Guinea pigs are relatively healthy animals and rarely get sick. However, they are prone to a few common illnesses. Many of these can be prevented to a certain degree. However, genetics and age can also play a role in certain health conditions. There are things you can do to reduce the chances, but not all of these illnesses are 100% avoidable.
For example, some guinea pigs are genetically predisposed to conditions like bladder stones or respiratory issues. Guinea pigs are also more likely to have problems with overgrown teeth as they age. However with some of the tips below, you may be able to minimize your chances or prevent these problems from occurring too early in life. Other things are 100% preventable by following a few tips and looking out for early warning signs.
1. Fleas and Mites
Fleas and mites are much easier prevented than cured. The number one sign of mites is repeated scratching. Hair loss and dandruff looking particles often follow. You can prevent mites in many cases by doing a few things. First, keep your guinea pig’s living environment clean and tidy. Stress can also cause an outbreak of fleas on your guinea pig, so try to avoid repeated stressful situations.
The most common cause of mites is contact with an affected animal. Because of this, it’s imperative to quarantine new guinea pigs before introducing them to your herd. Bedding or other items that have come in contact with an affected animal can also carry fleas or mites. Only use bedding in unopened bags, and thoroughly clean any used items you get for your piggies.
If your guinea pig does contract fleas or mites, the best thing to do is get ointment from your vet. Not all over the counter pet flea medications are safe for guinea pigs. In addition, different types of mites require different treatments. In addition to these treatments, a flea infestation requires thorough and dedicated cleaning for many weeks.
Scurvy is a completely preventable disease caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. Just like people, guinea pigs cannot make their own Vitamin C. Guinea pigs need between 10-30mg of this vitamin every day. If they are deficient for a long enough time, guinea pigs can develop scurvy. This illness causes a lot of pain and weakness in the joints. Guinea pigs with scurvy have a lot of trouble moving. This disease can also be fatal if left untreated.
The best way to prevent scurvy is to feed your guinea pig a diet rich in Vitamin C. Guinea pigs can not store excess Vitamin C, so it’s vital that they get Vitamin C every day in their foods.
You can do this by feeding a high quality pellet food along with healthy vegetables. Pellets formulated specifically for guinea pigs have added Vitamin C in them. Certain vegetables are also high in Vitamin C. Veggies such as bell peppers, kale, parsley, and oranges are all great sources of Vitamin C. Bell peppers are a great daily choice because they are also low in calcium.
Another way to provide sufficient Vitamin C is with supplements. Chewable treats like Oxbow Vitamin C tabs are a great way to ensure your guinea pig is getting their daily dose of Vitamin C. Each tablet provides 25mg of Vitamin C, which is the perfect amount to maintain an average guinea pig. Guinea pigs will pee out any excess Vitamin C they don’t need, so they cannot overdose on Vitamin C.
Avoid Vitamin C drops that you add to water, as these lose their potency shortly after being added to the water. They can also turn guinea pigs off drinking their water due to the change of flavor.
3. Bladder Stones
Bladder stones are sometimes preventable, and sometimes can be genetic. Regardless, there are a couple ways you can reduce the chances of your healthy guinea pig developing stones.
The first is to feed a relatively low calcium diet. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid all veggies with calcium. High calcium veggies like kale, parsley, and thyme also contain a lot of important nutrients, like Vitamin C. However, it’s a good idea to give these veggies in smaller amounts and feed 2-3 low calcium vegetables for every high calcium veggie you feed.
Also, make sure your guinea pig has easy access to water. Some guinea pigs will drink more from a bowl. If you use a water bottle, try touching the tip with your finger to see how easily the water comes out. I prefer to use bottles with a relatively large ball tip so the water flows out easily. Living world plastic bottles seem to be the best I’ve found for this. Make sure the water bottles are located near the food and easy for your guinea pig to access. If you have multiple guinea pigs, you may want to provide two or more water bottles.
It’s also important to look out for early warning signs of bladder stones. The most obvious is when you find dried white powdery looking pee stains in your guinea pig’s cage. This means your guinea pig has too much calcium in their diet, or not enough water to flush things out properly.
If adjusting the diet doesn’t fix this, it’s a really good idea to start syringing your guinea pig extra water at least a couple times a day. If this excess calcium binds together to form stones in the bladder, they can become quite painful and even life threatening. The only way to get rid of stones is via surgery, so it’s definitely better to flush out the sludge before it has a chance to develop into anything further.
Bumblefoot is an infection of the foot pad. This can even spread through the leg and cause irreversible damage. Affected guinea pigs usually have a very swollen foot pad that is crusted or bleeding. This condition is very painful and can make it difficult for the guinea pig to move.
Bumblefoot is frequently caused by housing guinea pigs on wire bottomed cage floors. Wet bedding and inactivity can also lead to this condition. The best way to prevent bumblefoot is to keep your guinea pig in a solid bottomed cage with soft, dry bedding. Keep your guinea pig at a healthy weight and encourage them to exercise by giving them regular floor time out of their cage.
If you use fleece bedding, make sure it is properly wicked first. Fleece that is not wicked can get wet quickly and this can lead to conditions like bumblefoot.
5. Malocclusion (Overgrown Teeth)
Malocclusion is another condition that is sometimes preventable, and sometimes not. Genetics and age can play a big role in this one. There is really only one main way you can reduce the chances of overgrown teeth. Providing unlimited amounts of grass hay is the most effective way to grind down your guinea pig’s ever growing teeth. You can also provide chewable toys like woven hay tunnels and apple tree sticks, but these only work on the front teeth.
Guinea pigs also have molars further back in their mouth that can only be ground down with long strands of hay. When these back molars are overgrown, this causes a condition known as malocclusion. This is when the molars grow sideways. They can even grow over and trap the tongue, making it very difficult for the guinea pig to eat or drink. More signs of overgrown teeth are weight loss, drooling, eating slower, and dropping or spitting out veggies while eating.
The only real way to prevent this is to make sure your guinea pigs always have plenty of hay available. Avoid using compressed hay cubes as your guinea pig’s main source of hay. Only use hay racks if they are low to the ground and have large slots that are very easy for the guinea pig to access.
6. Physical Injuries
Guinea pigs can be easily injured by drops or falls, even from a very short distance. In addition, they can be easily spooked. Some piggies may even try to jump out of your arms while you’re holding them. Be sure to handle your guinea pigs carefully and avoid carrying them around more than necessary. Keep a firm but gentle grip on them to prevent jumping. Do not let children pick up or carry a guinea pig.
Avoid placing your piggy on beds, couches or tables without careful supervision. Guinea pigs have poor depth perception and may try to jump, not realizing how high they are.
Guinea pigs also do not have a very flexible spine, so they can easily suffer spinal injuries. Avoid placing your guinea pig on their back, putting a harness on them, or making them walk in an exercise ball. All of these things put a lot of pressure on the spine.
Also be extra careful where you walk when your guinea pigs are out for floor time. Some guinea pigs can be quite curious and like to follow you around. Guinea pigs are so small compared to people, and they can be injured quite badly if they are accidentally kicked or stepped on.
An eye poke from hay is also a common injury. You can reduce the chances of this happening by not using straw as bedding. Also avoid buying first cut hay for your guinea pig whenever possible. First cut hay consists of thicker, coarse strands of hay. Second or third cut hay will be relatively soft to the touch, green, and fresh smelling. This hay is also less likely to cause eye injuries.
7. Diarrhea and Bloat
Guinea pigs have a sensitive digestive system. All kinds of things can cause stomach upsets, and this can result in diarrhea or bloat. Diarrhea can range from mild to severe. Bloat is much more serious, and requires emergency vet care.
In many cases, there are things you can do to prevent stomach problems. Introduce new foods to your guinea pig very slowly and gradually. Don’t feed large quantities of veggies all at once. Limit watery veggies (such as cucumber or lettuce) to small amounts at a time. Feed gassy vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage in small quantities.
It’s also important to introduce fresh grass to your guinea pig in small amounts at first. Only let your guinea pig graze outside for short periods in the spring time. The newly sprouted, rich grass early in the season can cause stomach upsets. Never feed lawnmower clippings! This is a very common cause of bloat.
Finally, avoid feeding unsafe foods that can upset your guinea pig’s digestive system (check out this list of 45 foods to never feed here). Make sure your guinea pig always has lots of hay available, as hay keeps their gut healthy and moving properly.
8. Heat Stroke
Guinea pigs can be quite susceptible to temperature extremes. You should be cautious when the temperature rises above 26 degrees celsius (78 degrees fahrenheit). Guinea pigs cannot sweat, and they have thick fur that gets hot in the summer time.
Keep your guinea pig in a well ventilated area and avoid direct sunlight, both indoors and out. Make sure you have air circulating in the summer time and look for ways to keep your guinea pig cool. If you do take them outside in the summer, provide shady areas, and don’t leave them outside for long periods on hot days.
9. URIs (Upper Respiratory Infections)
Respiratory infections can occur in guinea pigs for several reasons, some of which can be preventable. First of all, it’s important to keep your guinea pig’s cage away from drafts and avoid fast temperature changes. Avoid harsh chemicals, cleaning sprays or scented candles or sprays near your guinea pigs. Use a pet safe disinfectant to clean their cage.
Try to avoid stressing your guinea pig too much, as this can sometimes make them susceptible to infections. It’s also essential to keep your guinea pig’s cage clean so they aren’t breathing in ammonia from urine. It’s especially important to spot clean their favorite sleeping or bathroom areas of the cage frequently. These are the most common offenders when it comes to smell. You can also litter train your guinea pig to make cleanup easier.
Use an unscented and dust free bedding so your guinea pig isn’t breathing in tiny dust particles. If you use fleece, wash the bedding with unscented laundry detergent and vinegar. Avoid using dryer sheets, as these cause a chemical residue to stick to the bedding. Wool dryer balls are a good natural alternative to prevent static. Eco Eggs are also a great choice instead of detergent.
Avoid using baking soda near your guinea pig, as it is a natural rodent poison. If you get a new guinea pig, quarantine them first to make sure they aren’t sick.
Common signs of a URI are sneezing, coughing, runny nose or eyes, a puffy coat, and lethargy. Once your guinea pig contracts a respiratory infection, they need immediate vet treatment. Respiratory problems can progress quickly and cannot be cured at home.
10. UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections)
UTIs are more common with guinea pigs because they have short legs and bodies that are low to the ground. This makes it easier for them to pick up bacteria that can cause infections. The easiest way to prevent UTIs is to keep the cage clean and dry.
Guinea pigs often like to pee and poop where they sleep. This is why it’s important to spot clean their favorite sleeping areas more frequently. Even if the rest of the cage is clean, guinea pigs can still get infections from sleeping in wet beds or hidey houses.
11. Torn Nails
Guinea pig nails often start curling or growing in awkward directions as guinea pigs age. If they get too long, guinea pigs can easily hook their nails on towels, toys, or cage bars. This can cause the nail to be torn off completely, which is very painful.
The nails grow back eventually, but infections can occur in some cases when the inner part of the nail is broken and exposed. The best way to prevent this is by getting a pair of appropriate small animal nail clippers and trimming the nails down every 4 weeks or so.
The Best Way to Catch Illnesses Early
As prey animals, guinea pigs often hide their illnesses as long as they can. The best way to catch problems early is by weighing your guinea pig weekly. Weight loss is one of the first signs of many illnesses that can be otherwise hard to detect. Getting your guinea pig to the vet early makes treatment much easier and can even save their life.
To weigh your guinea pig, you’ll need a digital kitchen scale. Choose one with a wide surface area that your guinea pig can stand on easily. Record their weight in a book each week so you can easily notice if a pattern starts to occur.
How to Prevent Many Health Conditions
Many health conditions can be prevented by doing three simple things. Keep your guinea pig’s cage clean, feed a proper diet, and make sure your guinea pig gets frequent exercise. Obesity can lead to many different problems and also weakens your guinea pig’s immune system. A proper diet consists of 80% grass hay, a small amount of high quality guinea pig pellets, and a variety of healthy vegetables, with some that are rich in Vitamin C. A clean cage is also essential as it can help prevent things like infections, bumblefoot, and mites.
As a new guinea pig owner, there are many health conditions that are good to be aware of. Prevention is always better than the cure! I hope these tips helped you know what to look for, whether you are brand new to guinea pigs, or already a proud owner of a couple lovable piggies. Be sure to check out the guinea pig care section for even more information about keeping and caring for these adorable fuzzy potatoes.