Many of the common health problems seen in pet guinea pigs are preventable by good husbandry and feeding practices.
Monitoring your guinea pigs’ health
You should regularly check your guinea pig to ensure he/she is eating well, urinating, defecating normal droppings and walking around easily. Also check your guinea pig has a healthy coat, clear bright eyes, a nose free of any discharges, normal length nails (that are not too long) and normal healthy footpads.
Note that Guinea pigs produce two different kinds of droppings. One kind of dropping contains “normal” waste; these droppings are formed, a mid to dark brown and shaped like elongated baked beans). They also produce caecotrophs, which are soft, often greenish coloured (but not always), nitrogen-rich faeces that are derived from the animal’s caecum and contain some vitamins and minerals which the guinea needs to reingest. It is normal for guinea pigs to eat their caecotrophs after they pass them (coprophagy). This does not indicate any kind of dietary deficiency or abnormality and guinea pigs should be allowed to do this.
Signs of a potential problem
Signs to look out for that may indicate pain or illness in guinea pigs include:
- Reduced appetite or difficulty eating
- Weight loss
- Drinking more water than usual
- A change in the frequency and/or consistency of faecal pellets (e.g. diarrhoea or the absence of faecal pellets)
- Faeces accumulating around the guinea pig’s bottom
- Changes in urination (for example, a change in the frequency, pain or difficulty urinating)
- Changes in behaviour (such as weakness lethargy, or aggression in normally non-aggressive animals)
- Squealing or flinching when touched (if this is not normal for that individual, some are quite reactive to being handled)
- Abnormal breathing (e.g. rapid, shallow, raspy)
- Discharge from the nose and eyes and/or sneezing
- Bulging or sunken eyes
- Hair loss or change in hair coat
- Lameness or swelling of joints
Guinea pigs are good at hiding illness and pain. Get to know your guinea pigs’ behaviour; if they are behaving abnormally this may be a sign that something is wrong. If your guinea pig is displaying any of these signs please contact your veterinarian promptly. Guinea pigs should also have regular veterinary check-ups; this can help to pick up problems such as overgrown teeth or parasites before these become a major health problem for your guinea pigs.
The following are some of the common husbandry-related problems seen in guinea pigs.
Dental disease is very common in guinea pigs, often due to a lack of roughage that guinea pig chew and wear down their teeth which are constantly growing. They need to chew on fibrous material for long periods throughout the day to wear down their teeth. Dental disease causes severe pain and discomfort to the guinea pig and is best prevented by feeding an appropriate diet.
Guinea pigs have evolved over thousands of years to eat a high fibre diet. In their natural environment wild guinea pigs eat predominantly grass throughout the day. Pet guinea pigs should be fed in much the same way, by feeding them predominantly grass and/or grass hay and fresh leafy green vegetables. Please see the article below titled “What should I feed my guinea pigs?” for more detailed information.
Dental disease can be very painful which may lead to drooling, difficulty eating, weight loss, and illness. If you suspect your guinea pig is suffering from any of the above mentioned diseases and/or you notice any other abnormalities or problems please consult your veterinarian immediately.
Vitamin C deficiency
Like humans, guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C (ascorbic acid) from other food substances so they need to obtain vitamin C from their diet. This is usually supplied sufficiently by feeding fresh leafy green vegetables. However, it is safer to supplement this with small quantities of vitamin C rich food such as citrus or kiwi fruit. Vitamin C must be provided directly from food materials. Vitamin C liquid supplements (added to their drinking water) or processed vitamin C added to commercial feeds are not reliable sources and, therefore, are not recommended.
Vitamin C deficiency related disease usually involves swollen joints and bleeding into muscle, the intestines and other tissues. Affected guinea pigs may be anorexic, lethargic, weak; move with difficulty and appear painful when moving. They may also have diarrhoea and a rough coat, among other symptoms. Vitamin C deficiency causes the guinea pig severe pain and discomfort and is a preventable condition.
Ulcerated and swollen footpads
In the wild, guinea pigs generally live on grassed areas or other types of natural material which provide some measure of cushioning for their feet. Swollen and ulcerated footpads are a common problem when guinea pigs are kept on hard surfaces and/or uncovered wire mesh floors. The lack of any cushioning effect creates pressure sores. These pressure sores cause severe discomfort and pain. In some cases inflammation may spread to the bone tissue of the feet.
Domesticated guinea pigs should be kept on soft floor material and soft bedding material to help prevent ulcerated footpads. Suitable materials include grass hay including Timothy, Oaten, Wheaten, Pasture, Paddock, Meadow or Rye grass hays (they should not be fed or provided with Lucerne (alfalfa) or Clover hays as floor/bedding material as these are too high in calcium and protein). Other suitable materials for use inside dry housing, include straw or shredded paper or soft fleece.
Uncovered wire mesh floors should be avoided as these are too hard on the guinea pigs’ footpads.
Poor hygiene can also lead to foot and skin problems. Therefore, it is essential to remove soiled bedding (from faeces and urine) at least every two days, or more often if soiled before that.
Guinea pigs are susceptible to external parasites like fleas and mites (these can cause intense itchiness, hair loss, and discomfort). Ask your veterinarian about prevention or treatment for these if required.
External parasite infestations can be very distressing (in some cases the itchy sensations can severely disrupt the ability of the guinea pig to sleep properly). Fortunately, external parasite infestation is easily treatable by your local veterinarian. Should an infestation be confirmed, it is essential to thoroughly clean out the guinea pig hutch/housing.
Urinary tract problems
Urinary tract problems such as inflammation, infection and bladder stones are also common in guinea pigs. These are often related to poor diet and poor hygiene. A diet that is high in calcium can increase the risk of urinary tract problems (for example, feeding (alfalfa) or Clover hay, as these are high in calcium).
Respiratory (breathing) problems
Guinea pigs may be susceptible to respiratory infections. This is often due to poor housing conditions including inadequate ventilation, poor hygiene, and dusty inappropriate bedding. These can be very serious so if your guinea pig has abnormal breathing (e.g. rapid, shallow, raspy) please contact your veterinarian immediately.
Dehydration and heat stress
Guinea pigs can easily suffer from dehydration and heat stress.
They should ideally be kept at temperatures between 18-22 degrees centigrade and do not cope well with temperatures over 30 degrees. You should keep a thermometer near your guinea pigs so that you can monitor the temperature and take steps to ensure their welfare if the environment they are in is getting too hot (or cold).
It is important to make sure that your guinea pigs have adequate fresh cool clean water and that they are brought indoors somewhere cool during hot summer days (for example, into a comfortably air-conditioned room) . Other ways to help your guinea pigs keep cool are to place frozen ice packs/pads/cushions/bottles wrapped in tea towels in their enclosure, placing moist towels over their enclosure to give them a shaded and cool place, giving them frozen treats (like frozen fruits or vegetables) and using fans to give them some cool, fresh, moving air.