A few months ago, Bartlet, one of our guinea pigs, was diagnosed with pneumonia and we very nearly lost him. This occurred partly because we had just moved and I suspect that the new routine caused some stress. Also, I have to admit that we were not as vigilant in monitoring his health as we should have been. Not everyone is perfect and I want to be completely honest regarding all of our mistakes and successes in our guinea pig care. We want to share these experiences with you so that you don’t make the same mistakes. Everyone has a different method of caring for their pets and we want to share what’s working for us.
It’s because of our experience with Bartlet’s illness that my husband and I now keep an Excel sheet that we add all our pig’s health information into on a weekly basis: Pig Health Checks. It’s impossible to remember everything from week to week and this history provides an extremely helpful diagnostic tool to our vet if we need it. Remember, if you ever see anything unusual or if you’re not sure if something is an issue or not, call your vet. You should never use any source on the internet as a substitute for veterinary care.
Here’s a rundown on exactly what we look for every week:
Weight: An average male pig should weigh between 900-1,200 grams and a female should be about 700-900 grams. However, this is just a rough guideline and will vary based on your guinea pig’s breed and age. Some breeds, such as a Teddy, will weigh less than other breeds and growing guinea pigs will typically gain about 25-50 grams per week until they’re about 1-year-old. Again, these are just rough guidelines and will vary from pig to pig. The most important thing to look for is a trend in weight loss or gain with no explanation.
I use a common digital kitchen scale I purchased at Wal-Mart for less than $20. It’s best to weigh in grams, as this is a much more sensitive measurement than ounces and provides a more accurate picture of your pet’s weight.
Here is a breakdown of what we look for, which we call the “rule of quarters” in our house:
- A change in weight of 25 grams is normal, as a pig’s weight can vary from day to day.
- A change of 50 grams indicates that there could be an issue. If you’ve recently changed your pig’s diet and/or exercise routine, you should probably start to reevaluate those changes. If that’s not on the case, watch closely for other signs of illness, such as lethargy, lack of appetite, diarrhea, etc.
- A change of 75 grams means that your pig most likely has a health problem that needs to be looked at by a vet. You should call and make an appointment. If you watch closely, you’ll probably notice some additional symptoms of an illness.
- A change of 100 grams indicates that there is a serious underlying issue and you should immediately call your vet and get your pig in as soon as possible. There will almost certainly be other signs of illness at this point – make sure you note those and let your vet know.
This tends to be a slightly more sensitive approach than the one, two, three and four ounce “alerts” mentioned elsewhere on the web. We like our “rule of quarters,” since we already weigh in grams and because it tends to be a little more vigilant than the ounce guidelines.
Head: Make sure there’s no head tilting, which could be indicative of many issues, such as an ear, eye, neck or neurological problem. Feel carefully under the jaw for any bumps or lumps that could indicate a problem with the teeth. Contact your vet if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Eyes: We have a pen-light that we quickly shine in our pig’s eyes to make sure that their pupils are equal and reactive to the light. This should also reveal any cloudiness that can indicate your pig is having a problem with their vision. Be careful not to let the light shine in their eyes for any longer than one or two seconds, as you can damage your pig’s eyes if you let the bright light linger for longer than necessary. You also want to look for any crustiness or discolored discharge, which can indicate a bacterial infection and warrants veterinary care.
Teeth/Mouth: Very gently pull your pig’s lips back so you can get a good look at their teeth. You’re looking for broken, decayed or uneven wear on the teeth. Malocclusion, or overgrown teeth, is a common problem in guinea pigs. If your pig’s teeth look long, your pig can’t close his mouth or if your pig is drooling or isn’t eating, he may have overgrown teeth. Uneven wear can be a sign of scurvy or an abscess. Check for anything else unusual, such as sores or crustiness. If something unusual is noted, call your vet.
Ears: Have a quick look with a flashlight in your pig’s ears. You’re looking for any unusual redness, any evidence of mites, fungus, or discharge. This is the perfect time to take care of some basic grooming and clean your pig’s ears if they have any waxy buildup. You shouldn’t have to clean your pig’s ears very often, maybe once every 2 to 3 weeks. If you find it necessary to clean your pig’s ears more often than this, you may want to speak to your vet.
Nose: A healthy guinea pig has a slightly moist and supple nose. Anything unusual, such as lots of sneezing, a watery nose, or a nose with brown, yellow or green colored discharge should be noted. Nasal discharge is usually the first sign of a bacterial or upper respiratory infection, which can quickly turn deadly for a pig. If you see anything unusual or concerning here, call your vet as soon as possible.
Feet: Look for any unusual redness, swelling, ulcerations, or scabs on the foot pads. These things could indicate bumblefoot or urine scald. Look at your pig’s toes – they should have 4 toes on their front feet and 3 toes on their back feet. If your pig has more, which is common, it’s not a cause for immediate concern. While it’s not necessary to make a special vet appointment for an extra toe, you should mention it to your vet the next time you take your pig in for a health checkup. Sometimes removal is recommended to prevent any injury to your pig’s foot or to the extra digit and your vet will advise you if this is the case. This is also a good time to trim your pig’s nails if it’s necessary. We find that we trim our pig’s toes every 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the individual pig.
Hair/Skin: Check your pig all over (make sure you check their tummy!) for any fur loss, lumps, scabs, flakiness, or skin redness. Any of these could indicate a number of issues, including mange, mites, fungal infections, or urine scald. You can generally treat very minor scratches and scrapes on your own but should call your vet if you notice excessive redness, evidence of mites, signs of fungus, weeping or infected wounds, or if your pig indicates any sign of pain when you gently touch the affected area. If you notice dry skin, matted fur, or any debris in the fur this is a good time to take care of those basic grooming tasks. If dry skin is a problem for your pig, make sure you use lotion that is safe for guinea pigs.
Bum: Check your pig’s bum and genital area, which should be clean and free from sores or unusual discharge. In some pigs, especially in males because they have a larger perineal sac, impaction can be a problem. You should check your pig’s bum for impaction of feces, hay, hair or bedding. If you find your pig has an enlarged perineal sac with an impaction, it is possible to gently clear it yourself with a cotton swab and some mineral or coconut oil. If a pig has a regular problem with impactions, clearing it away every day and supplementing your pig’s diet with vitamin B-12 complex may be necessary. Always call a vet if you notice anything unusual or new that you’re not sure about.
General Observations: During your health checks, pay careful attention to your pig’s breathing and movement. If you notice that your pig is wheezing or has labored breathing or is limping or otherwise moving in an odd or unusual manner, make note of these things and call your vet.
In summary, weekly health checks are a vital part of keeping a guinea pig as a pet. By becoming familiar with your pigs when they’re healthy, you’ll be much more likely to notice anything unusual before it becomes a serious health concern. It seems daunting at first, but as you become practiced with the process, you’ll find that these checks only take about 10 minutes per pig per week. This is a very small amount of time to spend doing something that can literally save your pig’s life.
Remember, your pets deserve to thrive and not just survive in your care!