Guinea pigs are a great companion animal for any home, especially with children or as classroom pets. Dr. Nancy Alperson shares her knowledge on how to provide proper veterinary care to these small animals, including Vitamin C, foot care, and understanding night poops.
Welcome Dr. Nancy Alperson!
[00:01:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to Your Vet Wants You To Know. I have a very exciting topic to talk about, today. I am looking forward to sharing some information about guinea pigs, and I have a special guest here to share all of her expertise, Dr. Nancy Alperson. She is going to be talking about what you need to know when you want to bring a guinea pig into your home or into your classroom. Welcome, Dr. Alperson.
[00:01:28] Dr. Alperson: Thank you.
[00:01:29] Dr. Lancellotti: Tell me a little bit about yourself and why guinea pigs are so important to you. What is it about them that makes them so special?
[00:01:40] Dr. Alperson: When I was in kindergarten a long time ago, I had a guinea pig as a classroom pet, and I thought it was pretty awesome. I got to take care of it over the winter break and it was super fun. It actually wasn’t until vet school that I learned that they were a little bit more complicated than I had thought. Realizing that they were just a little bit more complicated, I think that maybe there’s an assumption that people have about guinea pigs. And that’s okay! There’s no reason that you really should know it (how to take care of them).
[00:02:09] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. I think there’s a lot more to these animals than just sticking them in a cage, giving them something to eat and drink, and having the kids play with them and pet them. They really need a lot of care and special attention to what goes into their diet and what things that they need in their environment in order to give them the highest quality of life.
Guinea Pigs Need Vitamin C
Dr. Lancellotti: Tell me about one of your favorite guinea pig cases- something that kind of stands out to you as a ‘classic’ guinea pig case.
[00:02:38] Dr. Alperson: Yeah. So, this was a really nice owner who came in. He and his partner were really excited that they had just gotten two new guinea pigs. After they’d had them for a little bit, their hair was falling out (and one was worse than the other). I started talking to them and we went through husbandry, which means how you “take care” of your guinea pig or your animal. It came up that they didn’t know that guinea pigs need vitamin C. I just started thinking, “Why would they know that?” Right? I don’t think the average person knows that. I did not learn that actually until vet school, and to be honest, that was one of our board questions that we had to take on our veterinary boards- to know which animals need vitamin C. Humans and guinea pigs don’t make their own vitamin C, and some primates as well. But he didn’t know that, so we started talking about why it was important and about how guinea pigs could end up with scurvy- just like humans can. He didn’t know what scurvy was (either), so we talked a little bit more. Finally, I said to him, “…like pirates, before they knew about sucking on limes,” and he got all excited about it. He was like, “Is my guinea pig going to turn into a pirate?” And I’m like, “No, no, no!” It was just a really eye opening case for me. Something that’s really basic, he just didn’t know. And why would he? That was the case that brought it to attention for me.
[00:04:16] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. I would agree. I don’t think I knew about guinea pigs and vitamin C until I went to vet school either. That’s definitely something that they drill into you, because it’s one of those key ‘knowledge’ things for guinea pigs, as far as very important things to understand about this particular species.
Sources of Vitamin C for Guinea Pigs
[00:04:41] Dr. Alperson: I think that there is the assumption that any vitamin C that they need can be found in their food and in their pellets. That’s not actually accurate because it degrades really quickly. Think about them a little bit more like us- it’s really important for us to be getting fresh fruits and vegetables- that’s what it’s like for them. The reality is guinea pigs have their own little personalities. If they don’t want to eat their vegetables, then they might not eat them. And that’s okay, (as long as you’re) just being realistic and aware, understanding that you might have to supplement it. Just be totally honest with yourself. If you’re going to put it in the water, you have to make sure that you really change that water, ideally, every day. There are all of these different little treats out there that you can get or different types of supplements. Really, the very best thing you can do when you adopt a guinea pig is to make an appointment right away with a veterinarian who sees guinea pigs, because they will walk you through all of this- helping you determine how much vitamin C your guinea pig needs and the best way for them to get it.
[00:05:59] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s excellent. Yeah. Not all veterinarians will see guinea pigs. You know? We have to learn about them in vet school, but I would certainly need to give you a call (if I was to see a guinea pig) and pick your brain. There are definitely people that have a little bit more knowledge and expertise. Having a relationship with them is going to go a long way towards the health of that guinea pig throughout the course of its life.
Guinea Pig Foot Care
[00:06:20] Dr. Alperson: Exactly. Another really big thing that I do see is foot issues. Ideally, if you are playing with your guinea pig a lot and checking their feet at least once a week, it’s so much easier to pick up on any of these issues that can happen. Foot problems are one of the top ones I see.
[00:06:40] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. I think that’s a great tidbit for you to give. Commonly, I tell my pet owners (especially, when they own allergic dogs), to get the animal comfortable with you touching their feet, looking in between their toes, and checking things out there. That should be something that the guinea pig is used to so that you can catch things before they become really big problems.
[00:07:02] Dr. Alperson: Exactly.
What Care do Guinea Pigs Need?
[00:07:04] Dr. Lancellotti: For those people who might be considering getting a guinea pig as a pet, what should they expect as far as lifespan, what type of pet it is, and what kind of equipment that they’ll need?
[00:07:14] Dr. Alperson: Those are all excellent questions. They say the average is 4-5 years. I certainly have had guinea pigs that have lived much longer. There’s a lot of different opinions out there about cages. Personally, I advise people to stay away from wire cages, just because it can hurt their feet. I prefer just some sort of flat plastic cage. Then, how big it is will depend on the number of guinea pigs you have. They’re very social animals, so in this case, it is a good idea to actually have more than one. They need some sort of soft bedding. You can do newspaper or shredded paper- things like that. There’s some really nice disposable cotton litter that works well, or you could do fleece. I’m not the biggest fan of the wooden shavings that they have just cause there can be allergies. Also, you just have to keep in mind that guinea pigs have the potential to eat stuff. You can have really nice fleece liners, but if you see your guinea pigs eating them, you should not have those in there. You should take them away.
[00:08:18] Dr. Lancellotti: How often would you recommend that the fleece be changed? Can it just be washed or would you recommend just replacing it with new fleece each time?
[00:08:28] Dr. Alperson: Ideally, you should be checking their cage every day, because if things are feeling really wet, you’re going to want to have to change it. Some people have flannel that they have for the newborns to protect the mattresses. You can get away with not changing those as often, but you can not go for more than a week. If it’s just regular fleece, you might be looking at changing it every day, but it just depends on how thick the fleece is. You’re going to have to look at it just to make sure nothing’s really wet. Otherwise, don’t wait more than a week to totally clean everything out, just because they can develop different sores and also, it’s just not nice for them. It would be like if we were living in an outhouse, basically, because it just accumulates around them.
[00:09:10] Dr. Lancellotti: So, that would be a great question to ask the veterinarian when you bring the cage in and have them evaluate things. It’s just a good ‘husbandry’ sort of question to ask.
[00:09:19] Dr. Alperson: Absolutely. The more information you give, the better your answers are going to be. I’ve recently just had this fleece question and we have the exact same conversation. I said to her, “How thick is the fleece?” She told me she’s able to get away with not changing it daily- going quite a few days without it. But it turned out, she has waterproof material underneath the fleece that wicks it down. I actually always like it when owners will send me emails with pictures or if they actually bring in some of the bedding. Honestly, that is the best, because I can actually see how they have it set up.
[00:09:57] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. I just have a question as far as transportation. We bring dogs and cats into the clinic without their normal habitat. Would you recommend bringing the entire guinea pig habitat in to the veterinarian?
[00:10:10] Dr. Alperson: It’s interesting that you asked that. Usually, what most people do is bring in a small carrier- which is fine. I don’t want to speak for all veterinarians out there, so I’ll just speak for myself. I actually really like it when they bring in one of their bigger cages. Some of them have quite a few guinea pigs, so they’ll have a whole elaborate setup. It’s nice for them to have something that is closer to what they would have at home, so that they feel a little more comfortable when they’re recovering.
Do Guinea Pigs like People?
[00:10:40] Dr. Lancellotti: I know you said that they like to be social with each other. What about socializing with people?
[00:10:44] Dr. Alperson: They do, but it’s going to be just like any of our pets. The more you handle them, the more social they’re going to be with you. My only concern about any pet that’s in a cage is that it can be kind of easy to not interact as much. But the more you interact with them, the better it’s going to be for them.
Guinea Pig Nail Care
[00:11:01] Dr. Lancellotti: What about their nails? What kind of care do their nails require?
[00:11:05] Dr. Alperson: Yes. Thank you for asking. Their nails grow super fast, so they do need their nails to be cut regularly. One really nice thing about setting up an appointment right away with a vet is that you can ask them how to cut their nails. I think it is so much better if you are able to do it yourself. You could start out with just a really low goal, like maybe just one toenail for that day. I think it can work out really well. And again, it allows you to make sure that they’re not getting any sort of sores on their feet, because they are just super prone. Hopefully, doing this will prevent it from turning into something a lot worse.
What Do Guinea Pigs Eat?
[00:11:46] Dr. Lancellotti: We talked a little bit about what their environment requires, as far as their cage. What about dietary requirements? You touched on vitamin C. What kind of nutrition should we be thinking about for these guys?
[00:12:00] Dr. Alperson: This goes along actually with being in their cage- they need all the hay that they can get- all the time. They have to have access to hay because their teeth are different than ours. Their teeth just keep on growing, and without that hay, their teeth don’t get filed down. Their digestive systems are also different than ours, so they’re very dependent on that hay to be able to make everything work appropriately. Sometimes, people think that their guinea pigs aren’t eating enough hay or that they don’t really need the hay, because they don’t see the guinea pigs eating the hay. But if the cage is set up well with plenty of hay, maybe you won’t notice that there is a little bit being gone, because they just have so much access to it. You want to keep on offering it. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that they need to eat more of the pellets than they do of the hay- and that is not true. They need just a very small amount of pellets, but lots and lots of hay and vitamin C.
[00:13:06] Dr. Lancellotti: Okay. Those pellets look like so much fun though.
[00:13:10] Dr. Alperson: I know they do! But that is another thing. It’s like cereals. You do not want a pellet that looks like it’s super fun. If it’s really colorful and it looks like it’s really fun, it’s just like it is with us. When we go to the grocery store and we see some cereal bowl, like Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch or something like that, Bran Flakes are never going to look exciting. But Bran Flakes have some good vitamins in it. Not that Fruit Loops and Captain Crunch don’t, but they also have a lot of sugar and stuff like that. So, it’s kind of like that with their pellets.
[00:13:45] Dr. Lancellotti: Right. So, their guinea pigs need to be eating their Bran Flakes with the hay.
[00:13:50] Dr. Alperson: Correct. They can have a little bit of fruit, but just a little bit because has a lot of sugar in it. Again, when you meet with your veterinarian, they’ll go through all of this with you, and they’ll be able to advise you. I like pet food to be easy for owners to get. Even though there might be one type of food that I like better than the other, if it’s not easy for the owners to get, I like to be realistic. I will try to help them find something that is easy for them to get in our area.
[00:14:21] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. And if you have a veterinarian who’s familiar with guinea pigs, they oftentimes, will know where that stuff is available for pet owners. So, that’s another great reason to establish a relationship with someone who is knowledgeable about the particular species that you have.
Common Misconceptions about Guinea Pigs
Dr. Lancellotti: What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions that you hear from people regarding guinea pigs? Do you have any guinea pig myths that you’d like to dispel?
[00:14:46] Dr. Alperson: Yeah. The biggest one is about the vitamin C. I hear that one over and over again. And going back to the original story about the client who came in with her two guinea pigs with the hair falling out- if there is a deficiency of Vitamin C, (it’s not just hair) it can cause a number of different problems. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just not something that anyone would know for any reason. It’s written on bags of pellets that they’re supplemented with vitamin C, but the problem is that it’s not stable, so you just can’t really count on that. Just get the list from your veterinarian and be realistic about it. You can offer all the peppers in the world to your guinea pig, but if they’re not going to eat them, they’re not going to get the vitamin C they need from that. So just be realistic about whether or not they’re really getting that vitamin C, and if you need to supplement, what that amount needs to be.
[00:15:39] Dr. Lancellotti: I think that’s an excellent point that you brought up. The pellets will say that it’s supplemented with vitamin C, but that vitamin C really needs to be from fresh food. Vitamin C just breaks down so quickly that, unless it’s from fresh food, there’s really nothing there. Do you ever worry about pet owners over-supplementing with vitamin C?
[00:16:00] Dr. Alperson: Not so much. Usually, it’s that they don’t know that they need the vitamin C. That tends to be what happens more commonly. If they’re sick, I honestly recommend more, so it’s a range of however much I’ll recommend that they get per day.
[00:16:18] Dr. Lancellotti: Vitamin C is one of those water-soluble vitamins too, so hopefully anything that they eat in excess will be excreted without having any issues.
[00:16:27] Dr. Alperson: Yes. Exactly. They’ll just pee it right out.
Do Guinea Pigs get Diarrhea?
[00:16:30] Dr. Lancellotti: What about their bowel movements? We talked a little bit about keeping their cage clean and stuff. Tell us about guinea pig poops.
[00:16:36] Dr. Alperson: Yes. Okay. This is a fun fact! I have two sons and they really liked this fact when we learned this. They have special nighttime poops. And they eat these special nighttime poops. You can have owned guinea pigs for a long time and not known this. Actually, that means that your guinea pigs have probably been very healthy. So, there’s important nutrients that are in them. Sometimes, we’ll get calls saying that their guinea pig has diarrhea and they usually do not have diarrhea. It’s usually that they’re not eating these special nighttime poops. The poops look different. One of the things I like to do with new guinea pig owners is talk a little bit about this and show them a picture of what it looks like. But it doesn’t really matter that they’re not having diarrhea. If you see this, they should be seen, because if they’re not eating their nighttime poop, that is a sign that something might be wrong. It could be that they’re not feeling well or they’ve hurt themselves. For some reason they’re not doing something that they should be doing, so they should still be seen.
Taking a Guinea Pig to College
[00:17:41] Dr. Lancellotti: We talked a little bit about how guinea pigs make good classroom pets. What about for those older kids who have grown up and now they’re going off to college. Do you have any recommendations for them when taking their pets?
[00:17:55] Dr. Alperson: I have actually seen quite a few college students who have guinea pig pets for emotional support animals. Their schools require them to have a veterinarian sign off, saying that they’re healthy. A lot of these college students will go adopt a guinea pig from a rescue (which I think is awesome). However, (again) it can be hard to find a vet who sees guinea pigs, so you need to allow time for that. A lot of times, the forms will say something asking the vet to certify that there’s no diseases or parasites or anything that other students can get. There are just a few different illnesses out there that they can get. If they are treated, everything is fine and we don’t have to worry about any of the college students getting them. You just need to allow enough time for that appointment to happen, for there to be treatment, and for the vet to sign those papers.
[00:18:49] Dr. Lancellotti: Great. So, they should make sure that they are adequately prepared for all steps of the college process.
[00:18:54] Dr. Alperson: Exactly. I have a child who is going into his senior year of high school, so I know that it can be a little bit overwhelming. There’s so much to do with the whole college process and stuff like that. But one of the things I’ve talked about with him- make sure your appointment for your guinea pig is a month before. If you’re a month before, it should be fine and you’ll have plenty of time. That way, when you’re discussing the setup and everything with your veterinarian, you have plenty of time to go out and get whatever it is you need. You could even ask your vet at that time, “Hey, I’m going off to (for example) the University of Florida. Do you happen to know anyone who is a vet down there?” So, there’s just lots of time to get everything set up well.
[00:19:37] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s a great reminder that we have a huge network of veterinarians. We’ve made a network as we’ve gone through vet school and our career, so we know people all over the country- sometimes all over the world. If people need recommendations when they’re traveling and there’s a specific subset of veterinarians that you’re looking for, it’s a good idea to ask the person that you have a relationship with because they can help point you in the right direction.
Important Points for Guinea Pig Care
Dr. Lancellotti: For pet owners who maybe have a guinea pig or who are interested in getting a guinea pig, what are some of the big things that you really want them to remember?
[00:20:12] Dr. Alperson: I thought a lot about this. If I had just one thing that I could get people to take away from this- guinea pigs do not often show that they’re sick until they’re really sick. So, if you’re like, “Hmm. It looks like maybe she’s not eating as much,” or “I’m noticing that she’s got a little discharge coming out of her eyes,” you need to call the vet right away and not wait. And if you’re the friend who’s listening, and someone’s telling you offhand, “Ah, it’s not really eating. It seems like they’re eating this a little off,” tell them to be seen right away because it is very important. They are prey animals, so (as with any prey animals) they don’t like to show it unless they’re really sick.
[00:20:59] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. Prey animals will definitely hide their illness as a way to protect themselves from any sort of predator. Oftentimes, it is really subtle that they’re not feeling well. I think that’s a great takeaway point. Call your veterinarian as soon as you’re worried that there might be something going on. And it should be that veterinarian that is knowledgeable about guinea pigs, right?
[00:21:23] Dr. Alperson: Yes. Exactly. The other point is that my guinea pig appointments actually take me longer because I spent a lot of time going over (with owners) the whole husbandry and what they should be looking for- showing them different parts of their guinea pig body to keep an eye on. Sometimes, people think, “These are just little pocket pets or classroom pets. They really don’t need to go see a vet.” But they do, and it’s not going to be a waste of your time or your money to go in. Just like with your cat and dog, they’re going to go through everything with you. If there’s something that they don’t know, then just like with your cat and dog, they’re going to refer you to a specialist. It’s the exact same thing.
[00:22:08] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s excellent. Yeah. I think having a great conversation and open dialogue between the pet owner and the veterinarian will go a long way towards any pet’s health, whether that’s guinea pigs, cats, dogs, etc. Certainly, (it will) for those exotic species that need a little bit more communication. And I think that’s wonderful. Hopefully, this is a good tool for people who have gone in to see their veterinarian about a guinea pig, and they can listen back to the show and get some more information there. Where else would you recommend people go if they would like some more information about guinea pigs?
[00:22:43] Dr. Alperson: I have a couple links. Lafeber actually has some really good basic information for guinea pigs. I actually really liked their information for all of their exotics, as well. VCA actually has really good information on guinea pigs. There also is third one. It’s called Chicago Exotic Vets. I’ve actually never been there. I’m originally from Chicago, but their handouts are phenomenal.
[00:23:08] Dr. Lancellotti: I know there are plenty of family veterinarians who are comfortable managing guinea pigs, if you just reach out to them and ask them. But I’ll also have a link to the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners on the website, if pet owners would like to consult with a specialist who is super knowledgeable about guinea pigs. If you have a guinea pig and you want to show us pictures or share your stories with other pet owners, I would encourage you to join the Facebook group. Tell us about your experience with your guinea pig. We love seeing pictures of everyone’s pets there.
Scratching the Itch
[00:23:47] Dr. Lancellotti: I like to end each episode of the podcast with a segment called Scratching The Itch. This is a segment that is designed to highlight something- either a product, a website, or a human interest story that just provides a relief or makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. I was wondering, do you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners, today?
[00:24:10] Dr. Alperson: I do! I am actually a swimmer. I am on a master swim team that is right out of Wister. And like a lot of the swim teams out there for adults who want to swim competitively, we participate in this program called Swim Saves Lives. It is a free program that is offered to teach adults how to swim. Again, it is completely free! The goal is to have adults who, for whatever reason, would like some help with their swimming. It’s okay if you’ve never been in the water. It’s okay if you know how to swim, but you just don’t feel very secure with it. It is completely fine. A number of my teammates are medical doctors and feel very strongly about making sure that adults know how to swim, because when parents, in particular, know how to swim, their children are more likely to learn how to swim. So, it’s like a two for one. We’re helping the adults and children as well. If you just do a Google search for the program, Swim Saves Lives, you can find a free program in your area and it is just really rewarding. You do not have to worry about what you look like in a swimsuit. You have to be an adult to do it. Everyone is older, who’s there. No one cares what you look like. You get provided with a cap and goggles. You can wear whatever you want. There’s no judgment and it’s really just amazing. I was so proud of my swimmers. It was just wonderful. There was a man in his 40s, who had never been in the pool before, and by the end, he was able to swim 25 yards. So, it’s just a really great program.
[00:25:54] Dr. Lancellotti: Wow. That’s excellent. What a wonderful way for you guys to give back as a swim team and a great way to save lives. I think that’s fantastic. So I’ll have a link to the Swim Saves Lives on the show notes for people, if they want to check that out. Maybe they know someone who could use a little extra help swimming, or they want to get a little bit better themselves. I think that’s wonderful.
[00:26:13] Dr. Alperson: Awesome. Well, thank you so much!
[00:26:15] Dr. Lancellotti: Also, I have this great picture of you with your swim team out on a cold hike there in Massachusetts. I love this. I did swim team when I was younger, but I think it’s great that you guys continue that as adults. It looks like a really wonderful, close-knit group of people there. I’m sure you guys have a lot of fun together.
[00:26:35] Dr. Alperson: We do. It’s a really nice group. Even though we say that we compete, we’re super laid back. There are people who are of all different abilities on our team. Actually, we haven’t really competed in anything in a couple of years, with the way everything’s worked with COVID. But we get together all the time and it’s really fun.
[00:26:55] Dr. Lancellotti: Just a good excuse to go to the pool and hang out?
[00:26:58] Dr. Alperson: Yes. Exactly! Today we did an open water swim. But it’s just a really good group of people.
[00:27:04] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. Well, Dr. Alperson, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your knowledge about guinea pigs. I hope this has provided people with some information and some really good resources and tips for keeping their guinea pig nice and healthy throughout the course of its life.
[00:27:18] Dr. Alperson: Well, thank you so much for having me.
[00:27:21] Dr. Lancellotti: And to everyone listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.