A Short Guide To The Care Of Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs have digestive systems similar to cows and sheep. Their stomachs are like compost heaps with the bacteria breaking down the cellulose. In order to stay healthy, guinea pigs must keep their stomach and gut working all the time. 

Guinea pigs have incisor teeth at the front of their mouths. The top teeth slide past in front of the lower incisors, like two chisels sliding past each other.

Behind the incisors, guinea pigs have a big gap at the sides where there are no teeth at all, and then the grinding molars at the back.

When a guinea pig eats, it cuts its food into pieces of the correct length with its incisors and then rolls the pieces into a tiny ball and flicks them to the back of its mouth, where it grinds the food with its molars. Pretty neat, eh!

A guinea pig’s mouth moves from side to side when it is grinding its food. There jaws are hinged to allow them to do this. Humans can’t do it (though I have friends who can do a passable imitation) and sheep and cows can do it. It’s very cute to watch a guinea pig as it concentrates on the important task of eating!

Guinea pigs’ teeth grow all the time and they are worn down by the constant cutting and grinding. If something happens (for example if a guinea pig gets a sore patch on its cheek) that it may stop eating on one side, and that is how little spurs of tooth can grow, making it even more difficult for the guinea pig to eat properly.

Guinea pigs will often knock those little spurs off just by eating, but sometimes they have to be snipped off.

When A Guinea Pig Stops Eating

The important thing is to watch when a guinea pig stops eating. It may have a spur on its molars preventing the little balls of food getting past the spurs. Imagine goal posts that are too close together and stop the ball getting through.

It’s important to feed the guinea pig to keep its stomach working until you can get it to a vet to have its teeth clipped.

The best way to feed a sick guinea pig is by syringe feeding. The food must contain cellulose and making it is tricky. It is a balance between being liquid enough to find its way down to the guinea pig’s gut but not so liquid that food goes the wrong way and goes down into its lungs.

The hard food sold for guinea pigs makes a good base. It also has Vitamin C added, which is essential for guinea pigs and which, like humans, they do not make on their own.

Grab a handful of the dry food. Take out the seeds and bits that look like they will not mix with water. Put the good stuff in a cup and pour on hot water. It will slowly turn to mush. 

Mashed potato is a good thing to add to it if you have that available. Complan (without the oats) is good too.

The food must be liquid enough that it can be sucked up into the syringe, so add enough water.

Make enough for a few meals – keep in cool in the fridge and it will last a few days. You can tell it is going off when it starts to smell sweet from fermentation. Junk it and make fresh.

Because guinea pigs need Vitamin C and they must have it every day, it’s best to give them some as a supplement on its own when they are ill.

To make up some Vitamin C for syringe feeding, buy liquid vitamin C for babies, or vitamin C that dissolves in water. 

50mg per day is sufficient for a large guinea pig. There is usually vitamin C in hard food but it deteriorates over time so it is important to give them fresh vitamin C. Keep the unused vitamin C in a cool dark place and replace it every couple of days.

We have found that a 1 ml syringe is the best size to use when feeding a guinea pig. Vets often have 2.5ml syringes, but there is no use trying to jam a bigger syringe into a guinea pig’s mouth if the guinea pig cannot take the food at a fast rate anyway.

With a narrow little 1ml syringe, the guinea pig can take the food at a nice sedate rate and not finish up spilling most of it down its front. In fact it is really important not to get food down its front because the hard guinea pig food is pretty potent and can irritate a guinea pig’s skin. And of course, being so close to its own head, it cannot lick the food off.

It is important to control the plunger and only slide it down slowly. You must not squirt it in because there is a risk you could squirt food into the guinea pig’s lungs.

Not all guinea pigs are the same. Some are so eager to eat that all you have to do it put the syringe near their mouth, and they will eat. All you have to do is slide the plunger down slowly. 

But some guinea pigs need to be held while feeding them. This requires two people. One person needs to hold back of the guinea pig so it cannot wriggle backwards. The other person does the feeding. 

The person doing the feeding should approach the guinea pig’s mouth from above and behind its head with his fingers pointing downward. Use your thumb and forefinger to gently grip the guinea pig’s mouth on either side near the front. The guinea pig will usually back away so that is why the second person is needed, to stop that happening. 

Hold the guinea pig’s mouth – you don’t have to push it open or anything. Just gently hold its head still and introduce the syringe into its mouth with your other hand.

One thing you may not be prepared for; is where exactly a guinea pig’s mouth is. If you cannot find it, look further down under its head!

The second thing you may not be prepared for is that the top lip on a guinea pig is in two parts. It divides vertically right up to its nose. So when you put your thumb and forefinger on the sides of its mouth, you may see the two halves move apart slightly.

Some guinea pigs will take as many as 15 syringes of food. Some guinea pigs are more fussy. You have to learn when to stop – when the guinea pig is really saying ‘no more’.

And that brings me to the subject of vets and tooth clipping. Not many vets are experts at this. And even those that are want to sedate the guinea pig when they do the job. There are two ways to sedate a guinea pig – one is with an injection and the other is with gas and air.

Gas and air is less invasive to the guinea pig but both have a very undesirable side effect, which is that they cause ileus. That is, the gut stops pushing food along. And that comes at the very worst time, when a guinea pig is already having trouble feeding. 

There is an alternative. Find a vet or someone who is an expert in guinea pigs (not always the same thing) who will cut the teeth without an anaesthetic.

The technique is to wrap the guinea pig in a towel or a pillow case or something similar so that he/she looks like an Egyptian cat mummy, leaving just its head showing. Then put a couple of buckle pad separators in the mouth to push apart the cheek pads, and clip away.

Buckle pad separators are clever little metal contraptions that gently force the mouth open. They sound a bit alarming but once they are in place, guinea pigs don’t mind them.

A person who knows what they are doing can have the job done in five minutes and the guinea pig will give one quick shake of its head and amble off to eat quite happily – more happy that it was before the clipping, when it could not eat properly at all. And with no disruption to its digestive system.

Cutting A Guinea Pig’s Toenails

Guinea pigs have four toes on their front feet and three on the back. That makes a total of 14 toes and of course, 14 claws.

In the wild, guinea pigs rub their claws against the earth and stony ground and keep them short that way.

In a cage there is no way for them to keep their claws short, so you will have to do it. If you do not do it, the claws will grow and curve around and will easily catch on things, and if left for a long time, they will grow right back into the guinea pig’s paws.

The best scissors to use are very small and have a notch in the blades that makes it easy to stop the claw sliding along the scissor blade just when you want to cut it.

Some guinea pigs will sit quietly while you trim their claws, but some will squirm. If your guinea pig starts to squirm, be prepared for it or you may find you are holding on to the claw with the scissors while the guinea pig is squirming, and you could twist its toe. You could even pull its claw clean out of its toe.

How much should I cut?

Guinea pigs have a blood supply in their claws and if you cut too far, the claw will bleed. It may bleed a lot and it can be alarming to see that. But don’t worry, because the bleeding will stop quickly. Just wrap the paw in a clean tissue and hold your guinea pig for a while until it calms down and the bleeding stops.

Of course it is better not to cut too much in the first place. If your guinea pigs has dark-coloured claws, it can be difficult to see where the blood supply stops. So instead of trying to guess exactly how far you can cut, just clip just a small piece off the end of the claw.

You will soon know what it feels like, and then you can clip a little more. If the claw stills seem to be long and you are not sure whether you are getting near the blood supply, just try pinching the claw with your scissors. If you are too near for comfort, your guinea pig will probably squeak to tell you it does not feel comfortable.

Some guinea pigs have tiny pointed claws that do not seem to grow much and others have strong claws with wide ends that grow more quickly. However, on average you will probably need to trim their claws about once a month.

Keratin Tags

Some guinea pigs grow keratin tags on the pads of their paws. No one knows why some grow them and some do not, but the tags probably grow bigger because the guinea pig is not running around in the wild.

It is a good idea to trim them because food and bits of dirt can become trapped under them and become a site for infection. And trimmed tags are more comfortable for the guinea pig.

Tags look like flattened pieces of hard (sometimes dark) skin and they can be snipped off with a small pair of ordinary scissors. Just be careful not to cut too close to the ‘active’ skin. The best way to learn to do this job is to clip just a tiny piece from the corner of the tag. Then clip another and you will soon understand what to cut and what to leave alone.

How To Hold A Guinea Pig

Trimming claws and tags is a two-person job. One person should sit holding the guinea pig in his lap, the guinea pig positioned as though it is sitting in its favourite armchair. That way the other person can reach the claws and tags easily.