Tia Greenberg, DVM, chief of medicine at Westminster Veterinary Group in Westminster, Calif., said there are a few must-knows and telltale signs she recommends that practitioners keep in mind.
Dr. Greenberg said most people take their guinea pigs to the veterinarian for things like appetite loss, diarrhea, scratching, hair loss or a general wellness exam. “Most veterinarians should be familiar with the basic husbandry of these animals and their common conditions, such as dental disease, skin problems, vitamin-C deficiency, gastrointestinal problems and respiratory problems,” Greenberg said.
Many practitioners who specialize in treating guinea pigs keyed in on vitamin C as something to keep an eye on. Guinea pigs cannot produce their own vitamin C and require 10 to 30 mg/kg daily to prevent scurvy, according to Guinea Lynx, an online medical care guide for guinea pigs.
Neurologic signs secondary to vitamin-C deficiency are a list-topper for Susan Kelleher, DVM, star of “Dr. K’s Animal ER” on the Nat Geo Wild cable channel. Also on her list: decreased appetite, skin problems and respiratory tract infections.
Decreased appetite, or not eating at all, can be due to dental problems or systemic illness, said Kelleher, who owns Broward Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Skin problems are one of the most common problems for guinea pigs, which sometimes can be dangerous for the animal, she said.
“It is very common for guinea pigs to have a mite called Trixacarus caviae,” Kelleher said. “This causes them to be so itchy that I have even had guinea pig patients seizure because of it.”
Ringworm and lice are other common parasites in guinea pigs, according to the website SmallAnimalChannel.com.
Kelleher said respiratory tract infections are also serious for guinea pigs because pneumonia is common with them.
Nutrition or handling by its owners is often at the root of the animal’s health problems, said Jörg Mayer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP (ECM), Dipl. European College of Zoological Medicine (Small mammal), Dipl. American College of Zoological Medicine.
“A lot of it potentially has to do with wrong husbandry,” said Dr. Mayer, an associate professor of zoological medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Georgia.
Like Greenberg and Kelleher, Mayer focuses on vitamin C when talking about guinea pigs, but he warned about owners who go overboard and over-supplement the vitamin because they know a guinea pig needs it. Too much vitamin C can lead to lameness or ocular problems, he said.
“Sometimes they throw massive doses of vitamin C at them,” he said.
Too much calcium is another potential dietary problem. If males get too much calcium in their food they can develop urinary stones in the bladder, Mayer said.
There are also particular problems for females age 3 and up to be on the lookout for, he said.
“We know a lot of females are very prone to getting ovarian cysts,” Mayer said.
Guinea Pig Practice
All experts spoken with said it’s not difficult to add guinea pigs to a general practice, and in fact they encouraged it. But they did offer a few thoughts for consideration before veterinarians begin to see the squeaky little pets.
“They should obviously know that they are predisposed to certain things,” Mayer said. “Say you have a 5-year -old female come in, you want to think about cysts, and do imaging or an ultrasound.”
He also recommends reading up on the plentiful material for the public as well as scientific papers on guinea pigs, and new diseases being discovered.
“We learn more and more about these guys over the years,” he said.
Veterinarians must learn what drugs a guinea pig can be given, and what to avoid, but many pharmaceutical questions can be answered by looking up formularies, Mayer said.
Beyond that it’s pretty much the basics.
“You can literally buy a book for $9.95 and read up on basic guinea pig behavior,” he said.
Greenberg recommends that before starting to incorporate guinea pigs into a practice, a practitioner should think about attending veterinary conferences that focus on small mammals.
“There are various wet labs where a practitioner can learn how to manage these cases,” she said.
In addition to attending conferences, practitioners may want to seek out a local exotics practice and ask if they can spend some time there and learn more about the species.
“Most exotics vets are more than willing to help others learn more about this pet,” Greenberg said.
Kelleher agreed that adding guinea pigs shouldn’t be difficult for most veterinarians.
“I think general practitioners could add guinea pigs to their practice, but as with any species, they need to be aware of their habits and needs and be able to keep them in a separate part of the clinic than where the predator species are,” Kelleher said.
Small animal veterinarians should also keep in mind their guinea pig patients may be harder to diagnose.
“Guinea pigs can't be considered or treated like small cats,” she said. “They are a prey animal that tends to hide their symptoms of illness. If hospitalized for any reason it is imperative that they have proper guinea pig food. This includes vitamin C-enriched pellets, hay and fresh leafy greens.”
Mayer said adding guinea pigs to a practice may help the business’s bottom line, because he believes guinea pigs will continue to be popular pets, as they are friendly and relatively easy to care for.
A guinea pig — also called a cavy because the rodent species belongs to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia — are among the most popular exotic pets, according to the latest statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
More than 1.3 million guinea pigs reside in 847,000 U.S. households, and guinea pigs are more popular than hamsters, ferrets, snakes and lizards.
They can also live a relatively long life if well cared for. Mayer said that although average lifespans are around 5 years, it’s not uncommon for them to live to be 8 or 9 years old.
“It’s a great pet I usually recommend it for kids,” he said. “They are awake in day, they hardly bite, they are vocal and let you know if they are happy or upset. They have a lot of character, those little guys.”