Skin problems are a major reason for guinea pig illness and death. Keep an eye out for scurf, falling hair and bare patches and get veterinary help as soon as possible. Skin problems can kill a guinea pig so take it to a vet at the first signs. Do not buy over-the-counter-products sold for dogs and cats as these may well kill your guinea pig. Skin disorders may occur when the guinea pig is not being kept properly.
There are two really serious problems – fungal infections or mange mites. Vets who are not familiar with guinea pigs may find it difficult to distinguish between the two kinds so it can be important to pay for a proper culture test. Or find a vet who specialises in guinea pigs – your local guinea pig rescue will probably know one. There’s a page here that can help owners to identify what is going on. Thus, it is important to get a thorough veterinary investigation. The most common form of skin disorders are:
Fungal skin diseases including ringworm, (Trichophyton mentagrophytes). Guinea pigs in damp cold Britain are particularly prone to fungal problems. Symptoms are bare patches of hair, sometimes with scaly, crusty or reddening skin.There will be scurf and dead skin. If you give a gentle tug at the hair, it will fall out – unlike mange. There is visible scurf and dead skin. According to one authority, ringworm does not necessarily make the guinea pig itch (White, 2013) but owners report scratching. Humans can catch this fungal skin disorder so it is important to wear gloves with handling and do rigorous cleaning of the cage/hutch/run. Spores can live in bedding, hair and soil and some guinea pigs are carriers without symptoms.
Mange mite infections. Sarcoptic mange (Trixacarus caviae) is serious disease. These are little mites, often invisible to the naked eye, that cause itching skin in guinea pigs. They often occur when the guinea pig is suffering from illness, vitamin C deficiency, or old age. Guinea pigs often hurt themselves by scratching at the itch. They may develop secondary bacterial infections. There will be hair loss, crusty skin and scaly skin. The guinea pig needs immediate veterinary treatment as these mites can result in seizures and even death (Meredith 2008). The guinea pigs’ cage/hutch/run etc will need serious cleaning – ask your vet what to use. Some guinea pigs show no sign of mange but are nonetheless infected ((Fremont and Bowman 2003). There are now spot-on products which are less painful for the guinea pig.
Fur mites and other mites. Fur mites (Chirodiscoides caviae) just lie in the hair and are sometimes known as “static lice”. Unless there is a severe infestation, they often cause no symptoms.
Lice or “running lice”. There are two kinds: Gliricola porcelli and Gyropus ovalis. These can cause itching and scratching. Always get your vet to advise treatment just to make sure these are not mange mites. If you use a cat or dog treatment on a guinea pig, you could kill it. There are now spot-ons for guinea pigs.
Barbering. This occurs when one guinea pigs starts overgrooming another. Always, always check that the bare patches are not due to skin disease before assuming this is what is happening. A guinea pig that itches may overgroom himself and also another so disease must be ruled out first. It may be a sign of stress, overcrowding or just a habit.
Do not go it alone. You must spend the money on a vet to get the right diagnosis and the right dosage of any treatment. Treating guinea pigs with over-the-counter medication for cats and dogs may result in its death.
If your vet advises, you may need to bathe your guinea pig to get rid of or prevent parasites or fungal disease. Your vet can prescribe anti-fungal or anti-parasite shampoos. Bathing always requires adult supervision.
Put a towel in the sink or bowl so that the guinea pig won’t slip and feels secure. Put only about two inches of tepid water, so that the guinea pig cannot drown. Wet the coat then put on the shampoo avoiding the head, eyes and ears and leave for five minutes. Take care not to let any water get into guinea’s nose, or shampoo in his eyes. Follow the instructions whether to rinse or not. Stand the wet guinea on one towel to soak up excess water from underneath, and towel dry with another. You can blow dry with a low heating setting. NEVER return a guinea pigs to an outside hutch until they are completely dry.
Fremond, J. J. & Bowman. D. D.(2003), ‘Parasites of Guinea Pigs,’ in ed. Bowman D.D., Companion and Exotic Animal Parasitology. Available at www.ivis.org/advances/Parasit_Bowman/fremont/chapter.asp?LA=1 Acccessed 31 December 2013.
Meredith, A., (2008), ‘Dermatological conditions of rodents and rabbits,’ Proceedings of the 33rd World Small Animal Veterinary Congress, 12.
White, S. D., (2013), Rabbit and Rodent Dermatology’ Available at www.gvma.net/files/ECVC2013/White-Rabbit_Rodent Dermatology, pdf. Accessed 3 January 2014.