Diarrhea in Guinea Pigs
Diarrhea in guinea pigs may be defined as an increase in the water content of fecal pellets with or without an increase in the frequency or volume of the bowel movements. Contrary to diarrhea in many other species, any changes in the normal appearance of a guinea pig's fecal pellets are a concern and should be addressed with some urgency. Diarrhea should not be confused with the normal, soft cecotropes (night feces) that are produced and ingested by the guinea pig primarily at night.
- Drugs (especially antibiotics)
- Inadequate amounts of roughage in the diet in the form of grass or timothy hay
- Infectious agents (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic)
- Dietary indiscretion (eating inappropriate food or material)
- Metabolic diseases
- Intestinal parasites
Diarrhea can cause dehydration and electrolyte disturbances. It can also alter the normal fecal and intestinal pH (acidity or alkalinity) leading to disruption of normal bacterial flora that leads to abnormal bacterial growth and subsequent septicemia.
What to Watch For
- Watery, soft, mucous and misshapen fecal pellets
- Change in fecal color
- Sudden loss of appetite – anything over 24 hours is potentially an emergency.
- Lethargy – excessive sleepiness or decrease in activity
- Swelling of the abdomen (stomach area)
- Abdominal discomfort – chinchillas often act as though they can't get comfortable by frequently changing body positions from lying outstretched and switching from side to side, to sitting hunched and breathing rapidly.
Veterinary care is aimed towards determining the cause of the diarrhea so that proper treatment recommendations may be offered. Some cases of diarrhea are short lived, but unless the cause of the diarrhea is elucidated, serious consequences may occur.
Diagnostic testing includes a very thorough history and physical examination by a veterinarian experienced with chinchillas. Additional tests may include:
- Examination of the feces (flotation, direct smear and gram staining)
- A complete blood count (CBC) and serum chemistry panel
- Radiographs (X-rays)
- Abdominal Ultrasound
Treatment is based on the cause of the diarrhea and may include:
- Dietary modification
- Fluid therapy
- Motility drugs that change the rate the ingesta (ingested food) is passed through the intestinal tract
Home Care and Prevention
Administer only medication prescribed by a qualified veterinarian and provide fresh water at all times.
Do not change the diet unless prescribed by a qualified veterinarian and encourage your pet to eat frequently. Closely monitor fecal output to ensure adequate food consumption. Observe your chinchilla's activity and appetite, and notify your veterinarian immediately if improvement is not noticed in a couple days or if symptoms worsen.
Always keep the diet consistent by offering a free choice of timothy or grass hay (fresh and free of molds) and a limited quantity of fresh, high quality chinchilla food (no seeds or nuts). Avoid abrupt changes of brands or pellets. Make all changes or additions of foods very gradual. Keeping your pet on a consistent and regular diet is imperative. Avoid feeding only pellets.
Have all new pets checked by a veterinarian, and then annually or biannually thereafter, and maintain a stress free environment.
There are many causes of diarrhea in guinea pigs. Diarrhea may be caused by diseases directly affecting the gastrointestinal tract, or by metabolic disturbances in other organs such as the liver or kidney. Be prepared to provide in-depth information to your veterinarian including diet and contact with other animals and environment. Some causes of diarrhea include:
- Inadequate amounts of roughage in the diet in the form of grass or timothy hay. The lack of roughage can alter the normal movement of the intestines, causing diarrhea, or predispose your pet to other causes of diarrhea.
- Many antibiotics that are commonly used in other species can cause a fatal gastroenteritis in guinea pigs. Be sure your veterinarian is experienced in treating guinea pigs.
- If diarrhea ever begins with the administration of any drug, the drug should be discontinued immediately and your veterinarian notified.
- Stress. Factors such as new predatory pets in the house, changes in the environment or diet, heat and humidity, crowding, breeding, poor hygiene, inadequate roughage and lack of visual security (places to hide) may alter the normal pH or motility of the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea.
- Infectious agents. Overgrowth of bacteria, such as E. coli, Pseudomonas, Salmonella species and some Clostridium species, may cause diarrhea.
- Parasites. Many species of protozoa cause illness and diarrhea in guinea pigs. Other gastrointestinal parasites rarely cause symptoms in guinea pigs.
- Toxins. Heavy metal toxicity, plant toxins, fungal toxins and bacterial toxins from contaminated food may cause diarrhea by directly affecting the gastrointestinal tract or by affecting other organ systems.
- Dietary indiscretion or eating inappropriate food or material irritates the lining of the intestines or contains toxins that may cause diarrhea.
- Metabolic diseases. Kidney, liver and pancreatic disease may all cause diarrhea.
Veterinary care is aimed towards determining the cause of the diarrhea so appropriate treatment can be initiated. Many cases of diarrhea are short lived, but unless the cause of the diarrhea is elucidated, serious consequences may occur. Diagnostic testing includes a thorough history and physical examination by a veterinarian experienced in guinea pig care, who will recommend specific tests depending on the severity of the diarrhea and the condition your pet.
The veterinarian may recommend any combination of the following tests:
- Examination of the pet's feces by flotation, direct smear and grams staining. The fecal floatation and direct smear may identify parasitic or bacterial causes of diarrhea. The gram stain will determine if your pet has abnormal types of bacteria living in the intestinal tract.
- Fecal culture and sensitivity. This test is performed if abnormal bacteria are seen on the gram stain. Cultures identify the bacteria that may be causing the diarrhea, and the sensitivity identifies the antibiotics that will destroy the "bad" bacteria.
- A complete blood count (CBC). The number of circulating red and white blood cells may help differentiate between infectious and non-infectious causes of diarrhea. This also helps to determine how much of the guinea pig's system is affected by the infectious agent. The number of red blood cells may be low if the guinea pig is losing blood through its gastrointestinal tract, or if other concurrent diseases are present.
- Serum chemistry panel. This detects electrolyte abnormalities and gives evidence of other systemic involvement such as malfunctioning kidneys or liver.
- Radiographs (X-rays). This gives an overall two-dimensional look at the pet's internal organs. Abnormal gas patterns of the intestines, tumors, and size and shape of the liver and kidneys may be noted.
- Barium studies or contrast studies. The guinea pig swallows a special dye, and then serial x-rays are taken over a period of time. This study looks for tumors or foreign bodies, and can identify ulcerations or thickening of the intestinal tract. This study also helps determine if ingested material is passing through the intestinal tract at the appropriate rate.
- Abdominal ultrasound. This allows visualization of the abdominal organs for evidence of masses, abnormal organ densities, intestinal wall thickening and foreign bodies. If any masses are found, a small needle is safely guided with the aide of the ultrasound probe into the mass, and a sample is obtained for evaluation under the microscope. A specialist usually performs this test.
Diarrhea is a symptom that can be caused by many different diseases or problems. The diagnostic tests described above should elucidate the cause of diarrhea so that proper therapy can be instituted. Pending the results of the diagnostic test, the therapy is directed toward preventing further consequences such as dehydration, loss of appetite and spread of disease to other parts of the body.
- Dietary modification. This may be necessary if the diarrhea is the result of inadequate amounts of fiber. The ration of pellets is reduced and the amount of timothy or grass hay is gradually increased. Unlike the treatment of some diarrhea in cats or dogs, withholding food from a guinea pig for a period of 12 or 24 hours should NOT be instituted
- Fluid therapy. Many pets that have diarrhea become dehydrated and require fluid therapy. The route the fluid is given, under the skin, through the vein or orally, is dependent on the severity of the diarrhea and the health status of your pet. Fluid therapy is an important part of supportive therapy that is used until a definitive diagnosis is found.
- Motility drugs that change the rate the ingested food are passed through the intestinal tract are not usually used unless the diarrhea is caused by a hairball. Make sure your veterinarian is familiar with treating guinea pigs.
- Antibiotics aimed at the infectious cause of diarrhea are based on the results of the grams stain and/or culture and susceptibility. Many antibiotics that are commonly used in other species can cause a fatal gastroenteritis in guinea pigs. Your guinea pig should not be PLACEd on any antibiotic that begins with the letters P, L, A, C or E. There may be exceptions to this rule. For instance chloramphenicol and enrofloxacin can be used safely. Penicillins, lincomycin (and other antibiotics that end with "mycin"), amoxicillin, cephalosporins and erythromycin should not be used. Be sure your veterinarian is experienced in treating guinea pigs.
- Deworming is performed is there is positive identification of diarrhea-causing parasites.
- Forced feeding. It is imperative for your guinea pig to continue eating during his time of convalescence. Syringe feeding of ground pellets or formulated critical care foods for herbivores may be necessary until your pet begins eating on his own.
- Administration of a commercial product containing Lactobacillus bacteria is often an adjunct to the therapy for diarrhea. These "good" bacteria may help provide a better environment in the intestinal tract for normal bacteria to thrive.
Optimal treatment for your pet requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical, especially if your pet does not improve rapidly.
- Administer all prescribed medication as directed. Alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your pet.
- Notify your veterinarian immediately if the diarrhea worsens or if new symptoms arise. New symptoms such as lethargy, decreased appetite, and hiding may be an indication that the pet is worsening.
- Keep the home environment as stress free as possible for optimum healing.