Having a pet is like having a baby. They rely on you for all of their needs and they are unable to vocalize how they are feeling. This means that you end up having to be a little bit of a detective when it comes to watching and learning what behaviors are normal. This is especially true in guinea pigs because of their small stature.
Guinea pigs are less common than dogs or cats so they may need to see an exotic veterinarian who specializes in small animals. It is important to note that your guinea pig should be seen by their vet at least once a year to make sure that they are healthy and happy. Doing this will minimize emergency vet trips and many different conditions and diseases.
What are the markers of a healthy cavy?
Knowing how a healthy guinea pig looks and acts are important so you know what is not normal.
A healthy guinea pig should exhibit these characteristics:
- Glossy fur
- Full fur
- Focused eyes
- Firm and regular bowel movements
- Healthy Appetite
If you suspect you have a sick guinea pig it is important to separate them from the rest of the herd so the chances of it spreading are slimmer.
Now, that we know how a healthy guinea pig looks and acts let us explore when you should be concerned about your ill one’s health.
Guinea pigs are susceptible to many problems. On top of the things that you know need immediate care (like a broken leg), there are others that you may not see as easily. We are going to discuss some of the most common problems in guinea pigs that would warrant a visit to the vet. They are pneumonia, lice, urinary problems, mites, abscesses, fungus, diarrhea, tumors, and scurvy (vitamin C deficiency).
One of the most significant respiratory problems is pneumonia. This is the most frequent cause of death in guinea pigs. It is also highly contagious. Most often this sickness will affect younger and older guinea pigs as their immune systems are weakened or underdeveloped. It is normal for a guinea pig to harbor these bacteria and be an asymptomatic carrier. This can be a problem if you have a young guinea pig with what appears to be one or more other healthy guinea pigs. This condition is opportunistic. It can lie in wait, in a healthy host and once an ideal system host makes contact, they attack. They will infect comprised animals, cause disease and multiply.
This disease is most common in situations where the guinea pigs are stressed (such as the case with overcrowding), presence of other illnesses, or pregnancy. The disease is spread by airborne particles and direct contact.
If your guinea pig is suffering from pneumonia, they will exhibit the following symptoms:
- Not eating
- Abnormal discharge from the eyes or nose
- Trouble breathing
- Weight loss
- Depression or dull demeanor
- Inflamed eye lining
If you suspect that your ill cavy has pneumonia you need to take them to the veterinarian right away. They will review your guinea pig’s health, do a physical exam, and sample any ooze from their eyes or nose. In some cases, they may to perform an x-ray, ultrasound or take a blood sample. Your vet will need to identify the organism, get them on the right antibiotics and treat the symptoms to help the body heal. In some cases, they may need to be hospitalized for additional care.
Just like rabbits, guinea pigs have a sensitive gastrointestinal tract. It is filled with a bunch of good bacteria that are essential for normal bowel function. Sometimes though this normal bacteria becomes unbalanced or altered. It then can become an overgrown gas-producing bacteria that slows down digestion, produces painful gas, causes severe diarrhea, releases toxins, slows down food passage, damages the intestinal tissues and in some cases death. Parasites like Cryptosporidia and coccidia can also diarrhea.
If your guinea pig is suffering from any of these diarrhea symptoms they need to see a vet right away.
- Becoming anorexic due to not eating
- Weight loss
- Low body temperature
- Loose, watery stool
- Soiling of the fur near the genital and anal area
- Dull appearance
- Rough hair coat
- Sunken eyeballs
- Hunched posture
Your vet will review your guinea pig’s dietary history, along with an examination of their blood and stools.
Only use antibiotics that are under the direction of a veterinarian familiar with guinea pigs. Some antibiotics cannot be used in guinea pigs because of their normal gastrointestinal bacterial flora. Never use over the counter antibiotics bought from a pet store. They are often inappropriate and worsen problems.
The best way to avoid this condition is by dietary management, having bedding, water bottles and living environments clean and sanitized, and removing uneaten food promptly.
Scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency)
As in the case with many mammals, including humans, vitamin C is an important part of a healthy life. However, unlike other mammals, humans and guinea pigs do not produce Vitamin C naturally. We both have to ingest Vitamin C in the form of vegetables and fruits. This vitamin is essential for the normal development and maintenance of guinea pigs joints, skin, and mucosal surfaces like their gums. It also becomes essential in the healing of any wounds. When a vitamin C deficiency occurs it affects their bodies ability to manufacture collagen. This can cause blood clotting problems, in addition to skin problems and infections.
If your guinea pig is suffering from any of these scurvy symptoms they need to see a vet right away:
- Rough hair coat
- Not eating
- Does not want to walk
- Has swollen feet or joints
- Has hemorrhages and ulcers on their skin or gums
- Weak or lacking in energy
- Small wounds that may bleed excessively or not heal
If left untreated sudden death can occur.
Your vet will ask about your guinea pig’s health history and their diet leading up to the onset of symptoms. They will make an initial diagnosis by performing an exam and will possibly order a blood analysis to determine the level of vitamin C.
Depending on the health and condition of the guinea pig (young, old, pregnant, healthy, stressed) they need 10 – 50 mg of Vitamin C every day. Do not rely on vitamin C that is available in commercially sold pellets. The vitamins in pellets are relatively unstable and they oxidize or break down very fast. To help your guinea pig maintain as much vitamin C as possible pellets should be replaced within 90 days of the date of manufacture.
Give your cavy a supplement
The best way to prevent scurvy and a vitamin C deficiency is to give your cavy a supplement in either a tablet or with a liquid directly to the mouth, check this that I use from Amazon. Simply adding it to their water is not enough. The vitamin breaks down quickly in water and loses it potency. Also try adding foods that are high in vitamin C like kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, broccoli, dandelion greens, cabbage, and oranges.
Consulting your veterinarian on the best way to supplement your guinea pigs vitamin C will help prevent all these problems.
Guinea pigs commonly develop tumors on their skin and mammaries. They can be benign or cancerous. Typically, cancers are not common until a guinea pig is at least four years old. After that 1/6th to 1/3rd of all guinea pigs will develop some sort of tumor. Guinea pigs that have been bred with their relatives are more likely to develop tumors and cancer.
If you find any mass on your guinea pig they should be seen right away, in addition to any of these signs:
- Scruffy hair coat
- Masses that may seem to come and go in the chest area
- Enlarged liver or spleen
- Mass at the base of the tail
Your vet will ask for a history of health, onset of symptoms and family history if you know it. They will do an examination that may involve examining the lumps by feel and sight. A complete blood profile will be conducted, including a chemical blood profile, complete blood count and a urinalysis. If the tumor is on the internal organs an x-ray or scan may be ordered.
If a tumor is benign that outcome is generally positive. However, if the tumor is cancerous and in the blood the affected guinea pig may only live for a few more weeks.
An abscess is an infected swelling that contains an accumulation of pus and bacteria. They can affect cavies skin, teeth, lymph nodes, muscles, internal organs, and bones.
Guinea pigs, rabbits, and rodents form thick pus that will not drain or get resorbed easily, because of this most abscesses require surgical removal. Surgery will be followed with up a treatment of antibiotics based on the bacteria growing within the abscess.
If there is an abscess growing in the jaw or teeth it will be more challenging to treat because any affected teeth, bone, and soft tissue must be removed.
Guinea pigs are prone to developing urinary stones or uroliths. Many times these stones form in the bladder but they may also develop in the kidneys or ureters. They can sometimes become lodged in the urethra or ureter which will result in a life-threatening obstruction.
A bladder infection is not common but when it does happen it occurs most commonly in females than males. Often a stone will develop in conjunction with an infection.
If your guinea pig is suffering from any of these urinary symptoms they need to see a vet right away:
- Anorexia (not eating)
- Blood in the urine
- Straining to urinate
- A hunched over posture (with straining)
- Small frequent urination
- Not urinating (this is a sign of a possible obstruction)
Your veterinarian will diagnose the problem by reviewing the patients’ history, a physical exam, abdominal palpation, blood test, x-ray, and urinalysis.
They may need hospitalization, supportive care, and surgery to remove the stones. By having regular and annual veterinarian check-ups you will be able to detect urinary problems before they get this far.
Parasites and Skin Problems
Lice and mites are species-specific. Human lice cannot be passed to your guinea pig and vice versa guinea pig lice cannot be passed to humans. So, while the term lice send humans running you can rest assured that you are safe. A guinea pig can be infected with lice and not be bothered at all about it.
It is when your cavy becomes stressed or develops an additional illness that these lice can exacerbate the problem and cause distress and discomfort.
You can easily check for lice yourself by using a magnifying glass that is specifically designed for lice.
If your guinea pig is suffering from any of these symptoms they need to see a vet right away:
- Intense itching
- Inflammation of the skin around the neck and ears
- Visual confirmation of lice
Parasites and Skin Problems
Lice will be diagnosed microscopically by examining the eggs or adults in a sample of hair and skin debris. Lice lay their eggs on the hair shafts and shoulders.
Your vet will treat this infestation with topical application of parasiticide like a medicated dust or spray designed to kill lice. Sometimes, an oral medication that is given through their drinking water may be needed.
Like lice, mites may exist on a guinea pig in a small number and never bother their host. When a guinea pig becomes stressed has a decreased immunity or is unable to keep the mites at by with normal grooming their numbers will increase and that leads to a problem for your ill friend.
A mite infestation in a guinea pig can cause such intense itching that it can trigger a seizure.
If your guinea pig is suffering from any of these skin symptoms they need to see a vet right away:
- Crusty skin
- Raw skin
- Hair loss
- Intense scratching
- Oily fur
- Weight loss
- Low energy
- Agitated state
Because of the constant itching, a secondary bacterial infection can occur. Your vet will treat these parasites with an anti-parasitic medication and for secondary bacterial skin infections, an antibiotic will be used.
This article does not even scratch the surface on the different issues that may arrive with your guinea pig. it does bring forth some of the most common and serious conditions.