Health Problems with GPs
Health Problems in Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus)
Justine Hammond, DVM
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
This paper is not for diagnostic purposes but
simply to make guinea pig owners aware of potential or common
diseases in their pets. If
you see any of the signs noted below, please see your veterinarian
to determine a definitive diagnosis and appropriate treatment
plan. It is strongly
recommended that you maintain consistent healthy check-ups for
your guinea pig to ensure a long and happy life for your pet.
Lice, Mites and Fleas (Oh my!) –
pigs can carry lice, mites or fleas.
Many times these animals were infected at birth and carry a
very low-grade infection, which increases during times of stress
(change or new environment) and symptoms become more apparent
during these times. Guinea
pigs may become itchy
and subsequently suffer hair
loss or skin abrasions
from the itching. If
the parasite infection and itchiness are intense enough, guinea
pigs can suffer from seizures.
More commonly the signs are not so severe to cause seizures
but guinea pigs do tend to break their skin while itching and a
Some lice and fleas may be large enough to be seen with the
naked eye so inspect your guinea pig.
loss and skin lesions can be due to other health problems like
fungal skin infections (dermatophytes), behavioral disorders/
fighting or some reproductive diseases.
Additionally, some infectious agents (fungal and a type of
mite) can affect humans. Be
sure to have consistent veterinary care for your pet, watch for
signs of itching and wash your hands after playing with your pet
to avoid transmission.
below are some examples or guinea pigs with severely flaky
skin. This can be safely and effectively treated once
Foot sores (Pododermatitis or Bumblefoot)-
(or foot sores) begin as red
areas on the bottom of
the feet and then progress to erupting as open
Once the sores open, they can easily become infected.
Eventually, if not addressed, the underlying bone can
become infected, which can lead to fractures and whole body
These sores often occur
from overweight guinea pigs or vitamin C deficient pigs housed on
inappropriate bedding. We
recommend recycled newspaper bedding. Be sure not to house guinea
pigs on wire mesh, wood, plastic or any other hard surface without
bedding. We also
discourage the use of wood shavings as bedding because they can
cause small cuts to the feet and bacterial infection can begin.
Also, strong smelling wood shavings (like cedar) contain
oils that predispose guinea pigs to respiratory disease.
Keeping the cage clean will reduce the possibility for
infection and foot sores as well.
Clean the entire cage at least weekly and spot clean daily.
We also recommend regular toenail trimming.
Pictured here is recycled newspaper bedding
sure to offer a source of Vitamin C to keep your guinea pig’s
skin healthy and strong. We
recommend adding a crushed up children’s chewable Vitamin C
tablet to fresh food items. Also,
be sure that pellets are made specifically for guinea pigs and are
used within 30 days of opening the bag.
These pellets have additional Vitamin C and the Vitamin C
is broken down about a month after the package is opened.
This topic is discussed in the section on Scurvy in this
a good idea to occasionally check your guinea pigs feet for any
signs of redness or open sores.
If you note changes or problems, bring your pet to a
veterinarian for evaluation.
Veterinarians classify respiratory disease as
upper (nose, sinuses and trachea) and lower (lungs and bronchi)
respiratory disease. Infection
in the lungs is also called pneumonia.
Both of these, upper and lower, can occur in guinea pigs.
Sometimes the disease will begin as upper respiratory and
progress to pneumonia. Frequently,
as you may guess, disease is caused by a bacterial infection.
Common bacteria that lead to respiratory disease in guinea
pigs are Bordetella bronchiseptica and Streptococcus.
Signs of respiratory disease often begin with
discharge from the nose or eyes and decreased appetite.
This can progress to difficulty breathing,
especially if pneumonia is present.
Keep in mind that there may be other explanations for these
respiratory signs aside from infection such as heart disease and
Guinea pigs should never be housed with
rabbits for a number of reasons, one of which is that rabbits can
carry Bordetella and not show signs of illness.
These bacteria can be transmitted to the guinea pig and can
Urinary Tract Disease
and Bladder Stones-
pigs can develop stones in their bladder or along the urinary
tract. Stones can
develop secondary to infection but may not; some may develop from
a consolidation of normal cells and debris with in the urinary
tract. Signs include inappetence, hunched posture,
straining to urinate,
or blood-tinged urine and pain. If a stone is sitting in the
urinary tract but not blocking the normal flow of urine, it can
cause pain and predispose the pig to an infection (if one is not
already present). However,
if the guinea pig cannot urinate past the stone because it is
acting like a cork in a wine bottle, this is a life-threatening
situation that must be addressed immediately.
This is because the job of the urinary tract system is to
excrete built up degredation products of metabolism and keeps
electrolytes in the body in correct balance (like potassium and
sodium). If these
become too far outside of the range of normal, life threatening
cardiac problems occur. Please
seek veterinary care immediately if you are concerned that you
guinea pig cannot urinate properly.
not recommend that spinach, broccoli or alfalfa hay* be
fed to guinea pigs. These
items are very high in calcium and necessitate excessive urinary
excretion of calcium. It
is believed that these items may predispose guinea pigs to bladder
stones. Please see our
care sheets (http://www.exoticpetvet.com/breeds/guineapig1.htm)
for guinea pig diet suggestions and healthy guinea pig veggie
for a discussion of appropriate foods for your pig.
Alfalfa hay is acceptable as a portion of young guinea pigs’
diets up to 6 months of age.
Examples of some urinary stones from various animals
stasis (or GI stasis for short) is characterized by a decreased
or absent appetite, decreased
or absent stool production,
small or dry stools
Stasis generally occurs secondarily to another issue but is
serious and warrants immediate medical attention.
Even 12- 24
hours of not eating can be fatal to a guinea pig.
Stress, illness, pain, dental problems, some medications or
changes in diet can all cause GI stasis.
begins usually from refusal or inability to eat.
This allows for gas build-up within the GI tract.
Gas causes distention, pain and can impede the gut’s
ability to perform peristalsis (the act of pushing the food
through the gut). This
situation quickly spirals out of control as the gas continues to
build up, the gut works less and less and the gas is not expelled
causing further pain and distention.
If the situation is not resolved, the gut can rupture or
become so large with gas that it impedes major blood vessels and
can be fatal.
very common for guinea pigs to stop eating when they become ill
and so we must address not only the primary illness also the GI
times, we see guinea pigs that are in GI stasis from dental issues
or poor diets. Guinea
pigs have teeth that grow throughout their lifetime.
It is not only the front teeth (incisors) that grow but
also the back molars. So
while the front teeth may look normal, a guinea pig may have
abnormal molars causing pain and causing the animal to not eat.
This is because, just like in humans, some guinea pigs have
teeth that do not align properly in the mouth (and we don’t have
braces for guinea pig teeth yet).
In guinea pigs, normally aligned molars act to wear each
other down during the act of chewing.
However if they are improperly aligned, portions of the
tooth may continue to grow and have very sharp points that injure
soft tissue in the mouth. This
is why your veterinarian carefully inspects your guinea pig’s
mouth during regular examinations.
As an aside, I am often asked about giving wood or chew
sticks to help with this situation.
The best (and really only) way for your guinea pig to wear
his back teeth down is with his food (especially hay), as the chew
toys or wood blocks only will come in contact with the front
incisors and not the back teeth where the most common problems
below are two examples of molar bridging. Guinea pigs can
not eat when their teeth are this bad. This is a fatal
situation left untreated. Even with treatment, the prognosis
Pictured below is a guinea pig with
incisor malocclusion and a missing incisor. This can be managed
with monthly trimming.
have a gastrointestinal system that is specifically designed to break
down and utilize high fibrous foods with diluted energy levels, like
grass hay. The good bacteria
in the cecum (a sac-like projection from the intestines) are in balance
in a healthy pig in order to break down these foods.
Once a guinea pig is fed too much “junk” food like foods that
are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates, the bacterial balance in the
gut is thrown off. The
acidity in the cecum changes and allows for abnormal bacterial growth.
Some of these bacteria produce high amounts of gases as they
break down sugary foods. This
is what sets the stage for GI stasis when poor diet is fed.
Guinea pigs are so sensitive that too many pellets, fruits,
yogurt drops or other treats can trigger this process.
Please see our recommendations for proper guinea pig diets in
order to avoid this situation.
Scurvy (Vitamin C
are one of the few mammals that need Vitamin C supplemented in their
diets. The same is true for
primates (yes, that means you!) and some types of bats.
These animals cannot produce their own Vitamin C and this must
come from some food source in their diets.
If a guinea
pig is deficient in Vitamin C we can see dental,
feet and skin problems.
This can include difficulty healing from wounds or a propensity to get skin
wounds and foot
sores. Guinea pigs that are Vitamin
C deficient may also develop diarrhea
and have a coarse fur coat.
pig requires fresh pellets made specifically for guinea pigs (because
they have added Vitamin C). The
Vitamin C becomes deactivated over time so we recommend that once a bag
of pellets is opened, it should be used within 30 days and should be
stored in an airtight container in a dark place.
Vitamin C added to water becomes deactivated fairly quickly and
we do not recommend supplementing in this manner.
Instead, children’s chewable vitamin C tablets can be ground up
and sprinkled on fresh foods daily.
We recommend 100 mg daily of Vitamin C.
Several small mammal food companies offer Vitamin C tablets as
information on the disease of scurvy and supplementation of guinea pigs,
please see our Scurvy handout and guinea
pig care sheet .
above is a female guinea pig growing her hair back after her spay.
Spaying is the best treatment for cystic ovaries which this girl had.
cysts are very common in female guinea pigs (sows) around 2-4 years of
age. These animals can have
no symptoms at all or can exhibit decreased
and fur loss. Cystic ovaries are believed
to predispose females to reproductive cancers.
below is a radiograph of a guinea pig with an enlarged heart. An
ultrasound of the heart is needed to further diagnose this
disease. We treat heart disease routinely at Chicago Exotics.
experience here at Chicago Exotics, we commonly see older guinea pigs
with advanced heart disease. Most
often when these animals come in ill, they have respiratory signs such
as difficulty breathing.
Remember, the heart is pumping oxygen- rich blood to the body.
When it has circulated, the blood returns to the heart depleted
of oxygen and is sent to the lungs to acquire more oxygen.
The blood, now full of oxygen, returns to the heart to be pumped
throughout the body. When
the heart muscle is not working optimally, a back up can occur in the
lungs because the heart does not have the strength to push blood into
the body (which takes a lot of energy and force).
This can cause weakness, lethargy,
inappetence in the guinea
pig and also what looks like respiratory disease but in actuality is a
Guinea pigs can get ear infections that affect
either the outer portion, the middle canal or the inner portion of the
ear. Signs of ear infection
can range from scratching at the ears, to head shaking to
finally, a head tilt and difficulty balancing or walking.
The signs and severity depend on which portion of the ear is
infected. The ear extends
past the eardrum and into a portion within the skull.
Many nerves run through this area as well as the apparatus that
helps them to maintain balance. If
there is infection and subsequent inflammation within this area, we see
more severe signs like a head tilt, balance issues (the animal walks
like a drunk human might) and eventually rolling.
Inner ear infections can occur either from an infection extending
from the outer ear in or, more likely, extending from a sinus or dental
infection and up into the skull. Of
course, a head tilt (indicating some balance trouble) could be due to a
number of diseases such as tumors, viruses, parasites migrating
throughout the body or trauma. If
you note these signs, please seek medical attention for your guinea pig.
Figure 2: http://guineapigwonderland.webs.com/guineapigdiseses.htm
Figure 3: http://www.erodent.co.uk/Toys/CareFresh.jpg
Figure 4: Care
of Guinea Pigs Dr. S. Horton, DVM
Quesenberry, KE, Carpenter, JW, eds.
Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery.
, Saunders, 2004.
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