Veterinary Care

Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs are a favorite companion animal among children because of their docile behavior, ease of handling, and clean, quiet nature.

Guinea pigs exist in an array of colors and coat types. Five primary varieties are encountered in the pet industry. The shorthaired or English is characterized by a uniformly short hair coat. The Abyssinian has whorls or rosettes in his short, rough, wiry coat. The Peruvian is recognized by his very long silky hair. These three types are most commonly kept as companion animals. The silky and teddy bear varieties are encountered less frequently. The silky is a large variety distinguished by its medium length silky hair. The teddy bear has medium length hair of normal consistency. The average life span for a guinea pig is 4 to 5 years. The following information is designed to help you take the best possible care of your Guinea pig.

A Guinea pig's diet should be composed of fresh guinea pig pellets, fresh greens and fruits, and good quality timothy or hay grass.

Pellets - Commercially available pelleted food provides all the essential nutrients required by guinea pigs, as long as the pellets are fresh and wholesome. These pellets contain 18 to 20% protein, 16% fiber and approximately 1 gram of vitamin C per kilogram of ration. Guinea pigs less than 4 months old can be fed unlimited pellets, but adult Guinea pigs should be limited to 1 tablespoon of pellet daily. Small quantities of pellets purchased frequently and refrigerated assure freshness.

Do not substitute rabbit pellets for Guinea pig pellets. Guinea pigs require high levels of folic acid and vitamin C in their diets, and rabbit pellets do not provide these requirements.

All foods should be provided in heavy ceramic crocks that resist both tipping and chewing. The crocks should be high enough to keep bedding and fecal pellets out of food, but low enough for easy access by the animal.

Fresh foods - In addition to pellets, fresh greens or fruits with a high vitamin C content should be offered at 1/2 to 1 cup daily. The fresh items must be thoroughly washed to avoid exposing your pet to pesticide residues or bacterial contamination. Recommended fresh foods include: turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, parsley, collard greens, guavas, broccoli florets & leaves, beet greens, cauliflower, strawberries, honeydew melon, spinach, raspberries, rutabaga, oranges, and cabbage.

Hay (timothy or grass hay) - To supplement the pellets and fresh foods, your Guinea pig's diet should include a good quality timothy or grass hay to provide the fiber necessary for digestion.

Water - Water should always be available and changed daily. The container should be a water bottle equipped with a sipper tube. Guinea pigs tend to contaminate and destroy their water bottles by chewing on the end of the sipper tube and "backwashing" food particles into it. For this reason, it is imperative that all food and water containers be cleaned and disinfected daily.

Cages - Guinea pigs can be housed within enclosures made of stainless steel, durable plastic or glass. Approximately 100 square inches of solid floor area per adult guinea pig is recommended. The enclosure can remain open on the top if the sides are at least 10 inches high. Cages need to be cleaned and disinfected weekly. They may have to be cleaned more frequently depending on the number of animals in the cage and the type of bedding used.

Because of their sensitive nature, Guinea pigs are more comfortable and relaxed when housed in a quiet spot away from noise, excitement and other such stresses.

Bedding - Acceptable bedding materials for Guinea pigs are wood shavings, shredded paper, processed ground corncobs and commercial pellets. Do not use cedar shavings or sawdust as bedding. They can be harmful to your pet.

Temperature - Guinea pigs thrive in a dry, cool environment with adequate ventilation. Avoid placing their cage in direct sunlight or cold, damp areas. Since they are nocturnal (active at night), Guinea pigs require periods of light to rest.

Multiple guinea pigs - Since Guinea pigs are social creatures, more than one animal may be safely housed together. In addition, males and females can remain in the same enclosure indefinitely. However, it is highly recommended to have them spayed or neutered in this situation. New males may occasionally fight in the presence of females, and older, dominant animals may chew on the ears or fur of subordinate cage mates.

Generally, Guinea pigs are docile, non-aggressive animals and should be handled frequently to enhance their well-being. Guinea pigs rarely bite or scratch when handled. They usually voice their protest simply by letting out a high-pitched squeal. They may, however, struggle when picked up or restrained. Extreme care should be taken not to injure them during handling. A Guinea pig should be picked up with both hands; one hand placed under the animal's chest and abdomen, while the other hand supports his hindquarters.

Slobbers/dental malocclusion - This is a condition in which the fur under the jaw and down the neck remains wet from the constant drooling of saliva. The primary cause is overgrowth of the premolars and/or molars, and most often occurs in older (2 to 3 years of age) Guinea pigs. A veterinarian must be consulted as soon as this condition is suspected. Treatment involves trimming or filing the overgrown teeth.

Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) - The symptoms of scurvy include poor appetite; swollen, painful joints and ribs; reluctance to move; poor bone and teeth development; and spontaneous bleeding. If left untreated this disease can be fatal. Early treatment is essential. Your pet's veterinarian should be contacted at the first sign of this disease.

Barbering (hair chewing) - Hair loss is a common problem in Guinea pigs. Barbering usually occurs when one Guinea pig chews on the hair of another who is lower in the social "pecking order." There is no treatment for this condition except separating them if it becomes a serious problem. Hair loss can also be caused by mites. If you notice excessive scratching and self-imposed wounds, wild running and circling, and numerous spots of hair loss, contact your pet's veterinarian.

Heat stress (stroke) - Guinea pigs are very susceptible to heat stroke, particularly those who are overweight or heavily furred. Temperatures over 85 degrees, high humidity, inadequate shade and ventilation, overcrowding and other stresses may contribute to heat stress. Signs of heat stroke include panting, slobbering, weakness, reluctance to move, convulsions and, ultimately, death. Immediate treatment involves misting or bathing the Guinea pig in cool water or applying rubbing alcohol only to his foot pads. Veterinary assistance should be sought immediately.

Pneumonia, intestinal infection, and lice are other diseases Guinea pigs may encounter. Symptoms such as difficulty breathing, nasal & occular discharges, lethargy, lack of appetite, lack of coordination, or diarrhea signify that a veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

(Some information within taken with permission from "Caring for Guinea Pigs," Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Illinois.)

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