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Guinea pigs, those small exotic pets from South America, make wonderful additions to the family with their gentle dispositions and willingness to be held by even the smallest child. Guinea pigs are vegetarians by nature, and usually have no instinct to bite the hand that feeds them. As long as the parsley and apple supply holds out, a guinea pig is perfectly content to watch the world through the bars of his cage with little complaint.

But it's precisely this placid external behavior that can make it exceedingly difficult to recognize the first signs of a major illness. Guinea pigs have few defenses in nature, except for the ability to run fast and recognize danger from a predator early. In the wild, showing signs of illness would be an invitation to an early death, since the guinea pig's natural enemies will select the slowest or most attainable prey first. Therefore, guinea pigs have mastered the art of masking their illnesses. A responsible owner needs to understand this natural defense mechanism, and learn how to recognize the non-verbal cues your pet may be sending that would indicate a serious illness or condition.

1. Guinea pigs are prone to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, so check the area around their cage for drafts and cold spots. Wet bedding combined with cold air can trigger respiratory distress very easily, so try to eliminate both. If your guinea pig seems listless and hasn't been drinking nearly as much water as usual, check out his nostrils for any visible discharge. His eyes may be excessively watery, or they may appear dull and dry. Any discharge from the nose is cause for concern, especially if you notice a cold draft in the cage area or the bedding has not been changed often enough. Pneumonia is a major killer of guinea pigs, so it would not be a waste of time to consult a veterinarian as soon as you notice any discharge.

2. Digestive problems with a guinea pig are treatable, if not always recognizable. Most owners notice that guinea pigs can be regular 'poop factories', for lack of a better term. Guinea pigs are never far from urinating or defecating, so any drastic change in this behavior should be taken seriously. A combination of less frequent urination and lower fluid intake is a strong sign of dehydration, which is another condition especially common in guinea pigs. If you haven't already, purchase a water bottle with marked gradations on the side. Monitor the daily water intake of your pet, and note any major deviations from the average. Again, your guinea pig will put up a brave front even if he is dehydrated, so be objective. Stool production is another area of concern. Guinea pigs usually produce small, well-formed 'pellets' of feces, with little smell. The darker feces are actually a source of vitamins for the pig, so they will consume a few of these while you have the pleasure of watching. This is acceptable pig behavior. But the sudden appearance of large, misshapen piles of feces, or the drastic reduction in the number of normal droppings is an indication of serious digestive problems.

Guinea pigs sometimes develop what vets will call a 'mega-colon', an overly enlarged intestinal track that will overwhelm the ability of the anal sphincter to control feces production. The sphincter will lose
muscle tone, which will cause a buildup of fecal matter in the large intestine. In time, the pressure of the buildup may cause the walls of the intestine to burst, creating a nearly-always fatal case of peritonitis to form. Veterinarians will put your pig on a program of digestive medications and laxatives, and you will be shown how to stimulate the anal opening to encourage defecation. And they looked so cute in the pet store.

3. Guinea pigs can have their bad days emotionally, just like their owners, but this is not the same as being truly 'ill'. Guinea pigs crave interaction with the outside world, when they're not too busy sleeping. Occasionally, a pig will become depressed, or disinterested in the everyday goings on of his human charges. This is a normal cycle of emotions in a guinea pig. But if a guinea pig seems excessively disconnected from the things that normally excite him, such as feeding time or the touch of a familiar hand, then you may have a sick pig. Lethargy and disinterest are defense mechanisms used by guinea pigs in the wild to throw the enemy's attention somewhere else. As a trusted friend and bringer of food, you shouldn't be in the same company as a coyote or hyena. Listlessness in a guinea pig is not a good sign anytime.

4. Finally, make sure you take your sick friend to the proper veterinarian for treatment. Guinea pigs are considered 'exotics' by vet standards, so seek out veterinarians who are specially trained to work with small animals and exotics. This information should be readily available if they advertise their services in the Yellow Pages or in the newspaper, but if you don't know if your vet has the proper experience and training, by all means ask. This is not an insulting question for a vet. After all, not all heart surgeons will do plastic surgery- it's simply not their specialty. Many veterinarians who treat birds also cross-train in exotic pet care, so if you're looking for a new veterinarian for a guinea pig, check the bird clinics first for exotic-certified veterinarians.