Common Problems in Guinea Pigs

At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery we treat a large number of guinea pigs for various health problems. Many of them are preventable, nearly all of them are much easier to treat if alert owners detect early signs of problems and seek veterinary attention before letting it get out of control.

Signs of illness

Guinea Pigs that are unwell show a range of signs that can indicate ill-health. If you see these signs, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. DO NOT waste time with pet shop remedies – these are invariably useless, and cost you and your pig valuable time and money.

General signs of Illness

  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • lethargy

Skin Problems

  • Excessive hair loss (bald areas appearing)
  • Excessive scratching, licking or chewing
  • dry, brittle hair coat
  • increased dander on the skin
  • sores and scabs

Dental Disease

  • Saliva staining the chin and neck (‘Slobbers’)
  • Interest in food and attempting to eat, but stops eating after 1 or 2 bites
  • Diarrhoea
  • Weight loss

Urinary Tract Disease

  • Straining to urinate, may make noises while doing so
  • Blood in the urine
  • white sludge in the urine

Dental Disease

What is it?
Guinea pigs have two types of teeth – the front teeth (incisors) which are used for biting food and bringing it into the mouth, and the cheek teeth (molars) which are used for chewing the food. All these teeth grow continuously and are worn down by chewing on fibrous food (grass and hay).

Guinea pigs get several problems with their teeth: overgrown teeth; tooth root abscesses; and malocclusion (where the teeth don’t align properly).

What causes dental disease?
For good dental health, guinea pigs need two things – strong jaw bones and a good diet.

The jaw bone strength comes from two things – the shape of the jaw (affected by genetics and trauma), and the strength of the bone itself (affected by diet and Vitamin D3). The precursor of Vitamin D3 is produced by a chemical reaction on the skin triggered by UVB radiation found in direct, unfiltered sunlight. When the pig grooms itself, it swallows this precursor; in the body it is converted to Vitamin D3, which is then used to absorb calcium out of the diet. So, guinea pigs that are kept indoors (without unfiltered sunlight) can become calcium deficient and develop weak, soft jaw bones.

Guinea pigs require adequate levels of fibre, minerals and vitamins in their diet to remain healthy (see the care sheet Feeding Guinea Pigs). A diet that is low in calcium and/or Vitamin C will lead to soft jaw bones and loose teeth. Guinea pigs need to chew sufficient fibrous food (grass and hay) to keep their teeth worn down and prevent overgrowth.

How can I prevent dental disease in my guinea pigs?

To prevent dental disease in your guinea pig, you need to:

  1. ensure your guinea pig gets plenty of unfiltered sunlight. At a minimum, 1 hour of sunlight, three times a week, is essential.
  2. ensure your guinea pig is getting plenty of fibrous food (grass and hay) to chew
  3. ensure your guinea pig is getting enough Vitamin C

My pig may have dental disease; what do I do?

If your pig shows signs of dental disease (see above), urgent veterinary attention is necessary. At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery we treat a large number of guinea pigs with dental problems. Things we may have to do include: skull Xrays to assess the jaw bone and the teeth alignment; endoscopic evaluation of the teeth under anaesthesia; trimming of overgrown teeth; extraction of abscessed teeth; and treatment to relieve pain and get your pig feeling better, quickly.

Things to avoid:

  1. feeding pet shop ‘guinea pig mixes’ – these are high in grain (low in calcium) and do not have enough fibre or Vitamin C to keep your guinea pig healthy.
  2. giving your guinea pigs ‘sticks’ to chew on to wear the teeth down – this is totally unnatural and an inefficient way to do this.

Skin Disease in Guinea Pigs
Skin disease in guinea pigs is caused by several things – external parasites (mites and lice); Vitamin C deficiency (Scurvy); hormonal problems (ovarian cysts); and skin infections (especially ringworm). Affected guinea pigs may be itchy, lose hair, and have scaly skin. At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery we have seen some guinea pigs become so itchy they have scratched huge holes in their skin.

Correct treatment for skin conditions requires an accurate diagnosis, which can only be made by a vet familiar with guinea pigs. A thorough assessment of diet and husbandry, careful examination of the skin, skin scrapings and microscopic examination of the hair and skin are needed to correctly diagnose your guinea pig’s skin condition.

Preventing skin conditions requires that you: feed your guinea pigs a healthy diet (Feeding Guinea Pigs); maintain good hygiene in the hutch; and treat new arrivals for mites. At the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery we recommend RevolutionR for mites; the lice and mite sprays sold in many pet shops are virtually useless. Guinea pigs with ovarian cystic disease may require desexing; we have tried various hormonal treatments with some degree of success, but we are starting to see an increased incidence of fibroids (ovarian cancer) in guinea pigs that have had hormonal treatments.

Urinary Tract Disease

For some reason, many guinea pigs develop cystitis, bladder stones, kidney stones and calcium sludge in their bladders. Affected pigs show clinical signs as described above. We are still unsure why this happens, but we suspect poor diet and genetics play large roles in this problem.

To diagnose this problem we need to examine your pig, take X-rays and sometimes ultrasound your pig’s bladder and kidneys. Treatment requires fluids, antibiotics, pain relief, and sometimes surgery to flush the bladder or remove stones.

This is a painful and debilitating condition. If you suspect your pig has urinary tract disease, you need to seek veterinary attention immediately.