I’ve owned guinea pigs for over 20 years. I have hands-on experience in some areas (what to feed, dealing with UTIs, URIs or ovarian cysts) but am completely void in other issues (anything specific to boars, bloat or elongated roots). It seems that each of my sows tries to teach me about some new illness I haven’t seen before (the latest was a bladder tumor). I try to tell them I don’t need first-hand experience with guinea pig illness, but guinea pigs have their own ideas.
While contemplating the guinea pig illnesses I’ve dealt with, I came up with a top 10 list of what to look out for and how to deal with a sick guinea pig:
Know your guinea pig’s weight
I can’t express enough how important this is. Invest in a kitchen scale and weigh weekly. (My girls get weighed every time I clean the cage.) By the time I can feel the weight difference when picking them up, the pig has lost 100g or more. That’s a lot of weight for a little critter. I have hauled pigs to the vet with no other symptom than a significant weight loss to discover they had some sort of illness. I go by the a 30/60/90 rule: weight fluctuation of 30g is normal, a loss 60g is worth watching, but a 90g loss is alarming. Time to call the vet.
Know your guinea pig’s personality
Some illnesses are obvious. If there’s blood or snot or the pig is laboring to breathe, there’s a problem. But many illnesses are subtle. If a guinea pig who runs laps every morning abruptly stops their daily run, it may be worth looking into. Sulking in corners, sitting puffed up more than normal, drinking a ton of water, suddenly becoming aggressive or getting picked on — any of these can be a sign of illness.
Trust your gut
My vet knows if I’m in the office, even with something vague, that something is wrong. I’ve seen many posts on guinea pig forums stating something isn’t right, but they can’t put their finger on it. The description sounds innocuous. Forum members will tell the poster to go to the vet (since none of us are a veterinarian). The original poster almost always returns to describe the illness the vet found. People know their pets. If something feels wrong, chances are it is wrong.
The earlier, the better
I have read too many stories of people who delay going to the vet until a guinea pig looks really sick or hasn’t eaten in a day or two. These accounts rarely end well. By the time serious symptoms appear, a guinea pig has likely been sick for a while. Guinea pigs are master at hiding their illness. Waiting a day or two before going to the vet allows the infection/illness to have a stronger hold on their little body. Treatment can be hard on their systems (antibiotics) or stressful (xrays and injections). It’s much less of a strain on the guinea pig (and their caretaker!) to tackle an illness in its early stages.
Food is life
People joke that guinea pigs are bottomless pits; it seems they’re always hungry. Guinea pigs are built that way: their digestive system starts to shut down if they haven’t eaten for several hours. The lack of food also damages their liver, so it’s important to get food into them if they’re not eating on their own. Hand feeding can be difficult, especially when the pig fights back. I feel like the bad guy when I have to force them to eat. But a guinea pig has no chance of recovering if they don’t eat. Piles of poo around the cage is a wonderful thing after nursing a non-eating guinea pig.
Shop around for a vet before you need one
I called multiple vets in my area before I found one that specialized in exotics (birds, reptiles, guinea pigs and rabbits). Some places refuse guinea pigs, flat out. I had one place tell me they’d do wellness checks but wouldn’t treat a sick guinea pig! So don’t assume the nearest vet will accept guinea pig patients. Even if a non-exotics vet will care for a guinea pig, pay attention. Many drugs that are perfectly safe for cats and dogs are fatal to guinea pigs. A vet that doesn’t specialize in guinea pigs may not be as knowledgeable about safe treatments as an exotics vet.
Do your research
Knowledge is power. There are some very good resources out there. The more I learn, the less gibberish the vet speaks. The ability to discuss a guinea pig’s health with the vet is invaluable. It helps me make informed decisions on my pig’s treatment. In the end, my guinea pig’s health is my responsibility. I’m the one that has to deal with the consequences.
My vet serves me and my guinea pig. Feel free to ask what the vet is doing, what to expect with treatment and follow-up. Don’t be afraid to call back. I have had questions after I returned home or needed clarification once I started treating my pigs. Guinea pig forums can be a great source of answers, but don’t forget – the vet that directly observed your guinea pig is just a phone call away! Question them if your guinea pig seems to be getting worse, rather than better. This is something the vet needs to know about.
Learn about treatments and their consequences
When I discovered Willow had a bladder stone, I quizzed my vet. What were Willow’s chances of surviving surgery? Would the stone come back? How much pain was she in? What would happen if I didn’t do the surgery? How much lead-time would I have before she eventually crashed and what would happen then? Understanding my options for Willow’s quality of life, potential outcomes and the cost for each gave me enough information to make an informed decision I could live with.
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself when things go wrong
Because they will. It is awful when you do all the right things, go the extra mile, and your guinea pig still keels over. It’s just not fair. The heartache, frustration, what-ifs and guilt can be overwhelming. I’ve lived through this more than once. I try to focus on what I did right, on what I learned from the experience, and what I could do the next time. I try to remember it’s not all under my control. The pain dwindles and I can focus, eventually, on the joy and laughter of that funny little (or big) guinea pig. I’ve loved them all and have such fun stories to share about each of them.