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Guinea pigs make wonderful pets, with their naturally passive natures and entertaining antics, but they often mask signs of serious illness. In the wild, hiding signs of weakness is a defensive behavior used by those animals who have no other defenses. Appearing sick in the wild is an invitation for early death, so guinea pigs have mastered the art of hiding their illnesses. Responsible owners need to be aware of this, so they can notice subtle signs of potential trouble in their pet guinea pigs. The best time to perform this inspection is during routine grooming. Long-haired guinea pigs require daily grooming for ideal maintenance, but even the short haired varieties need some grooming. Once you have your piggie secured in your lap and have the brush ready, here's what you need to inspect.

1. General appearances: Does your pig seem genuinely happy to see you, or does he appear lethargic or distracted? Guinea pigs generally greet owners with enthusiasm and squeals. A lethargic pig is either bored or sick. If you feel comfortable eliminating boredom as a possible cause for his lethargy, then you should consider the possibility of illness. Also, consider your pet's weight. Anorexia and other eating disorders are not uncommon in guinea pigs, so assess your pet's general weight every time you prepare to groom him. Consult a veterinarian if you notice a great variance in your pet's weight.

2. Eyes: While brushing your guinea pig, take a good look at his eyes. They should be shiny and moist, with little or no accumulation of fluid around the lower lid. Any fluid you find should be clear, not cloudy. Excessive discharge of any kind may indicate a serious cold or pneumonia, or an allergic reaction to bedding or household dust.

3. Nostrils: Also inspect your pet's nasal area for any discharge or dried mucus. Guinea pigs are especially susceptible to colds and pneumonia, so nasal discharges are a good sign of potential illness.

4. Teeth: Checking a guinea pig's teeth is not easy, but it can be done. You may have to get more forceful with your pet than usual, but separate your guinea pig's lips and take a look at the front teeth. Are they intact? Broken teeth can affect eating, which may lead to anorexia. A guinea pig's teeth never stop growing, so a chew block is essential. Listen for any clicking or grinding sounds, which may indicate overgrowth of the back teeth.

5. Ears: Check a guinea pig's ears for any excessive wax buildup, which can be gently removed with cotton swabs. Otherwise, a guinea pig's ears are usually trouble-free. If you have more than one pig, check for any injury that may occur through infighting. Males are notoriously territorial, so some scuffles may leave injuries.

6. Abdomen: Check for signs of urine scalding, which occurs when a sick pig spends too much time lying in urine-soaked bedding. It is the guinea equivalent of diaper rash, and should be treated at the vet's office. Another serious condition that should be apparent at grooming time is known as a 'mega-colon'. Occasionally, older guinea pigs lose tone in their sphincter muscles, causing them to become constipated easily. Untreated, this condition can be life-threatening. If you notice a swelling around the anal opening or excessive feces that are large and unformed, your pig may have developed this condition. Consult a vet as soon as possible.

7. Nails: Guinea pigs' nails grow extremely fast, and can get unmanageable sooner than you think. If you are comfortable with the procedure, go ahead and clip your pig's toenails regularly. If you are not comfortable with the idea, find a reputable vet who will perform the service. Grooming time is the best time to inspect your pet's toes to determine what action to take.