An abscess in a guinea pig can give a wide range of symptoms depending on its location. An abscess can be a sign of other underlying health issues, such as a soft tissue mass, bone degeneration or joint problems. If the abscess is in the mouth, teeth can be lost. In certain cases the abscess can calcify, which can have serious results depending on its location.
How to tell if your guinea pig has an abscess
The most obvious sign of an abscess is a lump somewhere on your guinea pig’s body. These can come up very quickly, because they are basically a pus-filled cavity which has arisen in response to a localized infection, caused possibly by a bite from another animal or a puncture wound. Sometimes they arise because of an infection in a joint or internal organ. The lump will be firm or may be slightly ‘palpable’ – the best description is that feels doughy, like pressing a piece of uncooked pastry. The guinea pig may have been aware of the abscess before it becomes obvious and so you may notice an area of fur that has been excessively groomed.
If the abscess is in the mouth, you may notice excess saliva drooling or bad breath. It is likely that you will also notice a swelling of the animal’s face, as mouth and jaw abscesses always swell up quickly, as there is nowhere for the swelling to go but out. Before any of these signs you may notice that the guinea pig has localised pain. As a very vocal animal, the guinea pig may signal its distress by squeaking loudly when picked up. It may also be lethargic and unwilling to come to you, if it is usually a friendly animal. It will be off its food and not even treats will tempt it.
Diagnosis of the cause of the abscess
An abscess is not a disease in itself but an outward sign that something is going wrong, whether a bite or puncture has become infected or that there is a septic process going on in, say, a joint or tooth. Whatever the suspected cause, the vet will probably do a blood test, to determine how long-standing the abscess is and whether the guinea pig’s immune system is coping adequately. A count of the white blood cells is helpful in determining how long the abscess has been forming and even its underlying cause. If the abscess is newly formed, the white cell count will be high. This is because the body is marshalling all of its defences to fight the infection and so all of the white cells are in the circulation to achieve the removal of bacteria quickly.
If the white cell count is low, this is usually indicative of a longer-established infection, where the white cell count has been depleted by the initial immune response and so the bone marrow has not got so many to send into the circulation. If immature white cells are discovered this is usually not good from a prognosis point of view; the animal may be in a state of sepsis and antibiotic intervention may be too little, too late.
What is the outlook for a guinea pig with an abscess?
The prognosis depends very much on where the abscess is and also what the underlying cause may be. If it is caused by a bite or puncture wound and the antibiotics are started early, the outlook is extremely good. It is important to find out, if it is a bite, whether one particular animal is aggressive towards its cage mates and take steps to prevent a recurrence. It is also important to check the inside of the habitat for splinters and nails. Some cheap wooden bedding can include quite big bits which may be sharp.
If an abscess is untreated and if the guinea pig’s natural defences do not wall off the infection site adequately, then the bacteria which have achieved huge numbers in the pus of the abscess can overwhelm internal organs and the bloodstream, causing septicaemia and almost certain death. If treatment is timely, it is sometimes the best option to remove the abscessed area if appropriate. This may involve spaying or castration, tooth removal or even the amputation of a limb. This may seem a little extreme but will often save the animal’s life.
Treatment of an abscess
Treatment will always begin with antibiotic therapy, which will be continued for at least one course after surgical intervention. It is almost always necessary for the abscess to be opened and cleaned, although some skin abscesses do resolve themselves. Abscesses in the mouth are difficult to treat as they can obstruct the back of the mouth if they suddenly swell with pus and the animal can begin to choke and will quickly die. Animals who have had abscesses in the mouth are often cared for as in-patients until they have made significant recovery.
Prevention of abscesses
Prevention is difficult as abscesses are not a condition in their own right and merely a sign of an underlying problem. It therefore depends on the cause – bite, abrasion, tooth problems etc – as to how prevention can be carried out. Obviously if the animal is a fighter, it is best separated anyway; if it is being picked on by other animals it may be that it is ill and cannot defend itself and therefore should be checked out generally. It is an interesting point that guinea pigs in the wild often feign illness to prevent being taken by a predator.
A pig which is often lethargic or appears unwell with no cause may be being bullied. Constant vigilance is the best prevention of all; if a guinea pig is behaving oddly it is a good idea to separate it from the others and give it a darn good cuddle! That way, if it has any unexplained lumps and bumps you will find out quickly. And if it hasn’t, you have had a nice ten minutes cuddling your guinea pig!