At the Cat and Rabbit Care Clinic, we see a large number of guinea-pigs from all over the country. We now have many years of experience dealing with all aspects of guinea-pig health and disease. We regularly carry out the neutering of male and (less commonly) female guinea-pigs. We treat medical conditions such as skin diseases, respiratory diseases and bowel diseases. We have full anaesthetic, radiography, ultrasound and surgical facilities to investigate and treat disease. We have also developed effective ways of dealing with difficult conditions such as dental and urinary tract disease. Dental disease in guinea-pigs can be particularly frustrating to manage with severely affected guinea-pigs requiring long term or even life-long therapy. At the Cat and Rabbit Care Clinic, we have developed methods of treating severe dental disease with the minimum requirement for general anaesthetic. Where conscious filing of the cheek teeth is carried out, our techniques are designed to cause as little stress to the guinea-pigs as possible (see the dental disease section below for more detailed information).
A comprehensive review of guinea-pig husbandry can found at www.guinealynx.info/. This website provides information about everything you need to successfully look after guinea-pigs. Discussed below are some of the most important issues but further research is recommended before owning guinea-pigs.
Guinea-pigs are social creatures and require company and plenty of space to exhibit normal social interactions. Generally groups of sows or a neutered boar with one or more sows is preferred. However, neutered males will often live together and bonding guinea-pigs tends to be less problematic than bonding rabbits, especially where they have sufficient space.
A correct diet is essential for guinea-pigs. Guinea-pigs require a low calorie, high fibre, abrasive diet similar to the grass-based diet they would eat in the wild.
- Access to grass and/or hay at all times
- Fresh green leafy vegetables, cucumber, peppers, chopped celery and herbs should be offered daily
- A small amount of dry food such as extruded pellets, muesli-style mix or rolled oats could be offered daily. This food is less abrasive and higher calorie than the natural diet and should be strictly rationed.
- Free access to water should be provided at all times.
Guinea-pigs have a requirement for Vitamin C in their diet as they cannot make Vitamin C for themselves. Fresh vegetables and fresh grass and dry foods will provide Vitamin C and Vitamin C can also be supplemented via the water or sprinkled onto the food if the levels in the diet are thought to be low.
Dental disease is a frequent cause of reduced or complete loss or appetite (anorexia) in guinea-pigs. Dental disease can be caused by an inappropriate diet deficient in low calorie, abrasive foods such as grass and hay. It can also occur as a result of prolonged anorexia following periods of long-term illness.
The front teeth (incisors) can be readily examined in a conscious guinea-pig during a consultation with the vet. Experience of normal guinea-pig teeth is essential as their incisors, especially the lower incisors, are much longer than those of rabbits and incisors are often burred (or worse, clipped) short when in fact they were the normal length. This prevents the guinea-pig being able to pick-up/gnaw food until they have regrown and also leads to a wrong diagnosis of dental disease.
The back (cheek) teeth are more difficult to examine since they are situated far back in the mouth and the mouth is usually full of food material. Washing out the mouth with water and using a spring loaded gag and cheek dilator allows a good assessment of the cheek teeth. A guinea-pig’s cheek teeth are very different from a rabbit’s cheek teeth and so experience is essential to correctly diagnose and then treat dental disease.
At the Cat and Rabbit Care Clinic, special gags and cheek dilators are used to gain access to the cheek teeth of guinea pigs. In most cases, conscious dentistry is well tolerated allowing accurate filing of the cheek teeth back to more normal occlusion. Conscious dentistry reduces the otherwise high risk associated with anaesthetising unwell, underweight guinea pigs and encourages a more rapid return to eating as they don’t have the prolonged recovery that may follow a general anaesthetic. Guinea pigs require frequent follow-up treatment of their dental disease with re-growth of cheek teeth occurring within 1 to 2 weeks. The high risk and high cost of anaesthesia-based dentistry at 1-2 week intervals makes conscious dentistry the preferred technique for maintenance of cheek tooth dental disease. Burring of the cheek teeth under general anaesthetic is required in the most severe cases or where radiographs (x-rays) of the tooth roots are required. Regular follow-up dentals can then be carried out in the conscious guinea-pig as part of the long term management of the teeth.
Guinea-pigs commonly suffer from diseases of the skin.
Mites are suspected when the skin is itchy and when there is fur loss and scabs on the skin, especially over the neck and back. Affected guinea-pigs will scratch and bite at themselves and start to lose weight. Some will start to ‘seizure’ when handled due to the intense itchiness (pruritis) caused by mites.
Ringworm is a fungal disease of the skin and be found anywhere on the body or head. Affected guinea-pigs are usually less itchy than with mites and the fur loss is often more localised with excessive scaling of the exposed skin. Ringworm is a zoonotic infection meaning that it can also spread to the skin of humans. We therefore recommend any guinea-pig with skin disease be taken to the vets to rule out ringworm. Sometimes a hair pluck is required for looking under the microscope and culturing for ringworm to accurately diagnose the cause of the skin disease. Both mites and ringworm can be successfully treated and your vet will discuss the appropriate products with you.
Lumps in the skin are also common. We tend to see abscesses, sebaceous cysts and fatty lumps most commonly. Some lumps can be managed by lancing, while the majority require surgical removal. Treatment of lumps is most successful while the lumps are small.
Urinary Tract Disease
If your guinea-pig passes urine with blood in it or squeaks when passing urine, a urinary tract infection (cystitis) is most likely. Urine can often be obtained during a consultation to confirm the presence of blood and treatment started with antibiotics and pain relief. Cystitis is most common in female guinea-pigs.
Recurrent or persistent cystitis can suggest the presence of bladder stones. Radiographs of the guinea-pigs abdomen will help check for presence of stones anywhere in the urinary tract from the kidneys through to termination of the urethra. Stones (>90% of which are calcium carbonate) can be found in the kidneys, ureters, bladder or urethra and vary greatly in size and number. Urethral stones in sows can be felt just inside the vulva but the diagnosis of stones in the rest of urinary tract requires imaging by x-rays or ultrasound. Bladder stones can be removed surgically from the bladder. Recurrence of bladder stones post-operatively is common and can occur within weeks of surgery. Feeding timothy hay, fresh grass, greens low in calcium and restricting or removing commercial foods (pellets or muesli) from the diet can help prevent recurrence. It is also important to encourage fluid intake, reduce obesity and treat cystitis promptly.
Kidney and ureteral (between the kidney and the bladder) stones are harder to treat and surgery is very risky. Many guinea-pigs with these stones will respond to symptomatic treatment with dietry change, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.
Guinea-pigs suffer from both upper respiratory disease involving the nose and upper airways and lower respiratory disease involving the lungs. Sneezing and nasal discharge is usually caused by upper respiratory disease. Treatment with antibiotics is usually successful. Laboured breathing and coughing can be caused by both upper and lower respiratory disease. Where guinea-pigs have reduced appetite and weight loss or when the gums and ears have a grey/blue tinge (cyanosis), pneumonia is suspected. Pneumonia can become rapidly fatal and so any guinea-pigs with respiratory symptoms, especially where lethargy, poor appetite and cyanosis are present, require immediate veterinary attention. If treated promptly, many guinea-pigs will recover, though recurrence of pneumonia can occur. Where the response to treatment is poor or where auscultation of the chest finds altered heart sounds, chest x-rays and an ultrasound scan of the heart are indicated to rule out heart disease as the cause of laboured breathing.
Some useful Links
Medical and care guide for your guinea pigs
Rabbit and guinea pig welfare