Guinea pigs make wonderful pets. Unlike other rodents they make quite a lot of noise and may chatter to you once they get to know you. Guinea pigs are social animals and are best kept in same sex pairs or small groups. Once tamed guinea pigs can form close bonds with their owners, but how do you know when your pet is unwell? 

As guinea pigs are a prey species signs of ill health might be subtle at first. 

In the early stages of an illness a guinea pig might hide that they are unwell. Getting to know what is normal for your guinea pig is vital for spotting any signs of a problem. Daily handling will give you the chance not only to check over the guinea pig but also to bond with it.

Signs that you might spot which could indicate a guinea pig is unwell include:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Drooling
  • Discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Change in activity level or lethargy
  • Diarrhoea
  • Blood in the urine
  • Scratching or hair loss
  • Changes to breathing
  • Lumps or bumps

How hungry are they?

One of the first changes you might notice if your guinea pig is unwell is a reduced appetite. Keep an eye on the amounts of food being eaten. It might be a subtle change and can indicate a range of problems. Anything from an infection to dental problems could impact the guinea pig’s appetite. It is important that the guinea pig’s diet is predominately quality hay based, with a specific guinea pig pellet offered as well as fresh vegetables daily. Vegetables high in vitamin C such as kale and spinach are important as guinea pigs cannot make this vitamin and must get it entirely from their diet. A lack of vitamin C can result in scurvy with signs such as joint pain or lethargy being seen.

Are they eating their fibre?

Hay provides vital dietary fibre for the guinea pig, chewing it is also vital to ensure dental wear. Guinea pigs have open rooted teeth, meaning they continuously grow. If the cheek teeth are not worn down it may lead to sharp spurs which make eating painful. You may suspect a dental problem if the guinea pig has a reduced appetite or appears to be drooling. 

Lazy or lethargic?

Taking note of your guinea pigs activity level is also important when checking for signs of ill health. Reduced activity or lethargy might indicate a problem. Although guinea pigs will spend time resting in hides in their home, they should have access to an exercise area daily, and often they have short bursts of activity. Exercise can be encouraged, and movement monitored by putting food in different areas of the guinea pig’s enclosure. 

Toilet checks

It is important to keep the guinea pigs cage hygienic and clean, when doing so you can check that faeces are normal and there is no diarrhoea or abnormal urine. Guinea pigs are caecotrophic, meaning they consume some of their own faeces in order to gain nutrients which couldn’t be absorbed the first time around. Caecotrophs are softer than normal faeces, but not liquid as in the case of diarrhoea. You may never see the caecotrophs as they are often consumed as soon as they are passed. Urinary tract infections or problems are relatively common in guinea pigs, the first sign of a problem can be blood in the urine or difficulty passing urine. If you believe your guinea pig is having difficulty urinating contact your vet urgently.

Watch out for parasites!

Guinea pigs like other animals can pick up parasites, these can be internal in the case of worms or external in the skin or coat such as mites and lice. The first sign of external parasites might be an itching or patches of hair loss, or what looks like scale or dandruff in the coat. When treating a parasitic infection all guinea pigs in the group will need to be treated at the same time. The enclosure will also need thorough cleaning to help eliminate the problem.  

Difficulty breathing

Changes to the guinea pigs breathing may occur when ill and can be noticed during handling. The respiration rate might be increased or breathing noisy, this might be due to an infection or other problem. If the guinea pig is having difficulty breathing contact your veterinary practice straight away. 

Lumps and Bumps

Occasionally lumps or swellings might be found when handling your pet. It is always a worry when discovering a lump, however causes can range from infections (such as abscesses) to growths (such as tumours). Lumps are often very treatable and can be investigated by your vet. 

Sorely eyes

Eye infections are also reasonably common and often occur due to trauma from hay or straw. The guinea pig might have the eye partially closed, or you might spot some discharge or crusting around the eye. Straw should be avoided as a bedding material for guinea pigs as it has virtually no nutritional value if consumed and does often lead to trauma of the eyes when the guinea pig rummages through it.

Stay friends!

In all cases daily handling and observation of your guinea pig will help you to establish what is normal and spot the early signs of a problem. If you notice any of these symptoms or are concerned there could be something wrong, it is important to contact your veterinary practice to arrange a check-up for your guinea pig.