Guinea pigs suffer from a number of skin complaints and it is the general belief among guinea pig owners that skin issues account for most if not all of their trips to the vet. One of the main problems is that guinea pigs come from a dry climate and cannot always cope with the humidity they often experience in captivity. One answer to skin problems is to reduce humidity, but this is obviously not always possible.
What to look out for
You will hopefully notice that your guinea pig is scratching more than normal before any outward signs are obvious. Whether the skin problem is caused by a fungal or bacterial infection or by a parasite, the initial signs are the same; scratching and the loss of small patches of hair. In a long haired guinea pig this will probably first present by the coat looking rather less lovely than usual. There may be matted hair and damp looking patches where the skin has been broken by the constant scratching. The pig may even draw blood it will be scratching so intensely. Although not directly caused by stress or an immune system which is not working to full capacity, it is certainly true that if the guinea pig is suffering from stress – which can be caused by the loss of a cage mate, guinea pigs are very bonded animals in their group – or is immune suppressed, the skin is the first place you will see this. It is their weak spot, as it were. Some guinea pigs will behave bizarrely, twitching the skin on their backs and running round in circles, desperate to stop the itching.
Diagnosis of the skin problem
The guinea pig’s skin problem will be because of lice, mites, bacteria or fungus. This may in turn become a multiple problem, because of course bacteria are present in the environment which cause no problem to a healthy animal but are opportunistic is it is ill. So a pig with mange (caused by mites) will develop sore patches which will become infected with bacteria if not treated quickly. It is vital therefore to take a guinea pig with bare patches, scratching or bizarre behaviour to the vet straight away. Cage mates must also be checked as lice and mites will migrate to every animal in the habitat. The skin of the guinea pig is very thin and sensitive (which is why they were extensively used in the cosmetic industry for testing) and will break down very easily. Hair will drop out very readily too, although it will usually grow back, unless there has been scarring. If the animal has mites or lice these are usually visible. A fungal or bacterial infection will need swabs before it can be identified precisely. It is usually possible, from the state of the skin, to tell whether it is bacterial or fungal and the appropriate medication can be started at once, pending identification.
Treatment of skin problems
Treatment is easy once the cause has been discovered. Antibiotics, antifungals or topical preparations to remove mites and lice can be administered and are usually very effective in quite a short space of time. It is essential to remove and dispose of all bedding and to clean out the cage or habitat, giving special attention to the corners. While the skin is still irritated the softest and least dust-causing bedding should be used and it should be changed regularly so the guinea pig is not left in damp conditions. If it is possible within the location of the cage to reduce humidity, this should be done but in most cases of domestic guinea pig conditions this is unlikely to be possible. In this case it is even more important to keep the cage environment dry. If the skin problem occurs in the warm summer months, putting the pig out in a run in the garden will help enormously, as long as care is taken to provide shade cover as well as sun and make sure the animal does not become too hot. Also, if there has been stress in its life, it is important to make sure that the animal will not be harassed by other family pets or encroaching wildlife. Foxes are very bold these days and can enter even urban gardens at any time, not just at night.
Prevention of skin problems in guinea pigs
The guinea pig has a very delicate skin and a nervous disposition. These two facts are not changeable – they are the situations you take on board when you start keeping these delightful little animals. The main prevention route is constant vigilance. If one animal in a group starts scratching, it must be isolated straight away and examined minutely to determine the cause. Whatever it turns out to be, the other guinea pigs in the group must also be checked over and if any tiny signs of skin breaking down, spots or lesions of any kind, they must all be taken to the vet. If a problem like lice or mites gets a hold it is very difficult to eradicate as one pig will pass it on to another and it circles round and round without end. An itchy pig is an unhappy pig and because they are quite sensitive little souls you will soon have a very stressed out colony and then they will become prone to other conditions, some of which are life threatening. Hopefully, an owner will be handling their guinea pigs regularly anyway and this is a good time to give them a once over – they groom each other in the group anyway for bonding, so they will love to be petted and scratched gently as you check their skin.