Science - September 14, 2017

Guinea pigs can cause pneumonia

Tessa Louwerens

People can get respiratory tract infections from their guinea pigs, according to a study in which Wageningen Bioveterinary Research was involved.

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At least three Dutch people have incurred serious respiratory tract infections from ill guinea pigs in the past four years. This finding was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine on 7 September. ‘At first it was thought that these people had been infected with psittacosis,’ explains vet and researcher Marloes Heijne of Wageningen Bioveterinary Research. She is a member of the team of vets, doctors and microbiologists who carried out the research.

However, the researchers discovered that another Chlamydia bacterium was the culprit, namely Chlamydia caviae. ‘We knew that this bacterium causes eye infections in guinea pigs and possibly also in humans but there have been no previous accounts of severe pneumonia in humans in the literature.’ The patients were healthy and in their 30s. Two of them became so sick that they ended up in intensive care. Fortunately, all three made a complete recovery after they had been treated with the right antibiotics.

Heijne says it is not known how often C. caviae causes respiratory tract infections. ‘It is quite possible that the bacterium occurs more often but a diagnostic test is not always carried out as people often recover due to the treatment anyway.’

There is no need for guinea pig owners to worry, says Heijne. ‘We have now had three patients in a period of four years and the bacterium can be treated effectively with antibiotics. The important thing is that doctors and vets are aware of this so that they can arrive at a diagnosis quickly and give the right advice and treatment.’