Guinea pig health
It's really upsetting if you're worried one of your guinea pigs is ill. Knowing the signs to look out for, as well as the simple steps you can take to check your guinea pigs, will help you keep them happy and healthy.
The best way to know if your guinea pigs are healthy is to do a daily health check for them.
- Check their face and eyes- check their eyes are bright and open, they don’t have weepy eyes or a runny nose and their mouth is closed and clean with no teeth poking out. Don’t forget to check their ears too by gently lifting their ear flaps.
- Check their coat- healthy guinea pig coats should be clean with no bald patches, tangles or lumps in the skin.
- Check their back end- your guinea pigs should have a clean, dry back end. It’s also important to check they don’t have any poo stuck in their bottom or a faecal impaction.
- Check their feet- check their nails aren’t too long or curling under and that their feet don’t have any sores or wounds. Make sure your guinea pig is able to move around without stiffness or limping.
Many guinea pigs need brushing and grooming regularly. If they have a long or very thick coat, your guinea pigs will need a daily brush to remove any knots and tangles from their fur. Shorthaired guinea pigs will enjoy a brush once or twice a week to help keep their coats in tiptop condition.
It’s important to watch your guinea pigs and learn about their behaviour and routine each day, you'll quickly learn what's normal for them. This will make it easier for you to spot any signs that they're under the weather.
Symptoms of illness in guinea pigs
You should always monitor your guinea pigs for any symptoms of illness. As guinea pigs are prey animals (meaning in the wild they might get eaten by predator animals) they often try to hide symptoms of disease which might make them look weak or an easy target. This means it’s important to look out for any change in their usual behaviour- even small changes can sometimes be because one of your guinea pigs is feeling poorly.
Symptoms to look for include:
- Eating less or not eating
- Signs of pain for example grinding their teeth, not wanting to be touched or squeaking loudly
- Big weight loss or weight gain (especially over a short time)
- Swellings, lumps and bumps
- Fast, noisy or heavy breathing
- Drinking or peeing more
- Lack of energy/sleeping more than usual
- Skin rashes, flaky skin or hair loss
- Bleeding (or finding blood in their cage)
- Runny eye or nose - especially if the eyes are red or the discharge is thick
- Overgrown teeth
Guinea pig health problems
Guinea pigs can get a lot of different health problems, just like people and other pets. If you see any symptoms of illness or you’re worried about one of your guinea pigs, it’s important to contact your vet for advice.
Skin problems can be caused by a number of different things, for example mites, infections, ringworm, stress or over-grooming (when they or one of their companions groom too much and pull out the fur).
Common signs of skin problems include:
- Hair loss or bald patches
- Red skin
- Scaly/ flaky skin
- Ulcers, wounds or scabs
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to contact your vet. Skin problems in guinea pigs can be very uncomfortable or painful and tend to get worse over time, so it’s a good idea to get help for them even if their signs only seem mild at first.
Most commonly, breathing problems in one of your guinea pigs will be caused by pneumonia or infections- but they can also be caused other issues such as heart problems and stress. Guinea pigs can also suffer from heat stroke if they get too hot which can lead to severe breathing problems and sadly can be fatal, so it’s important to take steps to keep your guinea pigs safe in hot weather.
Symptoms of breathing problems include:
- Breathing quicker than normal
- Discharge from the nose
- Heavy breathing
- Struggling to breathe
If one of your guinea pigs is having difficulty breathing, this is an emergency and you’ll need to contact your vet straight away while giving them first aid.
If you find a lump on one of your guinea pigs it can be really worrying. It’s important to remember that not all lumps you find will be a tumour or lead to lots of problems. Abscesses, warts, and infected or impacted scent glands can all lead to skin lumps and many of these conditions can be treated or cured by your vet. It’s important to check your guinea pigs for lumps regularly- for some guinea pigs you may need to feel for the lumps, especially if they have long fur which can hide small swellings or bumps, so stroking your guinea pig is an important part of their daily health check. If you find a new lump on one of your guinea pigs it’s a good idea to take a photo of it, make a note of where it is and see if you can compare its size to a common household object, such as a 5p or 10p coin. It’s important to get any new or changing lumps checked by your vet, especially if they are red, bleeding, painful, look infected or seem to be causing problems.
Dental problems are common in guinea pigs and it’s really important to take steps to look after their teeth to try to prevent them. Guinea pigs’ teeth keep growing throughout their lives, so if they don’t wear them down they can grow too long, cutting your guinea pigs’ gums, cheek and tongue as well as leading to abscesses. Common symptoms of dental problems include drooling, not eating or eating less, teeth that look too long or out of place (especially the front teeth/ incisors) and swellings on the jaw or face. Dental disease can lead to serious problems if not treated, so it’s really important to get your guinea pig checked by your vet if you’re concerned.
The most common causes of stomach upsets in guinea pigs include sudden changes in diet, infections and parasites. The main symptoms to watch for include diarrhoea or loose droppings, not eating or eating less and weight loss. Stomach upsets in guinea pigs can quickly become very serious, especially if they lose lots of fluid or stop eating and drinking, as they can become very dehydrated and lethargic (having low energy). It’s also important to check for signs of ‘faecal impaction’, where poo gets stuck inside the rectum and around the bottom. This can be very uncomfortable for your guinea pig, so it’s important to check their back end every day. If you see any signs of stomach problems, it’s best to call your vet for help. This is especially important if your guinea pig has stopped eating or has severe diarrhoea.
You can usually see signs of any ear problems or ear infections when you do your daily health checks. Symptoms of ear problems include itching or scratching, redness to the ears, lots of wax or discharge, painful ears and a bad smell. In extreme cases, ear problems can spread to the middle and inner ear which leads to balance problems such as tilting the head to one side all the time, turning in circles or rolling over again and again. If you think one of your guinea pigs has an ear problem it’s important to contact your vet for help, especially if they have any severe symptoms or seem to be in pain.
Eye problems will usually cause symptoms such as redness, weeping eyes, eye discharge, or cloudy eyes. There are many different causes of eye problems, some of the most common include infections, injuries or ulcers and cataracts. Eye problems can progress very quickly, so if you notice any problems with one of your guinea pig’s eyes it’s important to get them checked by your vet as soon as possible.
Fits and seizures in guinea pigs can be very frightening for owners but are thankfully uncommon. If one of your guinea pigs has a seizure it could be an emergency. It’s important to contact your vet straight away and give your guinea pig first aid. Once your guinea pig has come round from the seizure, it’s important to keep them with their companion to help them stay calm and quiet.
Looking after your guinea pigs' teeth
Your guinea pigs’ teeth will keep growing throughout their life. They need plenty of things to chew as this helps wear down their teeth and stops them getting overgrown. You can help keep their teeth in good shape by:
- Giving them a constant supply of good quality feeding hay. It’s a really important part of their diet and helps keep their teeth in good condition.
- Making sure you feed them the correct diet.
- Give them gnawing blocks, toys or tunnels made of safe wood and plenty of things to chew on.
- Avoid sugary treats like ‘honey sticks’.
If one of your guinea pig’s teeth do get overgrown or they stop eating, it’s important you contact your vet as soon as possible. They will be able to check their teeth and discuss how best to help.
Stopping your guinea pigs from getting bored
Mental wellbeing is important for guinea pigs, just as much as physical health. Boredom and stress can cause a lot of problems for guinea pigs. If they don’t have enough to do it can make them depressed and more likely to overeat and put on weight or become obese.
You can keep them occupied with the right enclosure and lots of things to explore and play with:
- Cardboard boxes and untreated logs from safe trees give your guinea pigs things to explore and hide in.
- You can also buy toys for small pets from pet shops.
- Guinea pigs get scared easily so give them large tubs, boxes, pots and tunnels where they can hide.
- Keep some toys stored away and swap them around regularly – this stops your guinea pigs getting fed up of the same old toys and gives you a chance to clean them.
- Let them search out their food. Scatter food around their enclosure and hide it in boxes and tubs. They’ll have loads of fun sniffing it out.
- You should always keep guinea pigs in pairs or small groups of their own kind. When kept alone, guinea pigs often become stressed, depressed and bored. If you have a guinea pig who’s on their own or has lost their partner, you can find out more about how to find them a friend in our article about introducing guinea pigs.
Neutering your guinea pigs
Sometimes it is recommended to neuter one (or more) of your guinea pigs to keep them healthy and happy. This is especially important if you are keeping them in male-female pairs or groups. Neutering can come with health benefits but it can also come with risks. Most commonly, vets will neuter male guinea pigs but it is also possible to neuter female guinea pigs. If you’re thinking of neutering your guinea pigs, it’s best to speak to your vet to find out what is best for them.
Finding a vet
It’s a good idea to have your guinea pig checked regularly by your vet to see that they are fit and well. Vets often offer an annual check-up for your guinea pigs, which is a great opportunity to ask any questions and check your guinea pigs are healthy. Some vets have extra training in guinea pigs or small pet species and they will often have more experience and special equipment to help them treat your guinea pigs. Speak to your vet to see if they can recommend one of these vets, or if they have anyone at the practice who has a special interest in guinea pigs, especially if your guinea pig has any complicated health problems. You can find a local vet using the yellow pages, online or though RCVS FindAVet. You should always take your guinea pigs to the vets together even if only one of them has symptoms, unless your vet has asked you just to bring your ill guinea pig, as they will often become stressed if they are separated.