pass our illnesses to them? Can they pass it to us? Here’s everything you need to know about guinea pig colds and influenza.

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Let’s Start by Defining Colds and Flu

Before we get into the specifics of colds and flu with regard to guinea pigs, let’s be clear on what exactly we are talking about. When we talk about a common cold, we’re talking about any of the 200+ viruses that cause upper respiratory symptoms like watery and runny noses, sneezing, watery eyes, general malaise, coughing, itchy or sore throats, congestion, headaches, and possibly a low-grade fever.

Even though there are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold, the main culprits are the Rhinoviruses which is thought to cause 10-40% of all colds, the coronaviruses which cause about 20% of all colds, adenoviruses, and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) which accounts for about 10% of all colds. (WebMD)

The flu, or influenza, is related to – but different from – a cold. They are both contagious viral infections that infect the upper respiratory tract, but the flu is caused by a different class of viruses. The flu is usually caused by either the Influenza A or Influenza B viruses. While a cold is usually always limited to the upper respiratory system, the flu, on the other hand, can infect the lungs, the joints, and the intestinal tract, and it can cause pneumonia and even death. To tell the difference without going to a doctor and getting tested, you can distinguish between a cold and the flu by:

  • the longevity of the infection (colds last 7-10 days, while a flu can last up to 3 or 4 weeks)
  • the severity (flu symptoms are more severe)
  • Systems affected (colds affect eyes, nose and throat while flu can affect lungs, stomach, intestines, muscles and joints)

Can Guinea Pigs Get Colds or the Flu?

If you search this question in google, you will come up with 100 different pages all saying different things. Some people say “No – they can’t” while others say “Yes, but not the same ones humans get” and others say, “Yes, they can get the colds and flu we get”. So what’s the answer? Let’s get the answers straight from researchers who have studied guinea pig susceptibility to these specific viruses.

  • Rhinovirus

    There are 99 types of rhinoviruses that humans can catch. Here’s research I’ve found that discusses whether or not guinea pigs can get infected by a rhinovirus:

    • A study was done where guinea pigs were intentionally infected with a certain rhinovirus strain using intravenous injection. The guinea pigs did not contract rhinovirus infection. So this study showed that guinea pigs are immune to contracting at least some strains of rhinoviruses. (Source: Common Cold by Ronald Eccles and Olaf Weber, 2009, p. 115)
  • Coronavirus

    There are 5 types of coronaviruses that infect humans: 229E, OC43, the newly discovered NL63 and HKU1, and the emerging SARS-CoV which is the cause of SARS. Here’s research I’ve found that discusses whether or not guinea pigs can get infected by these coronaviruses:

  • Adenovirus

    There are more than 50 types of adenoviruses that infect humans. Here’s research I’ve found that discusses whether or not guinea pigs can get infected by adenoviruses:

  • Influenza A and B Viruses

    Guinea pigs are susceptible to both the Influenza A and B viruses – the same ones that infect humans. They can become infected with it, carry it, and pass it along to other animals and humans. Journal of Virology vol. 86 no. 8, Feb. 2012

Can We Give Our Illnesses to our Guinea Pig?

Passing an illness from a person to an animal is called Reverse Zoonosis. The short answer to this question is “yes”. The more correct answer is that it depends on what virus you have. Guinea pigs are susceptible to getting sick from some viruses that you might be carrying, but they are not susceptible to other viruses. If you’re sick with a cold and the cause is a rhinovirus, there’s a good chance you can’t infect your guinea pig. If your cold or flu is caused by Adenovirus 5 or 7 or Influenza A or B or any of the other viruses that it is susceptible to, then yes, you can pass the illness to your guinea pig. Since it is quite rare to figure out which virus is causing your illness, the general rule you should adopt is “Yes, I can make my guinea pig sick so I should take precautions to avoid sharing my germs with him”.

Can Guinea Pigs Give Their Illness to Us? (Zoonosis)

The answer, again, depends on which virus is making the guinea pig sick. The real question is, “Are humans susceptible to contracting that specific virus?” There are hundreds of viruses that could be the culprit. Most viruses that guinea pigs can contract can also have derogatory effects in humans. I am not a virologist, and I do not have specific data for each and every one of the hundreds of available viruses. Whether or not you contract an illness also depends on individual physical differences. How strong is your immune system? How much exposure were you subjected to? So again, the general rule is to assume that you can contract the virus he has and take the appropriate precautions.

How Do You Treat A Guinea Pig Cold? (Zoonosis)

There isn’t much difference between treating a guinea pig’s cold and treating a person’s cold. Oftentimes, the only thing to do is to manage the symptoms as well as you can and just wait for it to pass. Colds generally last 4-7 days. The important thing to note about guinea pigs is that you really need to monitor him closely because things can get progress quickly. If he’s quite ill, you really need to get him to a vet as soon as possible. A little runny nose is one thing, but pneumonia is quite serious and needs medical intervention. People can go to the doctor and get antiviral medications these days, but I don’t believe there are antiviral medications for guinea pigs. However, if a viral infection progresses or leads to a bacterial infection, you really need to get him to a vet ASAP!

Because all of the viruses we’ve mentioned here are highly contagious, it’s really important that you limit exposure. Keep the infected guinea pig isolated from other, healthy animals. When you handle him or clean his cage, wear protective gloves, wash your hands, disinfect the area frequently, wear a paper mask over your nose and mouth if you want, etc. Do all the things you would normally do to avoid catching a cold from another person. Giving extra Vitamin C supplements also helps lessen the duration of a cold. There are myraid research studies that have been done that prove that theory, and I won’t include the sources here. You can Google it, though. It’s interesting to read Linus Pauling’s research on Vitamin C, including the paper he published in 1970 called Vitamin C and the Common Cold.

How to Prevent a Guinea Pig Cold

Preventing your guinea pig from getting a cold isn’t much different from preventing yourself from getting a cold. Limit your guinea pig’s exposure to someone who’s sick. Research has shown that guinea pigs are more prone to becoming infected with influenza viruses A and B if the ambient temperature is cold, so make sure your guinea pig is always warm enough. Guinea pigs are also more susceptible if their diet is inadequate in the necessary vital nutrients, especially Vitamin C.

Important Note

This article is all about the common cold and the flu. These are caused by viruses. We did not discuss bacterial infections. Guinea pigs are prone to certain bacterial infections which affect the lungs and can lead to pneumonia. Bacterial infections can and should be treated with antibacterial medicine (i.e., antibiotics) prescribed by your veterinarian. An antibiotic will have no effect on a viral infection, but if your guinea pig has more than just a common cold or flu, you need to go get him some medicine! How do you know if you it’s just a cold or if it’s something more serious? Pay close attention to ALL his symptoms. If he’s active, eating well, drinking well, acting pretty normally, but just has some sneezing or a runny nose or watery eyes, just monitor him and assume he has a cold. If things seem more serious, you need to get him to a vet to get evaluated, because guinea pigs hide their illnesses quite well. By the time he seems sick, he’s probably really sick. The key is to watch and observe. If you give him regular attention every day, you will know whether it’s just a cold or whether he is quite ill and needs vet care.