Hay, Guinea Pig, or Bedding Allergies?​

It can be hard to pin down the real culprit when one is having an allergic reaction around pet guinea pigs. When guinea pigs are new to the family, the typical assumption is that it's the guinea pigs. But 9 times out of 10, it's the hay. Allergies to Timothy grass hay are very common. Even if you not are handling or touching the hay, the guinea pig is. Hay particles will stick to their hair and can still be transferred to you. The same with dust or particles from bedding.

Allergy signs and symptoms include​

"If you are truly committed to your companion animals, there is almost always a way. I cannot imagine life without mine, so a little suffering is worth it ten-fold!"
  • Itchy eyes (Conjunctivitis - inflammation or infection)
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy skin, especially arms (Eczema - skin rash)
  • Hives
  • Stuffy, runny nose (Rhinitis)
  • Persistent cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore or swollen throat
  • Asthma aggravation (a respiratory reaction that causes difficulty in breathing)
  • Anaphylactic shock (life-threatening, although not typical with these types of allergies)
It can be difficult to determine the real source of allergies without doing official allergy testing. If you decide to do official allergy testing, let your allergist know ahead of time that you want to be tested specifically for guinea pigs as they may not have that serum on hand and may need to order it. Guinea pig testing is not typically included in the testing panels. Be sure to be tested for Timothy hay, guinea pigs, and dust mites.

If the cage is in a BEDROOM -- MOVE THE CAGE!

All too often, guinea pig cages end up in a bedroom. This is not a good idea for many reasons -- allergies not being the least of them. All allergy prevention advice across the board will tell you not to keep caged pets in a bedroom. Any kind of guinea pig cage with any kind of bedding will increase the humidity and dust level in the room which increases the dust mite population -- another common and debilitating allergy for people. So, in addition to the obvious increase in exposure to the guinea pig and Timothy hay allergens bombarding the room's inhabitant for many hours of evening sleep time, also consider the significant increase in dust mite dirt. Most bedrooms are typically smaller and more enclosed with less airflow than family living areas which also compounds the problem.

Do NOT put a guinea pig cage in a bedroom at all. While you may not have allergies now, you are significantly increasing the chances that you or your child will develop allergies in the future by the additional exposure. Save your family's good health, medical budget, and hassle by following best practices.

Sadly, whether true or not, "allergies" is one of the top reasons given for rehoming pet guinea pigs. Prevention is key.

Guinea Pig Allergy​

Guinea pigs distribute allergens via urine in the bedding. This allergen easily becomes airborne when the animal scurries around in its cage.

Don't Blame the Hair​

Allergies are caused by exposure to proteins that are normally present in the animal's saliva or urine, or in secretions from glands in the skin. That's why an allergic person should never clean the cage. Contrary to popular belief, the animal's hair or dander do not themselves cause allergies, although they do make excellent airborne carriers for the offending proteins. Many experts say there is no good evidence that short-haired animals cause fewer allergies than long-haired, or that one breed is better than another.

Treatment​

Immunotherapy (allergy shots) for guinea pigs is the best option as successful treatment is a cure rather than treating symptoms with drugs. Treatment can take up to 18 months. It is likely to be covered on your health insurance policy. Asthma sufferers may enjoy relief, as immunotherapy offers a chance for a cure of allergies, which trigger asthma attacks for many.

Bedding Allergy​

You may be allergic to pine or aspen bedding (if you use it). Some people have switched from pine bedding to aspen bedding and their allergy symptoms go away. Many have switched from pine to a paper-based bedding and their allergies go away. And sometimes it works in the other direction. Experiment with the options to find the best path for your situation.

Hay Allergy​

Try a different grass hay​

  • Orchard Hay
    Orchard hay is the best hay to try to substitute as it is readily available year-round from multiple hay vendors and it has the closest nutritional profile to Timothy hay.
  • 3rd cut Timothy Hay
    This hay tends to be the softest, but has a different nutritional profile from 1st and 2nd cut and doesn't provide as much coarseness and silica for wearing down teeth. Taste-wise, when it's green and fresh, the guinea pigs tend to prefer it. If you don't have any guinea pigs with dental issues, this is a good choice for an allergy-prone family. It is seasonally available in late summer to fall if available at all in a given year due to weather and climate. Seasonality and limited vendor and/or retail availability can be a challenge to make this your 'go to' hay choice.
  • Bluegrass Hay
    This is a hybrid strain of Orchard hay with Bluegrass. This is also a soft hay with a slightly different nutritional profile. Seasonality combined with limited vendor and/or retail options may also make this hay a challenge as your first choice of allergy-relief hay.

What NOT to do!​

"A friend of mine didn't feed fresh hay to her guinea pig and only fed him timothy cubes. He developed serious tooth issues and an abscessed jaw. I told her not to feed them and switch to fresh hay but she insisted they were fine. The little guy passed away."
  • Do NOT omit hay from their diet
    Please review the hay articles to understand how vitally important an abundance of hay is to a guinea pig's health.
  • Do NOT use hay cubes or stacks instead
    Hay cubes are not a substitute for hay in the diet. They are processed, shortcut fibers, and some are also held together with a binding agent, typically molasses, alfalfa hay, bentonite clay, or others. Guinea pigs need long-strand grass hay. Cubes and stacks will only release smaller pieces and do not provide adequate chewing and grinding for the back molars. They are fine for occasional treats.

Allergy Relief​

  • Do not store hay in the house. Use a garage or other storage area that is protected from humidity, weather, and bugs.
  • Wash your hands and arms after you touch the hay or hold your guinea pig (all family members). Apply a soothing, healing topical treatment afterward, such as Coconut Oil.
  • Appliances: Try a HEPA air-purifier near the guinea pig's cage. Guinea pig allergens can stay in the air for a fairly long time and the purifier will help. Run it 24 hours a day if possible. After you clean the cage, put the purifier on high for one hour. Some air-purifiers will cover a couple of rooms. Many people obtain significant relief with good air purifiers. Also, a good vacuum cleaner with HEPA filters can help.
  • Have someone else fill the hay racks and clean the cage.
  • Fill the hay racks/bags outdoors, be as gentle as possible to avoid dust.
  • Try different brands or kinds of hay. Fresher, greener hay will have less dust and particles.
  • Clean the cage frequently.
  • Wear a mask, gloves, and apron when cleaning the cage. Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf if you do not have a mask available. Avoid touching your hands to your eyes. Wash the apron after each use or change your clothes.
  • When holding your guinea pig, wear cotton gloves if necessary. Use a couple of thick towels or a lap pad so that there is no skin contact. Keep them away from your face, the skin on your neck and face is thinner and more sensitive than the skin on your hands and arms. Wash the holding towels or pads after each use.
  • Avoid keeping the cage on or near carpeting. Hardwood, tile, or linoleum floors are easier to keep clean. Reducing the surfaces in the room will reduce the dust collectors -- shelving and such.
  • Try coating the inside of your nostrils with Coconut Oil to stop airborne particles from attacking the sensitive lining of your nose. Wipe clean after cleaning or handling activities.
  • Investigate homeopathic solutions or treatments for allergies.
  • Consider allergy shots. You can get shots for guinea pigs to help with the sensitivity. It's time-consuming and may not be 100% effective, but it can help. Same with the hay.

Additional Info​

  • A Fosterer's Allergy Experience by Laurie Ansberry.
    A woman who developed guinea pig allergies and her perseverance in dealing with it and ultimately overcoming it.
  • 10 Home Remedies to Get Rid of Timothy Grass Allergy
  • Reducing Allergens in the Home, a Room-by-Room Guide