Chocolate Dutch

Ailments and general welfare

by Allan Trigg, 2009

Provided they are well fed and suitably housed, cavies are normally blest with good health. Various ailments will, of course, be encountered from time to time in any stud, however good the management. Fanciers themselves can clear up most minor problems although there are times when a vet may need to be consulted. In the past, there has been much mistrust of the veterinary profession as it was felt that their knowledge relating to cavy problems was limited. However, things have improved and, these days, there are several practices around that have a much better awareness of cavy matters.

With clean, fresh food and a balanced diet, one is unlikely to encounter too many upset tummy problems such as scours (diarrhoea) but it can occur with a sudden change of diet and some animals may have a weaker constitution than others. Prevention is better than cure so, if a change of diet is to be made, it should be done as gradually as possible and in a way that makes the transition as smooth as possible. If any new food of a laxative nature is to be fed, it will help if some dry bran and hay is fed along with the fresh green stuff or roots being introduced.

Mangolds have a very high water content and it may be best to offer them as a part feed initially. Indeed, some books also advocate caution with pregnant sows, even suggesting that they may cause abortion in cavies. If scours do occur, one needs to remove any laxative green food and any molasses-enriched feed mix from the diet. Dry bran and good hay should be offered along with anything astringent in nature, e.g. shepherds purse. If the problem continues, medication will be necessary and some authorities recommend Sulphamezathine as the best cure.

With any animal that is bedded on hay, there is always the likelihood of parasites being encountered. Lice that live on the oils in the cavy’s skin and create irritation and scurf seem much less of a problem these days. Such pests are not transferable to humans as they are a different species and should one be unfortunate enough to find that one’s stock has acquired some “unwanted passengers”, the solution is simple. Obtain a pyrethrum based aerosol spray (one that is used for cage birds is excellent) and part the hair to spray the cavy close to the skin. Areas most likely to be frequented by lice are the centre of the back and behind the ears. Of course one needs to check the whole body and take special care to avoid the eyes when spraying.

In addition, scratching resulting in scurf and broken coat can be the result of an overheating diet. Flaked maize and barley are both renown for their heating properties so both should only be fed in limited quantities.

If one does experience trouble with scurf, the affected animal may well be loose coated and have a coat that looks uneven and possibly broken in places. A “broken back” has nothing to do with the animal’s frame but is simply an obvious break in coat on the centre of the back. If the skin is also broken through scratching, it may be best to apply an equal mixture of olive oil and eau de cologne (or surgical spirit) to the affected part. This should nourish the skin and assist with the re-growth of hair. Subsequently, a bath with a good medicated shampoo will be needed to remove the greasiness and clean up the pig.

Dust lice (also know as hay mite or white mite) is something much more likely to be picked up from hay. These minute parasites are quite harmless and simply seem to exist attached to the hair shafts. Whilst they are not always that easy to detect (if your eyesight could be better), they are unsightly and their presence is decidedly frowned upon on the show table. The solution is, again, simple. Spray your stock with a safe aerosol to eradicate the problem.

Something that is much more of a concern is the burrowing parasite that is commonly known as Sellnick. This problem was, like Aids in humans, unknown by past generations and only came to light in the 1970s. In its worse form, it can cause great distress and ultimate death. In previous years, sheep dip or Tetmosol (used for the treatment of scabies in humans) provided the cure. Now, thankfully, there is a drug available (Ivermectin, commonly known as Ivomec) that can clear the problem more easily. Treatment can be by injection, orally or by pour on application and it will be necessary to repeat the treatment every ten days to break the cycle of re-infestation.

It seems that these days, the embryonic status of this mite can be carried within the very makeup of the cavy and possibly only manifests itself in an animal when stress or other environmental/dietary lows occur. Like with other ailments, it is felt that if a good diet with plenty of green stuff is adopted, such troubles can be greatly minimised. To be aware that one’s stock does not have a problem with any minor outbreaks, it is best to check weekly when cleaning out. Pay particular attention to the underparts of the cavy as bare armpits are an indication of the problem and a thin coated/bare belly is another possibility (the latter may also be caused by ammonia fumes if a deep litter system is practised).

Other skin/coat problems (loose coated with hairs showing skin debris at the roots) could be more fungal in nature and shampooing with Seleen or a similar product will usually cure the problem. Your vet should be able to give you all the advice required in this regard.

Also, there are times when a sow will lose her coat on the back and around the rear parts after littering. In this instance, the condition is thought to be due to a temporary mineral and protein deficiency resulting from the rigours of motherhood. Plenty of good food and time will soon remedy matters with an early regrowth of coat.

Eye injuries or infections can occur. The most usual cause of eye injury results from coarse hay stalks or hay seeds that either damage the eye surface or become lodged within the eyelid. In these instances, the eye will become clouded and discoloured.

The first thing that needs to be done is to closely inspect the eye to ascertain if any foreign body is visible. If a husk or piece of hay can be seen, it needs to be removed and round headed tweezers (as used by stamp collectors) are most useful on these occasions. Then some Aureomycin eye ointment (obtainable from your vet) needs to be applied inside the eyelid/around the eye twice a day until the eye clears.

There are times when a cavy will be found to have a damp, watery eye. This may be caused by a draught or some slight infection. The eye can be bathed in warm salt water to alleviate the problem but, if the wet eye persists, Aureomycin or another ophthalmic ointment should be applied until the eye returns to normality.

Cataracts can occur and the cause is thought to be hereditary. Consequently, any animals that exhibit this failing need to be removed from any breeding programme as soon as the problem becomes known. The affected pig may retain some visual presence in the early stages of the affliction but even when sight is lost, the individual will be able the cope with life through dependency on sense and smell.

On occasion, an overeager cavy may fall from the hutch. Normally, the animal will not suffer any bodily misfortune but one does need to check the pig’s teeth as the front incisors are likely to be broken, loosened or knocked out completely. If broken, the teeth need to be trimmed to evenness but take care to avoid the tongue and seek help if hesitant and uncertain. Any loosened teeth will normally fall out shortly afterwards. These will grow again within a remarkably quick time but the casualty will need daily hand feeding with roots, etc. during the intervening period. Carrots need to be cut into narrow fingers that can be pushed through to the molars for consumption. After about 7-10 days, the teeth will be seen to have grown sufficiently for the cavy concerned to start coping with mealtime again.

A more serious problem concerns the molar teeth. The condition is a hereditary one where bony growths develop and affect the correct hinging of the jaw. With molar teeth trouble the prognosis is bad and euthanasia is the only real solution along with corrective action in one’s breeding plans.

As few cavies are kept in conditions that offer life on hard floor surfaces, nails will need to be clipped from time to time. Those cavies with horn coloured toenails will present little problem as the blood supply to the nails can be clearly seen. Consequently, one just needs to ensure that the cut is made above the blood line. Where dark nails are involved, there is no such guidance available so is best to trim with caution, normally on the curve of the nail and taking off too little rather than too much. If bleeding does occur, a styptic pencil (obtained from your local chemist) can be applied although often the cut seals without too much blood loss. In times of emergency, I understand that pepper can be applied although I cannot recommend it from personal experience.

At times, corns can appear as a long growth of hard skin on the pads of the cavy. These are comprised of dead skin and can be removed with the nails clippers as long as the cut is not so close to the pad as to create any open exposed flesh for infection.

Another foot problem that may occur is Pododermatitis (Bumblefoot). This is a condition that causes a swelling of the foot pad. It has been likened to bedsores and aged cavies are suseptical to the problem although poor hygiene is very often a cause. In severe cases, there will be lesions and pus being the result of some bacterial infection. Such a condition will require antibiotics and the cleansing of the affected foot with some antiseptic solution. My only experience of the problem in a lifetime of cavy keeping involved a six-year-old boar that seemingly coped with the condition in his front feet with little apparent discomfort until his death, several months later.

Abcesses, not to be confused with cysts, can occur particularly if a cavy is run down or out of sorts for any reason. These often occur in the throat and thistles in the hay have been sighted as a cause although, in my latest case, it was probably just the drain and stress of motherhood that caused the problem. Luckily, I was able to quickly clean the wound that soon mended. A salt-water solution or hydrogen peroxide diluted to a weak strength being the recommended cleansing agents.

However, the affected part can refill with pus and continue to fester if the abscess is not completely cleaned and drained effectively. If the problem persists, antibiotics from the vet may be needed in conjunction with the wound being flushed out with a weak solution of hydrogen peroxide.

Cysts are a different matter and can occur on any part of the body. I have known them diagnosed as tapeworm cysts and attributed to the cavy’s system rejecting tapeworm eggs as a foreign body and encapsulating them in a loose, undetached capsule under the skin. Whatever the cause (they could be hereditary or physiological), they seem to pose no discomfort to the affected animal. However, if they are present on a show specimen they do represent a distinct disadvantage on the show table. A vet can remove them provided the minor operation needed is not refused on the grounds of being purely cosmetic.

Other lumps, may in time, prove to be a sebaceous cyst. These can occur anywhere on the body and take the form of slightly soft but stable lumps than contain caseous (soft cheese-like) contents. They should be left until they burst of their own accord and then bathed/flushed out with a mild saline solution. The end result is likely to be hairless patch that will be unsightly but nothing more. On occasion, these cysts do prove difficult to cleanse and, in these cases, surgical removal of the lining may prove necessary.

Compaction of the rectum is a condition that affects some boars of advanced years and removing the blocked faeces is not the most pleasurable of tasks. A boar with this problem will be found to have a hard lump of compacted droppings part blocking the anus. Vaseline or olive oil can be used to assist in the removal of the lump that can be eased out fully or, as may possibly be the case, piece by piece. Once a boar develops this problem, it will need regular attention.

Ruttling is a rough sounding, respiratory noise that a cavy makes although the cause and reason is shrouded in uncertainty. It has been said that the membranes at the back of the nasal passages and throat become inflamed and cause this rasping sound. Others feel it may be stress related. A course of sulphamezathine is suggested as a possible cure.

A much more serious respiratory problem is pneumonia. Even in healthy animals, bacteria or viral agents can exist within the lungs in a suppressed and inert state and it is only some adverse change in well-being or environment that somehow triggers the transition into an ailing state of health. The causes quoted are quite diverse. Stress, overcrowding, pregnancy, poor diet can be causes with extreme temperature changes, draughts and cold being often quoted. From my own experience, pneumonia can strike as easily in summer as in winter and will prove fatal unless treated speedily and with broad-spectrum antibiotics. A case for the vet.

Cystitis (inflammation of the urinary bladder, typically caused by infection and accompanied by frequent painful urination) can be encountered occasionally. Sows are the most susceptible to this problem but boars can also be affected. A course of Baytril as prescribed by a vet and administered orally will normally cure the problem. Otherwise, injections of Tribrissen can be tried in difficult cases.

Pregnancy toxaemia can occur in breeding sows although I have only experienced it once with cavies and I put this down to a good diet with plenty of green-stuff. Adequate room for exercise and the avoidance of obesity also helps. Some breeds do seem more prone to the problem than others.

As with humans, the list of possible health problems is virtually endless but, in general though, life can be fairly uncomplicated for Mr Cavy. With good management, any such tribulations should be kept to the minimum. Lastly, remember, if in doubt and concerned; seek help from others.

Suggested reading: Diseases of Domestic Guinea Pigs by VCG Richardson MA VetMB MRCVS

Wash 3: Designed by Simon Neesam for the British Cavy Council © 2009