How do you know if you have a sick guinea pig?
If you share your home with a guinea pig or two, keeping them happy and healthy is a priority.
But do you know how to tell if your guinea pig is sick? Guinea pigs are notoriously good at hiding their illnesses.
Is My Guinea Pig Sick?
How can you tell if your guinea pig is not feeling too well?
Look for signs your guinea pig is sick. Check for changes in the following:
- Activity level
- Hair loss
- Diarrhea and changes in waste production
- Skin irritation (rednes, swelling)
- Tumors and abscesses
- Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth
- Sick guinea pig sounds – wheezing, clicking, sneezing, coughing
- Behavior changes
Any of these symptoms are a giveaway that you need to seek medical help quickly, because guinea pigs are prey animals and will hide illnesses as long as possible.
Here are some of the most common guinea pig diseases and some top tips on how to pick up on the cues that you have a sick guinea pig.
Pneumonia and Respiratory Problems in Guinea Pigs
Pneumonia is the most common respiratory disease in guinea pigs.
This condition can be life-threatening to a sick guinea pig.
Though most pneumonias are bacterial, and therefore helped by antibiotics, not all are. So it’s important that you act on signs that your guinea pig may have a respiratory disease and get him/her to a vet as soon as possible.
Signs of pneumonia (or any respiratory disease) include sneezing, nasal discharge and coughing or noisy breathing.
Your sick guinea pig may also eat less and move around less often as she begins to feel lethargic.
It’s important to also use your own judgment when deciding if your guinea pig is sick, as she may not always display these common signs.
For example, several years ago I had a lovely pair of female guinea pigs: Boo and Georgie.
Boo was always submissive to Georgie, even though Boo was the larger of the two.
One morning, in a complete break of character, Georgie let Boo get first dibs on breakfast!
That first day I let it go, but after the second day I was convinced something was wrong with Georgie. She had hardly any other symptoms and seemed to be acting normally, except around food.
I remembered that she had sneezed a couple of times over the preceding two or three days (unusual for her), too. I decided to take her to the vet.
The vet diagnosed pneumonia. She also said Georgie had lost weight (with her long, red fur I hadn’t noticed, though I did think that Boo was looking chubbier than usual!).
The vet prescribed antibiotics, and for the next few days I hand fed her, away from Boo. Luckily, she soon regained her strength and went back to running the show!
Your vet will conduct a physical exam and might also want to run some laboratory tests, including blood, mucous and urine to determine whether your sick guinea pig has pneumonia.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics are the most common form of treatment for guinea pig pneumonia, and these should help your sick guinea pig back to health.
Your vet may also advise that you disinfect your guinea pig’s cage.
The good news is that most guinea pigs can recover from pneumonia, if caught in time.
Gastrointestinal Disease in Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs have specialized GI tracts, designed to process a high fiber diet. Therefore, even small changes in diet can cause GI upset.
Guinea pigs can also be affected by stomach bugs, most notably caused by salmonella.
These, if left untreated, can claim your guinea pig’s life in a matter of hours or weeks, depending on the severity and type of stomach bug they have.
That’s why it’s essential to get your sick guinea pig to a vet as soon as you suspect a stomach bug or any type of GI upset.
The most common symptom of gastric distress in guinea pigs is diarrhea, as they are unable to vomit.
Other symptoms can include roughening of the fur, weakness, grinding teeth, lack of fecal output, abdominal swelling (bloating), and pain when you touch the abdomen.
Your vet may advise that you separate sick guinea pigs from other healthy guinea pigs that you have, to avoid spreading any infection.
The vet may also want to do some x-rays or an ultrasound to see what’s going on inside your sick guinea pig.
Treatments may include hydration and pain management as well as nutritional supplementation. All of these are best done in a veterinary clinic.
Stress is also a major factor in how quickly your sick guinea pig recovers from gastric upset. Therefore, it’s best to keep him or her in a warm, dark and quiet room to reduce stress.
Your vet may also administer an anxiety reducing medication.
With the right care and attention, your guinea pig can recover completely from many gastrointestinal diseases.
However, in extreme cases, guinea pigs can succumb very quickly without timely veterinary care.
Dental Disease in Guinea Pigs
Guinea pig teeth grow continuously, meaning they need to be regularly worn down in order to prevent dental disease.
Dental disease can lead to ulcers, infections, abscesses and tongue entrapment if left untreated. It’s important to pay close attention to your guinea pig and seek veterinary advice if you suspect dental problems.
Symptoms of dental disease include excessive salivation, drooling, weight loss, changes in stool consistency and frequency, difficulty swallowing, and the presence of facial swelling and/or pus-filled nasal discharge.
Your vet may want to do x-rays and/or a CT scan of your guinea pig’s head and jaw.
Treatment may include shortening overgrown teeth, treating abscesses, and removing diseased teeth.
Your vet may also advise a high fiber diet, including lots of timothy hay and supplementation with vitamin C, which is very important for fighting infection.
After initial treatments, having regular checkups and tooth trimming (where necessary) should allow your guinea pig to recover from and avoid future dental disease.
Guinea pigs are unable to synthesize their own vitamin C through their intestinal gut flora, but it is a necessary nutrient for their survival.
Vitamin C assists in wound healing, protects against free radicals, assists in heart health, and helps a guinea pig maintain skin, joints, and mucosal surfaces such as gums.
Guinea pigs need at least 10-30 mg of vitamin C per day. They usually get this through their pellets and the supplemental greens you feed them.
Lethargy, lameness and stiffness, diarrhea, bruising or bleeding, decreased appetite, weight loss, and a change in the texture of hair may be symptoms of a vitamin C deficiency.
More vitamin C is needed to solve this problem, but see your vet first! Your vet may recommend injections, restricted activity, and syringe-feeding.
Pain medications may be suggested for joint and other issues arising from the deficiency.
You may need to supplement vitamin C for life.
Hair loss in guinea pigs can have several causes.
Firstly, if your female guinea pig is pregnant, she may suffer hair loss during the late stages of her pregnancy. While this may be typical, do talk with your vet about this, as nutritional supplementation may help.
Secondly, your guinea pig’s pups may appear to lose hair as they develop. Some hair loss is normal as the new, adult hair pattern begins to grow in and often coincides with weaning.
Thirdly, guinea pigs can suffer from ectoparasites called mites that can cause hair loss. These can either pose no problem at all for your guinea pig, or they can be extremely irritating.
Symptoms of mites also include itchy and dry skin. Your vet will be able to prescribe a suitable mite medicine. Check out our article on Guinea pig mites for more information.
Fourthly, hair loss can be caused by hair biting, either by the guinea pig affected or by one of his/her companions. This is sometimes called barbering.
If the hair around the neck and head are intact, you can assume that the guinea pig may have bitten his own hair. If not, a companion is to blame.
Fighting guinea pigs should be separated for their own safety, and hair biting may be indicative of nutritional deficiency and/or lack of timothy hay. Talk to your vet for advice.
Urinary Tract Problems
Guinea pigs are very prone to kidney and bladder stones. This situation can be life-threatening if the stones block the ureter, where urine passes through.
Female guinea pigs may be more likely to get bladder infections.
Symptoms of this condition include blood in the urine, straining to urinate, and being unable to urinate. Your guinea pig may also have trouble eating.
Urinary tract infections should be investigated by a veterinarian, who can decide the best course of treatment.
This can include antibiotic therapy, but sometimes surgery may be recommended.
Also called pododermatitis, this condition can cause lameness and pain in your guinea pig.
It is most often found in small pets that are overweight with overlong nails, especially if they reside in wire-floored cages. Soiled or wet bedding may also be a cause.
Substandard cage conditions may be the main cause for bumblefoot.
Bumblefoot is more commonly seen on front feet. Symptoms include swelling, scabs, abscesses, tendonitis, and skin reddening.
Your vet must diagnose this condition. Treatment generally includes vitamin C supplementation, bandaging, antibacterial therapy, and pain relief.
Generally bumblefoot sufferers have a good prognosis if the case is mild or caught early.
If not, and if your guinea pig has developed osteomyelitis, more stringent measures may be indicated.
Food and Water Deprivation
Guinea pigs can starve or become severely dehydrated, even in the presence of adequate food and water.
This can be caused by unfamiliarity with a new water dispenser, or an inability to access the dispenser if it is too high or out of reach. You should also check to see if it has become blocked, or is malfunctioning.
Also, impurities in the water may make it unpalatable to your guinea pigs.
In addition, dominant individuals may prevent subordinates from accessing food and water.
Observing your guinea pigs as they eat and drink, as well as checking water and food levels, will let you know if they are getting the nutrition and hydration they need.
Older Guinea Pig Problems
You may find that as your male guinea pig ages, his genital area begins to produce excessive secretions with unpleasant odors.
In order to remedy this and prevent infections, it’s important to keep the area clean by regular bathing with warm water and a guinea pig-safe soap.
Your vet can advise you on how to clean your male guinea pig effectively.
Excessive build up around the genital area should always be examined by a vet.
Preventing Your Guinea Pig From Getting Sick
Adequate housing, good ventilation and cleanliness are all important to make sure that your guinea pig stays healthy.
A well-balanced diet, with plenty of greens, is also critical in ensuring that your guinea pigs remain disease-free.
Enough vitamin C and fiber are vital to your guinea pig’s health.
Check your guinea pig’s skin for any tumors or abscesses that may develop. Take your pet to a vet to to determine if these bumps are benign, or if they’re starting to affect the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
Also, weigh your guinea pig every week to make sure his weight isn’t changing too much! Check nails, teeth, and ears regularly.
Sick Guinea Pig – A Summary
Guinea pigs can be stoic when it comes to letting you know that they aren’t feeling in tip-top shape.
Paying close attention to their normal behavior will allow you to pick up on changes quickly and act accordingly. Fecal output and consistency are good to keep an eye on too.
Plenty of high-fiber timothy hay, accessible fresh water and fresh greens, as well as a supplemental form of vitamin C, are important.
If you do notice anything abnormal about your guinea pig, take him or her to a vet for a checkup as soon as possible.
References and Further Reading
- DeCubellis, J. and Graham, J. (2013). Gastrointestinal Disease in Guinea Pigs and Rabbits. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice (16(2).
- Rigby, C. (1976). Natural Infections of Guinea Pigs. Laboratory Animals.
- Wagner, J. E. (1976). Miscellaneous Disease Conditions of Guinea Pigs. In: The Biology of the Guinea Pig. Academic Press.
- Sawnee Animal Clinic, Vitamin C Deficiency: “Scurvy” in Guinea Pigs.
- Rojas, C. et al (2011). Endotoxin deplets ascorbate in the guinea pig heart. Protective effects of vitamins C and E against oxidative stress. Life Sciences, 59(8).
- Whittington, J. K. (2011). Urinary diseases of exotic pets. DVM 360.
- Grant, D. (2015). Guinea Pig Dermapoditis (bumblefoot, sore hocks). Veterinary Practice.
- Axelson, R. Guinea Pigs – Problems. VCA Hospitals.