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Vet Speak: Follow these tips to keep guinea pigs happy and healthy

By Alison Laurie-Chalmers

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Guinea pigs are very social animals. Picture: Sandos, via Wikimedia Commons.
Guinea pigs are very social animals. Picture: Sandos, via Wikimedia Commons.

I remember my son had great fun with his two lovely guinea pigs – Norma and Flo, writes Alison Laurie-Chalmers.

Guinea pigs are wonderfully sociable animals, and they can make ideal pets for children. As guinea pigs are naturally social, they can get lonely.

They are happiest kept in pairs and will then be content and more entertaining pets, though avoid pairing male and female guinea pigs together. However, interactions with other pets should always be carefully supervised. Never leave a guinea pig unattended in the presence of another animal which could potentially be predatory to them.

When providing housing for guinea pigs, keep the housing area dry and free from drafts and house guinea pigs in a clean, roomy hutch with plenty of deep, clean, dust free wood shavings, and fresh clean hay. Plenty of soft, deep, clean bedding is important to avoid foot problems.

Related: Vet Speak: Cat bites can lead to serious health issues for your pet

Guinea pigs need a high- fibre diet to keep their teeth healthy, supplemented with vitamin C, as they lack the enzyme to synthesise this vitamin and can only store it for short periods.

Guinea pigs are prone to dental problems as they have continuously growing teeth, so they do require a diet high in fibre. The majority, 85 to 90 per cent, of their diet should be a top-quality, feeding hay. They must have daily access to hay as a high fibrous food to make sure that their digestive systems work properly, and to help wear down their growing teeth.

They cannot make their own vitamin C, and so they must obtain this vitamin from their diet. This should be supplemented in the form of daily fresh greens, such as kale, broccoli, and parsley, always fed though in moderation. The best way to ensure they get enough vitamin C, without causing a tummy upset, is to provide them with a daily teacup full of fresh greens. Feed no more than a teacup-sized amount a day though, alongside their guinea pig hay and nuggets every day.

Vitamin C can also be added to drinking water in a carefully dosed, supplemented liquid form, but this water should always be changed daily, as vitamin C degrades quickly. Signs of a vitamin C deficiency include lameness, swelling of joints, teeth problems, lethargy, skin sores and poor wound healing. Some complete pelleted diets do have added vitamin C, but often not enough. Guinea pigs don’t naturally eat fruit or root vegetables, but you can include them in small amounts as treats. This could be small pieces of carrot or celery, a cherry tomato, a little bit of banana or an apple quarter. Fresh fruit is a nice treat; however, it is high in sugar and can cause weight gain.

There is the potential risk that when guinea pigs are fed a “muesli” style diet that they may then “selectively” feed. This is when animals only eat certain elements of their diet, such as the high sugar components, and this can then lead to nutritional imbalances, such as vitamin C deficiency. Feeding a single component, good quality, pelleted, “nugget”-type diet will prevent selective feeding. Around five per cent of your guinea pigs’ daily diet should comprise of a tablespoon-sized portion of high-fibre, guinea pig nuggets, containing essential carefully balanced vitamins and minerals.

For feeding use a heavy food bowl that cannot be tipped, and fresh clean water should always be available in an easy-to-reach water bottle and heavy ceramic bowl. Food bowls and water bottles should be cleaned out and refilled with fresh food and water daily.

For advice on guinea pig care and health, call your vet for tips and to arrange a general health check-up if you are concerned about your pet’s health.

n Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets.

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