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Vet Speak: Lots to think about before you take on a guinea pig

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Guinea pigs make good pets – including for children – but need special care.
Guinea pigs make good pets – including for children – but need special care.

Thelma was a wonderfully vocal three-year-old Abyssinian guinea pig brought into the surgery as she had been quieter than normal and off her food. She had also lost some weight.

On examination it was noted she had obvious, overgrown cheek teeth which were causing her some pain, and so dental treatment was advised.

Guinea pigs, or cavies, are curious, characterful and fascinating animals that can make ideal children’s pets when they are kept correctly.

One of their most common health problems is dental disease, often because of an incorrect diet. This can result in overgrowth and “spurring” of teeth, causing pain and ulceration of the surrounding gum and cheek tissues.

Guinea pigs are prone to dental problems as they have continuously growing teeth and so require a diet high in fibre, for example a good quality timothy or grass hay and a small amount of a pelleted diet and fresh vegetables. They must have daily access to a high fibrous food to make sure their digestive systems work properly, and to help wear down their teeth. Avoid too many “treats” such as starchy vegetables like carrot/parsnip or sugary fruits. They can be very fussy eaters so any diet change needs to be done gradually. Make sure they also have a constant supply of clean drinking water.

Other common health problems in guinea pigs include Vitamin C deficiency, diabetes, urinary tract infections, bladder stones, skin disease and heart disease.

Similarly, like humans, guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C, so they must obtain this vitamin from their diet. This should be supplemented in the form of daily fresh greens such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and parsley. Vitamin C can also be added to their drinking water in a supplemented liquid form, but this water should always be changed daily. Signs of a Vitamin C deficiency include lameness, swelling of joints, teeth problems, lethargy, skin sores and poor wound healing. Since vitamin C is present in small amounts in many foods, this is a disease that tends to occur very slowly over some time. Some complete pelleted diets do have added vitamin C, but often not enough. There is a potential risk that when guinea pigs are fed a muesli-style diet they may selectively feed, eating only certain elements such as the high sugar components, which can also lead to nutritional imbalances. Feeding a single component good quality, pelleted, nugget-type diet will prevent this.

House your guinea pig in a clean roomy hutch with plenty of deep, clean, dust-free wood shavings, and fresh hay as bedding to prevent foot problems such as “Bumblefoot” which causes painful swellings. Guinea pigs are very sociable animals and should be kept in same sex pairs or small groups.

They are gentle animals so do get them used to gentle handing from an early age and always use both hands to gently pick them up, using a hand underneath the hindquarters as a support and holding them close to you to let them feel secure.

Thelma recovered well and her diet was adjusted to allow plenty of rough hay and regular dental check-ups were advised every three months.

If you need any advice about guinea pig care and health, contact your vet.

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

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