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Guinea Pig Illnesses: Prevention, Treatment, Hospice
Guinea pigs are wonderful pets for all ages, especially for children. Whether you already have a guinea pig or are thinking of purchasing one, however, it’s important to realize that the happiness they bring can be easily tainted by sickness and even death. After caring for more than 20 guinea pigs over the years, I have pretty much seen it all. Thankfully, some illnesses can be prevented or treated successfully, with many guinea pigs living 5-6 years or more; in fact, that is considered typical. So, I’ll leave you with those positive thoughts as we get into examples (this is not a full listing) of what can go wrong.
A Sensitive Nature
Changes you consider small can be catastrophic to guinea pigs, both physically and emotionally. Adjustments in feeding, for example, such as eliminating their pellet diet, can cause a guinea pig to stop eating with death following close behind. If you end up force-feeding, you must be careful not to cause aspiration. Feed through the side of the mouth, pushing in 1/2-1 cc at a time through the syringe.
Regulating temperature is also important. A chilled guinea pig can easily get a cold, which is very dangerous; overheating is just as worrisome. They don't like location changes either but will usually adapt. Teach proper handling to children, too; I once heard of a child whose guinea pig died from a hug that was too tight. Guinea pigs should be held firmly, but not tightly, in the crook of the arm.
Finally, they get scared very easily. I once had a guinea pig literally drop “dead” of fright after I made a sudden move. Vigorously rubbing her limp form revived her, but it was quite a scary experience and an important lesson.
Overgrown Nails and Teeth
Thankfully, this problem can be prevented easily. Guinea pigs' teeth and nails grow continuously, so providing their hard pellet diet is essential, as well as cutting their nails every 2-3 months. You can buy guinea pig nail cutters and do it yourself, but be sure to ask your vet for a demonstration first to avoid cutting into the quick. The light-colored nails are pretty easy, but the dark nails can be tricky; if you do make the nails bleed, don't panic. Apply Kwik-Stop powder to the bleeding nail; a soap bar or dry flour can work just as well.
When 2-year old Cocoa took a nap and never woke up, it was a total shock. Although there were multiple professional opinions on the cause, one view was that he died from the bedding being used at the time. Cedar bedding in particular and Pine to a lesser extent has dangerous toxins, so please only use Aspen. After experimenting for a while, I finally settled on a newspaper spread and shredded paper for my guinea pigs; it was less expensive, didn’t cause injuries, and best of all, they loved it! There are also some foods that are dangerous, including potato peels, iceberg lettuce, raw beans, cabbage, and whole nuts.
This very common illness is caused by a vitamin C deficiency. To help prevent scurvy, supplement your guinea pig's diet with vitamin C. There are various forms available, so talk to your vet. If you’re advised to add Vita-Drops to the water, make sure your guinea pig drinks it; you might have bigger problems otherwise. If you face rejection, keep trying frequently, and s/he will likely get used to it quickly. If prevention doesn't work, scurvy can thankfully be easily treated; the sooner it's caught, the sooner it's cured.
While common, too, they are basically untreatable and death is inevitable. However, guinea pigs react differently to being sick. Most of them rapidly give up the will to live, but this is not always the case. When Chaviv was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he didn't give up at all. Despite frequent seizures, he continued to drink normally and eat as much as he could. Chaviv ate cherry tomatoes by the box (not recommended under normal circumstances) and seemed to think that he could eat his way out of being sick. He was indeed a trooper who fought until the end.
Caused by an over production of oils in the body, these extra oils can eventually make the hair mat and cause infections later on in life. Giving frequent baths and brushing talcum powder (formulated for guinea pigs) through the fur can be very helpful. Using corn starch instead of guinea pig talcum powder is acceptable but will only eliminate some of the extra oils.
The most important message to take from all this is that if your guinea pig is acting strange, take him/her to your vet immediately! What may not seem urgent might be fatal. In addition, please don’t regret having gotten your guinea pig or decide you’ll never have one; the positive aspects really do outweigh the risks. With an armory of prevention techniques I discuss above, along with some luck, you might end up with a healthy and happy guinea pig for many years!