While rodents such as guinea pigs are popular pets, they present certain health risks to people who care for them, particularly pregnant women. Guinea pigs, especially those bought in pet stores or from mass breeders, may carry the lymphotic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) and can pass this virus to people. When infected, pregnant women can pass the infection to their unborn children.
The Wild Rodent Connection
House mice and other wild rodents carry LCMV more often than pet rodents such as guinea pigs. Guinea pigs become infected with the virus if they are exposed to wild rodents, which can happen in your home if mice or other rodents find their way in and come in contact with your guinea pig. Once infected, guinea pigs can carry the virus for several months and may never show symptoms of being ill. If they do show symptoms, these may include lethargy and loss of appetite. There's no way to test a live animal for LCMV infection.
Virus Symptoms in People
Although it's rare for people to contract LCMV from pet rodents, it can happen. Symptoms of LCMV infection include fever, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue and stiffness in the neck -- an illness not unlike the flu. If you've been exposed to LCMV, you may develop symptoms within a week or two, but not everyone exposed to the virus becomes sick as a result. The virus can pass to unborn children and cause severe birth defects and even miscarriage.
People get LCMV through contact with an infected guinea pig's saliva, urine or droppings, as well as the bedding in the guinea pig's cage. The virus also can be spread if you inhale dust or particles around the infected animal, which can happen while holding your guinea pig or cleaning out his cage. Not only is cleaning your pet's cage risky if you're pregnant, so is kissing your guinea pig or holding him close to your face.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Even though contracting LCMV from guinea pigs is rare, pregnant women should take a few precautions to avoid jeopardizing the health of their unborn children. If you're pregnant, get someone else in your family to clean your guinea pig's cage. Ask the family member to clean the cage in a well-ventilated area so dust and particles will disperse quickly. Keep that cage in a separate room of your house if possible, away from places like your bedroom or living room where you spend much of your time. And make sure that anyone who holds or plays with your guinea pig washes his hands immediately afterward.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.