Guinea pigs spend much of their time around air that is filled with small particles, and as such they are quite prone to developing infections within their respiratory systems: their noses, throats and lungs. Some of the symptoms of a respiratory infection are similar to those of an allergy, but both will mean that your pet needs veterinary attention, as both can mean that your guinea pig is having serious trouble breathing, which can be fatal. Some symptoms of a respiratory infection include listlessness, lack of movement, lack of eating, a puffed up coat, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, and/or discharge from the nose and eyes.
Once you’ve taken your guinea pig to the vet, it’s likely they’ll recommend some measures that minimise the amount of dust and aerosols that your guinea pig is exposed to, and they may also prescribe a medicine such as an antibiotic.
Vitamin C is incredibly important to guinea pigs. Like humans, guinea pigs cannot manufacture their own vitamin C, so they need a certain amount of it each day or they’ll suffer from dental problems, growth problems, and a poor immune system. Unfortunately, you can’t give guinea pigs lots of vitamin C on one day and hope that it will be enough to last them several. As guinea pigs can’t store vitamin C, and will just excrete out any extra that you’ve added that exceeds their daily requirement. Daily requirements for adult guinea pigs are 10 mg per day, and those that need a bit more (such as sick, pregnant or growing guinea pigs) are 30mg per day.
Ensure young guinea pigs have plenty of vitamin C
Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, and symptoms include the cessation of growth in young guinea pigs, joint swelling, and a stiffness of joints to the extent that they can’t use their back legs independently and hop around in a rabbit-like fashion. Extreme versions of vitamin C deficiency involve paralysis of the back legs, hunched postures and severe breeding problems such abortions and stillbirths. A lack of vitamin C makes your guinea pigs really vulnerable to infection, so we can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your guinea pigs’ vitamin C levels high
Although scurvy is a severe vitamin C deficiency, there are some forms of vitamin C deficiency that are less easy to spot. Guinea pigs with low levels of the deficiency have problems such as stunted growth and reduced lifespans, and may also be more susceptible to infection.
There are several foods that aren’t sufficient sources of vitamin C for growing guinea pigs or pregnant (or milk-feeding) sows. Carrots, beetroot and apples don’t have enough in for your guinea pigs, so instead we recommend broccoli, kale and cabbage. Another thing that can be done is crumbling a vitamin C tablet into your guinea pigs’ water, or using dry food enriched with the vitamin.
When you’re giving your guinea pigs their regular health check, it’s a good idea to feel their coats in order to feel for lumps. Tumours can occur all over your guinea pig, and if you do feel a lump then we advise taking your guinea pig to the vet, especially if it’s appeared very suddenly. Guinea pigs are capable of getting cancer, but in less serious circumstances the lumps may actually be treatable cysts. If a lump is hard, it may be a harmless fatty cyst, but if the lump grows or is rather large then a trip to the vets is warranted.
Abscesses are formed when your guinea pig is suffering from an infection, and its body produces substances in order to try and get the problem under control. Abscesses can occur anywhere on your guinea pig, and can sometimes be identified by a hard ‘abscess capsule’ that will form around it. Abscesses can develop both under and on the skin of your guinea pig. If you notice that the area around an open wound is swollen and red, and develops into a capsule, then your guinea pig has an abscess. If the abscess is below the skin, then you can identify it if the area has been warm, becomes a lump, and the hair on top of it begins to fall off. If you can get your guinea pig to the vet in time, then your vet will be able to drain it and dress it properly in an attempt to prevent further infection.
If you notice that your guinea pig’s abscess has just burst, you’ll need to use a bit of gauze and micropore tape to cover up the wound as it’s likely your other pets’ interest in the area will be a problem for all concerned. Be sure to wash the infected area with a mild disinfectant from your vet, and then it’s a good idea to provide the poorly guinea pig with lots of vitamin C in order to fight off the foreign bodies that are likely to get into the wound.
Any guinea pig exposed to high temperatures could suffer from heat stroke, for example over 25 or 26 degrees celsius. With their thick fur and inability to sweat, it’s really important that you watch out for your guinea pigs in the summer and keep them out of direct sunlight, especially if they’re being kept indoors.
If your guinea pig is lying down and breathing very rapidly, then you’ll need to put a bit of cool (but not icy) water onto it to help it cool down, and move it into a cool spot, preferably one that has a nice breeze. If it’s still panting, put a bit more of this cool water on it and keep a close eye on your pet. To help prevent heatstroke, give your guinea pigs plenty of shaded areas to rest in and keep them in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
Bladder stones is a condition in which stones form within the urinary system due to a buildup of calcium. This isn’t a condition which we advise dealing with yourself, as the stones may prevent your guinea pig from urinating, which, if a complete prevention, can lead to death in just 24 hours. Symptoms include little to no urination, a distended bladder (the stomach will be quite hard), and you may be able to feel stones within your guinea pig. Your pet also may sound as if it’s in distress whilst it’s urinating.
Calcium build-up in the bladder can lead to bloody urine and infections, so keep an eye out for this in your guinea pigs’ litter. If you do spot some blood, then that guinea pig needs a trip to the vet.
It’s often difficult to notice problems with your guinea pigs’ urination, especially when you have a large group of them living together. In your regular check-ups, make sure to gently feel for any stones just under your guinea pigs’ skin, and be on the look-out for a distended bladder. In such cases, instead of being their usual soft and squishy self, your guinea pig’s stomach will be rather firm.
It’s also a good idea to have a look at your guinea pig’s bedding when you’re cleaning them out, as this may be your first sign that something is wrong. Signs of blood or diarrhoea should be investigated quickly. It’s advisable to give all your guinea pigs a thorough checking over if you do see any of these signs.
Lice are common insects that can live on your guinea pig. Running lice are small lice that live on your guinea pigs’ hair and skin. They are about a millimetre long and usually live near the base of the guinea pig’s hair. Although they live off skin and grease rather than sucking blood, they make guinea pigs uncomfortable and in some cases your pets may develop an allergy to them, and may start biting themselves as a result. Thankfully, running lice are easily to get rid of with the right treatment. Often this will be an anti-lice shampoo bought from a good pet shop or your local vet. Be aware that these parasites are really contagious, so you’ll need to give all your guinea pigs this treatment at the same time. It’s also advisable to thoroughly clean out the guinea pigs’ hutch whilst they’re having their treatment in order to minimise the chance of them getting re-infected.
Veterinary clinics that have a small mammal specialist are likely to sell the lice treatment you need
Mange mites (one of the two main causes of mange) cause the condition known as Sarcoptic mange. This is a particularly nasty condition where the mites get under your guinea pig’s skin, causing a lot of pain. Symptoms include scratching, biting, thinning hair and bald patches. The areas these creatures usually strike first are around the genitals and near or on the front legs. It’s a highly contagious condition that needs to be treated quickly to minimise pain and likelihood of transmission. You’ll need a special shampoo and an oral wormer, both of which you’ll need to get from your vet. It’s a good idea to use this shampoo after their usual monthly bath in the summer (less regularly in the winter) in order to help prevent or treat this condition in its early stages. You can also use an oral treatment twice a year as a preventative or treating measure as well as the shampoo. Be mindful of the ways in which mange can be transmitted - through hay, grass, and contact with other guinea pigs.
Static lice (which are actually mites) are microscopic creatures that live on your guinea pig’s skin and scurry up and down your guinea pigs’ hairs. Although they’re too small for you to see, what you can see is the shed skins that they leave on the hair shafts. These will appear as a light dust on dark guinea pigs and vice versa. The condition can be treated with anti-mite sprays, but not anti-flea sprays. Some pet shops might not sell anti-mite sprays, so you may have to get them from your local vet.
There are a number of fungal infections that guinea pigs can catch, which can be really uncomfortable for your pet. However, before you begin it’s useful to remember that some of these problems are transmissible to humans, so it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet, and to wear gloves if you suspect one of your guinea pigs is suffering from a fungal infection. The principle infection that can be passed on to us is ringworm, a nasty condition that affects human and guinea pig alike but is thankfully treatable by a special cream, one that your vet will be able to supply you with.
Some of the most common fungal problems in guinea pigs are known under the common name ‘mange’ (also known as mycosis). Mycosis is very painful for guinea pigs, and they’ll exhibit symptoms such as hair loss, scratching, hot skin, and a gritty substance on their body and face. Thankfully, fungal mange is treatable by using a variety of targeted shampoos and dips. If you want more information on how to treat your guinea pig when it’s suffering from this, have a look at our ‘How Do I Treat My Guinea Pig for Mange’ section here.
Guinea Pig Diarrhoea
Diarrhoea in guinea pigs is often caused by their diet – whether they’ve been fed something with mould on it, grass mowings, something different to their usual diet, or something that’s not good for them (such as most human food, see ‘Guinea Pig Food List’ and ‘Things Guinea Pigs Shouldn’t Eat’ for more information) guinea pigs can really suffer from this illness. Guinea pigs’ diarrhoea can range from mild to severe, and the illness can have extremely dangerous and painful effects on your guinea pig. Be aware that guinea pigs you’ve just adopted or bought may suffer from this as you’re subjecting them to a change in diet, so it’s always a good idea to purchase some of their old food to wean them off it slowly. It’s also good to remember that some guinea pig food, such as lettuce, is actually a laxative which may cause diarrhoea if fed in high quantities.
Diarrhoea can be a symptom of a serious guinea pig illness such as Enteritis. Whilst mild diarrhoea can be treated by a hay and water only diet for four or five days, more serious cases merit a trip to the vet.
Guinea pigs can suffer from foot problems originating from injury, obesity, and disease. In such cases, the pads of the feet won’t be pink and healthy, and your guinea pig may be limping. An example of a condition that affects guinea pigs is bumble foot, which is unfortunately something owners need to look out for - it’s an infection that can be caused by fungal bodies or staphylococcal bacteria. Whatever the cause of the foot problem, your vet will be able to tell you the cause and recommend the best treatment. This may be a medicinal spray and wound dressing, or the treatment may be antibiotics.
If you notice a scratch on your guinea pig’s foot during handling or your regular health check, dab a bit of antiseptic cream onto it and keep a close eye on your pet, so that you may catch an infection quickly if one develops.
Guinea Pig Injuries
Your guinea pigs can get injured in a number of ways, from trips and slips to fights and bickering. One of the problems with keeping guinea pigs healthy is that they’re very stoic animals that will try and hide any health problems from the world in order to stop themselves getting picked on, whether by predators or other guinea pigs. This means that you’ll want to check them regularly to make sure nothing’s wrong with them. Check their feet, part their fur, and give their mouths a brief examination when you can. If your guinea pig has a problem such as a large open wound, then it needs to be seen by a vet, but if the cut is small and explainable, remove the hazard and apply some guinea pig disinfectant and micropore tape. Have a look at our ‘How to Check…’ sections for more information.