Guinea pigs make good pets, but beware of scurvy

They are friendly and affectionate, and they live an average of four to five years.

By Sonnya Crawford

Guinea pigs are large rodents belonging to the cavy (caviidae) family. They are friendly and affectionate, and make noises called rumbles, wheeks, chatters and purrs. They live an average of four to five years.

Guinea pigs originated in the Andes of South America and were important not only in religious ceremonies and medicine, but also as a food source. The indigenous people of the Andes began guinea pig breeding programs in 5000 BC for food. (This is thousands of years before the domestication of the South American camelid.)

Through biochemistry and hybridization studies, it has been proved that the domestic guinea pig is distinctly different from the wild cavy species and is the oldest domesticated animal in the world.

Guinea pigs were worshipped by the ancient people in Peru. They were also used by healers to diagnose disease. Black guinea pigs were especially sought after by healers and were used to diagnose jaundice, rheumatism, arthritis and typhus. Guinea pigs were often given as gifts because they were so highly valued.

The most important thing to know if you have or plan on adopting a guinea pig is that they must be given supplemental Vitamin C. Guinea pigs are unable to synthesize or store their own Vitamin C and will develop scurvy without adequate amounts in their diet. Scurvy causes joint, bone and skin problems. It also interferes with blood clotting factors. It is a common and painful cause of death in the species.

Nearly every guinea pig I see in my practice is affected by differing degrees of scurvy. Signs include:

• Difficulty walking due to swollen joints

• Small wounds may bleed excessively or not heal as rapidly as normal

• Bleeding may be noticed just under the surface of the skin

• Internal bleeding also may be present, including in the muscles, the membranes around the skull, the brain and the intestines

• Rough hair

• Loss of appetite with concurrent weight loss

• Diarrhea

• Death, if left untreated

Preventing scurvy is relatively easy with a daily Vitamin C tablet made for guinea pigs. I don’t recommend adding Vitamin C to their water, as guinea pigs come from high desert and don’t consume much water.

Because Vitamin C is not shelf-stable, formulated guinea pig food does not contain high enough levels to prevent scurvy. Also, veggies usually are not fed in high enough volumes or consistently enough to prevent scurvy.

An excellent brand of tablets for guinea pigs is the Natural Science Vitamin C Supplement by Oxbow.

Sonnya Crawford, DVM, is a veterinarian at Grays Harbor Veterinary Services in Montesano. Her pets include two cats, numerous parrots, a giant bunny and saltwater fish. Her special interests are in avian medicine, veterinary dermatology and dentistry. Reach her at