ABSTRACT: This article covers all aspects of husbandry and nutrition, enabling the veterinary nurse to feel confident in advising owners about the correct care of guinea pigs. It describes signs of health, allowing the nurse to conduct an examination in a nurse's clinic and be able to recognise the first signs of disease. The last section covers nursing of the sick guinea pig. enabling nurses to care for guinea pigs in the clinic, and give advice to owners about how to nurse their pets at home.

Guinea pigs make ideal childrens pets. They are easily handled, rarely bite, and will reward their owners with squeaks of welcome when they recognise their approach. If housed and fed correctly they are rarely ill, but if they become sick they can deteriorate very quickly; so owners need to be educated to recognise the signs of ill health, and any inappetent guinea pig should be seen as a matter of urgency.

As a veterinary nurse you may be called upon to offer advice on their correct care, nutrition and husbandry as well as being able to advise on the nursing care of a sick guinea pig.


Guinea pigs are social creatures and like to be kept together. Females (sows) will live together, as will two males (boars), particularly if there are no females around – the scent of neighbouring females may trigger the males to fight. Opposite sex pairs are not usually kept together unless the intention is to breed or if the male is castrated.

In any group of guinea pigs there may be the occasional ‘bickering’. This can usually be resolved by providing extra tunnels or shelters, more than one source of food, and ad lib hay for eating and burrowing.

It is not advisable to keep a guinea pig with a rabbit. Even the friendliest of rabbits could kick out with its powerful hind legs and damage the guinea pigs ribs. Rabbits may also be subclinical carriers of Bordetella bronchiseptica which can cause disease in guinea pigs. The nutritional needs of both species are also different.


The commonest method of housing guinea pigs is in a hutch, although indoor plastic cages are becoming more popular. Where possible it is good to provide an outside run for access on to grass in the summer.

The hutch should be lined with newspaper, and this can be covered with wood shavings. Sawdust should not be used as it may get into the eyes and cause ulceration, and can also cause impaction of the penile sheath in males. Good quality hay should be provided for eating and burrowing. Straw should not be used as the sharp stalks can also cause eye damage.

Because guinea pigs are fond of a fresh diet, they produce large amounts of urine. The hutch should be cleaned regularly, and special care taken in the winter to ensure that urine-soiled paper does not freeze overnight as this leads to hypothermia and sudden death. 

In the summer, it is important to provide shade and ensure that the hutch is not in direct sunlight because guinea pigs are also very susceptible to hyperthermia (heatstroke). If an outdoor run is used, it must provide protection from predators such as dogs, cats and foxes (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Outdoor fox-proof run


Guinea pigs love to eat! The basic guinea pig diet is hay, a proprietary dry mix, and unlimited grass, wild plants and fresh vegetables. They seem able to consume vast quantities of fresh food whilst rarely suffering digestive upsets (see Table).

The most important principle of guinea pig nutrition is that, like humans, they require a daily supply of vitamin C, as they are unable to synthesise their own. Subclinical vitamin C deficiency may be the trigger for many guinea pig diseases, and this vitamin is an extremely important factor in the recovery of any sick guinea pig.

Generally the vitamin C requirement will be met if a balanced fresh diet, including carrots, is fed. Many dry foods include vitamin C in their mix, but the vitamin content of any dry food will deteriorate over time.

The normal vitamin C requirement for an adult guinea pig is lOmg/kg, increasing to 30mg/kg during pregnancy or illness. If there is any doubt, it is always best to supplement with vitamin C – overdosing is not possible as any excess is excreted through the kidneys. The author uses soluble vitamin C tablets in the drinking water (approx. !/„ of a 1,000mg soluble tablet in 200ml of drinking water).

An anorexic guinea pig should be considered an emergency. Guinea pigs (especially if they are obese) are very prone to developing hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) and toxaemia if they stop eating – even after as little as 24 hours. Any anorexic guinea pig should be given nutritional support immediately and this often needs to be introduced before the cause of the anorexia is determined.

Signs of good health

It is important to recognise the signs of a healthy guinea pig, so that any problems are recognised and treated early. You may become involved in tasks such as nail trimming in a nurse’s clinic, and a quick examination at this time may help identify other problems.

Skin and coat

The coat should be clean and shiny. Part the fur and look for any scratches or scabs that may be signs of early mange but are often assumed by the owner to be minor Tight’ wounds. Running lice and fur mites may be visible to the naked eye. Any hair loss should be investigated, but remember it is normal to have a hairless area behind each ear – a common concern of uninformed owners. Guinea pigs have a grease gland on their rump, which is more prominent in males, and produces quantities of black grease.


The guinea pig has two upper and two lower incisors that are open-rooted and grow all the time (Figure 2). It is normal for the incisors to be approximately 1cm long. The upper and lower incisors should oppose in a level bite – if they oppose at a slant this may indicate malocclusion (Figure 3). Sometimes guinea pigs may break an incisor by chewing on their cage bars, and the growth of the other teeth should be monitored whilst the broken one regrows.

Figure 2: Normal incisors

Figure 3: Incisor malocclusion


Eyes should be bright and clear. A cloudy cornea may indicate that there is an ulcer which will require treatment. A milky fluid from the eyes is normal. It is produced as a grooming fluid, but may be of concern to an owner.


Nail trimming is frequently carr
ied out by veterinary nurses. Each toenail has a ‘quick’ (blood vessel) running down its centre which will bleed if the nail is cut too short. Hopefully the guinea pig will have at least one white or pale nail where you can see the quick, and this can be used as a gauge for the others.

Many guinea pigs develop ‘corns’ (a proliferation of horny material from the pads). These are best left alone.

Nursing a sick guinea pig

Guinea pigs are rarely ill, but when they are they can deteriorate, become depressed and give up very easily. A guinea pig that sits hunched in a corner, with sunken eyes and a staring hair coat is a very sick guinea pig.

However, nursing a guinea pig can be very rewarding; but is an intensive process and is often best done by a dedicated owner, with guidance from a veterinary nurse. A sick guinea pig that is only visited in its hutch twice a day will easily give up. On the other hand, one that is brought inside and handled and fed every two hours will be given the best possible chance to recover.

So, as a first principle, the sick guinea pig should be brought indoors, and kept warm with a heat pad if necessary. If possible, it should be accompanied by a companion (kept within sight but at a suitable distance apart if infectious disease is suspected).

If the guinea pig is anorexic it must be regularly syringe-fed (every 2 hours) using a recovery mix such as Oxbow Fine Grind (Oxbow Animal Health). Alternatively, they do enjoy infant vegetable purees (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Any feed should be given very slowly as forcing the food in too quickly can lead to aspiration pneumonia

Often after a syringe feed (approximately 10mls) they may be tempted to nibble grass. Parsley and watercress are good appetite stimulants which may need to be hand-fed at first. Extra vitamin C is essential and can also be given by syringe.

It is important that an owner is shown how to administer medication and to syringe-feed if necessary. 1ml or 2ml syringes are suitable for both dosing and feeding.

The guinea pig should be restrained on a non-slip surface and the syringe can be gently introduced into the mouth via the diastema (the gap between the incisors and the molars). Feed should be given very slowly, watching that the guinea pig is swallowing, as forcing the food in too quickly can lead to aspiration pneumonia.

Finally, remember that the more handling and stimulation the guinea pig receives, the more likely it is to respond to treatment. 


Virginia Richardson MA VetMB MRCVS

Virginia Richardson qualified from Cambridge University in 1986. For the last 20 years she has run a small animal practice in Romsey with her husband Ean. Her special interest is the treatment of rabbits and guinea pigs.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/].2045-0648.2011.00123.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 447-449


Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 26 • December 2011 •