Guinea pigs are popular pets and it’s easy to see why. They are adorably cute. Not exactly low-maintenance though. That’s definitely a myth. And not inexpensive pets. I can tell you that from personal experience with exotic animal vet bills. Guinea pig allergies aren’t uncommon either. And unfortunately that is something I also have personal experience with.
If you are considering guinea pigs for pets (you should!) and have allergies in the family, here are some tips on symptoms to look out for and how to minimise them.
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Is it the hay or the guinea pigs?
We have 3 adorable guinea pig family members. As soon as go near the cage to feed them in the morning, they start to wheek and I start to sneeze. I also get itchy eyes. At first I thought I was reacting to their hay.
About 80% of a guinea pig’s diet is fresh hay, and they need a constant supply. It’s important for them not only for the fibre, but also to chew to keep their constantly growing teeth under control.
We buy a half bale of hay from our local fodder shop, usually oaten or meadow hay. With quite a severe grass allergy, I am sure that the guinea pig hay causes my hay fever type symptoms. When I mentioned this to an allergist, he also mentioned that it could be mould? Hay that has been stored when damp can easily start to get mouldy. And even hay that has been sitting in the cage all week can grow mould too.
I’ll be off to the allergist soon for skin prick testing to get to the bottom of a few allergies, so I’ll know more then. But even if the hay is giving me grief, I am pretty sure that I am allergic to the guinea pigs themselves too.
UPDATE: I’ve had my skin prick testing and confirmed that yes, I am allergic to guinea pigs. As well as all of the grasses they tested, so that means hay. My allergist suggested rehoming our guinea pigs, but I’m sticking to the suggestions I’ve written about in this post to minimise my symptoms. And I’ll be starting immunotherapy for a host of aero-allergens in the new year.
Symptoms of guinea pig allergy
Unlike allergies to some other animals, people who are allergic to guinea pigs don’t react to the hair or dander. The proteins in the guinea pig saliva and urine are usually to blame.
If you are allergic to guinea pigs, you might experience anything from mild to more serious symptoms, including:
- itchy, watery eyes;
- itchy skin rash (hives);
- wheezing or shortness of breath.
Severe allergies to guinea pigs have been reported, including swelling of the the airway and difficulty breathing (and potentially anaphylaxis).1
Other allergic problems can include worsening of asthma, allergic conjunctivitis (eye inflammation) and worsening eczema.
The reason I suspect that I am allergic to the guinea pigs and not just their hay is that I break out in itchy hives if I hold them against my bare skin. Particularly where their cute little feet touch, which would be explained by the saliva/urine. I am tempted to get one of these signs!*
Coping with guinea pig allergies
Our guinea pigs are part of the family. They are loved by all of us, especially the kids. In our family, a pet is for life unless something drastic happens. So we are not keen to find a new home for our furry friends.
There are lots of things we do to manage guinea pig allergies. I definitely recommending trying these first, so that rehoming is really a last resort. Obviously if someone in your family has severe allergies to guinea pigs that cause serious symptoms, you would need to take more drastic steps. Otherwise try these tips.
Where to keep your guinea pigs’ home
Never keep your guinea pigs in the bedroom. You might think that you should keep their cage outside the house altogether. However it is really important to keep in mind that these little guys can’t tolerate temperature extremes. The ideal temperature is around 18-23C (or 65-75F). We keep ours inside give them regular outside time in a safe run on days that are not too hot or too cold.
Keep the hay under control
If hay is causing or contributing to your allergies:
- store the hay outside of your home, in a garage or under cover in a storage bag or box;
- use a hay rack in the guinea pig’s home. Make sure that your hay rack is safe and that your guinea pigs can’t get trapped in it. I steer away from the metal spring loaded racks. A hanging hay bag* works well.
- fill the hay racks outside, or even better get someone else to do it for you;
- if you know that you are allergic to a particular type of grass, try switching your hay to avoid it;
- use gloves and a mask or face covering while you deal with the hay;
- wash your hands and arms thoroughly after touching hay.
Cleaning the cage
Cleaning your guinea pigs’ cage regularly and not letting allergens build up is really important.
- Preferably get someone else to clean out your guinea pigs’ cage. (Allergies are a great excuse to actually make the kids help!);
- Make sure you clean the cage outside;
- If you have to do it yourself, wear gloves and a mask of face covering while you do it and again, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
Handling your guinea pig
Guinea pigs shouldn’t just be left in a cage, they need some love and attention!
- When it’s time to cut their nails, use a towel to hold them;
- For cuddles, invest in a snuggle sack*. Not only does it keep you safe from contact reactions, the guinea pigs love them to feel safe and secure. And it can catch the inevitable pellets and wet patches as a bonus!
Where to get more information about guinea pig allergies
If you are still experiencing allergy symptoms, you may need to manage them with antihistamines or other medications. (I take these anyway for my hay fever). Talk to your pharmacist, doctor or allergy specialist about what is right for you.
You can also have testing for guinea pig allergies to determine if you are allergic. Read more about allergy testing in our post – All about genuine allergy testing – the tests specialists use And if you have severe allergies to hay it is possible to have immunotherapy. Again, talk to your allergy specialist. I’ve decided not to have immunotherapy for my guinea pig allergy for a few practical reasons, that I talk about here: Important questions to ask about starting allergy shots (immunotherapy).
1 Zacharisen, M C, Levy, M B, Shaw, JL and Kurup, V P (2005), Severe allergic reactions to guinea pig, Clinical and Molecular Immunology, 3, 14.
*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.