Unlike dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets, guinea pigs 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 a weekly health check yourself. As with all healthcare issues, prevention is better than cure – and spotting problems early can make all the difference to your guinea pigs enjoying a speedy recovery or becoming very ill.
Burgess in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes advises: “A healthy guinea pig should appear alert and inquisitive with bright eyes and a healthy-looking coat. As prey animals, guineas can be very good at hiding any health issues so that they don’t appear vulnerable. This is why it’s essential that you become familiar with what’s ‘normal’ for your pets. Even the smallest thing that’s out of the ordinary – whether that’s not rushing out to receive fresh food straightaway, their poo looking smaller than usual, or just quiet, hunched behaviour – these are signs that something’s not right. If you have any concerns, act quickly and consult your vet.”
Guinea pig health checklist
To help your pets feel secure and relaxed, and to reduce their movement while you’re carrying out their health check, gently sit them in a loosely wrapped towel.
Check your guineas eyes are clear and fully open. If you notice any crust in their eyes, this may be the result of an underlying health problem. A small amount of white discharge is common when guinea pigs are grooming themselves, but if this increases or decreases, or there is a discharge at other times, it may mean your guinea pig is ill, so always contact your vet.
Ears should be clean and smooth. Look out for any unusual markings as these may be the result of infection. Watch to see if there is any scratching or rubbing of ears or head shaking, as this may be an indication of ear mites.
Ensure your guineas nose is clean and free from any liquids, if you notice liquid or discharge, make an appointment with your vet.
Mouth and teeth
Your guinea pigs’ mouths should be free from sores or crusty build up. Their teeth grow very quickly and should be checked to ensure they are not overgrown, broken or loose. If you notice any problems, seek professional advice – only a vet should correct overgrown or misaligned teeth. Make sure the bulk of their diet is good quality feeding hay, which will help to keep their teeth healthy.
DID YOU KNOW?
17% of owners take their guinea pigs to the vet once a year
33% of owners take their guinea pigs to the vets less than once a year
Only 3% of owners have their guinea pigs insured
Source: Burgess Great British Guinea Pig Census
A guinea pig’s skin should be pink, supple and healthy looking – red skin could indicate parasitic, bacterial or fungal infection. Ensure you check under the chin, under the belly and around the legs. If your pet winces or squeaks, it could indicate an issue with their skin.
Body and fur
Feel over their body for any lumps and bumps. These often appear under their chin, along their back or in their armpit area. Fur should be dense and clean with no bald patches or flaking. Short-haired varieties can be brushed once a week, but long-hairs require daily grooming because their coat gets easily tangled and matted. If you do find a small knot, its best to cut it out rather than trying to comb it out. Guinea pig skin is very delicate and it will cause them pain if you tug at it. Brush long-haired guinea pigs more frequently when they are shedding to avoid them swallowing any loose hair when they clean themselves as this could result in digestive problems caused by hairballs.
Check your guineas feet for red patches or sores and run your fingers along their pads and monitor for any flinching. Hard surfaces or wire mesh cages that are not suitably covered can result in swollen paws and the development of pressure sores on the soles of their feet, leading to a condition known as ‘bumblefoot’. As well as being very uncomfortable for your pet, if left untreated, it can spread to the bone tissue of the feet and legs. You can prevent foot issues by always ensuring that the flooring of your guinea pigs’ accommodation is covered with soft, comfortable Timothy hay. When you take your guinea pigs out to socialise with them, never put them down on hard surfaces. Always opt for grass or something soft and cushioned.
Nails shouldn’t be overlong or damaged and will need to be clipped regularly with good quality pet nail clippers or they will start to curl, making it difficult for your cavy to move around. You need to trim just the tips of the nails avoiding the ‘quick’, which will cause the nail to bleed and be painful. If you don’t feel happy doing this yourself, it’s best to leave it to a vet or a veterinary nurse.
Start a regular log of your guinea pigs’ health checks by keeping a health diary. Note down anything – from an unusual lump, to flaky skin or eye discharge. Your vet will find this really useful when it comes to diagnosing and treating any health problems.
Round the back
You should check the fur and skin around your guinea pig’s rear end regularly – daily in warm weather. Urine staining or droppings that are stuck will attract flies, which can cause ‘flystrike’ – a painful, sometimes fatal, condition caused by flies laying eggs that hatch into maggots and eat their host’s flesh. Guinea pigs also have a grease gland that is situated under their tail stump. This gland should be cleaned with a little warm water every time you groom them as it can become rather smelly, particularly on male guineas.
Keeping your GP at a healthy weight is an essential part of being a good pet owner. The RSPCA recommends weighing your guinea pigs on a weekly basis and writing down their weights so that you can look out for any changes. Use some small scales, such as kitchen scales. As a guide, adult males usually weigh between 800-1200g, females 800-1000g.
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Guinea pigs have been popular pets for generations. Today, we are better informed about how to care for these friendly little creatures, so that we can provide them with everything they need to enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.
Take a closer look at your guinea pigs’ diet
Wild guinea pigs naturally eat a diet of grasses, plants, vegetables and crops. As exotic pets, piggies require a specialist diet to meet all their nutritional requirements. Our in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes is on hand with expert advice.