Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness
Similar to humans, guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C so they must obtain it from their diet. Vitamin C deficiency causes a breakdown of connective tissues in the body causing abnormalities such as lameness due to painful swollen joints, skin sores and dental disease.
As vitamin C is present in small amounts in most foods, this is a disease that tends to occur very slowly over time. You may not notice a problem right away, depending on your guinea pig’s diet, health status and age. A good quality pelleted diet and roughage source fed as hay should be fed along with fresh, leafy greens. Good quality hay should constitute the majority of their diet, their digestive systems always need grass and hay to function properly. Some complete pelleted diets have added vitamin C, but often not enough. Additionally, food stored in warm conditions or left open in direct sunlight can cause the breakdown of vitamins. The vitamins in complete food pellets naturally break down over time, so older bags contain less vitamin C than newer bags. Offering vitamin C in the water can mean that vitamins break down quickly when exposed to natural light. Also adding vitamins in water can encourage bacterial growth, which can be detrimental to your guinea pig. If you are adding supplements to water make sure that this is added to fresh water in clean containers changed daily.
Signs of Vitamin C deficiency include swollen joints, reluctance to move and evidence of joint discomfort, pain and lameness. If signs of a deficiency are noted they can be treated with a vitamin C supplementation, however some of these symptoms may persist for the rest of the guinea pig’s life. Dental disease is a lifelong and potentially fatal problem, which requires regular dental treatment. Joint disease is painful, but can be controlled long term with pain management medication.
A variety of fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens can be offered daily. Leafy greens should make up the bulk of the vegetable supplementation while fruits and other root vegetables can be offered in smaller quantities. Good healthy greens choices include kale, spinach, turnip greens, parsley, romaine lettuce and dandelion greens. Avoid fruit and vegetables such as potatoes, iceberg lettuce, rhubarb, tomatoes and citrus fruits. Also avoid too much cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, as they can lead to excess gas production in the digestive tract. Carrots and carrot tops can be fed as an occasional treat only as they are high in sugar. Also, only if you have a guaranteed pesticide-free source, natural grass, dandelions, clover and chickweed can be offered, especially the new growth which is tender and the most nutritious. Avoid feeding grass lawn clippings as these can led to digestive upset. Any greens, vegetables or fruits should be introduced gradually or a digestive upset may result.
Some guinea pigs may develop a vitamin C deficiency even when they get enough vitamin C in their diets. This can happen if they have other concurrent illnesses for example dental disease that prevents them from eating enough or preventing their bodies from absorbing vitamin C properly. Treatment includes supplementing their vitamin C daily, either by mouth or by injection. To prevent vitamin C deficiency over time, guinea pig food should contain at least 10 milligrams of vitamin C daily. Be aware though that over-supplementation with Vitamin C can actually cause other disease problems e.g. bladder stones, so careful supplementation and guidance from your vet on supplement amounts is always advised.
If you need some advice on your pet Guinea Pig's diet or are concerned, please contact your vet for an appointment.