Guinea Pigs and Rodents

by Jessi O’Connell, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

General Characteristics

Chinchillas are rodents, characterized by their large hind feet, chubby round bodies, soft dense fur, large eyes and ears, long whiskers, and squirrel-like tails. Chinchilla lanigera, with a longer tail, is the most common species, while Chinchilla brevicaudata has a very short tail.

Chinchillas as Pets

Chinchillas are very beautiful animals coming in many different color morphs ranging from the standard grey to the white or ebony mosaic. They make great pets because they are social, intelligent, clean, and very entertaining. Chinchillas have very little odor as long as you keep up on cages cleaning. Chinchillas have a life span of approximately 10-15 years. One important factor to consider when planning on getting a pet chinchilla is that they are nocturnal. This means that they are usually awake from dusk until dawn. And sleep most of the day. Therefore if you’re looking for a pet for your kids they may not be ideal.

Pet Appeal

Chinchillas have appealing, affectionate personalities, and are intelligent, charming creatures that quickly bond to their owners.  These fast, agile climbers seem to have a sense of humor as they entertain their families with their antics.  Chinchillas can make great pets, because they are easy to care for, have very little odor and rarely bite.

Diet

Chinchillas are nocturnal and consume most of their food overnight. Your pet should have unlimited access to hay available as their primary food source. They should have a mix of Alfalfa and Timothy hay until they are six months old. After six months of age they should have Oxbow Timothy hay as their main hay source. Orchard, Oat, or Brome hay can be given in small amount along with the Timothy hay. 1-2 tablespoons of Alfalfa Based chinchilla pellets should be given daily. The pelleted diet should not contain any seeds or nuts as these are fattening fillers with no nutritional value. Approximately one cup of fresh greens should be offered daily. Greens to avoid are Broccoli, Spinach, kale, and other cruciferous greens.

Sexing

The anogenital distance in males is about twice as long as in females.  Male chinchillas do not have a scrotum, and the testes remain primarily in the abdominal cavity.  In females, the anus is immediately caudal to the cone-shaped urethral papilla (urinary and reproductive opening).  The female vagina is normally sealed by a membrane except during estrus (3-5 days) and parturition.  If a female chinchilla is not bred at a young age, her pelvis will fuse and she may have difficulty giving birth later.  The female gives birth to up to four young, but usually two at a time.  The young are born fully furred and ready to explore the world!  It is always safest to have your pet sexed at the veterinarian before introducing it to another chinchilla.

Housing
The minimal cage size is 3’x 2’ x 18” deep. An escape proof wire cage with a solid metal floor is optimal. Chinchillas shouldn’t be exposed to a wire floor because this can lead to ulcerative pressure sores on their feet. Also wire grates can potentially lead to limb fracture if the chinchilla’s leg gets caught. Bedding options include Carefresh, aspen shavings, or fleece bedding. Avoid using cedar shavings as the aromatic phenols in the wood are toxic to chinchillas. Cages should be cleaned daily to keep an accurate account of fecal production. To simulate their natural environment the cage should have many ledges and levels, as well as a hide box. Also beware of ladders in your pets cage as these should be solid ramps to prevent limb fracture. Always have a fixed food bowl that your pet can not turn over and a glass water bottle. Glass water bottles should be cleaned daily and put through the dish washer at least once a week. Chinchillas teeth grow continuously throughout their life, so wood chew toys should always be readily available to your pet. Some chinchilla safe woods are aspen, apple wood, bamboo, pear wood, willow, manzanita, hazelnut, and poplar. Chinchillas are very active and in general love having a wheel in their cage. However making sure that the wheel is suitable for them, is of great importance. The wheel should be at least a 15” in diameter and solid with no spokes or cross bars. Spokes in the middle of the wheel cab cause back trauma, while cross bars can lead to broken limbs. Their cage should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from drafts. The temperature in the room should ideally be in the 60-70 degrees F range and with a humidity level around 40%. Temperatures exceeding 80 degrees F can lead to heat stroke which can be fatal. Signs of hyperthermia are lethargy, rapid and shallow respirations, hypersalivation, and weakness. If you see any of these signs contact your veterinarian immediately. Chinchillas are social animals that live in herds in the wild; this is why group housing is recommended. If you chose to use group housing make sure you have a same sex pair or altered sex pairs. If chinchillas are not housed together from a young age be very careful when you introduce them. Always perform introductions very slowly over a long period of time and under supervision. Chinchillas can be territorial so use a neutral environment for introductions.

Dust Bathing

Chinchillas have very dense fur that contains anywhere from 60-90 loosely attached hairs per hair follicle. In the wild, chinchillas roll in volcanic ash to remove oil from their fur. Excessive oil can lead to matted fur which creates poor insulation from the elements. Dust baths, along with proper humidity (around 40%), help to prevent these mats from occurring in captivity. Dust bathing should be done outside of the cage in a well ventilated area. Dust can be obtained from many commercial pet retailers as well as online sources. Two commonly used brands are Blue Sparkle and Blue Cloud. Put approximately one inch of chinchilla dust into a dust house, pan, or similar container large enough for them to roll in. Chinchillas should have access to a dust bath three times weekly for 15-20 minutes. Never leave the dust pan in their cage with them, because excessive dust bathing can lead to conjunctivitis. It is also important to keep the dust as clean and free of feces and urine as possible. Using a dirty dust house can easily spread bacterial and fungal infections.

Diet

Chinchillas are nocturnal and consume most of their food overnight. Your pet should have unlimited access to hay available as their primary food source. They should have a mix of Alfalfa and Timothy hay until they are six months old. After six months of age they should have Oxbow Timothy hay as their main hay source. Orchard, Oat, or Brome hay can be given in small amount along with the Timothy hay. 1-2 tablespoons of Alfalfa Based chinchilla pellets should be given daily. The pelleted diet should not contain any seeds or nuts as these are fattening fillers with no nutritional value. Approximately one cup of fresh greens should be offered daily. Greens to avoid are Broccoli, Spinach, kale, and other cruciferous greens.

By studying chinchillas in their natural environments, we know they eagerly seek out berries, herbs and cactus fruits as well as high-fiber foods such as grasses and the bark of small shrubs and bushes.  In order for nutrients to be extracted, this diet requires a large volume of food intake and prolonged chewing, both of which are important factors in maintaining the chinchilla’s gastrointestinal and dental health.  In captivity it has been shown that chinchillas ingest most of their food at night and are selective feeders; when given the choice, they will select the most tender, succulent plant parts first.  If not controlled, this high energy, low fiber intake will lead to obesity.

Based on our dietary knowledge of the wild chinchilla, together with studies measuring the nutritional intake of the pet chinchilla it has been determined that the pet chinchilla does best on a diet composed of free-choice (available all-the-time) hay and a small daily ration of pellets.  This diet meets the chinchilla’s fiber and energy needs without causing obesity.  These nutritional requirements can be fulfilled by feeding your pet chinchilla free-choice grass hay (Oxbow’s Western Timothy, Oat, Orchard or Brome) or legume hay (Oxbow’s Alfalfa Nibbles) along with a daily ration of 1-2 tablespoons (15-30 grams) of pellets.  By providing extra energy, protein, vitamins and minerals, pellets play an important role in ensuring the nutritional balance of your chinchilla’s diet.   Fresh greens should be offered daily, about 1 cup.

In addition to meeting nutritional requirements, the high-roughage diet we recommend is critical in helping to prevent two of the most common health disorders seen in these animals: dental disease and gastrointestinal disease.  We can mimic the chinchilla’s natural high-roughage diet by feeding hay as the primary food source.  Like the rabbit and guinea pig, the chinchilla is a hindgut fermentor, meaning it digests much of its food in the cecum and colon (large intestine), which make up the end of the digestive tract.  In the chinchilla, the cecum (“appendix” in humans) is a large blind-ended sac located at the junction of the small and large intestine.  Inside the chinchilla’s cecum, specific bacterial populations aid digestion of foods.  Fiber is necessary for these bacterial populations to stay in balance and function properly.  Fiber also stimulates gastrointestinal motility, which allows ingested food to move along properly for normal digestion.  Without fiber, the gastrointestinal tract slows down, resulting in changes in cecal pH, fermentation capabilities and microorganism populations.  Over time, these disruptive changes can result in various forms of chinchilla indigestion: gastrointestinal stasis, constipation or diarrhea.  The chinchilla with gastrointestinal stasis will be anorexic or have a reduced appetite and will produce very small stools there will be none at all.  The chinchilla with constipation will strain to defecate, and the few fecal pellets passed will be thin, short, round and occasionally blood-stained.  The chinchilla with diarrhea may or may not have a reduced appetite and will pass soft stools that frequently matt the fur around the anus.  Again, these forms of chinchilla gastrointestinal upset are commonly associated with inappropriate diets- that is, diets that contain excess amounts of grains, seeds and/or fresh greens without significant roughage or fiber.

Dental problems, such as malocclusion, molar root overgrowth and molar spur, are also common in chinchillas.  As in the rabbit and guinea pig, all of the chinchilla’s teeth grow continuously.  Improper wearing of the teeth secondary to a diet low in fiber and the lack of suitable chewing materials can result in sharp points on the upper and/or lower molars, resulting in painful ulcers on the cheek and/or tongue.  The chinchilla with dental problems often has a depressed appetite, and you may observe food dropping from its mouth as it attempts to chew.  Irritation from the molar spurs may also cause increased salivation, which results in a wet matted chin (a syndrome also known as “slobbers”).  Providing plenty of free-choice hay ensures a normal chewing pattern, thus encouraging normal dental wear.

Chinchillas can thrive on either grass or legume hay.  Veterinary nutritionists and clinicians usually recommend feeding as assortment of grass hays free choice.

When it comes to feeding a concentrated ration, we recommend alfalfa-based pellets that contain more than 18% crude fiber and a minimum of 10% protein.  Oxbow Pet Products’ Chinchilla Deluxe provides a good balance of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and mineral and is the pellet diet of choice for your pet chinchilla.  As a general rule, we recommend feeding 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of pellets to each adult chinchilla on a daily basis. The quantity of pellets fed to growing and pregnant or lactating chinchillas should be increased to approximately ½ cup or more per day.  Conversion from a seed/pellet mixture to this highly palatable pellet is usually simple, but a gradual conversion over a period of one to two weeks is recommended in order to prevent digestive upset.

Treats such as fresh vegetables or herbs can be offered but should be fed in limited quantities.  A diet containing too many vegetables can result in diarrhea and gastrointestinal upset.  Therefore, we recommend a daily regimen of no more than 1 cup of herbs (mint, basil, oregano, cilantro or thyme) or leafy green vegetables (romaine, butter crunch or red leaf lettuce, carrot tops or dandelion greens) for your chinchilla.  Feed the same foods consistently in order to prevent digestive upset, and avoid gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

It is obvious that nutrition plays a key role in keeping your pet chinchilla healthy.  Fiber is of utmost importance in preventing gastrointestinal upset and dental problems, two of the most common health issues plaguing the pet chinchilla.  Offering your chinchilla a continuous supply of timothy hay, is one of the best ways to ensure adequate fiber intake.  Be consistent with the amount of pellets fed and the type and quantity of treats offered.  Your chinchilla’s digestive tract thrives on consistency, and your reward will be a pet that is active, bright, alert and healthy.

Handling 

There are two safe ways of handling your pet chinchilla. The first is to scoop the chinchilla and lift it up with one hand under the abdomen and the second under their rump. Always use your body as a support for their backs. The second method is only useful when you must retrieve a very scared animal from their cage. Place a towel over the chinchilla then wrap it around them. Place one hand under the abdomen of the wrapped chinchilla and hold them against your body. We use this method for scared chinchillas to help prevent fur slip, which is a defense mechanism where patches of fur fall out during restraint.

What the Owner Needs to Know About Chinchillas

  • Temperature higher than 82° F can be fatal (optimal 50-68° F)
  • Keep dry (40% or less humidity)
  • Dogs, cats and ferrets are predators
  • Basically nocturnal, but can be active during day as well
  • Need at least 30 minutes each day for an exercise/play with owner
  • Bite aggressively only if restrained against their will
  • Often difficult to litter-train
  • Don’t bathe in water, use dust baths 5 minutes 3 times weekly

Common Clinical Syndromes

  • Dermatophytosis
  • Trauma (broken bones, wounds)
  • Diarrhea/constipation
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Eye irritation/conjunctivitis
  • Convulsions/encephalitis/lead poisoning
  • Malocclusion
  • Penile hair rings in males/paraphimosis
  • “Fur-barbering” from stress
  • Heat stroke
  • Choke/bloat
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Diabetes Mellitus

Seek medical attention if:

Trauma – If your chinchilla has had a traumatic episode such as a fall or getting caught in the cage. They could have a bone fracture or break which would need medical attention.

Anorexia – If your chinchilla has a decreased appetite, and or stool production. Or your chinchilla has stopped eating or producing stools. It is an emergency and they need to bee seen.

Heat Stroke – Temperature over 80 degrees F and your chinchilla isn’t acting normal, call your veterinarian.

Diarrhea/Constipation – Can lead to dehydration and or GI stasis. Call your veterinarian immediately to have them determine if you need to come in urgently.

Drooling – If your chinchilla is drooling it should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible, as it can be a sign of dental disease.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

by Susan Horton, DVM

Taking Care of your Degu

The degu (Octodon Degus) is native to the western foothills of the Andes .  It is the most prolific mammal in Chile , where it is considered an agricultural pest.  Since their importation into the US in 1964, degus have become a popular subject of research in the areas of diabetes, cataracts, and circadian behavior.  Studies have shown that degus are social, long-lived and have a low incidence of disease, traits that make them outstanding pets.

Classification

Degus are rodents belonging to the suborder Hystricognathi (“porcupine-like rodents’) based upon jaw musculature and skull structure.  They belong to the family Octodontidae.  Octodon refers to the “figure 8” shape of their cheek teeth.  Other names for the degu include brush-tailed rat and trumpet-tailed rat.

Anatomy/Physiology

Degus resemble large gerbils and are dark grayish-brown with a dark brush on the tip of the tail.  Their pupils are elliptical.  The kidneys produce urine that is normally yellow and thick.  Degus are hind-gut fermentors and have a functioning cecum.  Their adrenal glands are relatively large.  They have five toes on each foot.

Behavior

Degus are diurnal and do not hibernate.  They dig elaborate burrows, are highly social and communicate via vocalizations and postures.  If degus are not given social interaction and physical stimuli, they may become aggressive or self mutilate.  Fighting is rare even when new introductions occur.  They enjoy human interaction.

Housing

Degus should be provided with a large cage containing shelves, branches, a running wheel and plenty of room to exercise.  Wood shavings, recycled paper products and hay are all suitable bedding materials.  A dust bath should be provided as for chinchillas.  At least two degus should be housed together.

Diet
Diet in the wild includes a wide variety of plants, roots, seeds, fruit and livestock droppings.  A successful captive diet consists of a mixture of rodent blocks and guinea pig chow along with grass hay.  Carrots, sweet potatoes, other vegetables, seeds and peanuts are given as treats.  Foods containing sugar (e.g., fruits, raisins, breakfast cereal, honey treat sticks) should be avoided.  Note that most pelleted feeds contain molasses, which is used as a binder.  Starchy foods may also pose a risk.

Annual Checkup

A complete physical examination, review of diet and husbandry and fecal analysis are recommended on an annual basis.

Methods of Restraint

Degus are usually scooped up with two hands.  They may be scruffed or held in an encircling grip for examination.  Grasping by the tail should be avoided, as tail degloving easily occurs, requiring amputation of the tail.  Degus readily learn to step into a net, so this method can also be used.

Breeding

Degus reach puberty at a later age than many rodents.  Breeding should begin when the female is 4-9 months of age and body weight is below 250 g. In spite of their long gestation, degus are not born as fully developed as one would expect.  The young are born with sparse fur and their eyes open around day 3.  Both parents assist with thermoregulation, huddling over the litter to keep them warm.  The pups lie on their backs to suckle while the mother lies on top of them.  Pups nurse for about 25 minutes.  Male degus participate in raising the pups, so the pair must stay together for successful breeding to take place.  Infanticide is rare among degus.

Quick Facts for Degu Owners  

  • Degus are social animals and enjoy human attention.
  • Do not pick your degu up by the tail.
  • Limit sugary foods and fruits in the diet.
  • Limit fatty foods such as seeds and peanuts.
  • Water bottles or sipper tubes should be cleaned often.
  • Avoid overheating.

Vital Statistics


Body length
12.5 – 19.5 cm
Tail Length
10.5 – 16.5 cm
Body weight
​170-300 g
​Normal body temp
101.8 F
Average lifespan
5-8 years
Maximum lifespan
10 years
Age sexual maturity
3-4 months
Breeding season
year-round
Gestation
87-93 days
Litter size
1-10 pups
Weaning
4-6 weeks
Litters per year
2-3
If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

The normal heart is shown on the left compared to a heart with dilated cardiomyopathy on the right. Note the increased dimensions of the left ventricle.

A cardiomyopathy is a descriptive condition where the muscles of the heart is abnormal.  There are four types of cardiomyopathies: “hypertrophic”, “dilated”, “restrictive” and “right ventricular”.  While dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, has typically been recognized by its structure i.e., thinning and stretching of the heart muscle, the electrical function of the heart can also become adversely affected. When the heart chambers dilate, the heart muscle doesn’t contract normally. Also, the heart can’t pump blood very well. Over time, the heart becomes weaker and heart failure can occur. Dilated cardiomyopathy also can lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and blood clots in the heart.

The main feature of dilated cardiomyopathy is an excessive stretching of the heart muscle. The disease often starts in the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. The heart muscle begins to dilate (stretch and become thinner). This causes the inside of the chamber to enlarge. When the heart chambers dilate, the heart muscle doesn’t contract normally. Also, the heart can’t pump blood very well and becomes unable to supply the body with enough blood. The problem often spreads to the right ventricle and then to the atria as the disease gets worse.  Over time, the heart becomes weaker and heart failure can occur. Dilated cardiomyopathy also can lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and blood clots in the heart.
The cause of dilated cardiomyopathy often isn’t known. Certain diseases, conditions and substances also can cause the disease, such as poor genetics, congenital (from birth) heart defects, infections, parasites, lead toxicity, heart attack or high blood pressure.

Normally, the heart is set up to process deoxygenated blood and make it oxygenated to send to the tissues of the body. There are four chambers of the heart and four one way valves to continue pumping blood in this uni-directional process. The right atrium receives blood from the body which is poorly oxygenated, sends it to the right ventricle, where it is then transferred to the lungs.  Blood becomes oxygenated and carbon dioxide is expelled.  From there, the blood goes to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle, which pumps it to the body.  This cycle is continuously repeated as the heart beats. Every heartbeat results from an electrical signal starting at the right atrium and travels down through the heart through special conducting tissue which starts a contraction. In a heart with DCM, not only are the muscles of the heart stretched, but this change can sometimes interfere with this normal electrical signal.  Some of the different types of electrical signal malfunctions are arrhythmias of differing severities.  These electrical malfunctions can even cause a cardiac arrest.

When a heart is in DCM, the heart contracts (pumps blood) poorly because the muscle is over-stretched.  The amount of blood which the heart can hold is therefore increased.  Since it is so stretched, a large amount of blood is able to fill each chamber, but the heart’s ability to pump the blood from each chamber is reduced.  Enlargement of the left ventricle may make it harder for your heart valves to close, causing a backward flow of blood and making your heart pump less effectively. This can sometimes result in backflow of the blood from one chamber to another (heart valve regurgitation), against the uni-directional valve.  Changes in heart structure and changes in pressure on the heart’s chambers can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).  Unfortunately, dilated cardiomyopathy can cause your heart to suddenly stop beating, or blood clots (emboli) because there is pooling of blood (stasis) in the left ventricle due to the large volume of fluid in that chamber.  This can lead to blood clots, which may enter the bloodstream, cut off the blood supply to vital organs, and cause stroke, heart attack or damage to other organs. Arrythmias can also cause blood clots.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy may be suspected because of symptoms, a murmur, or an abnormal radiograph. Because such symptoms could be caused by a large number of other conditions, an ultrasound is required to officially diagnose dilated cardiomyopathy.  If an arrhythmia is heard, an ECG may be recommended as well.  An ECG records the electrical signals from the heart and is performed by placing electrodes in the armpits and inner legs.  In Dilated Cardiomyopathy the ECG usually shows an abnormal electrical signal due to muscle stretching. Some patients may only show minor changes or be normal on an ECG.  Because ECG abnormalities are not specific to Dilated Cardiomyopathy and may be found in other heart conditions, an ECG may or may not be done depending on the stress level of your pet.

If there is a suspicion of DCM, there are a few recommended tests that a veterinarian may advise.  First, your veterinarian may order blood tests which help with information about your pet’s heart and also may reveal if your pet has an infection, a metabolic disorder or toxins in the blood that can cause dilated cardiomyopathy.  Next, a chest X-ray is important to check your pet’s heart for abnormalities in the structure or size and the lungs for any sign of fluid in or around your lungs.
To diagnose DCM, your veterinarian will want an ultrasound of the heart.  The ultrasound of the heart is sometimes an echocardiogram, or an ECHO.  An ECHO produces a picture of the heart, and if excessive stretching of the muscle can be seen, DCM is diagnosed.  During the test the entire heart is measured including the walls, valves and other structures within the heart. Therefore ECHO provides a very thorough assessment of Dilated Cardiomyopathy, and it can differentiate DCM from other heart conditions that may be suspected.

Because DCM develops over a period of time, your pet may not be exhibiting any signs of DCM because the change in the heart began slowly.  Signs and symptoms of DCM Dilated cardiomyopathy can appear along a spectrum of no symptoms, subtle symptoms or, in the more severe cases, congestive heart failure (CHF), which occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood well enough to meet the body tissue needs for oxygen and nutrients. Things that may indicate DCM in your pet, or a worsening of DCM can be shortness of breath (dyspnea), lethargy (tiredness), swelling of abdomen (ascites), swelling of limbs (edema), syncope (fainting), seizures (convulsions), or even sudden cardiac arrest (heart stops beating effectively requiring resuscitation). These symptoms can occur at any age and with any stage of cardiomyopathy, even if other more severe symptoms of congestive heart failure have not yet appeared.

Drug treatment or medication is given when some or all of the symptoms listed above are present.  These medications must be given for the remainder of your pet’s life, and the heart will be evaluated by alternating bloodwork and radiographs every 3 months.  Increasing, decreasing or discontinuing medication should only be done with consultation with your veterinarian.  The choice of treatment will vary from individual to individual but the common drug groups used for treatment medications are listed below:

Drugs that have proved useful in the treatment of dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure include:

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
ACE inhibitors are a type of drug that widens or dilates blood vessels (vasodilator) to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and decrease the heart’s workload. ACE inhibitors may improve heart function.  An example of this type of drug is enalapril.
Side effects include low blood pressure, low white blood cell count, and kidney or liver problems.

Angiotensin II receptor blockers
These drugs have many of the beneficial effects of ACE inhibitors and may be an alternative for people who can’t tolerate ACE inhibitors.

Beta blockers
A beta blocker slows your heart rate, reduces blood pressure and prevents some of the harmful effects of stress hormones, substances produced by your body that can worsen heart failure and trigger abnormal heart rhythms. Atenolol and propranolol are some examples of this medication type.  Beta blockers may reduce signs and symptoms of heart failure and improve heart function.

Diuretics
Often called water pills, diuretics remove excess fluid and salt from your body. The drugs also decrease fluid in your lungs, so you can breathe more easily. Common diuretics include furosemide and spironolactone. Common side effects of diuretics include dehydration and abnormalities in the blood chemistries (particularly potassium loss), which is why it is important for regular blood rechecks when your pet has DCM.

​Inotropic agents
Digoxin. This drug, also known as digitalis, strengthens your heart muscle contractions. It also tends to slow the heartbeat. Digoxin may reduce heart failure symptoms and improve your ability to be active.

​Blood-thinning medications

Your veterinarian may prescribe drugs, such as warfarin (Coumadin), to help prevent blood clots. Side effects include excessive bruising or bleeding. This is not commonly prescribed
There are a variety of drug treatments currently used in Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). The need for any treatment and choice of that treatment has to be made on an individual basis and may change in each patient over the years. It is very important to discuss your pet’s symptoms with the veterinarian and develop a treatment plan for your pet, as each patient with DCM is different. Medication should NEVER be stopped without first consulting with your veterinarian.  While medications can be stopped some drugs can have a serious complication if stopped abruptly, please work with your veterinarian to manage all medications.  You will be doing follow up examinations every 3 months.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

A cardiomyopathy is a descriptive condition where the muscles of the heart is abnormal.  There are four types of cardiomyopathies: “hypertrophic”, “dilated”, “restrictive” and “right ventricular”.  While hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, has typically been recognized by its structure i.e., thickening of the heart muscle, the electrical function of the heart is also adversely affected.
The main feature of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an excessive thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophy literally means to thicken). The distribution of muscle thickening or hypertrophy is variable, but the left ventricle is almost always affected and in some patients the muscle of the right ventricle also thickens.  In HCM, the walls of the heart or the septum separating left from right chambers of the heart are thickened.  HCM can sometimes be confused with a heart that appears similarly, but is a normal change in the heart in individuals with high blood pressure (hypertension).

In Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), the muscle thickening occurs without an obvious cause.  Examination of the heart muscle in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy under a microscope shows that the normal parallel alignment of muscle cells has been lost. The cells appear disorganized. This abnormality is called “myocardial disarray”. It is probable that myocardial disarray interferes with normal electrical transmission and predisposes to irregularities of the heartbeat.

Myocardial Disarray

These diagrams contrast the regular, parallel alignment of muscle cells in a normal heart with the irregular, disorganized alignment of muscle cells or “myocardial disarray” found in some parts of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

When a heart is in HCM, the thickened muscle usually contracts (pumps blood) well and ejects a higher than normal amount of the blood from the heart.  However, the muscle in HCM is stiff, so it is unable to relax completely. As a result, higher blood pressures compared to normal are required to fill the heart. The amount of blood which the heart can hold is therefore reduced.  This in turn will limit the amount of blood which can be ejected with the next contraction.  While the heart itself has problems with thickening of the musculature, the heart valves and arteries are normal.  Normally, the heart is set up to process unoxygenated blood and make it oxygenated to send to the tissues of the body. There are four chambers of the heart and four one way valves to continue pumping blood in this uni-directional process. The right atrium receives blood from the body which is poorly oxygenated, sends it to the right ventricle, where it is then transferred to the lungs.  Blood becomes oxygenated and carbon dioxide is expelled.  From there, the blood goes to the left atrium, then to the left ventricle, which pumps it to the body.  This cycle is continuously repeated as the heart beats. Every heartbeat results from an electrical signal starting at the right atrium and travels down through the heart through special conducting tissue which starts a contraction. In a heart with HCM, not only are the muscles of the heart thickened, but this change can sometimes interfere with this normal electrical signal.  Some of the different types of electrical signal malfunctions are arrhythmias of differing severities.  These electrical malfunctions can even cause a cardiac arrest.

In an HCM heart sometimes the “plumbing” in the heart can cause the fluid (in this case blood) to get blocked temporarily while attempting to leave the heart (obstruction).  This type of a “plumbing” problem should not be confused with blocked arteries in the heart – that is coronary artery disease and NOT HCM.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy may be suspected because of symptoms, a murmur, or an abnormal radiograph. Because such symptoms could be caused by a large number of other conditions, an ultrasound is required to officially diagnose hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  If an arrhythmia is heard, an ECG may be recommended as well.  An ECG records the electrical signals from the heart and is performed by placing electrodes in the armpits and inner legs.  In Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy the ECG usually shows an abnormal electrical signal due to muscle thickening and disorganization of the muscle structure. Some patients may only show minor changes or be normal on an ECG.  Because ECG abnormalities are not specific to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and may be found in other heart conditions, an ECG may or may not be done depending on the stress level of your pet.

To officially diagnose HCM, an ultrasound of the heart is needed.  This is sometimes an echocardiogram, or an ECHO.  An ECHO produces a picture of the heart, and if excessive thickness of the muscle can be seen, HCM is diagnosed.  During the test the entire heart is measured including the walls, valves and other structures within the heart. Therefore ECHO provides a very thorough assessment of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, and it can differentiate HCM from other heart conditions that may be suspected.
Because HCM develops over a period of time, your pet may not be exhibiting any signs of HCM because the change in the heart began slowly.  Things that may indicate HCM in your pet, or a worsening of HCM can be breathing decreased appetite, weight loss, and an increase in respiratory rate.  Loss of energy and appetite and reduced exercise may be seen, but can go unnoticed because pets are often able to recognize their own physical limitations and restrict their activities accordingly.

Drug treatment or medication is given when some or all of the symptoms listed above are present.  These medications must be given for the remainder of your pet’s life, and the heart will be evaluated by alternating bloodwork and radiographs every 3 months.  Increasing, decreasing or discontinuing medication should only be done with consultation with your veterinarian.  The choice of treatment will vary from individual to individual but the common drug groups used for treatment medications are listed below:

Beta-Blockers
Beta-Blocking drugs slow the heart beat and reduce its force of contraction. Beta blockers have such names as atenolol, and sotalol and the names normally end in “ol”. Beta-blockers are also widely used in medical practice for other types of heart disease and for high blood pressure. Occasionally excessive heart rate slowing with these drugs can cause reduced energy

Calcium Antagonists
The second major group of drugs used are the calcium antagonists or calcium channel blockers. Within this group diltiazem is the drug which has been most commonly used in HCM in our patients. It improves the filling of the heart. Like beta-blockers it can cause excessive slowing of the heart rate and lower blood pressure, which is why regular checkups are required to check the heart.

Anti-Arrhythmic Drugs
These drugs might be used when an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) such as tachycardia (heart beating too fast) is detected and felt to be important in an individual case. Sotolol is a very helpful medication for those who encounter arrhythmias. It may lower blood pressure and appears to have few side effects.

Other Drugs
There are a number of specific complications described earlier which are rare but which require the use of additional drugs.

Diuretics
Occasionally patients develop fluid retention and in these situation diuretics “water pills” which increase urine flow are administered. The most commonly prescribed diuretic is Furosemide (Lasix). It is also imperative to maintain an appropriate blood potassium level when taking diuretics.

Anticoagulants: These are not used commonly in our patients but can be used in patients with atrial fibrillation to prevent clot formation in the atria. Warfarin (Coumadin) is the tablet commonly used with a long history of success in HCM. It requires monitoring with a blood test, approximately on a monthly basis.

Antibiotics
Although endocarditis is rare, persons who have out flow obstruction and turbulent blood flow should receive antibiotic prophylaxis prior to dental procedures (including cleanings) and any other situations where there is an increased risk of bacteria entering the bloodstream.

There are a variety of drug treatments currently used in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). The need for any treatment and choice of that treatment has to be made on an individual basis and may change in each patient over the years. It is very important to discuss your pet’s symptoms with the veterinarian and develop a treatment plan for your pet, as each patient with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is different. Medication should NEVER be stopped without first consulting with your veterinarian.  While medications can be stopped some drugs can have a serious complication if stopped abruptly, please work with your veterinarian to manage all medications.  You will be doing follow up examinations every 3 months.

Works Cited: The Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association

Kristin Claricoates, DVM
Image Courtesy of Wee Companions

In Southern California, people began reporting findings of extra-large guinea pigs starting in 2010.  Typically, shelters don’t contact rescues for help, but a large number of these large guinea pigs were so difficult to handle that they were deemed unadoptable.  It came to be known that Petco was the distributor of these guinea pigs and that they were “a new type of guinea pig”.  However, this was not quite accurate.  These guinea pigs were new to the United States, but these were in fact a breed of guinea pig related to the Cuys Criollos Mejorados, or the guinea pigs raised in South America for food.  These giant guinea pigs and our pet guinea pigs are all the same species of guinea pig, the Cavia Porcellus, but they are different breeds.  Inside sources from Petco revealed that these giant guinea pigs were imported from Peru.

The name Cuy is South American Spanish for members of the species Cavia porcellus, which is the same species of guinea pig seen in the United States.  These guinea pigs are much larger, however, because they are a domesticated guinea pig kept as livestock for meat. The breeds of guinea pigs in those countries are larger than the guinea pigs bred as pets in North America and Europe, but they are the same species. This is not to be mistaken for the species referred to as cuy in Brazil, where the name cuy refers to a different, but related species, Cavia aperea, or prea.

Within the last half decade, American pet breeders have “discovered” South American breeds of guinea pig and are trying to breed them and introduce them as pets within the United States.  However, these giant guinea pigs, as they have come to be known, are not ideal pets.  It appears they are difficult to handle and become stressed easily in the presence of people.  They are likely difficult to handle and tame because they are feral and may have reached adulthood without much handling.  They oftentimes have polydactyly, a genetic defect, which may indicate other genetic health defects.  There is also a thought that Cuys have an even shorter lifespan than the average guinea pigs and may be prone to heart disease or have unexplained sudden deaths before three years of age.

What is known about these giant guinea pigs is that they are always red, red and white or white in color.  Many have a mutation that results in extra toes, called polydactyly (commonly, 6 toes on front feet and 5 on back in a polydactyly guinea pig).  They typically weigh between 4-8 pounds when adult, compared to a typical pet guinea pig which typically only reaches two pounds at adulthood.

These giant guinea pigs may have a draw because they are novel and therefore interesting, but they do not make ideal pets.  Most times, guinea pigs are family pets, particularly for children.  However, these giant guinea pigs are incredibly strong and difficult to tame.  They are not an ideal pet because they are large, very scared and skittish, and very hard to tame.  Also, they can oftentimes be underfed because owners are expecting a small guinea pig and unaware that they have a giant guinea pig.  Oftentimes, they have more fear of humans than domestic guinea pigs. Because of their wild nature, they are much more likely to be relinquished to a shelter than regular-sized guinea pigs.

If you are in a pet store and are concerned that the guinea pig you are purchasing may be a giant guinea pig (cuy), you can look for some telltale signs.  First, look for extra numbers of toes.  They have a particularly large nose and grow at seemingly abnormal rapid rate.  The cuy, unlike regular guinea pigs, will make an audible breathing sound through their nose when picked up and do not like being handled.  They are usually only orange, orange and white, or white.  Black cuys have never been seen.  They have big floppy ears and more muscular, rectangular bodies.  As of this time, giant guinea pigs are continuing to be sold in California pet stores.  Rescues are finding them abandoned outside, in dumpsters, and terribly neglected.  One concern expressed is that the behavior of giant guinea pigs may mar the attitude of the general public toward the generally docile and well behaved common pet guinea pig.

Caring for a giant guinea pig
Giant guinea pigs do best in an experienced adult home. Although cuys can live with standard-sized guinea pigs, it seems that an increasing number of young cuy have social difficulties and can be very dominant and aggressive, even the sows. Male giant guinea pigs should be neutered at a young age to help them become more receptive to handling. A neutered male is more likely to bond with other guinea pigs. Cuys also have impressive appetites and tend to have shorter lifespans than standard guinea pigs. Some cuys are calm and easygoing. We believe this is due to extensive handing from a very young age through adulthood, however this seems to be more the exception than the rule for both male and female cuys. Typically, giant guinea pigs often struggle, kick, and squeal loudly in an attempt to get away.

Additional Information
If you believe you have a giant guinea pig, please report this to the following link below.  It is recommended to have a veterinary exam to confirm this prior to submitting this form.
http://www.laguineapigrescue.com/cuy-reports-and-sightings.html

Cuy training plan and manual:
http://www.laguineapigrescue.com/cuy-training-manual.html
Developed by Saskia Chiesa of Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue in conjunction with Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption

If you are interested in adopting a giant guinea pig as a pet, please keep in mind these guinea pigs require a high level of attention, care, and are not ideal for children.  Cuy need loving homes, too, and are not for a first-time pet owner!  Please contact Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption or Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue for details on how to adopt.  As these shelters are in California, the location may prohibit many here from adopting due to distance.

A special thanks to Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption Center and Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue for the material and resources cited in this paper.

Adapted from “Taking Care of your Gerbil” by Susan Leck, DVM, Dipl ABVP
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Of the numerous gerbil genera world wide, the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus) is the prevalent pet species in the United States.  Mongolian gerbils are native to desert regions of Mongolia and northeastern China. They are active both day and night, but peak activity occurs at night.  They are social animals that live in elaborate underground tunnel systems and burrows.

All pet gerbils are captive bred for this market.  They make appropriate pets for beginners, and their natural curiosity makes them interesting to watch as they explore their environments.

Gerbils are available in a variety of color types:  agouti (the free-ranging type or normal color), black, albino, white, cinnamon, lilac, blue cream, silver and sable.  Spotted gerbils with multiple coat colors are also popular.

Pet Potential

Gerbils tend to be friendly, clean, quiet and curious pets.  They rarely bite and can be easily handled.  They produce minimal odor and only small amounts of waste.  Their small size means those space requirements are not excessive.  With proper husbandry, gerbils rarely exhibit problems in captivity.

Housing

The minimum cage size should be 36 square inches per gerbil; a breeding pair requires a minimum of 180 square inches.  Cage sides should be at least 6 inches high, and the enclosure should otherwise be escape-proof.

Plexiglas enclosures designed for small rodents make adequate houses for gerbils; however, regular cleaning schedules must be maintained because this solid-sided caging (as opposed to wire) will trap ammonia from urine.  A split tank is an ideal way to introduce gerbils to each.  Solid flooring is preferable to wire flooring.  Bedding should be clean, dry, absorbent, nonabrasive and at least 2 cm deep to facilitate nesting behavior.  We recommend Care Fresh, which can be purchased at your local pet store.  A hiding place or hiding box should be provided in the cage.  A bowl with a small amount of sand or chinchilla dust should be provided for 10-15 minutes several times a week for sand baths.

Natural sunlight is beneficial to all creatures, but gerbils must not become overheated.  They survive desert temperatures by burrowing underground. An acceptable lighting schedule consists of 12-hour alternating light and dark cycles.

Environmental Enrichment

Like all rodents, gerbils need to have safe materials for gnawing that will help wear down their continually growing incisor teeth.  Wooden blocks are readily available at most pet stores for this purpose.  An exercise wheel provides an outlet for energy, and plastic exercise balls allow the gerbil to explore while safely enclosed.  Gerbils like to build nests out of nesting material, especially in the cooler winter months.  A common characteristic of pet gerbils is their propensity to dig incessantly with their forepaws in the corner of the cage.  They also thump with their hind legs.

Diet

Commercial pellet diets are available for gerbils.  Alternatively, commercial seed mixes with a variety of seeds (minimal to no sunflower seeds) may be fed with fresh vegetables (e.g., collards, kale, broccoli stems, carrots, beets) and soaked seeds or sprouts.  Alfalfa hay should be available for grazing and is a good calcium source for nursing females.

Excessive consumption of sunflower seeds and other high-fat foods will lead to obesity, elevated cholesterol levels and liver disease.

Even though gerbils are naturally desert-dwelling creatures and are very good at obtaining their fluid requirement from their food, fresh clean drinking water should always be available.  A sipper tube or small water bottle mounted on the outside of the cage with the drinking spout on the inside is ideal in order to prevent chewing on the bottle.

What Every Owner Should Know About Gerbils

  • Prompt veterinary care should be sought for any sign of illness.
  • Gerbils require a minimum of attention.  Thirty minutes a day should be adequate in addition to the time needed to provide a safe, clean environment.
  • Fresh food and water should be available at all times.
  • The cage must be thoroughly cleaned at least weekly.
  • Common household dangers include chewing electrical cords, children dropping or stepping on the gerbil, other pets (cats/dogs/ferrets are natural predators), eating toxic substances, gnawing inappropriate items and escaping or getting lost.

Pictured above on the left is a normal abdominal gland.  The picture on the right is an abdominal gland that is abnormal.  These glands can be the site of infection, hypertrophy, and even cancer.   We can definitely help these guys even if the growth turns out to be cancer.  Surgical removal, if done soon enough, is curative.

Gerbils can be easily trained to take medication from a syringe when needed.  Some problems require life long medication such as heart disease.  We have diagnosed heart disease in older gerbils.

Pictured to the left is a gerbil named Luigi in his splint.  Broken legs can be splinted to heal properly.  We always recommend proper pain management as well!

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

by Susan Horton, DVM

The guinea pig (GP) or cavy, Cavia porcellus, is the domesticated form of a rodent found native to the Andes Mountains of South America. In the sixteenth century they were brought to Europe and selectively bred into three main varieties.  Though more recently, a multitude of new varieties have been developed through mutation of these three basic types.  I will add pictures of these varieties when I can.

Here is a list of breed varieties:

1.  Smooth coated breeds

  • Short Haired
  • American Crested (Crested, White Crested)
  • Ridgeback

2. Long coated breeds

  • Silkie/Sheltie
  • Texel
  • Peruvian
  • Alpaca
  • Coronet
  • Merino (English Merino)
  • Lunkarya
  • Sheba (Sheba Mini Yak)

3. Rough coated breeds

  • Abyssinian
  • Rex
  • Teddy

4. Hairless breeds

  • Skinny
  • Baldwin
​They all exist in a variety of colors.  Adult males weigh around 1000 grams, females weigh between 700 to 850 grams. Life expectancy ranges up to 8 years with 4-6 years average. New breed classifications are appearing all the time!

Pictured to the left is a skinny pig named Wilbur.  These pigs are for the most part hairless except for coarse hair around the head and extremities.

Diet
A pelleted diet formulated specifically for guinea pigs should comprise the primary diet along with timothy hay and greens. Stay away from the new seed, dried veggie and pellet formulas. These tend to promote stomach distress and dental disease. Make sure the pellets are made for GP’s, these have additional Vitamin C. Vitamin C degrades rapidly when exposed to heat, humidity and light; therefore it is best not to buy pellets in large quantities. Pellets should be used within 3 months of the milling date on the package. Guinea pigs have an absolute dietary requirement for vitamin C, without it they may become very ill. A daily supplement of Vitamin C should total 100 mg. Children’s chewable Vitamin C tablets can be offered or Oxbow chewable vitamin C tablets.  Refer to our healthy greens for guinea pigs care sheet for fresh veggie ideas. New foods should be introduced gradually; one at a time, to make sure your guinea pig does not develop diarrhea. Timothy hay or oat grass hay should be offered daily. Alfalfa hay can be offered until the pig is 6 months old. Water should be supplied in a sipper bottle and changed daily

Handling

Pick up your pig by grasping it firmly but gently around the chest. Hold it close to your body to provide it security. A frightened pig will wiggle and squeal until it feels secure.

Housing

Cages should be made of durable glass, plastic, of metal. Wood is not recommended, since pigs chew on wood, and it is difficult to clean. Pigs rarely jump or climb so they can be kept in open top enclosures as long as the walls are at least 10 inches high.

Floor may be wire or solid. If wire is used, the mesh size should be large enough to allow the leg to be pulled back if the foot slips through the wire. Sore feet and broken legs are more often occur in pigs kept on wire floor. An area of Plexiglas should be placed in the cage to protect feet. Solid floor is preferred but requires more effort to keep the cage sanitary.

Hay, pellets, recycled newspaper, or aspen shavings may be used as bedding. Do not use cedar or pine chips. These woods contain aromatic oils that smell good to us but are very irritating to the eyes, skin, lungs and mucous membranes of the sinus of the pig.

Pigs tend to panic when frightened so their cage should be located in a quiet spot away from excitement and noise. Ideal temperature for pigs is 65 to 79 degrees, with 40 to 70 % humidity. Pigs prefer 12 hours of light to 12 hours of darkness.

Reproduction

A female should not be bred until she weighs 500 g, or is 4-5 months old. Also, no female older than nine months should be bred. Between the ages of 9 and 12 months, if she is has never given birth, her hip bones (pelvis) will fuse such that she can not give birth naturally. A later pregnancy will require a cesarean section. Therefore, if you plan to breed your female, or if you do not plan to spay her and the situation is such that she may become pregnant later on, you should probably see that she has at least one litter between the ages of five and nine months.

If an older female does accidentally become pregnant with a first pregnancy, you and your veterinarian will want to plan on surgery to deliver the babies; otherwise she will likely die giving birth. In addition, do everything you can to avoid such an accident in the first place i.e. keep her away from male GPs.

The gestation period (time between conception and giving birth) for guinea pigs is approximately 60-70 days. Guinea pigs do not normally require assistance in giving birth. The babies are born with a full coat, open eyes, and can run and eat solid food. They will nurse for two or three weeks even though they are eating on their own. The young are usually in no danger from either parent, although you may want to remove the male right away, since the female is able to conceive again within the hour after giving birth.

Litter size varies from one to eight, but typically have two to four. Weaning is at 14 to 28 days, when pigs are about 200 grams. Guinea pigs become sexually mature as early as four weeks of age so it is important to separate the different sexes by then. Therefore, the males of the litter should be separated from the mother and their sisters directly after weaning.

It is important to handle the babies soon and often, to socialize them to humans. Like other animals that are born precocial, guinea pigs form their social bonds shortly after birth, sometime within a matter of hours, so human contact is critical during this time to ensure that they establish strong bonds to people.

Medical Concerns

Pregnancy Toxemia: Commonly seen in stressed, heavily pregnant GP that are 56 days or more into the pregnancy and carrying 3 or more fetuses. Acute death may occur with in 24 hours with no previous signs of illness. Condition may also present as ruffled hair coat, lethargy, loss of appetite 3-5 days prior to death. In most cases, the condition is fatal despite treatment. The cause is not known but seems to occur more often in obese pigs.

Sniffling, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose: These signs are typical of upper respiratory tract disease. Other signs include blood stained crusts around the nose, discharge from the eyes, and difficulty breathing. Common causes include bacterial infections, allergy, and irritation due to inhalation of smoke, fumes or odors from cedar/pine shavings. Do not use cedar or pine as bedding. These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Swelling around the neck: Lumps may occur around the neck caused by infection and abscess formation in the lymph nodes of the neck. This condition may or may not be painful to the pig. Treatment varies from oral medications to surgical drainage or removal depending on the extent of the infection.

Bacterial infections: May occur in the skin (sores, abscess), lungs (pneumonia), blood in urine, intestine (diarrhea), or blood (septicemia). Infections may cause depression, decreased appetite, and may rapidly progress to death. Consult your veterinarian immediately if your GP is ill. Use of medications without veterinary supervision may result in the death of your pig, as many medications used in other animals can be deadly to GPs.

Blood in urine: Bloody urine may appear red or brown. This may indicate infection of the bladder or kidneys, bladder stones or problems with the clotting ability of the blood.  If your pig is female, it can indicate a problem with the uterus.  Other reasons for abnormal color of the urine include muscle damage, diet, and concentration of the urine i.e. very dilute urine is clear where as very concentrated urine is dark yellow to orange in color. These changes may be normal or may indicate other disease is present. Normal urine is thick and white to yellow in color.

Diarrhea: Diarrhea can result from feeding your guinea pig a new type of vegetable, or an unusually large quantity of fresh vegetables. Try not feeding that new vegetable (or not feeding so many vegetables) for a day or so to see if the problem clears up. Whether or not his/her vegetable consumption has changed, if a day passes and your guinea pig still has diarrhea, contact your veterinarian. Diarrhea is a very serious problem. It doesn’t take long for a small animal to dehydrate. If the diarrhea begins after the GP has been on an antibiotic this can mean that the antibiotic is killing off the normal bacteria as well as the bad bacteria. Contact your veterinarian right away. In many cases, feeding live culture yogurt while your GP is on antibiotics can reduce the chance of this occurring.

Scratching: Some scratching is a normal function of grooming; however, if the places being scratched are becoming red, irritated, raw or the GP is losing its hair, then the scratching is excessive. Your guinea pig may have skin mites, fleas, a bacterial infection or a fungus, such as ringworm. Pine or cedar bedding can cause irritation and allergic type reactions of the skin leading to redness and itching. Skin infections due to fungus (ringworm) usually appear as scabby, scaly skin lesions around the face and may involve other parts of the body. A diagnosis is made by special culture and treatment is specific for this disease. Lice and mites may occur on pigs. Depending on the type of parasite, scratching may or may not be a factor. Consult with your veterinarian for selection of appropriate treatment.

Trouble walking (stiff joints or stumbling): GPs must have vitamin C in their diet. Like humans, they are not able to manufacture Vitamin C in their body. If the diet is deficient in Vitamin C, signs of scurvy rapidly develop. Lameness due to Vitamin C deficiency may be seen after only 2 weeks on a deficient diet with fast growing young and pregnant pigs being affected first. The most common signs are decreased appetite and joint pain. Always feed your GP a pelleted diet labeled for GPs. These diets are formulated with higher levels of vitamin C. Buy the pellets in small amounts (no more than your GP will eat in two to three weeks) and buy bags labeled with an expiration date or a milling date. Do not feed pellets that are older than 3 months past the milling date. Do not buy pellets from bulk bins at feed stores. This food may be old. As food ages, the Vitamin C is one of the first vitamins to be lost. Adding Vitamin C to the food is helpful. Children’s chewable vitamin C tablets can be sprinkled in your pet’s food each day (50 – 100 mg per day). More info on vitamin C in guinea pigs click here.

Pododermititis, sores on the feet, commonly occur in pigs kept on wire. Treatment consists of moving the pet to dry, soft bedding, and caging on solid floor. Medications selected by your veterinarian may be needed.

Loss of appetite: Being small animals, guinea pigs usually eat constantly and metabolize food very fast, so if an illness or other condition is preventing them from eating they rapidly loose weight and become seriously debilitated in a short time. Any illness, Vitamin C deficiency and overgrown teeth can cause a GP not to eat.

Overgrown Teeth: GPs’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life. If the incisors (front teeth) or molars (back teeth) are mal-occluded, i.e. they do not meet evenly, then they do not wear down when the GP chews. This results in overgrowth. Malocclusion is usually caused by a congenital deformity of the jaw. Other causes can be injury or trauma to the teeth or jaw and infection in the tooth roots. Overgrown teeth can cause mouth infections, ulceration of the inner surface of the cheeks or tongue and inability to pick up and eat food. GPs may show interest in food but seem unable to eat, drooling seen as wet fur around the mouth and neck and weight loss. Overgrown teeth need to be trimmed and periodic trimming is often needed for the life of the GP. If the molars are involved, or if the GP is very skittish, a general anesthetic may be required.

For More information on common health problems of Guinea Pigs, see our health page!

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Dr. Justine Hammond, DVM
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

This paper is not for diagnostic purposes but simply to make guinea pig owners aware of potential or common diseases in their pets.  If you see any of the signs noted below, please see your veterinarian to determine a definitive diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.  It is strongly recommended that you maintain consistent healthy check-ups for your guinea pig to ensure a long and happy life for your pet.

Lice, Mites and Fleas (Oh my!)

Guinea pigs can carry lice, mites or fleas.  Many times these animals were infected at birth and carry a very low-grade infection, which increases during times of stress (change or new environment) and symptoms become more apparent during these times.  Guinea pigs may become itchy and subsequently suffer hair loss or skin abrasions from the itching.  If the parasite infection and itchiness are intense enough, guinea pigs can suffer from seizures.  More commonly the signs are not so severe to cause seizures but guinea pigs do tend to break their skin while itching and a secondary bacterial infection occurs.  Some lice and fleas may be large enough to be seen with the naked eye so inspect your guinea pig.

Hair loss and skin lesions can be due to other health problems like fungal skin infections (dermatophytes), behavioral disorders/ fighting or some reproductive diseases.  Additionally, some infectious agents (fungal and a type of mite) can affect humans.  Be sure to have consistent veterinary care for your pet, watch for signs of itching and wash your hands after playing with your pet to avoid transmission.

Pictured below are some examples or guinea pigs with severely flaky skin.  This can be safely and effectively treated once diagnosed properly.

Foot sores (Pododermatitis or Bumblefoot)

Bumblefoot (or foot sores) begin as red areas on the bottom of the feet and then progress to erupting as open sores.  Once the sores open, they can easily become infected.  Eventually, if not addressed, the underlying bone can become infected, which can lead to fractures and whole body infections.

These sores often occur from overweight guinea pigs or vitamin C deficient pigs housed on inappropriate bedding.  We recommend recycled newspaper bedding. Be sure not to house guinea pigs on wire mesh, wood, plastic or any other hard surface without bedding.  We also discourage the use of wood shavings as bedding because they can cause small cuts to the feet and bacterial infection can begin.  Also, strong smelling wood shavings (like cedar) contain oils that predispose guinea pigs to respiratory disease.  Keeping the cage clean will reduce the possibility for infection and foot sores as well. Clean the entire cage at least weekly and spot clean daily.  We also recommend regular toenail trimming.

Be sure to offer a source of Vitamin C to keep your guinea pig’s skin healthy and strong. We recommend adding a crushed up children’s chewable Vitamin C tablet to fresh food items. Also, be sure that pellets are made specifically for guinea pigs and are used within 30 days of opening the bag. These pellets have additional Vitamin C and the Vitamin C is broken down about a month after the package is opened. This topic is discussed in the section on Scurvy in this article.

It is a good idea to occasionally check your guinea pigs feet for any signs of redness or open sores. If you note changes or problems, bring your pet to a veterinarian for evaluation.

Respiratory Infection

Veterinarians classify respiratory disease as upper (nose, sinuses and trachea) and lower (lungs and bronchi) respiratory disease. Infection in the lungs is also called pneumonia. Both of these, upper and lower, can occur in guinea pigs. Sometimes the disease will begin as upper respiratory and progress to pneumonia. Frequently, as you may guess, disease is caused by a bacterial infection. Common bacteria that lead to respiratory disease in guinea pigs are Bordetella bronchiseptica and Streptococcus.

Signs of respiratory disease often begin with discharge from the nose or eyes and decreased appetite. This can progress to difficulty breathing, especially if pneumonia is present. Keep in mind that there may be other explanations for these respiratory signs aside from infection such as heart disease and pain.

Guinea pigs should never be housed with rabbits for a number of reasons, one of which is that rabbits can carry Bordetella and not show signs of illness. These bacteria can be transmitted to the guinea pig and can be fatal.

Urinary Tract Disease and Bladder Stones

Guinea pigs can develop stones in their bladder or along the urinary tract.  Stones can develop secondary to infection but may not; some may develop from a consolidation of normal cells and debris with in the urinary tract.  Signs include inappetence, hunched posture, straining to urinate, frequent urinations or blood-tinged urine and pain.  If a stone is sitting in the urinary tract but not blocking the normal flow of urine, it can cause pain and predispose the pig to an infection (if one is not already present).  However, if the guinea pig cannot urinate past the stone because it is acting like a cork in a wine bottle, this is a life-threatening situation that must be addressed immediately.  This is because the job of the urinary tract system is to excrete built up degredation products of metabolism and keeps electrolytes in the body in correct balance (like potassium and sodium).  If these become too far outside of the range of normal, life threatening cardiac problems occur.  Please seek veterinary care immediately if you are concerned that you guinea pig cannot urinate properly.

We do not recommend that spinach, broccoli or alfalfa hay* be fed to guinea pigs.  These items are very high in calcium and necessitate excessive urinary excretion of calcium.  It is believed that these items may predispose guinea pigs to bladder stones.  Please see our care sheets for guinea pig diet suggestions and healthy guinea pig veggie sheet for a discussion of appropriate foods for your pig.

*- Alfalfa hay is acceptable as a portion of young guinea pigs’ diets up to 6 months of age.

GI Stasis

Gastrointestinal stasis (or GI stasis for short) is characterized by a decreased or absent appetite, decreased or absent stool production, small or dry stools and lethargy.  Stasis generally occurs secondarily to another issue but is serious and warrants immediate medical attention.  Even 12- 24 hours of not eating can be fatal to a guinea pig.  Stress, illness, pain, dental problems, some medications or changes in diet can all cause GI stasis.

Stasis begins usually from refusal or inability to eat.  This allows for gas build-up within the GI tract.  Gas causes distention, pain and can impede the gut’s ability to perform peristalsis (the act of pushing the food through the gut).  This situation quickly spirals out of control as the gas continues to build up, the gut works less and less and the gas is not expelled causing further pain and distention.  If the situation is not resolved, the gut can rupture or become so large with gas that it impedes major blood vessels and can be fatal.

It is very common for guinea pigs to stop eating when they become ill and so we must address not only the primary illness also the GI stasis.

Many times, we see guinea pigs that are in GI stasis from dental issues or poor diets.  Guinea pigs have teeth that grow throughout their lifetime.  It is not only the front teeth (incisors) that grow but also the back molars.  So while the front teeth may look normal, a guinea pig may have abnormal molars causing pain and causing the animal to not eat.  This is because, just like in humans, some guinea pigs have teeth that do not align properly in the mouth (and we don’t have braces for guinea pig teeth yet).  In guinea pigs, normally aligned molars act to wear each other down during the act of chewing.  However if they are improperly aligned, portions of the tooth may continue to grow and have very sharp points that injure soft tissue in the mouth.  This is why your veterinarian carefully inspects your guinea pig’s mouth during regular examinations.  As an aside, I am often asked about giving wood or chew sticks to help with this situation.  The best (and really only) way for your guinea pig to wear his back teeth down is with his food (especially hay), as the chew toys or wood blocks only will come in contact with the front incisors and not the back teeth where the most common problems arise.

Pictured below are two examples of molar bridging.  Guinea pigs can not eat when their teeth are this bad.  This is a fatal situation left untreated.  Even with treatment, the prognosis is guarded.

Pictured below is a guinea pig with incisor malocclusion and a missing incisor. This can be managed with monthly trimming.

Guinea pigs have a gastrointestinal system that is specifically designed to break down and utilize high fibrous foods with diluted energy levels, like grass hay.  The good bacteria in the cecum (a sac-like projection from the intestines) are in balance in a healthy pig in order to break down these foods.  Once a guinea pig is fed too much “junk” food like foods that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates, the bacterial balance in the gut is thrown off.  The acidity in the cecum changes and allows for abnormal bacterial growth.  Some of these bacteria produce high amounts of gases as they break down sugary foods.  This is what sets the stage for GI stasis when poor diet is fed.  Guinea pigs are so sensitive that too many pellets, fruits, yogurt drops or other treats can trigger this process.  Please see our recommendations for proper guinea pig diets in order to avoid this situation.

Scurvy (Vitamin C Deficiency)

Guinea pigs are one of the few mammals that need Vitamin C supplemented in their diets.  The same is true for primates (yes, that means you!) and some types of bats.  These animals cannot produce their own Vitamin C and this must come from some food source in their diets.

If a guinea pig is deficient in Vitamin C we can see dental, feet and skin problems. This can include difficulty healing from woundsor a propensity to get skin wounds and foot sores. Guinea pigs that are Vitamin C deficient may also develop diarrhea and have a coarse fur coat.

A guinea pig requires fresh pellets made specifically for guinea pigs (because they have added Vitamin C).  The Vitamin C becomes deactivated over time so we recommend that once a bag of pellets is opened, it should be used within 30 days and should be stored in an airtight container in a dark place.  Vitamin C added to water becomes deactivated fairly quickly and we do not recommend supplementing in this manner.  Instead, children’s chewable vitamin C tablets can be ground up and sprinkled on fresh foods daily.  We recommend 100 mg daily of Vitamin C.  Several small mammal food companies offer Vitamin C tablets as well.

For more information on the disease of scurvy and supplementation of guinea pigs, please see our Scurvy handout and guinea pig care sheet.

Pictured above is a female guinea pig growing her hair back after her spay.  Spaying is the best treatment for cystic ovaries which this girl had.

Cystic Ovaries

Ovarian cysts are very common in female guinea pigs (sows) around 2-4 years of age.  These animals can have no symptoms at all or can exhibit decreased appetite, fatigue, severe lethargy and fur loss.  Cystic ovaries are believed to predispose females to reproductive cancers.

Pictured below is a radiograph of a guinea pig with an enlarged heart.  An ultrasound of the heart is needed to further diagnose this disease.  We treat heart disease routinely at Chicago Exotics.

Heart Disease

In our experience here at Chicago Exotics, we commonly see older guinea pigs with advanced heart disease.  Most often when these animals come in ill, they have respiratory signs such as difficulty breathing.  Remember, the heart is pumping oxygen-rich blood to the body.  When it has circulated, the blood returns to the heart depleted of oxygen and is sent to the lungs to acquire more oxygen.  The blood, now full of oxygen, returns to the heart to be pumped throughout the body.  When the heart muscle is not working optimally, a back up can occur in the lungs because the heart does not have the strength to push blood into the body (which takes a lot of energy and force).  This can cause weaknesslethargyinappetence in the guinea pig and also what looks like respiratory disease but in actuality is a cardiac disease.

Ear Infection

Guinea pigs can get ear infections that affect either the outer portion, the middle canal or the inner portion of the ear.  Signs of ear infection can range from scratching at the ears, to head shaking to finally, a head tilt and difficulty balancing or walking.  The signs and severity depend on which portion of the ear is infected.  The ear extends past the eardrum and into a portion within the skull.  Many nerves run through this area as well as the apparatus that helps them to maintain balance.  If there is infection and subsequent inflammation within this area, we see more severe signs like a head tilt, balance issues (the animal walks like a drunk human might) and eventually rolling.  Inner ear infections can occur either from an infection extending from the outer ear in or, more likely, extending from a sinus or dental infection and up into the skull.  Of course, a head tilt (indicating some balance trouble) could be due to a number of diseases such as tumors, viruses, parasites migrating throughout the body or trauma.  If you note these signs, please seek medical attention for your guinea pig.

Quesenberry, KE, Carpenter, JW, eds.  Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. Second Ed.  St Louis , MO , Saunders, 2004
If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.​
Listed below are some nutritious foods for you to incorporate into your family member’s diet.  Nutrition plays a major role in the health and longevity of any animal.  Keep in mind that moderation and variety are the keys to offering a complete, well-balanced diet. ​
Vegetable/Fruit
Calcium Content
Vitamin C
Swiss chard
Very High
Excellent
Endive
High
​Good
Escarole
High
​Good
Dandelion greens
High
​Excellent
Beet greens
High
​Excellent
Cilantro
Low
​Fair
Parsley
Low
​Fair
Mache
Low
Excellent
Cress
Low
​Fair
Romaine
Low
​Fair
Boston
Low
​Fair
Carrot
Low
​Fair
Yam
Low
​Fair
Pumpkin
Low
Fair
​Papaya
Low
​Good
Bell Pepper
Low
​Good

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

by ​Katy Parr, DVM

Similar to humans, guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C so they must obtain it from their diet. Also known as scurvy, this disease is characterized by a breakdown of connective tissues in the body which can cause abnormalities such as arthritis, skin sores, and dental disease. Since vitamin C is present in small amounts in many foods, this is a disease that tends to occur slowly over time, as the lack of vitamin C builds up over the long term. You may not notice a problem right away, depending on your guinea pig’s diet, health status, and age.

Some pelleted diets have added vitamin C, but not enough. Several factors can be involved in this. Storage in warm conditions or in direct sunlight can cause breakdown of the vitamin. Also, the vitamins in the pellets naturally break down over time, so older bags contain less vitamin C than newer bags. Offering vitamin C in the water is not recommended because vitamins break down quickly when exposed to light. Vitamins in water also encourages bacterial growth, which can be detrimental to your guinea pig.

Once deficiency develops, it can be treated with vitamin C supplementation, but some of the side effects may persist for the rest of the guinea pig’s life. Dental disease is a lifelong and potentially fatal problem, which requires tooth trimming periodically (monthly). Arthritis is painful, but can be controlled long term with pain medication and supplements from your veterinarian. Gastro-intestinal stasis (bloat and constipation) is a condition that can come on suddenly, and is often life-threatening, requiring immediate veterinary care.

The best way to ensure that your guinea pig is receiving enough vitamin C is to give it a 50mg tablet twice daily. Oxbow vitamin C tablets are formulated especially for guinea pigs, or you can obtain sugar-free children’s chewable tablets from your local drug store. If your guinea pig will not eat the tablet, there are several ways to entice him. Breaking it in half releases the aroma; making it more appealing. Try crushing it on top of wet greens, or a favorite food item. You may also crush it with water and give it by mouth with a syringe. Powdered vitamin C crystals can also be sprinkled on moistened greens if your guinea pig will not eat tablets. Certain greens such as cilantro and parsley are especially high in vitamin C (higher than oranges believe it or not!), so they make great healthy treats.

by ​Susan Horton, DVM

Hamsters are rodents that were initially introduced into the United States for research purposes and have gained popularity as pocket pets. The Syrian hamster, which originated in Rumania, Bulgaria, and Asia Minor includes the common reddish brown hamster and the longhaired teddy bear hamster and the smaller, darker brown Chinese hamster.  Hamsters have cheek pouches used to transport and store food and to conceal a newborn litter when danger is present. Hamsters have hip glands, which are dark raised spots located on either flank or hip area. These glands secrete material used to mark its territory. These glands should not be confused with tumors. The life span is relatively short, 18-24 months and usually the males live longer than the females. Sexual maturity occurs at 6-8 weeks of life with pregnancy lasting 15 days. Litter size is 6-8 pups. Newborns are hairless, blind and have closed ears. Hair begins to grow at 8 days of age, pups can eat solid food at 7-10 days of age, eyes open at 1-15 days old and weaning is complete at 21-25 days old. Lack of experience in first time mothers and environmental disturbances may cause a hamster to eat its newborns.

Diet

The natural diet consists of seeds and plant materials, however as pets, hamsters do very well on a pelleted diet or rodent chow formulated for rats and mice.  A seed or a seed/dried-vegetable mix, should not be fed as the primary diet but is fine as a treat.  Fresh vegetables can be fed in small amounts.  Greens fed in small quantities. Sudden dietary changes may result in intestinal upsets and diarrhea which can be severe and may result in death of the pet.  Hamsters carry food in their cheek pouches causing the pouches on either side of the face to bulge. They also hide food in their nest to eat at a later time.

Housing 

Wire cages, aquariums and plastic habitats (Habitrails) may be used for a home for your hamsters. Each cage should provide a safe escape proof home for your pet.  Doors and tops should be well secured to prevent escape. The cage should be well ventilated to allow flow of fresh air to help prevent the build up of odor from urine, feces and spoiled food. Most hamsters will drink from a water bottle secured to the side of the cage with a lick spout to drink and to reduce spillage. The food bowl and water bottle should be cleaned daily and fresh food and water should be supplied daily.  Cages should be cleaned at least on a weekly basis. Depending on the size of the cage and the number of hamsters housed in the cage, it may need to be cleaned more frequently. If the cage has an odor of urine or feces then it needs to be cleaned. Constant exposure of your pet to unsanitary conditions is unpleasant for the pet and can result in infections of the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. Dilute chorine bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water), is effective for sanitizing a cage. After cleaning with bleach solution, the cage should be rinsed thoroughly to remove all bleach residue. Do not use cedar or pine shavings as bedding.  These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the skin and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.  Safe bedding materials include recycled newspaper bedding, aspen shavings, hay and plain white unscented toilet paper or paper towels.

Behavior

Hamsters are nocturnal (active at night) and may bite if awakened suddenly. Hamsters do not have good eyesight therefore the owner should always speak to the hamster before picking it up.  This gives the hamster some warning that it is going to be touched and reduces the likelihood of you being bitten. The approach from above often triggers a defensive response. The hamster may flip onto its back and try to bite. The teeth are needle like and the bite can be painful, especially to a child. To pick up your hamster, cup your hands around it.  Some will nip when picked up no matter what.  In these cases, you can use a paper-towel tubes to slide over the hamster, then slide the hamster out the other end onto your hand. Hamsters are nocturnal animals which means they spend a lot of their daylight time sleeping and are more active at night. They enjoy running on an exercise wheel or you may use the clear plastic exercise balls sold for this purpose.

Diseases And Medical Care

Grooming

Hamsters do not require bathing.  They should keep themselves clean with self grooming.  Occasionally, and especially as they get older, they may require toenail trimming.  This toenail over growth can also be a sign of liver disease.  Consult your veterinarian if your hamster’s toenails suddenly start growing very fast.  Some of the longer haired varieties may require combing and trimming of the fur at their rumps.
Sniffling, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose: These signs are typical of upper respiratory tract (sinus) disease. Common causes include bacterial infections, allergy, irritation due to inhalation of smoke, fumes or odors from cedar/pine shavings. Do not use cedar or pine shavings as bedding.  These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.  Safe bedding materials include recycled newspaper bedding, aspen shavings, hay and plain white unscented toilet paper or paper towels.

Hair loss: Hair loss may be caused by skin parasites, bacterial infections, fungal disease, and allergic reactions to bedding, in particular cedar/pine chips. Hamsters are very sensitive to the aromatic oils in cedar and pine.  Constant contact with these substances can result in hair loss, cracked, dry skin, secondary bacterial infections and in severe cases, death.

Wet tail, Diarrhea, Proliferative enteritis: Diarrhea can result from feeding your hamster a new type of vegetable, an unusually large quantity of fresh vegetables or any sudden change in diet even to a new type of pellet. Long-haired and teddy bear hamsters seem more at risk to develop wet tail. Signs include: matting of fur around the tail, hunched stance, irritability, dehydration, thin, and watery diarrhea. If your hamster develops diarrhea after a diet change, stop feeding the new diet item immediately to see if the problem clears up. Regardless of the cause of the diarrhea, if more than a day passes and your hamster still has diarrhea, contact your veterinarian. Diarrhea is a very serious problem. It doesn’t take long for a small animal to dehydrate.  If your hamster develops diarrhea after he has been started on any type of medication this can mean that the medication is killing the normal (good) bacteria in the intestine. Contact your veterinarian right away.  In many cases, feeding small amounts of live culture yogurt while your hamster is on medication can reduce the chance of this occurring. Diarrhea can dehydrate and kill a small animal very quickly.  Clinical signs of dehydration include: dull, sunken eyes, slow movements, very concentrated urine (dark color and strong odor) and a skin tent i.e. pinch the skin on the top of the head or the back of the neck-if the skin stays puckered up in a roll and doesn’t quickly flatten out then your hamster is dehydrated.  Contact your veterinarian; dehydration can be corrected by giving fluids by injection under the skin.

Fighting:  Hamsters can be very territorial and may fight among themselves. This can be a problem when introducing a new hamster to an existing group. In addition, female hamsters may attack their own babies or the babies of another hamster. It is also common for the male hamster to attack its offspring. Female hamsters and their babies should be provided with a nest box or separated from the other hamsters when babies are present.  Fighting adults should be separated.  Bite wounds can be mild or severe. Any wounds should be cleaned with dilute Betadine (antiseptic solution) and your veterinarian contacted. Do not apply topical antibiotic preparations without first consulting your veterinarian. Some of these products may be toxic to your pet if they are ingested while grooming or cleaning of the wound. Bites from cats or dogs should be considered serious even if they seem mild.

Bumps and lumps: Cheek pouches filled with food (swelling on either side of the face in the cheek area) may appear as abnormal growths to the casual observer. This is a normal behavior for your pet.  However, hamsters often develop swellings associated with abscess or tumors. These may occur anywhere on the body. Your veterinarian should be consulted for treatment.  Pictured above is a hamster with a testicular abcess.  This was treated easily with surgery.

Dentistry:  Hamsters, like all rodents, have front teeth (incisors) that grow throughout their life and back or cheek teeth (molars) . If the incisors do not wear properly, they may overgrow and cause severe problems as pictured above. Signs of tooth problems include wetness around the mouth, not eating or trying to eat but dropping the food, weight loss, weakness and death. The teeth can trimmed or filed to the appropriate length under anesthesia at the veterinarians office.  This must be done every 21 to 30 days when malocclusion is present. Do not attempt this on your own.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

High Ketones, High Glucose On Urine Dipstick

  • Treat with a hypoglycemic such as fenugreek seeds/powder -up to 400 mg or 25 seeds are safe or Diabogen powder..
  • Use 50/50 Pedialyte/Water solution in water bottle.
  • High protein, high fiber, low diet

High Ketones, Low Or No Glucose On Urine Dipstick

  • Treat with 50/50 Pedialyte/Water solution and high protein, high fiber, low fat diet.

No Ketones, High Glucose On Urine Dipstick

  • Treat with only hypoglycemics, plain water (no Pedilyte) and absolutely NO SUGAR (dextrose, maltose, corn etc.).
  • High protein, low fat, high fiber diet.
  • Hypoglycemics include fenugreek or Diabogen powder, buckwheat (comes in pasta, whole or flour form), cinnamon powder, and spirulina
  • Glipizide or injectable insulin (prescription drugs)

Good Protein Sources For Hamsters

  • Tofu (firm or medium firm is best)
  • Roasted soybeans, unsalted
  • Chicken baby food (with broth, no seasoned)
  • Spirulina and /or seaweed (roasted laver, no salt or salt removed)
  • Boiled chicken breast or turkey
  • Egg whites with tiny bit of cooked egg yolk, boiled, scrambled, fried in small amount of olive oil.
  • Flax seed
  • Low fat cheeses (not process)
  • Low fat, plain yogurt
  • Tuna in water, drained

by Susan Leck, DVM, Dipl ABVP-canine & feline
Edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Domestic mice, Mus musculus, are primarily raised in captivity for the pet trade and as food for reptiles.  They are available in colors from white and tan to brown and black.  Outbred and inbred mice are used for research purposes.

Pet Appeal and Behavior

Mice are easy to keep as pets because of their very small size and their minimal requirements for space and attention.  Although naturally timid, a significant bond with humans may be formed with daily interaction and regular gentle handling.

Mice may bite if they are handled roughly or startled and may become aggravated when restrained.  Mice are territorial: males will initially fight when placed together, and females with litters may defend their nests.  Mice that have been housed alone are more likely to fight when introduced to other mice.

Housing Recommendations

Mice can thrive in captivity as long as they are not overcrowded or overheated.  The minimal size enclosure for one adult is 24″ x 24″ x 12″ high (61 x 61 x 30 cm).  Females with litters require 2-3 times more space.  The enclosure must be able to accommodate a nesting area, feeding area and exercise wheel.  It must be escape proof with a secure lid.  Glass aquariums are not recommended, because they can overheat rapidly on a warm day and can kill a mouse.

Suitable substrates include shredded paper (non-inked), recycled newspaper composite materials or pellets.  Cedar chips should be avoided, as they may be toxic.  Substrate should be changed once or twice weekly in order to keep the cage as odor free as possible.  Additional materials (e.g., paper towels, socks, mittens) may be added to the enclosure for nesting.

Diet

The recommended diet for domestic mice is a commercial pelleted mouse feed (greater than 14% protein, ideally 20-24% protein).  Breeding adults and youngsters may require additional calories.  Pellets may be softened for baby mice, which will begin eating them around 2 weeks of age.  Seed diets are not recommended: mice are often victims of obesity, starvation and malnutrition from all seed diets.

Sipper tubes or water bottles may be used.  The water must be changed routinely and the tip checked to ensure it is flowing and free of obstruction.

Restraint

The mouse may be grasped by the skin at the base of the neck and the base of the tail for restraint.  Grasping the tip of the tail may cause degloving.  A mouse may be accustomed to climbing onto hands, but one must ensure that it does not jump and fall off.

Common Disorders of Domestic Mice

  • Obesity
  • Ectoparasitism
  • Epizootic diarrhea of infant mice
  • Alopecia
  • Barbering
  • Chronic respiratory disease
  • Pinworms
  • Neoplasia
  • Malocclusion
  • Heat stress
  • Viral infections
  • Malnutrition
  • Trauma, bite wounds
  • Toxicities/poisoning
  • Giardiasis
  • Salmonellosis
  • Mouse pox

What Every Owner Should Know

  • A child should not be responsible for the feeding and care of a pet mouse.
  • Small children may handle the mouse too roughly or drop it, resulting in trauma.
  • Common household dangers include predators, such as dogs, cats, and ferrets.
  • Mice can be escape artists, so the enclosure must be secure.
  • For activity, mice like to explore tubes, gnaw on items and run in an exercise wheel.
  • Mice should be prevented from accessing pesticides and other toxins.
  • They should be protected from overheating.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Kristin Claricoates, DVM 

Odontomas are considered hamartomas in that they are composed of normal tissue arranged in an abnormal fashion. They occur in young animals during development of the permanent teeth. The exception to this is the rat, in which odontomas may occur at any age.  Odontomas are most commonly seen in prairie dogs, and they are a benign lesion from dental epithelial and mesenchymal cells that are more like a malformation than a true neoplasm.  They typically don’t develop further after they become fully calcified and are characterized by slow growth and a non-aggressive nature.  The reason that odontomas are most commonly see in prairie dogs is because the root of the incisors (the front teeth) enlarge to the point that the nasal passages become blocked when an odontoma forms on the tooth.  So, the odontoma itself is a major problem, but the fact that it reduces the ability for the prairie dog to breathe is the biggest concern.  It is not yet known why prairie dogs tend to develop odontomas, but it is suspected that odontogenic tumors are hamartomous growths that are developing in reaction to mechanical trauma of the upper incisors.  Other causes such as a vitamin or mineral imbalance, inadequate wear of the teeth, or lack of sunlight cannot be eliminated at this time. Prevention or elimination of chronic upper incisor trauma is an important first step in the management of this condition.

What would a prairie dog with an odontoma act like?
A prairie dog with an odontoma may act similar to a prairie dog with a respiratory infection.  Some signs would be difficulty breathing, loud or labored breathing, open mouthed breathing, and occasional nasal discharge.

What do I do if I suspect my prairie dog has an odontoma?
If you are concerned that your prairie dog may have an odontoma, please come for a veterinary visit.  On oral exam we can sometimes see signs of an odontoma.  However, we can determine if your prairie dog has an odontoma through some simple diagnostic tests, such as radiographs of the head and chest to determine if there is a respiratory infection or if there is an odontoma.

​If my pet does have an odontoma, what do we do now?
Unfortunately, treating a prairie dog with medicine alone does not seem to work; surgery is the only successful way to manage an odontoma.  Some surgeons reported that a tracheotomy was helpful for their patients.  However, it was also noted that a tracheotomy (or creating an opening in the trachea) was difficult to maintain.  Instead, we recommend an attempt to extract the incisor.  Because the incisor is so curved and altered by the odontoma, sometimes this incisor is difficult to extract and may fracture.  If this occurs, we will surgically open up the nasal passage and place a hard plastic catheter through a hole made in the nasal passage that is past the tumor so that the respiratory distress can be eliminated.  This will be a permanent change in order for your prairie dog to survive.

By Kristin Claricoates, DVM  

There are 5 species of prairie dogs, and the black tailed prairie dogs are the best known species.  Prairie dogs typically have a lifespan of 8-10 years in the wild, although in captivity they often do not live this long.  The shorter lifespan is contributed to issues with their enclosure and diet.  Males typically are larger than females in weight and prairie dogs typically weigh up to 0.7kg-1.4kg or 1.54lbs-3.08lbs.  Prairie dogs reach sexual maturity at 2-3 years of age, and females will have 1 litter a year.  Typically there are 3-4 pups in each litter and the gestation period is 33-38 days.  Mating season is in March and lasts about 2-3 weeks.  98% population decline is seen in the 20th century.

In an enclosure, they prefer the temperature to be 68-72° F and humidity between 30 and 70%.  In the wild, they live in coteries, which is a basic social group of 8-10 animals.  These typically consist of 1 male, 3-4 females, several yearlings and juveniles.  Each prairie dog typically has 11 distinct vocalizations which owners will come to know over time.  Two to know particularly are the chattering that expresses frustration and a high pitched scream that indicates distress.  An owner must handle and socialize with their prairie dog often or else they will become prone to biting and become more aggressive over time.

In their environment in the wild, they have underground tunnels.  So in your house, offer a deep amount of bedding to allow for digging tunnels and use PVC pipes to allow them to feel like they are underground.  Do not use any wood in the cage as they will chew it down and escape.  The enclosure itself is ok to be made from wire and stainless steel.  A cage should not be all solid walls, but a cage with 3 solid sides and one wire side helps cut down self-trauma from biting on the sides of the wired cage.  Also, there should not be any shelves or climbing areas as they do not climb well.  Prairie dogs should have a photoperiod (amount of light in the day) of 10-12 hours.

The diet of a wild prairie dog consists of grasses, leaves, herbs, insects and carrion.  At home, please offer free feeding of timothy hay, 20-40g of hay per each kilogram of weight of your pet of timothy hay-based pellets and offer a small amount of greens and veggies.

Some diseases that prairie dogs uncommonly get but are imperative to know are the zoonotic diseases that have the potential to spreading to other animals or humans through a pet prairie dog.  These are monkey pox and Yersinia pestis (the bubonic plague).  Do not assume that these diseases are present in your prairie dog, however large lumps or lesions on the body that are discolored will be of concern for either disease.

For a routine prairie dog examination, we will use a gas anesthetic to do our examination.  We check for any intestinal parasites, topical parasites, and dental diseases such as malocclusions, tooth abscesses, or odontomas (a nodular mass in the hard palate resulting in poor breathing secondary to poor dental health).  We also like to do routine workup such as a fecal and bloodwork.  If needed, we may do additional diagnostic tests like a radiograph (x-ray) if needed.

​by Jessi O’Connell, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

General Characteristics

Pet rats are of the species Rattus norvegicus.  These nocturnal rodents are characterized by elongated bodies, short fur, small eyes and ears, and hairless tails. Pet Fancy rats come in six different varieties. These include Standard, Rex, Hairless, Satin, Dumbo, and Tailless. There are also various colors and body markings recognized by the AFRMA. From the common Pink-eyed white (albino), and standard hooded, to the beautiful Siamese, and everywhere in between. With all the different varieties it may be a shock to hear they all fall under the species Rattus norvegicus, commonly known as the Norway or Brown rat. Rats can make wonderful pets because they are highly social, intelligent, and affectionate. Due to their social and affectionate behavior they should be housed in same sex or altered sex groups. Rats should also get at least 30 minutes of supervised play time outside of their cage to interact with you! Always remember that when handling rats you must support their chest as well as their back.

Anatomically, rats have open inguinal canals, a diffuse pancreas, a divided stomach, a large cecum, and an os penis.  Rats do not have gallbladders and cannot vomit.  Albino rats have poor eyesight, and all rats depend on whiskers and scent for sensory input, sometimes weaving their heads back and forth to focus on objects.  The red brown Harderian gland is a lachrymal gland located behind the eyeball; this gland produces a lipid and red porphyrin-rich secretion.  In illness, red tears may overflow and stain the face and nose, and can also be spread or caked on wrists, ears and fur.  There is no blood in this tear film and the red crusts will fluoresce bright under ultraviolet light.  As rats age white hair coats can take on a yellowish cast.

Because rats are social and need companionship, they should be maintained in same sex or altered sex groups.

Proper Housing

The minimum cage size for a single adult rat is (24”x 24” x 14” high). An escape proof wire cage with a solid plastic or metal floor is optimal. Aquariums should only be used as nursing cages or hospital cages, because ammonia tends to build up rapidly in them. Rats should never be exposed to a wire floor, because pressure sores can form. These sores can lead to pododermatitis, which is an ulcerative condition of the feet commonly known as bumble foot. Their cages should have plenty of places to both sleep and hide. Some great options are hide boxes and hammocks. Rats are highly intelligent animals and need to have stimulation in their cages. They frequently enjoy running in wheels, and should have a safe solid floored wheel available in their cage. Toys don’t need to cost a lot of money, card board boxes and shredded paper, go over very well. Also they should always have access to wood chews in their cage. As their teeth are constantly growing and without a way to wear them down it can lead to malocclusion of the teeth.

Bedding

Pine and Cedar bedding should NEVER be used as bedding material for rats. The phenols (natural aromatic chemicals) found in these two types of wood are toxic. They have been proven to cause irritation to their respiratory tract, and can lead to respiratory disease. Safe options for bedding in rat cages include fleece fabric, recycled newspaper bedding, and aspen. The bedding should be spot cleaned daily and completely changed at least twice weekly. With time and patience rats can also be litter trained (feces) much like a cat.

Most rats will allow you to pick them up by placing the hand firmly over the back and rib cage, or by scooping them up in both hands.  The head can be restrained with the thumb and forefinger behind the jaws.  Scruffing the loose skin at the nape of the neck can help restrain and active rat, but many rats object to this.

Bedding

Pine and Cedar bedding should NEVER be used as bedding material for rats. The phenols (natural aromatic chemicals) found in these two types of wood are toxic. They have been proven to cause irritation to their respiratory tract, and can lead to respiratory disease. Safe options for bedding in rat cages include fleece fabric, recycled newspaper bedding, and aspen. The bedding should be spot cleaned daily and completely changed at least twice weekly. With time and patience rats can also be litter trained (feces) much like a cat.

Most rats will allow you to pick them up by placing the hand firmly over the back and rib cage, or by scooping them up in both hands.  The head can be restrained with the thumb and forefinger behind the jaws.  Scruffing the loose skin at the nape of the neck can help restrain and active rat, but many rats object to this.

Sexing

Gender differentiation with rats is very simple, even from early on. As males have a scrotum and an anogenital distance twice as long as a female. Males should be separated from females at five weeks of age to prevent pregnancy. Spaying and neutering are both very beneficial. Neutering can lower testosterone as well as prevent testicular tumors. And spaying prevents both pregnancy and is thought to lower the risk of developing mammary tumors, which are very common in female rats. It also allows both genders to live together in the same cage.

Diet

Rats are omnivores meaning that they eat both plants and animals. This is very important to keep in mind when feeding your pet rat. The staple of their diet should be a commercially available pelleted diet such as Oxbow, Mazuri, or Harlan Teklad. Fresh vegetables, lean meats such as chicken, and very small amounts of fruit can be added for a variety. Seed based diets should be avoided at all costs; they are both fattening and most importantly nutritionally deficient. Fresh water should be given daily and using a glass water bottle is preferred over plastic. The reason this is favored is that you can’t properly clean plastic bottles. And the glass bottles can be run through the dish washer weekly to remove any bacteria that could be growing. Keeping a close eye on your pet rat’s appetite is very important; it also can be very difficult. It is recommended that you purchase a gram scale and weigh them at least once weekly. The first sign of illness in rodents is usually weight loss.

Interesting Facts

​In general rats tend to have very poor eyesight, albino rats in particular. Because of this it is not uncommon to see them swaying their heads in an attempt to focus on an object. Rats also lack a gall bladder and the ability to vomit! Rats are nocturnal but easily adjust their sleep schedule so that they are active when you’re home.

Rats can have severe dental problems.  Difficulty eating or dropping food may be signs that your rats teeth are misaligned.  Infection or trauma can cause the incisors not to meet properly.  Since these incisors continually grow, they will become quite long.  We can help with this problem.

What You Need to Know

  • Life Expectancy is two to three years
  • Room temperature 65-80 degrees F (average 72F) with 40-70% humidity is suitable environment
  • Keep housing clean to minimize respiratory disease risk.
  • Dogs, cats, and ferrets are predators.
  • Basically nocturnal, but can be active during the day as well.
  • Monitor feces and urine output
  • Need at least 30 minutes each days for an exercise/play with owner.
  • Bite aggressively only if restrained against their will.
  • Often difficult to litter-train (fecal).
  • Feed pelleted diet, not seed diet.
  • Monthly examinations of weight, teeth, nails, and lump checks recommended.

For more information on health problems click here.

Pictured Below Are Some Examples Of Proper Housing For Rats
At Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, we do routinely spay and neuter them to ensure a more peaceful colony. Some people suggest spaying may help reduce the incidence of mammary cancer as well. Mammary cancer is a common problem with rats. If a lump appears anywhere on your rat’s body, please have us check it out. These masses can grow to amazingly large sizes quite quickly. They are usually safe and easy to remove when they are small. Feel free to ask us about these services.

For more information on health problems click here.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

​by Maggie Wood, DVM
All photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM

Respiratory infections are one of the most common health problems of rats.  They can be caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses.  Symptoms that may be seen include increased respiratory noise, sneezing, nasal discharge, faster respiratory rate, labored breathing, and red tears.  The red tears are not blood, but a pigment that rats secrete when they are stressed called porphyrin.  Some respiratory infections resolve completely with antibiotics and do not recur.  However, there are other infections that become more chronic.  These infections are often caused by Mycoplasma, which is a bacteria that is difficult to eradicate permanently.  Rats with chronic infections frequently have relapses of symptoms and need repeated treatments.  These respiratory infections are contagious, so if you have a rat that is a chronic carrier, it is better not to introduce new rats into the household.  Pictured below is a rat with a severely swollen nose.  He had a severe upper respiratory infection.
Mites are also common in rats.  Signs may include itching, flaky skin, hair loss, redness, and irritation of the skin.  Symptoms can range from very mild to severe, depending on the degree of the mite infestation.  Mites may also cause secondary skin infections, especially if the rats are itchy and scratching their skin a lot.  Pictured below is a rat with scabs and hair loss.

Mammary tumors occur frequently in female rats.  This is the equivalent of rat “breast cancer”.  Since rats have multiple sets of nipples, the tumors can be anywhere along the rat’s chest or belly and can be single or multiple.  They start out as a small lump, but if not removed, they can grow into a very large tumor quickly.  Most of the tumors are benign, which means they usually don’t spread to other organs in the body.  However some of them can be malignant.  Even though most of the tumors are benign, if the tumors are not removed while they are still small, they will continue to grow and eventually be so large that they interfere with the rat’s quality of life and would require a longer, more extensive surgery to remove.  Therefore, it is recommended to have them surgically removed while they are still small.

Rats can also have dental problems.  Their front teeth grow continually through their lifetime.  In a normal rat, the top teeth will hit the bottom teeth and therefore, their teeth are constantly ground down even though they are growing.  Some rats have crooked or misaligned teeth, usually either from a genetic defect or trauma.  In these rats, some or all of the teeth do not occlude normally and will overgrow, often in an abnormal direction. These rats will need to have their teeth frequently trimmed by a veterinarian.  The problem may be obvious, especially if the teeth protrude out of the mouth, but more subtle signs can include difficulty chewing or decreased appetite.  We treat rat dental disease routinely at Chicago Exotics.

In addition to the common rat diseases listed above, it is important to remember that rats are also susceptible to the same health problems that affect most other pets, such as heart disease and kidney disease. Therefore, it is recommended to have regular checkups and to have your rat examined promptly if you notice any problems at home.  Pictured below is an overweight rat.  Inappropriate diet and exercise will lead to this problem.

Sometimes the only hint that your rat gives you that something is wrong is an un-kept coat. This rat’s coat is yellowing with grease from follicular secretions. He is not feeling well enough to keep himself clean. Pictured below is pododermatitis. We see this syndrome associated with improper footing or caging.

​If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

Rodent Tumors Visible to Owners
Kristin Claricoates, DVM  

Mammary tumors:
Mammary gland neoplasia (cancer) is the most common neoplasm of mice and rats, but is rare in gerbils and hamsters.  Mammary tumors are typically large, firm, and usually only one tumor on the body.  It also feels detached from the rest of the body tissues and underlying body tissue.
Most mammary tumors in rats and hamsters are benign, that is to say, these tumors do not spread to other tissues in the body.  In rats, 80% are benign tumors and 20% are malignant.  In mice and gerbils they are typically (~90% of the time) malignant, metastatic, invasive tumors, or very bad, progressive tumors.   They are also much more difficult to remove completely.  Mouse mammary tumors predispose the mouse to developing uterine adenocarcinoma.

Skin tumors:
There are many types of skin tumors that can occur in rodents.  However, it is important to note that hamsters and gerbils have scent marking glands that are normal on the skin and are not tumors.  If you are concerned about seeing an unusual skin mass, please bring your animal in for us to examine and treat.
Skin and subcutaneous tumors are uncommon in hamsters.  Melanoma is the type of skin tumor that may be seen in hamsters.
The skin and subcutaneous layer in gerbils is the second most common location for tumors in gerbils.  Adenomas and adenocarcinomas are the type of skin tumor most commonly seen in gerbils.
Skin neoplasms are uncommon in mice and rats.  In mice and rats, squamous cell carcinomas are most common.

I think I see a growth on my pet.  Now what?
It is important for you to come to the veterinary hospital as soon as possible.  With some of these tumors, time is of the essence, and your pet has a much better prognosis (a forecast of the outcome of the disease) if it is handled sooner rather than waiting.
 
Treatment:
Treatment of any tumor is always to remove this tumor.  Depending on if it is malignant or benign, we may take more tissue or less tissue surrounding the tumor (the malignancy can be assessed but not diagnosed by a fine needle aspirate).  We recommend the removed mass be sent off to a laboratory and assessed to determine if it is benign or malignant.  If you choose, chemotherapy may be used to help treat patients with tumors depending on if the tumor type.

Prognosis:
The prognosis depends on the type of tumor.
If the prognosis is guarded or poor, another alternative to surgery in these pets is medically managing any pain your pet may have and electing euthanasia when the mass becomes too large or spreads.

(Sources: Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Small Mammal, Second Edition. Barbara L. Oglesbee. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2011 by
John Wiley & Sons, Inc
Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, Third Edition.
Katherine E. Quesenberry and James W. Carpenter. © 2012 Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier Inc.)

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