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Vitamin C deficiency in the guinea pig
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Vitamin C deficiency in the guinea pig

This vitamin is essential for numerous cellular functions, including the metabolism of cholesterol to bile acids, amino acids, and carbohydrates and the formation and cross-linking of hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine in collagen. If a deficiency occurs, this will lead to destruction of collagen and intercellular ground substances, causing a variety of problems throughout the body. Most guinea pigs will show signs of vitamin C deficiency within 2 weeks if it is not provided.

Clinical signs of vitamin C deficiency

  • Lethargy – most become weak and unwilling to move about.
  • Diarrhoea – gastrointestinal damage will reduce fluid absorption.
  • Ocular discharge – check for discharge from eyes and nostrils.
  • Poor coat – many guinea pigs with vitamin C deficiency will have an unkempt appearance. They can develop brittle hair and alopecia.
  • Joint pain – look for abnormal movement such as hopping instead of walking. On palpation some joints will become noticeably swollen and painful.
  • Petechial haemorrhages – check for evidence of this on mucous membranes and in the skin. You may notice bleeding gums or bruising.
  • Haematuria – this may also be present.
  • Weight loss – this may result from a poor appetite. Monitor their weight regularly for early signs. 

How much vitamin C is required?

The recommended requirement for vitamin C is 10mg/kg bodyweight per day, although this should be increased to 30mg/kg/ day during gestation or between 50mg/kg/day and 100mg/ kg/day when diagnosed as being deficient.

When are they at risk?

  • There is plenty of individual variation, but signs can begin to develop in as little as 2 weeks if no vitamin C is provided at all. Most clinicians are aware of the need for the guinea pig’s diet to be supplemented, but are you aware that the levels of vitamin C quoted on the food label can be affected by environmental conditions. Levels can be significantly reduced by dampness, light, heat, and prolonged storage, with as much 50% of Vitamin C levels being lost in less than 6 months.

Top tips:

  • Store commercial guinea pig food in dry, cool conditions.
  • Never feed rabbit food to guinea pigs as the vitamin C levels are too low
  • Fresh hay, herbs, kale, parsley and spinach can be offered to supply additional vitamin C.  
  • Vitamin C added to water will rapidly lose potency and therefore  shouldn’t be used as a primary source. Water in an open container may lose up to 50% of its vitamin C content in 24 hr.

Long-term effects

Once a deficiency develops, it can be treated with vitamin C supplementation, but some of the side effects may persist for the rest of the guinea pig’s life.

  • Dental disease – damage to the teeth may result in a lifelong and potentially fatal problem. Radiographs and examination under GA will be required to make a full and complete assessment.
  • Arthritis – the degenerative changes associated with Vitamin C deficiency are painful. Long-term management with nsaid’s may be required.
  • Gastro-intestinal stasis – this may show as bloat or constipation. The effects can be sudden onset and life threatening.

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