Essential health checks for small pets

Our small pets such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, gerbils, hamsters and degus need us to keep a constant close eye on their health and wellbeing. But do you know what to look for?
Featured image for Essential health checks for small pets
26th February 2024

While our dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets might not put a visit to the vet for regular vaccinations or parasite prevention at the top of their list of favourite things to do, it does mean that veterinary professionals are able to check that our much-loved pets are healthy and thriving. Things are not quite the same for many other small animals.

Because regular vet visits are not part of their schedule, small pets such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus, rats, gerbils and hamsters may not see a vet until it’s really obvious that something is wrong.

Spotting problems early can make all the difference

Burgess in-house vet, Dr Suzanne Moyes MVB MRCVS, advises: “Unlike dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets, small pets don’t require a yearly vaccination. This means that many are never taken to the vets for check-ups. That’s why it’s really important to give your small pets regular health checks yourself. As with all healthcare issues, prevention is better than cure – and spotting problems early can make all the difference to your pets enjoying a speedy recovery or becoming very ill. Small pets are often prey animals so will hide signs of ill-health, which is why they’ll also benefit from a check-up by a specialist vet once a year.”

As a general rule, a healthy small pet will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose, be eating and toileting normally, and be interested in what’s going on around them. Read on to find out more about how to check the health of your guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, gerbils, hamsters and degus.


Making sure you feed only the best quality food designed especially for your small pets will go a long way to keeping your small pets in the best of health. 

Health checks for guinea pigs  

Check if your guinea pigs are eating properly and passing droppings every day. Guinea pigs need extremely high levels of fibre in their diet to make sure their digestive systems work properly. Your guinea pigs also need high levels of protected vitamin C to keep them healthy.

Things to look out for include:

  • Eyes, ears and noses need to be checked regularly to make sure there isn’t any unusual discharge.
  • Skin conditions are common in guinea pigs. Keeping your piggies’ accommodation clean and dry is essential. Damp and dirty bedding creates the ideal environment for bacteria, fungi and other harmful things to thrive in, which ups the chances of your pets developing a nasty skin condition.
  • Guinea pigs’ teeth grow very quickly and should be checked every week to ensure they are not overgrown, broken or loose.
  • Feet should be checked for signs of sores or red patches and nails need to be carefully clipped regularly or they will start to curl – normally, you’ll need to clip their nails every 4-6 weeks. Hard surfaces or wire mesh cages that are not suitably covered can result in swollen paws and pressure sores on the soles of their feet, leading to a condition known as ‘bumblefoot’. As well as being very uncomfortable, if left untreated, it can spread to the bone tissue of the feet and legs. Prevent foot issues by ensuring that the flooring of your guinea pigs’ accommodation is covered with soft, comfortable Timothy hay.
  • Pesky parasites can cause all sorts of problems. Guinea pigs can suffer from fleas and lice and are particularly susceptible to developing mite infestations. Scratching or rubbing of ears or head shaking could mean ear mites, which will require veterinary treatment. Treat not only the affected guinea pig, but any others that they have come into contact with too. Their accommodation, tunnels, and toys will also need to be cleaned thoroughly and bedding replaced. Some parasites live under the skin of guinea pigs, including ringworm, which is a fungal infection. Scabs are most commonly found around the head, face and ears but can spread across the back and legs. Your vet can prescribe a course of anti-fungal medication to get rid of the infection.
  • Just like us, guinea pigs don’t have the ability to make their own vitamin C and need a daily dose or they become vulnerable to scurvy. This nasty disease interferes with the body’s ability to manufacture collagen, which is important for bone and tissue formation, and can lead to problems in your guinea pig’s joints and skin. It’s entirely preventable by feeding high-qualityguinea pig nuggets and a few vitamin C-rich dandelion leaves or small bunch of parsley daily.

GUINEA PIG CARE GUIDE Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for your piggies >>


Providing a suitable environment is essential for happy, healthy small pets. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore. All small pets should have the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example: to run, dig, jump, forage, hide and play.

Health checks for chinchillas

PDSA advises: “Once you get to know your chinchillas, you’ll soon learn what’s normal for them. This will help you spot any signs of when they might be feeling under the weather.”

Check your chinchillas every day for any signs that they’re unwell. As prey animals, chins will hide signs of ill-health or pain. This is because, in the wild, this would make them more vulnerable to predators.

Things to look out for include:

  • Behaviour: The best time to observe your chinchillas is in the evening or at night. Keep an eye out for any signs of stress. This can include hiding, chewing their own or their housemate’s fur, pacing up and down or making lots of noise.
  • Body: When stroking your chinchillas, check for any swellings or lumps and if your chinchillas seem to be in pain when you touch them.
  • Eyes: Check regularly for runny eyes.
  • Feet: Watch out for any injuries to your chinchillas’ feet.
  • Mobility: Keep an eye out for any signs of limping or if they seem to have less energy than usual.
  • Nose: Make sure there’s no discharge coming from your chinchillas’ noses.
  • Skin and coat: Check regularly for any open wounds or fur loss.
  • Teeth: Keep an eye on your chinchillas’ teeth for any signs they are overgrown or misaligned.

If your chinchilla’s behaviour or their eating and drinking patterns change, take your chinchilla to a specialist vet as soon as possible.

CHINCHILLA CARE GUIDE Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for your chins >>

Health checks for pet rats

Checking your rats over every day is a good habit to get into. According to Blue Cross, signs that something’s not right include loss of appetite, lethargy or tiredness, runny nose or eyes, wheezing or sneezing.

It’s a good idea to weigh your rats regularly too. Suddenly putting on or losing weight needs to be investigated by your vet.

The RSPCA also advises looking out for chromodacryorrhea (red staining around eyes and nose), which indicates stress, possibly from illness or social or environmental problems. If one of your rats shows a change in behaviour or in their eating and drinking habits, seek the advice of a vet as soon as possible.

Things to look out for include:

  • Behaviour: You’ll know how your rats normally behave. They should be inquisitive, active and playful. Loss of appetite can be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Breathing: Check if your rat is struggling to breathe or their breathing has become noisy. This could include wheezing, congestion, rattling, laboured breathing or gasping.
  • Eyes: Your rat’s eyes should be bright, clear and free from discharge. A bulging eye could indicate a tumour or abscess. If there is bloody discharge coming from the eyes, this is Porphyria.
  • Fur and skin: Your rat’s coat should be full and shiny. If your rat is scratching excessively or they have some bald patches, they could have parasites.
  • Mouth and teeth: Check that your rat’s teeth aren’t overgrown and aren’t misaligned or chipped. Look out for redness and swelling around their gums.
  • Nose: Make sure your rat’s nose is clean and free from mucus.

The RSPCA suggests: “Even if your rats are well, it’s still a good idea to take them for regular check-ups with the vet. Ask the vet to check if their teeth are growing correctly and get advice on protecting their health, such as through vaccination, worming and neutering.”

PET RAT CARE GUIDE Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for pet rats >>

Health checks for gerbils

If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to gerbil health checks, Blue Cross has some useful tips: “A healthy gerbil has bright eyes, a glossy coat and is alert and lively. A runny or sticky nose or eyes, dull coat or lethargy are signs of ill health, and you should seek veterinary advice.”

The charity has a useful Give Your Gerbil a Health Check video >>.

Things to look out for include:

  • Behaviour: Keep an eye on any behaviour changes or if your gerbils are tired more the usual.
  • Bottom: Make sure each gerbil’s bottom is free from discharge or swelling. Staining or stickiness can be a sign of diarrhoea or infection. If you see these symptoms, take your gerbil to the vet as soon as possible.
  • Fur: Their coat should be sleek and shiny. Look out for a matted and greasy coat.
  • Mouth and teeth: Most gerbils will happily let you check their teeth for any signs they’re misaligned, chipped or too long. A healthy gerbil’s teeth are yellow, not white. If you notice some sores around your gerbil’s mouth, this could be a sign that their bedding is too rough when they’re burrowing into it and needs replacing with something softer.
  • Nails: Gerbil’s nails are continuously growing. Playing with wooden toys will keep their nails short. You should still check regularly to see they haven’t become overgrown. If they have, your vet can clip your gerbil’s nails safely.
  • Nose: Your gerbil’s nose should be clean with no discharge. Check there’s no sores around their nose. This can be a sign that their bedding, where they love to burrow, is too rough and needs replacing with a softer alternative.
  • Scent gland: A gerbil’s scent gland is a small, bald patch on your gerbil’s underside. They rub this against things to mark them with their scent. Males in particular can be at risk from tumours in the scent gland, so feel gently to see if there are any lumps. Tumours grow very quickly but can be easily removed by a vet if they’re found early.
  • Tail: Check your gerbil’s tail is covered in fur. Hairless patches could be a sign of mites or over-grooming, which happens when they’re bored.

Burrowing, tunnelling, or digging are all positive signs in gerbils, revealing that they are merrily going about their gerbil business. A comfortable, relaxed gerbil will use their tongue to groom or wash their paws, belly, face, and tail – if he or she does this while being held by you, it shows they are feeling happy and calm.

GERBIL CARE GUIDE Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for your gerbils >>


All small pets have the right to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example: company of their own kind for sociable species such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus, rats, gerbils and dwarf hamsters, or to be housed alone for solitary species such as Syrian hamsters.

Health checks for hamsters

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to hamster health checks, the RSPCA has some useful tips:

“Visually check that they are well every day, see that they are behaving normally, moving, breathing well, sitting normally, that they have bright eyes and a shiny coat, and do not have wounds or lumps. Physically examine your hamster(s) when you handle them by running your fingers gently over their body to check for lumps and bumps and that they are not too skinny or fat. It is best to do this at the same time as cleaning, just before lights out to minimise disturbance. Always handle your hamster(s) in a safe, considerate and confident manner.”

Things to watch out for include:

  • Behaviour: You know your hamster best. Check if their behaviour is normal and they’re active and playful in the evening. Sick hamsters may be quiet and withdrawn or could be irritable and bite more frequently.
  • Cheeks: Check for lumps in your hamster’s cheeks. This could be an impacted cheek pouch or an abscess. Lumps in the cheek may cause your hamster’s eye to close.
  • Eyes: Your hamster’s eyes should be bright and not runny, watery or sticky/crusty with discharge.
  • Fur: Check for any patches of hair loss, this could mean your hamster is chewing their fur or they’re rubbing against their cage. This could be a sign that your hamster is bored, or their bedding is too rough and needs replacing with something softer. Hair loss can also be linked to nutritional or hormonal problems.
  • Mouth and teeth: Check that your hamster’s teeth aren’t overgrown, and they aren’t misaligned or chipped. Losing weight and a loss of appetite could be a sign of dental problems.
  • Nails: A hamster’s nails continuously grow. Playing with their wooden toys and in their sand bath should keep your hamster’s nails short. However, you should still check that they’re not overgrown – if they are, your vet can clip them safely.
  • Nose: Make sure that your hamster’s nose is clean and dry, and they aren’t sneezing.
  • Wet Tail: This is a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhoea. It’s most commonly seen in young Syrian hamsters. Stickiness of the bottom and tail area is a sign. Your hamster may also appear as though they have stomach-ache by hunching over. If your hamster has these symptoms, take them to the very immediately. Wet Tail is highly contagious, so make sure you wash your hands and clean out their cage thoroughly.

A happy, healthy hamster will show you how they’re feeling by their body language. A yawning hamster is pleasantly sleepy and comfortable. Relaxed grooming, stretching, burrowing in the bedding, collecting food, and lively acrobatics in the cage are all signs that life is good for your hamster pal.

HAMSTER CARE GUIDE Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for your hamsters >>

Health checks for degus

A healthy, happy deguwill have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose, a glossy coat. If cared for properly and given the right nutrition, degus are generally healthy animals, although they can suffer from a certain illnesses.

Animal charity Wood Green says: “Degus can be prone to dental problems. Unless they have inherited them from their parents, dental problems are usually due to a poor diet or even an inappropriate environment. Degus can be prone to diabetes – especially if they’ve been fed an unsuitable diet including sugary treats like fruits and chew bars. It can be managed by improving their diet.”

RSPCA advises: “It's worth familiarising yourself with the symptoms of common degu illnesses, such as vitamin A deficiency, liver disease, diabetes, tail loss, heat stroke, pneumonia and other respiratory infections.”

The charity recommends checking your degus every day for signs of illness or injury, such as:

  • Discharge from the nose
  • Wetness around the mouth
  • Opaque whitening of the eyes
  • White teeth as degus' teeth are naturally a yellow-orange colour, white teeth can be a sign of poor health. Degus' teeth grow quickly and should be checked at least every week to ensure they're the correct colour, length and shape. Only a vet should correct overgrown or misaligned teeth.

If your degu’s behaviour or their eating and drinking patterns change, take them to a specialist vet as soon as possible.

Get all the info on behaviour, training, housing, companionship, health and nutrition for your degus >>


At Burgess, all our foods for small pets is made at our factory in the heart of Yorkshire, using only ingredients that meet our stringent specifications. With a long tradition of supporting British famers, we actively source all our ingredients as close to our mill as possible. It’s no surprise that 92% of UK vets recommend our Burgess Excel small pets range!

Are your guinea pigs Burgess guinea pigs? Are your chinchillas Burgess chins? Your pet rats, Burgess pet rats? Your gerbils, Burgess gerbils? Your hamsters Burgess hamsters? Your degus, Burgess degus? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

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