For about ten years, I had the privilege of living with guinea pigs. Their average life expectancy is about five to seven years. Guinea pigs aged five and up are considered seniors; older than seven is rare. All three of my guinea pigs, also called cavies, made it to at least age five.
As cavies age, much can be done to help them feel more comfortable and to have extended lives. The trick is to be aware of how our cavies looks and acts normally, so that we’ll immediately notice anything out of the ordinary. Because an older cavy won’t bounce back from illnesses as quickly as a young one, it’s important to catch problems as early as possible.
The number one recommended piece of advice among owners of senior cavies is to choose a vet that specializes in small exotic pets; and, if possible, to find one that has 24-hour emergency care. Beyond that, follow the recommendations of guinea pig experts for keeping cavies happy and healthy, and learn what red flags could signal potential health issues.
WAYS TO HELP
Some of the ways to help a senior cavy applies to cavies of any age, but with a few tweaks. For example, guinea pig owners stress the importance of daily care. Many contend that cavies who receive quality pellets, unlimited hay, fresh vegetables, a regular change of water, and live in a large cozy home will have a good chance of living a long life. But why stop there? Further enhance the lives of cavies by paying attention to the below tips.
If you discover that your cavy is not eating as much at meals, you should break meals into smaller and more frequent ones. Also, make sure the food remains fresh, even if this means you end up throwing away uneaten pellets and vegetables.
Consider adding a Vitamin C supplement to your cavy’s food. Yes, her food (especially her pellets) should already stocked with Vitamin C. However, if she isn’t eating as much as she used to, she may not be getting enough Vitamin C; it’s an essential nutrient, and it helps them fight off illness.
Attention to water consumption is important. Fresh water encourages cavies to drink more often, which in turn helps keep them hydrated. It also helps deliver essential nutrients to the cells in your cavy’s body and helps eliminate waste.
EATING & DRINKING
If your cavy’s home has levels, be sure to put food and water on the lowest one; don’t make your seniors work hard to reach these basics needs. This never occurred to me when I had guinea pigs, but fortunately it was never an issue because their cage only had one level.
Avoid baths, as they can cause your elderly cavy stress. Instead, massage him regularly with a damp cloth or pet wipes. Not only does grooming your cavy help keep him looking his best, but it’s also a great opportunity to check for problems. Take note of thinning hair, lumps or spots, or urine stains. In addition, check his nose for wetness, lips for sores, and feet for bald patches. And be sure your cavy is dry before you return him to his cage.
Should you decide to give an actual bath, don’t use people shampoos, which are too harsh for pet coats. Instead use a good quality cleansing/conditioning pet shampoo. Be sure to blow dry well ON THE LOWEST TEMPERATURE SETTING before returning your cavy to his cage, then cover the cage with towels for a time to prevent chills.
Cavies can suffer from dry skin. Foremost, I’d suggest that you check with a vet. It can be difficult to tell the difference between dry skin, fungus, and parasites. Once you’ve established that the problem is dry skin, Canadian Cavy suggests you might try one of these remedies:
- A dab of Selsun Blue Moisturizing Shampo, Marvellous Melts, or Nexxus Humectress rubbed into the coat.
- Mix about 1/2 a teaspoon of melted coconut oil into a pet shampoo and apply to skin. Just note that the more of this mix you use, use the oilier your pig will be and the more washings will be needed to remove it.
SEEING THE ENVIRONMENT
Just like people and other pets, cavies can have failing eyesight. If this happens to your beloved cavy, keep the cage layout consistent following each cleaning. This will allow them to get used to their set up and make their cage easy to navigate with failing eye sight. Guinea pig owners also recommended using solid-colored items so it’ll be easier for cavies to distinguish objects. Last, ensure to make your presence known before entering their room or reaching into their cage, so that you won’t startle your cavy who can no longer easily see you.
As your senior cavy gets less flexible with age, you’ll need to reconsider the cage setup. For starters, you might transform a two-level cage to a one-level cage so that your cavy no longer needs to or is even tempted to climb a ramp. The will reduce the aggravation of arthritis.
On a similar note, remove any areas where cavies might need to jump to reach snacks or toys. In addition, extra padding in the cage will ease the pain of sore joints and tired legs. Softer floors will also help prevent foot calluses.
You should also keep nails trimmed to avoid undue stress on the feet. Use pet nail clippers, and avoid cutting too close to the foot.
Finally, a cavy who doesn’t move much will probably go to the bathroom more than once in the same place. You therefore may need to change bedding more often.
Senior cavies may eat less and become thinner and more susceptible to chills. A warm environment will keep their bodies at a more comfortable temperature. You might also provide cozy areas and bedding for them to snuggle.
Last, but not least, keep in mind that cavies are social creatures. If your cavy loses a companion, she may feel loss or mourn in a variety of ways. Changes such as a change in eating habits, withdrawal, silence, or even biting can all be signs of loneliness.
If you don’t have the option of providing a second cavy, as was the case with my third guinea pig, try a stuffed toy buddy that they can move around and snuggle. Make the toy available to them at all times. One guinea pig owner suggested that if there has been a loss of a friend, stick to toys that are roughly the same size as their former companion.
CHANGES TO MONITOR
It should be clear by now that as cavies get older, they’ll more than likely develop age-related health problems. Besides finding an exotic vet that specializes in vet care, the advice most often given by owners of senior guinea pigs is to monitor the weight of cavies on a weekly basis.
Changes in your cavy’s appetite is an important sign that he may not feel well. If you notice that your cavy is suddenly eating less, you have a sick cavy and need to see a vet. Should you have more than one guinea pig, you might separate them as I did during meal times to make it easier to see who’s eating what. A cavy who doesn’t eat can die in a matter of hours.
It’s normal for older guinea pigs to become pickier about food and gradually lose weight. But there could be other reasons for the decreased appetite, so don’t just assume that your senior cavy’s weight loss is normal. When I noticed that I could feel my first guinea pig’s ribs and hipbones, I assumed this was due to old age. It was only recently that I learned that she may have lost her appetite due to pain, and so maybe medication would have helped. That’s something I’ll never know.
If your cavy seems to suddenly be drinking much more or much less than usual, check your water bottle first. Bottles can develop leaks after a while, which can make it seem like your cavy has started drinking excessively. On the flip side, the nozzle could become blocked, depriving your pig of water; if your pig seems to be tugging on its water bottle more and yet the water level isn’t dropping like you’d expect, check the nozzle. If you for any reason suspect a problem with the bottle, replace it. If the bottle checks out fine but the water consumption remains abnormal, take your cavy to a vet.
Dental issues can impact a cavy’s ability to eat and so it’s very important to monitor the condition of your pet’s teeth. For example, did you know that the teeth of cavies will grow throughout their lifetime and are ground down only through a proper diet? If for some reason the teeth fail to grind down properly, eating can become painful and a vet should be consulted.
The front teeth of senior cavies should be routinely examined to make sure they keep straight and even. Sometimes the teeth become brittle and break off. While broken teeth usually grow back within a week or so, they may need trimming to avoid growing back uneven or jagged. Also, with nothing to work against, the tooth opposite the broken one might overgrow and also need to be trimmed. Guinea pigs owners say cavies should be able to eat pellets just fine with a broken tooth, but recommend chopping into bite-size pieces to help.
If your cavy is having trouble chewing but the front teeth look fine, a molar may instead be the culprit. In this case, you’ll need the help of a vet with an otoscope to check the molars and determine if any are misaligned, overgrown, or broken. Cavy cheek pads can make getting at molars difficult and so a cavy might need to be anesthetized for a short time to safely trim or file the molars. Such a procedure should be done by a professional.
As with dry skin, you shouldn’t simply assume eye problems are due to old age. If one or both of your cavy’s eyes appear sunken, start to bulge, change color, or have discharge, you should see a vet. Quick eye treatment is needed to clear up the condition or prevent further damage to the eye. Multiple times my guinea pigs would get hay in their eyes and irritation would occur that required medical intervention.
Sometimes older cavies will need their eyes lubricated, but not medicated, to avoid drying out. A sterile eye lubricant available at most pharmacies can be used, but I’d recommend first seeking the opinion of your vet.
Finally, some cavies do simply lose eye sight as they age, so take notice as to whether they are bumping into things, startling more easily, or seem nervous after their cage has been changed around. If so, they may be developing cataracts. These aren’t usually painful, which is good because there’s often little that can be done about the condition. Fortunately, cavies do adapt to the decreasing eyesight.
My first guinea pig lived almost nine years and became much less mobile in the last few. I had no idea that one could offer anti-inflammatory and pain medication to cavies. If you’re the proud owners of a senior cavy, you might check with a vet about Metacam. One owner online wrote that before using this medication, his cavy was uncomfortable, sitting hunched and eating little. After being put on Metacam, his cavy developed a renewed zest for life.
If footpads of your cavy show signs of irritation or sores, something not uncommon in seniors, antibiotic ointment applied twice daily will help clear up minor problems. If the condition doesn’t clear up or gets worse, see your vet for advice. Foot sores can develop into a chronic condition called Bumblefoot.
OTHER PHYSICAL ISSUES
I only owned female cavies. My first developed an ovarian cyst. This is a reproductive problem that can develop in sows as they age. Hair loss, caused by hormonal changes, was the first sign. That for me was actually more of a frightening experience than the follow-up at the vet. An ultrasound was taken. The cyst was monitored. Nothing ever came of it, but if her cyst had continued to grow and then had burst, Fruity could have bleed internally and died.
According to Canadian Cavy, as boars age, there are a few things one needs to know. First, there is a grease gland located about 1 inch above the male cavy anus. Some boars have active grease glands that can be a challenge to clean. If a build-up of grease is left untreated, it can cause irritation, sores, and infections. The easiest way to clean a grease gland area is to rub a little coconut oil on the area until the grease comes completely loose.
Another thing that owners of male guinea pigs have to deal with when it comes to aging is impaction in the anal sack. This means the muscles of the cavies have weakened, which Guinea Lynx advises means “they are no longer able to expel the soft caecal pellets that accumulate in the perineal sack causing a backup of poop in the sack”. First, ick. Second, this causes two issues: one is obviously that of blockage, but another is that your cavy will no longer receive the nutrients he needs from eating these pellets. (Here’s where all non guinea-pig owners cringe and think: GROSS!) The treatment involves pushing down on the bottom side of the anus and easing the impacted mass out. You might also have to supplement his diet with vitamin B-complex.
For about ten years, I had the privilege of living with guinea pigs. All three of my guinea pigs started out as bundles of energy. They would scamper, dart, hide, rumble strut, popcorn, and explore. As they grew older, all three of them also mellowed out and became more relaxed. Instead of constantly roaming about, they become more content to snuggle with each other or with me.
It was a bittersweet experience. I enjoyed interacting with my cavies, filming them, and writing about their adventures. I also appreciated having them feel content enough to watch TV with me and even fall asleep on me. Yet with the latter came the signs of age. The good news, of course, is that we can all be there for our cavies in their senior years and help extend their life through proper care.
Just because cavies age doesn’t mean it’s time to let them go. But we need to educate themselves about how to help our cavies adjust to this new stage of life and make it the most comfortable for them that we can. Cavies have been there for us all these years; when they become seniors, it’s our turn to be there for them. With awareness and concern, many of their ailments can be treated or controlled. We need to give them our best and cherish each remaining day we have–as all proud guinea pig owners should!