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    How To Conduct A Cavy (Guinea Pig) Health Check

    a blonde cavy
    Cavies like Donald mask signs of illness, so regular health checks are imperative! Photo: Leilani Farm Sanctuary

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

    Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly evaluate the health of cavies with a routine health check 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 checks are important, check out our resource here.

    *A Health Check Every Six to Eight Weeks Means Daily Observation
    Our recommendation to conduct routine health checks every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations. Caregivers should be trained to observe residents both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species and their warning signs. Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations.

    Residents With Challenging Backgrounds
    Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health check is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

    New Resident? Conduct An Intake Evaluation!
    If you are conducting an initial health evaluation on a new resident, check out our intake evaluation resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

    Problem Signals

    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 evaluation 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
    • Lethargy
    • Runny, crusty, squinty, cloudy, sunken, or bulging eyes
    • Nasal discharge
    • Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or labored breathing
    • Drooling
    • Weight loss
    • Lameness
    • 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 Health Check

    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.

    Ask An Expert                            
    Prior to regularly conducting cavy health checks, you should have a veterinarian or care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best cavy health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish abnormalities from normal anatomy and healthy conditions can be crucial in early health problem detection, and the sooner you are able to bring concerns to your veterinarian, the sooner they’ll be able to work towards making a diagnosis and recommending any necessary interventions!

    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.

    When In Doubt…
    Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any concerns you find during the course of a health check to your veterinarian (if you aren’t sure if what you are seeing is cause for concern or not, a more experienced caregiver may be able to help you, but if you are ever in doubt, we recommend erring on the side of caution and reaching out to your veterinarian). You should be the resident’s advocate, not their doctor! Additionally, routine health checks performed by a caregiver are not meant to be a replacement for a veterinary exam. The goal is to catch potential signs of concern as early as possible so you can bring concerns to your veterinarian. If necessary, they can then perform a more in-depth physical examination of the individual and can conduct diagnostic testing as needed.   

    Check Their Head And Neck
    Check for signs of a head tilt and feel around their neck for any lumps.
    Check Their Ears
    The inside of their ears should be clean and the skin should not be oily or flaky. If they have dirty ears or have a build-up of earwax, you can use a cotton-tipped applicator with a drop of mineral or olive oil to gently clean them (do not go into the ear canal). If ears are excessively waxy, have an odor, or have a reddish-brown crust inside of them, contact your veterinarian.
    Check Their Eyes
    Their eyes should be bright and clear. A small amount of white discharge while grooming can be normal, but they should not have any other discharge or crustiness. Eyes should not be dull, sunken, bulgy, squinty, or cloudy. If one eye is cloudy, squinty, and runny or if they are holding it shut, they may have a piece of hay stuck in their eye which will need to be removed. Gently pull back their eyelids to thoroughly check for a piece of hay. In many cases, once hay is removed, the issue will resolve, but you should ask your veterinarian about using an antibiotic eye ointment and should have the individual evaluated if the issue does not resolve. All other eye issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
    Check Their Nose
    Their nose should be dry and should not have any discharge or crustiness. Their breathing should be quiet.
    Check Their Mouth And Teeth
    Check the lips for any swelling or sores and check under their mouth for wetness from drooling. Gently lift their upper lip so that you can see the gum above the top incisors, checking their teeth for abnormal growth or breakage and for any food matter that may be stuck here. Next, do the same with the lower lip. If you notice an abnormal odor coming from their mouth, this could be a sign of a dental issue or infection.
    Check Their Feet And Nails
    Check their feet for any heat or swelling, carefully checking foot pads for discoloration, flakiness, or scabs. Some individuals may develop tough flaps of skin on their foot pads- these are often called spurs. This tough flap of skin can be trimmed, being careful not to trim down to soft, delicate skin. Trimming helps prevent this skin from being torn, which could damage the foot pad.

    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.
    Check Their Legs And Joints
    Feel their legs and leg joints for any inflammation, swelling, or sensitivity.
    Check Their Underside
    Feel their belly for any lumps or other abnormalities. Their nipples should be free of crusts and should not have any swelling or lumps. In some cases, if an individual has a stone in their urethra (urinary calculi), you may be able to feel it in the area above their genitals. If you suspect one of your residents has a stone, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately.

    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 health check 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.
    Check Their Grease Gland
    Cavies have a small gland at the base of their spine that produces oily secretions. Some individuals have very active grease glands (males tend to have a more active grease gland than females). If the hair in this area becomes sticky, it will need to be gently cleaned with warm water and washcloth, and if the hair in this area is long, it may need to be trimmed. If the area is caked with grease, you can apply a little bit of coconut oil to loosen it, followed by a warm washcloth to wipe away the coconut oil and grease. If this does not work, you can bathe this area or trim away affected hair. If soap is needed, opt for a mild shampoo designed specifically for cavies, or if you cannot find this, you can substitute a gentle shampoo formulated for kittens or human babies. Be sure to dry them thoroughly to prevent them from becoming chilled. 
    Check Their Hair And Skin
    Feel their entire body for any lumps or abnormalities. Common areas for lumps include the skin behind the front legs, under the chin, and near the nipples. These lumps may be benign, but veterinarian assessment will be necessary. 

    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.
    Check Their Weight And Body Condition
    It’s a good idea to weigh your cavy residents weekly, if at all possible, as this will allow you to catch weight loss early. A healthy, mature cavy should maintain their weight. They should not feel bony and should feel dense. If one of your residents is losing weight, or feels bony, even if their actual weight is not fluctuating, be sure to contact your veterinarian right away.
    Isolate If Necessary
    If you notice that a cavy is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to temporarily isolate the individual in order to protect other cavy residents from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illnesses, often by the time a cavy is showing symptoms, other residents in the same living space have already been exposed. We recommend consulting with your veterinarian about whether or not isolation is recommended, making sure you understand the reason behind isolation and the potential risks of continuing to keep them together so you can make an informed decision. Consider that a sick cavy who is isolated from their companions may become more stressed, which could delay recovery, and in some cases, re-introduction to their companion(s) may be difficult.

    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 checks, we’ve developed a free printable cavy health check form for sanctuaries and rescues!


    How To Perform A Health Check On Your Guinea Pig | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

    What Do I Need To Know About My Guinea Pigs’ Health? | RSPCA

    How To Do Easy, 10 Minute Weekly Guinea Pig Health Checks | Happy Cavy

    Guinea Pig Nail Clipping Instruction | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

    What Is Boar Glue And What Is A Sperm Rod? | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

    Anal Impaction | The Mayne Veterinary Clinic

    Grooming Guinea Pigs | Companion Animals Extension

    References To Outside Organizations?
    This resource contains links or photos provided by an outside animal-focused organization. You can learn about our organization’s position on endorsements here!

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