Health Facts About Guinea Pigs

Knowing about preventive care, signs of illness and common guinea pig health issues helps you take better care of your pet.

Guinea pigs should visit a veterinarian twice a year. Via BrainMaY/Flickr

By Kevin Wright, DVM, DABVP

Guinea pigs do not need vaccinations but they do need a preventive health program from an experienced veterinarian. A daily dose of at least 90 mg of vitamin C and an appropriate diet is an essential part of the guinea pig’s health program. I recommend that a guinea pig’s feces be tested for internal parasites before he is handled a lot or introduced to other guinea pigs. This detects Giardia and other parasites that can cause illness in guinea pigs and people.

A physical examination twice a year will assess weight and body condition, shape and wear of the cheek teeth (premolars and molars), shape of the toenails and foot pads, heart, lungs, and gut sounds, cleanliness of the hind end, and urine and fecal quality. A guinea pig ages so rapidly that if he gets an exam every six months it equates to you going to your doctor every five years! Blood tests are important to establish a baseline for when problems arise, and the same is true for urine tests. As a guinea pig ages, or experiences medical problems, he may need lab work every 6 to 12 months.

I strongly recommend that female guinea pigs be spayed if they aren’t to be bred. The odds are that an intact or unspayed female will develop ovarian cysts and uterine cancer once she is more than 3 years old. Spay prevents pregnancy, which is very important because anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of sows have complications during pregnancy, up to and including death. Neutering boars prevents pregnancy, too, and it improves their odor and reduces aggression — preventing sometimes-vicious fights with each other.

Guinea pigs may secrete a white fluid from their eyes that gets rubbed into the fur as part of grooming, and this may be hard to distinguish from an actual infection of the eye. If the eyelids seem red or swollen, the guinea pig squints, the surface of the eye is cloudy, or you see yellow to green discharge from the eye, then immediate veterinary care is needed.

Starting a liquid diet as soon as you notice a problem is very helpful until you can get to a veterinarian. Some liquid diet options are Critical Care For Herbivores or Emeraid For Herbivores. A guinea pig that goes without food for as little as 24 hours can develop fatty liver, a life-threatening condition that may not respond to treatment.

Guinea pig medicine is still developing, and sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose and treat what is wrong with an ill guinea pig. Veterinary care costs about the same as a cat or dog for some procedures, but can be a lot more costly for certain surgeries and other treatments due to the specialized equipment and medications that guinea pigs require.

Nine Common Guinea Pig Health Issues

1. Incisor And Cheek Teeth Problems

Incisors that grow too long are easy to spot, but it takes an experienced eye to look inside a guinea pig’s mouth and detect problems with his premolars and molars (cheek teeth). When these don’t wear properly, sharp points form that cause ulcers and trap the tongue. This may cause a guinea pig to drool, lose weight and produce small, hard fecal droppings or diarrhea. These teeth can be filed to a more normal shape but the guinea pig will need to be anesthetized. Some guinea pigs may need filings every four to six weeks or other procedures, such as tooth extraction, in order to do well. Make sure your guinea pig has plenty of vitamin C, timothy hay and a measured amounts of pellets to keeps his teeth healthy.

2. Cervical Abscess

A guinea pig may develop a lump and a discharge from his jaw or neck. Sometimes this is a simple infection and other times this is an infection of the root of the teeth and will not clear up on antibiotics alone. Surgery is typically required to remove the infected tooth and associated infected bone. This may be a very difficult problem to resolve and may take weeks to months of treatment.

3. Congested Or Runny Nose, Labored Breathing

A guinea pig may develop a clear runny or thick yellowish discharge from his nostrils, dried crusts around his nose and crusty eyes. Sometimes the guinea pig may sneeze frequently and may also have problems breathing. This may be secondary to problems associated with malocclusion of the teeth but is frequently an infection caused by bacteria, particularly one called Bordetella or “kennel cough.” Bordetella may cause very serious illnesses such as pneumonia. A guinea pig can die within 48 hours of first showing a runny nose, so always have your pet checked immediately whenever you notice any of these signs.

4. Flaky And Itchy Skin, Hair Loss

Some guinea pigs may groom themselves or their companions excessively and cause patches of hair loss, a condition called “barbering.” Other causes of hair loss include ringworm (a fungal infection and not a true “worm”), mites and lice, irritation from urine scalding, endocrine problems (especially cystic ovaries) and other conditions. Some of these are easily treatable. Ringworm and mites can cause rashes in people, so always have a veterinarian perform the necessary tests to figure out what is wrong with your guinea pig.

5. Matted Hair, Perineal Scalding

This may be secondary to malocclusion of the teeth because a guinea pig uses his incisor teeth like a comb to groom his fur. If the incisor teeth are normal, this may indicate back pain or some other discomfort that makes the guinea pig reluctant to curl into the positions needed to groom himself. Sometimes this may happen as a result of a dirty litter box or from diarrhea or “sludgy” urine accumulating around his hind end. Obese guinea pigs often develop hair mats. Perineal scalding often indicates bladder infection.

6. Skin Growths And Mammary Tumors

Many guinea pigs develop a swollen lump on their skin that may sometimes rupture and ooze gray to white granular material. This is usually a hair cyst but there are abscesses and tumors that can appear very similar. Male and female guinea pigs develop mammary tumors, which are growths between their hind legs, usually involving the nipple. These can be easily removed if caught early.

7. Bladder Infections And Stones

Guinea pigs frequently get bladder infections, particularly if their litter boxes are not cleaned daily or if they are overweight. Their urine may smell bad, or they may urinate a lot more and drink a lot more than normal. If untreated, bladder infections can turn into bladder stones and require surgery.

8. Ovarian Cysts And Uterine Cancer

This may show up as hair loss on the hind end, a large swollen abdomen or a small amount of blood from the vulva. Although some ovarian cysts can be managed using hormone therapy or percutaneous draining, spaying is the only known cure. Unfortunately, sometimes it is inoperable by the time the guinea pig shows signs of disease.

9. Obesity

Guinea pigs can become overweight with unlimited pellets and little room to roam and play. Spend at least 30 minutes daily encouraging an obese guinea pig to walk and explore a guinea pig-proofed room. This reduces the risk of back pain and other conditions associated with obesity.

The above is an excerpt from an article originally published in the 2012 issue of the former magazine Critters USA.

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Critters · Guinea Pigs