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    Daily Observation For Cavy (Guinea Pig) Health And Well-Being

    two cavies looking over a purple barrier
    Archie & Gus look for their next snack! Photo Credit: Jaclyn Miller
    vet review seal

    Veterinary Review Initiative
    This resource has been reviewed for accuracy and clarity by a qualified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with farmed animal sanctuary experience as of December 2023. Check out more information on our Veterinary Review Initiative here!

    Wondering why we are using the term ‘cavy’ instead of ‘guinea pig’ throughout this resource? Check out our explanation here.

    If you’ve spent much time looking through our offerings, you likely know the important role routine health checks play in keeping residents healthy and catching signs of concern early. Performing health checks regularly is imperative, but this should not be the only tool you use to monitor your residents’ health and well-being. The importance of thoughtful daily observation cannot be overstated. While some issues may be difficult to detect without a hands-on evaluation, there are other potential signs of concern that could be missed during a health check, particularly those that manifest as slight changes in behavior or activity. By incorporating both daily observation and routine health checks into your care protocols, you are more likely to catch issues that develop in the period between health checks, as well as issues that are unlikely to be detected without a hands-on evaluation.

    When it comes to daily observation, the keyword is “thoughtful.” Daily observation of residents must be more than just looking at them. Anyone caring for an animal, regardless of their species or breed, should be trained to observe the individuals in their care for behaviors and physical signs that are abnormal for the species, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species or breed and their warning signs. Of equal importance is getting to know the individuals being cared for and watching for things that are out of the ordinary for that particular individual. To read more about refining your observation skills, check out our resource here.

    Familiarize Yourself With “Normal”

    In order to identify signs of concern, it’s helpful to first consider how a healthy cavy typically looks and acts. While all cavies are unique individuals, there are some general characteristics that most healthy cavies will present. However, as you’ll see below, there is going to be some variation depending on breed. As we mentioned above, it’s important to learn what is “normal” for each individual in your care.

    With that in mind, in general, a healthy cavy should:

    • Be alert and active
    • Have clear, bright eyes
    • Have a clear nose and ears
    • Have a shiny, smooth hair coat (with the exception of hairless breeds or those with naturally rough-looking coats)
    • Be excited to eat and should be seen eating throughout the day
    • Produce a large quantity of small, well-formed droppings

    Potential Signs Of Concern

    Now that we’ve got an idea of what is “normal,” let’s look at potential signs of concern. As prey animals, cavies will often hide any signs of illness or injury until they are no longer able to do so. This means that once you notice something is obviously wrong, the issue may already be severe. Therefore, in order to catch and respond to health issues as soon as possible, it will be important to recognize the more subtle signs that something may be amiss. 

    As such, it’s important to get to know the individuals in your care so you can recognize when they are not acting like themselves. Caregivers who really spend time getting to know their residents in terms of their personality, typical behaviors, physical characteristics, and routines can sometimes catch when something is wrong before there are clear signs of illness or distress. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as an individual not wheeking when they hear you open the fridge at snack time. Any time you notice a change in an individual’s typical behavior or routine, it’s a good idea to perform a health check and keep a close eye on them. Be aware that many health issues can progress quickly in cavies, so don’t wait to contact your veterinarian!

    While not an exhaustive list, during your daily observation of your residents, be on the lookout for the following:

    General signs of pain/discomfort, such as…

    • Tooth grinding
    • Drooling
    • Changes to how they respond to handling, such as vocalizing more or flinching when handled
    • Shaking (could also be a sign they are too cold)
    • Painful vocalizations (screaming)

    Changes to their eating and drinking…

    • Disinterest in eating or eating less than usual (for example, continuing to eat treats but refusing to eat their pellets)
    • Difficulty eating or swallowing
    • Not drinking water or being excessively thirsty
    • Not eating cecotropes (sometimes called “night droppings” or “cecal pellets”)

    Not Eating Is A Health Emergency!
    If a cavy is not eating, this is an emergency and could lead to serious, potentially irreversible, gastrointestinal issues. If you are planning to care for cavies, ask for your veterinarian to train you in how to safely syringe feed them and about what supplies you should keep on hand (such as Oxbow’s Critical Care For Herbivores or Lafeber’s Emeraid IC Herbivore, which requires a prescription). Both products can be mixed with water and syringe-fed to an individual who is not eating on their own. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your residents is not eating well, but your veterinarian cannot see them right away, knowing how to safely syringe feed them and having the right supplies on hand to do so can help prevent gastrointestinal issues from getting worse.

    Changes in their posture, gait, mobility, or activity level, such as…

    • Standing in a hunched position
    • A tense position and/or arched back
    • Lameness
    • Seizure-like behavior (true seizures are rare in cavies, but mite infestations can cause a cavy to call out, fall over, and twitch due to the intense itching sensation caused by mites)
    • Reluctance to move
    • Lethargy

    Changes to their physical appearance, such as…

    • Swelling of the face
    • Head tilting
    • Runny, crusty, squinty, cloudy, sunken, or bulging eyes
    • Prominent nictitating membrane (third eyelid)
    • Nasal discharge
    • Red, swollen, or flaky foot pad(s)
    • Hair loss or a rough-looking coat (in breeds where this is not typical)
    • Distended abdomen (such as a pear-shape when viewed from above)
    • Dirty/wet bum
    • Unusual lumps or swelling

    Changes in behavior such as…

    • Hiding more than usual
    • Being less interactive with companions or caregivers
    • Overgrooming or excessive itching
    • Barbering (chewing or pulling out their own hair or that of a companion)
    • Bar-chewing (obsessively chewing on cage bars)
    • More frequent urination

    Other things to watch for include…

    • Sneezing, coughing, wheezing
    • Labored breathing (abdominal breathing)
    • Elevated respiratory rate 
    • Weight loss (in addition to weekly weigh-ins, be sure to pet and pick up cavies often to get a sense of their weight and body condition)
    • Changes in urinary or fecal output or appearance
    • Diarrhea/soft droppings
    • Bloody urine or signs of pain or straining when urinating
    • Flies swarming a particular area (the individual could have fly strike)

    If you see any of the signs above or anything else out of the ordinary, be sure to investigate further and consult with your veterinarian as needed. Depending on the severity and whether or not there are multiple signs of concern, the individual may need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. In some cases, conducting a health check, either in full or in part, can help you gather more information about the individual to share with your veterinarian so they can help determine the best course of action. While many health conditions can progress quickly in cavies, be aware that individuals showing signs of respiratory infection (sneezing, nasal discharge, runny/crusty eyes, etc.) could quickly progress to becoming critically ill. Be sure to contact your veterinarian at the first sign of a respiratory infection.

    Now that you have an idea of what to look for, be sure to build thoughtful daily observation into your caregiving routine if you haven’t already! The more you observe your residents, the better you’ll become at differentiating between “normal” and potentially concerning. Whenever you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution and contact your veterinarian for guidance.


    Health Checks: How To Examine Your Guinea Pig | Bishops Stortford Veterinary Hospital 

    Signs Of Pain In Guinea Pigs | Guinea Pig Magazine 

    Guinea Pigs | Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital

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