What to do when your guinea pig suddenly takes ill

Guinea pig. Source: Wikimedia CommonsDear Paws: Tonight our dear guinea pig “Sparks” had a heart attack and left us within a couple of hours. There was no chance to take her to an emergency vet. Is tension in the house a cause of heart attack in guinea pigs? What can we do to prevent this from occurring? — Yamile, via email

Dear Yamile: I’m sorry to hear of Sparks’ death. I’ll try to offer some explanation why, and I encourage my readers to send their advice as well.

Heart attack (and stroke) are sadly, very common causes of sudden death in guinea pigs, a.k.a. cavies. Cavies are very sensitive to their environment, particularly changes in temperature. Being unable to rest peacefully can also cause stress that affects their system. In short, cavies love a comfortable routine and a rest area sheltered from light and noise.

Deficiencies in diet can also be a factor. This can get tricky, so speaking with other cavy owners or vets who specialize in them can help deduce whether a cavy needs a specific type of feed or supplement (Too much can be as bad as too little).

Because it’s often hard to detect illness in cavies until they suddenly decline, you should learn a bit of cavy first aid. One important step when a cavy takes ill is to contact the vet by phone immediately–don’t wait and hope he perks up–and describe the symptoms. In most cases the vet will have you bring him or her in to the clinic immediately. But sometimes a cavy is too ill to safely be transported right away. A knowledgeable vet might tell you to make your pet comfortable and wait out a very long night—not because he or she doesn’t care, but because the added stress in moving the cavy could be fatal.

Now, from what I’ve described you might think that cavies are delicate animals that will keel over at the slightest touch or change in environment. That’s not the case for healthy guinea pigs, but they do need to be monitored daily and any change in behavior, weight or other factors should be noted.

For example, if your cavy’s weight goes up or down an ounce, that’s not a big deal. But if he or she loses two ounces or more, contact the vet as soon as possible. A number of illnesses and conditions first show up as weight fluctuation.

If you decide to get another cavy, at the same time hunt for a veterinarian who specializes in these pets or who has a good reputation for treating cavies and pocket pets like hamsters. Diagnosing illness in cavies must be done quickly and it needs to be done right the first time.

A really good site for beginning cavy care is GuineaLynx.com. From there, you can find quite a number of general guides through an online search. Another fantastic resource is the late Peter Gurney’s Guinea Pig Health Guide, which has been kept online since his passing in 2006 and offers cavy care solutions often well beyond basic instructions.

Originally published by King Features Weekly Syndicate, Jan. 4, 2016, revised April 2017. Send your questions or pet tips to ask@pawscorner.com.