Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic

In keeping with this year’s wellness theme, this newsletter is about the care of “exotic” pets…kind of an overarching view of my thoughts on wellness care beyond cats and dogs.   We have talked about keeping dogs and cats healthy through appropriate diet and exercise.   Let’s talk about expanding our healthy lifestyle mindset to other species.

We will use guinea pigs as our template, because I like them, and they are cute.   My point in doing that, I guess, is to emphasize that if an animal is appropriate for a pet (Please do not adopt a tiger cub or Komodo dragon…or a prairie dog, for that matter) there are similar steps to take, regardless of species, to become a proficient pet owner.

I would say we are about fifty years behind in the pet care of species that are not dogs and cats.  That is, fifty years ago, dogs and cats dealt with nutrition and lifestyle issues that, thankfully, I have only seen in veterinary textbooks.  Because we have honed our care of these common friends so well, we are often able to have them in our lives for the full extent of their domestic lifespan, and well beyond the lifespan they would have in the wild.

Our other pet friends are not as fortunate.  Exotic pets often become ill because we just don’t know as much about taking care of them as we do about dogs and cats.  I think we are on the cutting edge of extraordinary advances in this area, and with all of the information that is out there, knowledgeable experts and the accessibility of information on the internet, we can make that half century leap, and take as good of care of our exotic friends as we do of our dogs and cats.

In fact, you, as owners of these pets, have been as helpful to me as anything I have learned in my veterinary training, experience, reading and continuing education.  You are proactive about learning about the care of the pets you own, and have been so generous to share what you learn and what you experience.  It seems only natural that we should take it even farther…share with each other and with other pet owners and potential pet owners.  If I never have to treat another rabbit with bumblefoot, or guinea pig with scurvy, or lizard with bone disease, and you (and everyone we reach) never has to watch a pet struggle through these or other husbandry-related diseases, it will be well worth all the work we put in together.

So here is my guinea pig “example.”  I hope that if you actually own a guinea pig, the information is helpful to you.  But for all of us, I hope it gets us thinking about how we can set up all of our pets for the best possible odds of a long, healthy life.

We own one guinea pig, a male American Shorthair named Piggy.  He is five years old, and I have not told him that the “average” lifespan of guinea pigs in captivity is five to eight years.  We are all hoping to have him around long after our daughters have left for college…maybe their own kids could even meet him.  As of today, he is healthy and happy, so I will tell you what I have learned from my obsessive reading, veterinary training and experience, and hanging out with Piggy.

First, and most importantly, guinea pigs need Vitamin C.  Guinea pigs and primates are the only mammals whose bodies do not manufacture this particular vitamin.  Most every guinea pig resource tells us that they will get enough Vitamin C from their food/water supplement/fruits/vegetables.  Here is the hitch.  There is not enough in their food.  There is not enough in their water supplements.  There is not even enough in the awesome citrus and veggie snacks you feed them.

Close this newsletter and grab your car keys.  Or if you are way cooler than me (odds are you are), track this down on the internet and have it shipped to you…chewable 25 mg Vitamin C tablets.*  Your piggy needs twenty-five milligrams of oral vitamin C a day.  I know…I usually make broader statements.  25 milligrams.  Not water drops.  Not orange wedges.  An actual chewable tablet.  Of course my reasons for insisting are selfish.  If you all start today en masse, and I never again see another scurvy-related problem, I will be indebted to you forever.

Vitamin deficiency related diseases are some of the most heart-breaking to treat in any species, even humans, I hear.  Here is a list off the top of my head of some conditions caused by or worsened by low levels of vitamin C.  For the final draft, maybe I will try to be more scientific and look up every possible disease.  Probably not.  For starters, that’s not really my style, and I am afraid it would make this kind of boring.  But more importantly, I suspect that even the brightest and best of the scientific/exotic/veterinary community does not know the full extent of the good vitamin C does for a guinea pig, or you and me for that matter.

Back to the list:  upper respiratory disease, pneumonia, dental disease, conjunctivitis, unthriftiness, pododermatitis, arthritis and other joint-related diseases, immune-related conditions and bladder issues.  Vitamin C is also involved in maintaining a strong immune system, wound healing and recovery from illness in general.

OK, you have your vitamin C.  Next most important (yes I believe that one little tablet is more important than the entirety of the rest of the diet), is the rest of the diet.  Your guinea pig needs an endless supply of timothy hay.  Really, a bottomless bowl.  Some owners use “hoppers,” those little wire things that hang on the outside of the habitat and allow the guinea pig to pull hay as needed, without the hay supply getting wet or soiled.  That is way more sophisticated than what we do, but we stuff two tissue boxes full of hay, and Piggy pulls the hay out as he eats.  Sometimes he will eat two entire boxes of hay in one day!  We refill them every morning, and at the end of the week, we start over with new hay and new boxes.

Of course you need a fresh water supply.  A water bottle seems to work best, as piggies are a bit too messy for a water dish.  If you are used to smaller rodents, guinea pigs will seem to drink ALOT, so make sure to check the supply every day.

Next, have a small bowl for piggy pellets.  He or she needs only two tablespoons of pellets a day.  That is half of one fourth of a cup.  MOST owners give their piggies as many pellets as they want.  And most guinea pigs are overweight.  Cut back gradually until he or she gets just that small scoop once a day.  And if he or she is on a seed diet, switch to pellets over a couple of weeks and use the seed mixture for a treat.  The seeds are not bad for them, but they are high in fat, and not as nutritionally balanced as the pellets are.  The pellets are important for two reasons.  They contain the correct mix of trace minerals and vitamins other than C that are also important for your piggy’s health.  And just as importantly, they love pellets, and we need our guinea pigs to be happy.

Last, and still important, are treats.  Fruits and vegetables are fine.  Carb-based treats are fine.  Commercial guinea pig treats are fine.  Everything in moderation.  You would think we would know more about guinea pigs, being…guinea pigs…but I am extrapolating from what we know of dogs and cats for this next part.  If guinea pigs are also sensitive to the toxic effects of some foods, as I suspect they are, they should not have any of the following:  chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, garlic or macadamia nuts.

As far as creating an ideal habitat, guinea pigs often enjoy running happy laps around their homes and popcorning (jumping straight up in happy piggy jumps, one of the cutest things you will ever see).  They also like to have a little hiding space.  Base your final habitat size on these factors.  If your pet seems cramped at all, you could always upgrade later.  Piggy’s home is two feet wide, two feet high and four feet long with a plastic bottom and wire mesh sides and top.  There is room for his two tissue boxes, his snack/vitamin/pellet bowl, his water bottle, his igloo, and his happy piggy antics.

For flooring, no wire!  With adequate Vitamin C, a great body condition and a comfy floor, your pet will never need to deal with infectious pododermatitis (bumblefoot), a horrible disease that often ends in euthanasia due to the severe pain involved.  For bedding, no wood shavings!  It is irritating to their respiratory systems and little feet.  Carefresh bedding is a great absorbent paper-based product, by far the best bedding available.  Piggy uses Carefresh bedding, and it keeps him comfortable and not stinky for about a week.

Guinea pigs often need their nails trimmed, like dogs and cats do.  If you are not comfortable doing it at home, bring them in and have it done.  Also check the bottom of their little feet and make sure they appear healthy.  I know they are weird looking, but you will get used to how they look on a good day, and know if anything abnormal is going on.

Also check your guinea pig’s body condition score.  Unlike a dog or cat, he should not have a visible waist.  But he should have ribs you can feel (but not see) and should not have a big tummy behind his ribs, but be a cute elongated egg shape.

As long as you have him out and are giving him a mini-check-up, make sure his coat and eyes are bright and shiny.  Look in his mouth and make sure his cute little teeth are not longer than normal.  When he comes for his veterinary exam, we will check all of these things too, and also use a speculum to look at his back “cheek” teeth.

Speaking of checkups, I recommend you bring your pet in when you first adopt him or her for an initial check up and every question that you can think of, and then every six months and any time you are concerned about his or her health.

Guinea pigs are skilled at hiding symptoms of illness, so I would recommend you bring them in at the first sign of anything weird.  Most experts will tell you that the reason they hide symptoms is they are prey animals and cannot afford to show any weakness.  But he is in your living room!  Up away from the dog and the cat!  I think he is hiding symptoms because he is so kind he doesn’t want to worry you.  Tell him to quit being so selfless, and let you know if he does not feel well.  And if he will not, you will just have to continue being super-vigilant, and bring him in at the first sign of disease.  Better a false alarm than a serious illness not caught.

If you are going to breed your guinea pigs, do more reading than this cursory introduction!  Keep in mind that female guinea pigs need to have their first litter of piglets BEFORE they are eight months of age.  Their pelvic canal fuses together at about this age if they have not given birth, and after this occurs, they cannot safely give birth to piglets.  (I KNOW they are called pups!  I like to call them piglets!)  If they have given birth by this age, their pelvic canal does not fuse, and they typically will be able to safely be bred from then on.

Also, be careful with new pairs of guinea pigs.  Females can become pregnant as early as one month of age!  So make sure you have the piggies you think you have or you may end up with the old familiar “hamster” story…”I adopted two males/two females/one baby female, and now I have five!  Do you want one?  Look how cute they are!”

Long-haired guinea pigs need to be brushed often.  They need to be treated immediately if mats develop.  Guinea pigs are susceptible to dental disease, trauma, respiratory diseases, bladder stones, uterine cancer, urinary tract infections, intestinal parasites and external parasites, most notably scabies.  This is characterized by intense itching, hair loss and sometimes even seizures.  It is very treatable, but fatal if left unchecked, so if you notice your piggy itching, get him or her in right away!

Also, guinea pigs are VERY heat-sensitive, even more so than dogs.  They should not be outside in the summer, and they should not even be in a sunny window.  If you suspect your guinea pig has become overheated, bathe them quickly in cool (not cold) water, and rush them to the veterinary hospital.  Though this will give him the best odds possible, sadly, I have never seen or heard of a guinea pig surviving heat stress.

Guinea pigs are very social.  They like to have piggy friends, so consider adopting two or more.  Beware the too-small-for-the-number-of-piggies-habitat and the dreaded hamster story!  But if you can adopt a friend for your friend, that would be twice as fun!

They like to be in busy areas of the house or church or classroom.  Make sure you talk to them often.  They can be shy, but can almost always be acclimated to gentle handling, and will enjoy snuggle time.  I realize I am inviting trouble by admitting this, but I have NEVER been bitten by a guinea pig.  And I have been bitten by most every other type of pet!  They just don’t think to bite, and if they did happen to get scared or startled, it would be difficult to get a good chomp in with their peace-loving, hay-chewing itty-bitty mouths.

I know that if you are a guinea pig owner, you are a good one, and completely invested in his or her well being.  I also know that if you are not yet a guinea pig owner, you may be thinking of getting one.  Make sure you check with your family…fellow teachers…pastor…first!  And have fun.  They are one of my favorite types of pets ever, and we love having Piggy in our family.

I will try (by “try” I mean call Dave and have him do it!) to set up sections of the website to discuss the practical care of other specific pets.  As of now, as you know, there is a newsletter on how much I like birds (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them), and another newsletter on how much I like hamsters (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them, but a very helpful section on how to make them a rabbit costume.)  They were, however, very fun to write!  Maybe it is time for me to grow up, and start giving you more practical info.  Then again, maybe not…

January 25, 2010 Jennifer VanCleve is my awesome friend who runs Westwood Church’s Preschool Program.  She asked me yesterday to check if her guinea pig Peanut was pregnant.  (She had accidently been left with a male guinea pig at a preschooler’s home.)  She was not.  I left her the above “note” on an index card.

OXBOW ANIMAL HEALTH: We have an extraordinary resource for guinea pig information right here in Nebraska!  Check out the website for Oxbow, and let me know if there are other websites or resources you would like me to add here.

CAREFRESH As of May, 2010, I am working with Carefresh!  I love it!  E-mail me ANY small pet questions you have!

***GREAT NEWS!!!***January 25, 2010 I just got an e-mail from the veterinarian who oversees national pet care at PetSmart.  I have been, um, bugging her for a while about Petsmart carrying Oxbow Vitamin C.  Here is part of her e-mail…

“The best news of all is that the Oxbow vitamins are coming in spring I think so we are making good strides. As always we welcome any of your comments or questions. Happy Monday :)”


It is indeed, a Happy Monday.

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7 Responses to “Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic”

  1. Janie Helt says:

    Dr. Shawn, thank you for your thoughts on the GP’s! We adore ours and want them to live forever !! I will get the Vit. C right away!Janie, Doodlescotch Lovebug, and FluffFlo PrincessHelt

  2. Erika says:

    That was chock full of VERY practical information!!! I love guinea pigs(but you already knew that…) and this is an awesome newsletter! Great Job, as always!Erika andThe FluffsEtta James, Ziggy Stardust, Phoenix, Inga, Little Bitty Pig, and Erika-Hamster

  3. Favorite Aunt Jeannine says:

    And…I would add…you are one extraordinary Vet!

  4. Beth Phillips says:

    Dr. Finch,Wow, there is a lot to know about taking care of guinea pigs. Wish I knew all this back in junior high when I had my piggy Coco! This newsletter is sure to help a lot of gp owners out there.

  5. Cindy Choi says:

    Dr. Shawnee,Great article on guinea pigs! I will definitely go and get some vitamin C pills and stop using the drops that make the water look like pee!I also didn’t realize how much hay they need!!!!Blaster (or whatever name Evan comes up with next) will benefit from this article!Cindy

  6. Bunny Hutch says:

    Interesting to learn about, I enjoyed reading your blog.

  7. PetCare Guru says:

    A really informative article. To me pet are always special, especially guinea pigs and pet care to me is a way of life. I recently started a site regarding pet care, I wish to quote a few lines from this article (I will give this source link, and credit to this site).Ajithkumar

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