Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of cavies with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a cavy is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy cavy look and feel like, but familiarizing a cavy with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations, which is particularly important for cavies as stress can be dangerous to them. Be prepared to check them over at least every six to eight weeks*! Cavies who spend time outdoors, especially during fly season, will need more regular checks to prevent dangerous issues like fly strike. For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Due to cavies’ hair and the fact that they generally mask signs of pain or illness until they are no longer able to do so, cavies require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. By paying regular attention to all your cavy residents, you may see the subtle cues that something is amiss. It’s important to get to know the individuals in your care so you can catch minor changes in their behavior or routines, which could be the first obvious sign that something is not right.
Problem signs to be on the lookout for include:
- Disinterest in food, change in appetite, or difficulty chewing
- Increased thirst
- General change in behavior
- Hiding more than normal
- Runny, crusty, squinty, cloudy, sunken, or bulging eyes
- Nasal discharge
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or labored breathing
- Weight loss
- Red, swollen, or flaky foot pads
- Hair loss or a rough looking coat (in breeds where this is not normal)
- Changes in urinary or fecal output
- Distended abdomen
- Bloody urine or crying or grinding their teeth when urinating
- Dirty bum
- Lumps or swelling
- Changes to how they respond to handling, such as vocalizing more or flinching when handled
Conducting The Examination
In addition to close daily observation, it’s important to physically assess your residents’ health on a regular basis, as well as when they are showing signs of concern so you can further investigate the issue (if they are showing signs of a health emergency, you should seek veterinary care immediately). Certain health challenges will not be apparent without physically checking the individual thoroughly.
Before approaching the individual and picking them up, take a few moments to observe them, checking their breathing, behaviors, movement, and general mood. Look around their living space for fresh droppings and urine, checking for normal, healthy stools. Keep in mind that cavies can spread certain health conditions, like ringworm or sarcoptic mange, to humans. If an individual is showing signs of hair loss or itchiness, you should wear gloves.
Ensure that the cavy’s nails are a reasonable length, trimming them as needed (usually at least every 6 weeks). Cavies have four nails on their front feet and three on their back, though some individuals may be polydactyl. Trimming a cavy’s nails is very similar to trimming a cat’s or dog’s nails. Like cats and dogs, cavies also have a sensitive area made of soft tissue in the center of their nail known as the quick. Cutting the quick by accident can be painful, bloody, and understandably stressful to the individual, so it’s important to be very mindful about how much you trim. In cavies with dark nails, the quick may be more difficult to identify, but shining a light underneath the nail can help illuminate the quick.
If you accidentally draw blood, you can use a styptic pencil, styptic powder (such as Quick Stop), or cornstarch to stop the bleeding. Lacking these tools, you can also use a piece of toilet paper or cotton ball as if you’d nicked yourself shaving! If the bleeding doesn’t stop, you can use the tip of your finger to apply pressure for up to a minute, repeating until any bleeding ends.
Male cavies, especially individuals who are older and unneutered, need a bit of extra attention paid to their penis and perineal sac. Properly checking and cleaning this area is something that should be shown to you- not because it’s necessarily difficult, but because of the importance of being thorough while being gentle and because proper restraint during the procedure is imperative. We recommend asking your veterinarian or a cavy care expert to demonstrate this procedure and talk you through doing it yourself, but if that’s not possible, there are numerous “boar cleaning” videos available online. To check their penis, hold the cavy so that they are held in a vertical position with their back supported and against your body, apply gentle pressure to the area just above the genitals to get the penis to extend. The penis should be clean- any excessive smegma (which is typically a white creamy substance, but can also harden into a solid mass), as well as any hair, hay, or other debris should be very gently removed using a moistened cotton swab or washcloth. Gentle pressure applied to the sides of the penis will extend the penile stiles (which look like little prongs). If any bedding, hay, or hardened semen (also called “sperm rods” because it can harden into a rod shape that may protrude out of the penis) is built up in the urethra, this will be apparent during this part of the examination and should be gently removed.
Next, check the perineal sac (sometimes called the anal sac). In older unneutered males, this pocket often becomes full of smegma, poop, and debris. This build up is referred to as an impaction. To check this area, gently open the pocket just below the penis. If there is material present, you may be able to express it with gentle pressure, or you can use a cotton-tipped applicator and a little mineral oil to gently remove the contents. If you are struggling with thoroughly checking your male residents, be sure to work with your veterinarian or an experienced cavy care expert to learn the proper technique.
Look through their hair and down to their skin for any signs of external parasites. Watch for bald patches or areas of very short hair, which could be the result of barbering, where a cavy chews and pulls out their own hair or that of a companion. Barbering is often the result of boredom (such as a cavy living alone or cavies living in a barren space), but can also be due to other stressors or unhealthy social dynamics. Be sure to investigate the cause so you can address the issue.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a cavy and what good cavy health looks like, you’ll be an excellent cavy health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your cavy health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable cavy health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!