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Looking after guinea pigs with limited or no mobility

Wiebke

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Overview:
Introduction
I Why can guinea pigs stop moving around?
II Adapting the living space
III Weight monitoring and support feeding
IV Daily body care and health checks
V Companionship and enrichment

Conclusion


Introduction


Loss of mobility can happen out of the blue, from accident or a sudden onset illness and can be very traumatic, but it can also gradually creep up. Any bad limping where a guinea pig is unable to put weight on a leg, loss of mobility in one leg, in the back legs or total loss of mobility needs to be seen by a vet.

This guide here is looking at how quickly you need to see a vet in various scenarios and what you can do at home during recovery or as long term care.


I Why can guinea pigs stop moving around?
  • Severe illness, animal attack, severe pain or apathy:
    Please see a vet ASAP anytime as a life or death emergency if your guinea pig is fitting, struggling to get up or stay upright, is lethargic/apathetic, not eating or drinking at all; has been attacked by a dog, cat or other animal; is twisting, screaming or grunting in pain.
    See our advice in the emergency subforum link: Emergency Information and Care
    See especially this guide here: Emergency and Bridging Care until a Vet Appointment

  • Fall or injury:
    Please see a vet within 24 hours if your guinea pig struggles to move in the wake of fall or blind jump;
    ASAP if it is bleeding or has damage to the mouth/face as well or is deteriorating quickly from internal damage, or
    if your guinea pig is not able at all to put any weight at all on a leg due to a break and is in pain.
    A spinal injury can sometimes not become noticeable until up to 48 hours after a fall. A break or bad sprain is not necessarily located in a foot but further up on the leg if your guinea pig is limping. A sprain/injury is always more noticeable if the weight bearing front legs are affected.

  • Sudden back leg paralysis
    Please see a vet as soon as possible during regular opening hours. ASAP as an emergency if your guinea pig is in excruciating pain! Do not home treat on spec as there are many more causes than you think!
    - Severe arthritis
    can affect the spine or a leg and result in restricted mobility or sudden back leg paralysis.
    Metacam or in severe cases tramadol, as well as glucosamine can help if a vet check/x-ray confirms arthritis.
    - Sudden drop of calcium levels in older guinea pigs. This is generally reversible, but it may take a few weeks and mobility may not come back fully. Osteocare can help in this case.
    - Intense pain from a bladder, urethral or kidney stone or bad infection.
    - Sciatica, a blood clot in major a spinal vessel or neurological problems are rarer but do happen.

    The pain from sciatica or blood clots can be so intense that your guinea pig will twist or scream in pain, which can also cause loss of appetite and full or partial GI stasis – this is an anytime of the day/night emergency!
    - Build-up of fluid in the body can affect mobility.

  • Refusal to move in acute pining after bereavement (not eating/drinking and facing into a wall).
    This requires a prompt vet check to make sure that you are not dealing with a sudden illness brought on by a lowered immune system or a GI stasis (no happy gurgling in the guts) by the shock of the loss - the latter is a life and death emergency!
    Start syringe feeding and watering ASAP; sometimes this can help to kick-start the survival instinct again in acutely bereaved guinea pigs.
    Information on GI stasis: Bloat, GI Stasis (No Gut Movement) And Not Eating
 

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II Adapting the living space

Please bring any guinea pigs with mobility problems or illness indoors. Keep in mind that company is still in many cases essential unless dominance behaviour is turning into longer term bullying. In most cases any change in leadership will sort itself out within a few days.

Bedding and cosies
Please change any bedding in the area that your guinea pig is sitting in constantly ideally 2-3 times daily to prevent it from lying in its own waste and to minimise the occurrence of resulting complications. This also goes for any loose bedding or cosies.

If your guinea pig is facing longer term mobility issues, look for vetbed bedding in pet shops or online. You usually find it in the dog section. Vetbed is the softest bedding available. Cut it into suitably large pieces that cover the area your guinea pig is living in.


Everything within reach
Make sure that your guinea pig has everything within easy reach if it is still slightly mobile and is eating on its own – especially hay. Place it in a shallow tray or a on a piece newspaper. Hay should still make over 80% of the food intake.

Also move the water bottle close by and low enough that a guinea pig with problems to use the back and struggling to lift their head (arthritis for example) can get to it easily. If that is too much, switch to offering water by syringe several times daily.


Warmth and stable conditions
Very ill and older/arthritic guinea pigs crave warmth.
A half-heated microwaveable snugglesafe is ideal if you exchange/re-heat it 2-3 times a day as it will be warm but not hot this way.
Please be careful to not overheat a guinea pig that cannot move away from a source of heat; there is the risk of burns!

Please also make sure that you keep any guinea pig with mobility issues as comfortable during hot weather. They are in a higher at risk category re. heat strokes/overheating and falling ill when their weakened immune is overloaded.
Hot Weather Management, Heat Strokes and Fly Strike
 

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III Weight monitoring and support feeding

Weight monitoring and topping up feed
Please weigh any guinea pigs with mobility issues daily to check the hay/food intake. Weigh at the same time in the feeding cycle, i.e. first thing in the morning or before you serve any dinner. Please be aware that the more often you weigh, the more you are moving within a weight band of ca. 30-40g. A full bladder weighs around 10g and full meal can make a difference of 30-40g. That is what you have to factor in and minimise as much as possible. Weight - Monitoring and Management

If your guinea pig is still eating on its own but there is a gradual downwards trend in the weight, then you need to feed extra, whether that is recovery mush or a mix of more familiar pellets and recovery formula soaked in water; offering plain porridge oats can also help.

In the case of your guinea pig is not eating at all or eating only very little, you need to step in with full syringe feeding, depending on the weight loss. Complete Syringe Feeding Guide

Your first aim is always to stabilise the weight before you can think of building it up again if that is possible.

If longer term mobility is starting to impact on the gut, then your guinea pig may need further help. Please contact your vet and start a support thread on the forum.


Drinking
Getting to a bottle and drinking can be a problem for guinea pigs with no or very limited mobility. I find that offering water from a syringe to allow the piggy to drink from as much as it wants several times a day is often the most effective way to make sure that it gets all the water it wants.
Please do not just squirt water into the mouth; let your piggy drink the slow drizzle that comes out of your syringe and adjust the speed to how thirsty it is. Accept if it stops sooner than you would like to because it has had enough.

If you are absent for long stretches of the day, leave a piece of cucumber if your guinea pig is still eating on its own. This will provide edible fluid. A larger piece will stay cooler for longer in warm weather.
 

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IV Daily body care and health checks

Guinea pigs with no or limited mobility can no longer wash and clean themselves, especially the back end. This is a task you will have to take over.


Daily health checks
What you need to check daily:
  • Genitalia and bum end: check for urine scald and stuck poos.
    Give your piggy a gentle daily bum and belly bath or at least a gentle wipe with a soft wet rags with baby warm water and dry off gently with a soft cloth or towel.

  • Treat any bare and sore areas (urine scald and mechanical abrasure from lying). Sore skin is best left to heal just gently cleaned and dried.
    - Sudocrem (or any unscented nappy cream) should only be applied very, very thinly and not on any open sores.
    If it is used too regularly or applied too thickly, it tends to dry out the skin and causes tiny cracks that will allow germs to get into the skin. The same goes for any foot creams, too, by the way.
    - For open sores we recommend asking your vet for soothing flamazine (silver sulfadiazine) cream to prevent infection from taking hold.

  • Check and wash the underside of all paws with baby warm water; gently soak and remove any stuck poos.
    A guinea pig whose back legs are not working can no longer take the weight off its front legs. This can cause problems in the longer term, especially in older or frail guinea pigs where blood circulation is no longer optimal.

  • Check the chin and front teeth in case the teeth are getting affected by longer term soft syringe feed and eating less hay.
    Dribbling and uneven front teeth can be a symptom of developing dental overgrowth on the premolars.
    If your piggy is drinking more untidily from a bottle, it can develop a bald patch under its chin.

  • Gently brush your piggy regularly, even a short haired one, as it struggles to piggy wash itself.


Potential secondary complications
There are some follow-on complications that can affect especially frailer and older guinea pigs. It is worth keeping an eye out for them during your daily health check:
  • Urine scald: Mild urine scald generally appears as a hair loss with the affected area exposed to urine becoming increasingly sore.
    This is why regular bum baths are so important.
    IMG_5879_edited-1.jpg IMG_5878_edited-1.jpg

  • Bumblefoot: The constant weight on the front legs in combination with sitting in the same area and often a reduced blood circulation means that a frailer/older guinea pig can become more prone to pododermatitis (‘foot infection’). This starts off a sore reddish and hot point on the sole, which then scabs over and bleeds whenever the scab comes off. If not treated in time, it can penetrate into the bone.
    Guinea Lynx :: Pododermatitis

  • Fly strike: Frail indoors guinea pigs can in rare cases be targeted by a blow fly laying their eggs usually around the genital area. The eggs are first visible as slightly raised red dots and then as white ones as the flesh eating maggots develop quickly. This is a life and death emergency to remove any maggots before they can affect your guinea pig too badly and the only thing you can do is to put it to sleep. Fly Strike

  • A lowered immune system can also make a guinea pig more prone to skin parasite outbreaks or to fungal skin infections.

  • Urination and bowel movement/long term digestion can be affected by pain, paralysis and lack of movement.
    In boars with longer term paralysis/spinal damage, increasing impaction can also become an issue.
    Impaction - How To Help Your Guinea Pig.
 

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V Companionship and enrichment

Even without being able to walk, guinea pigs can still have an enormous zest and will to live. As long as they are interested in food and like to beg/sticking their head out, they have sufficient quality of life to keep them going.

There are however ways in which you can enrich their lives with social interaction and sensory experiences.

The illustrations in this chapter are from my then 7 years old Nerys, who ended up with slightly unequal back leg paralysis and near total loss of appetite due to a build up of fluid starting in the adrenal gland area and spreading down her body in 2016. It was touch and go with spoon feeding for several days but Nerys did eat enough by her own volition to keep going and eventually made a recovery although her gait remained rather wobbly. Here is a picture of her at the worst stage of the left sided fluid build-up.
DSCN3470.JPG


Companionship
Having a companion is and remains the most important enrichment you can ever give any guinea pig. It is not just the constant stimulation and interaction, but also the sheer stress relief, comfort and moral support that comes with it.
If at all possible, please do not separate a bonded pair and allow their closest group friend to come with them.
DSCN3263_edited-1.jpg
Nesta, who made a half-hearted attempt at taking over during Nerys' illness eating breakfast with her still wobbly and stiff-legged athritic friend during recovery. Her steadfast companionship during the darkest days was a major factor in Nerys' will to survive.

You have to brace for some inevitable dominance behaviour if the leader is the one affected. The hierarchy will have to change. In most cases dominance behaviour looks much rougher than it actually is and submission screaming from the under-pig is NOT from actual pain, but it is a very effective “Don’t be mean to me; I am not contesting your claim for superiority!”
This stage should be over in a few days and it is generally on the milder side in a well bonded pair and the new leader will soon start looking out for their companion.

Only separate if the dominance is going past the nipping and snatching the best bits and nicest cosy part well into actual bullying from a dysfunctional bond or if it continues on a high level well beyond a reasonable time span.


Enrichment ideas
Your guinea pig may not be able to move around as much, but there are still ways to keep it stimulated and interested in life!

  • Tickle the taste buds with fresh or dried herbs, grass or forage from the garden or from window sill boxes. Make sure that you do not feed anything a dog or fox could have peed on (toxic).
    Speciality hays are also healthy way of getting your piggy interested in new stuff!
    DSCN3372_edited-1.jpg DSCN3379.JPG
    Grass was the first thing Nerys started eating again - Special treat: a dandelion (all parts are edible, but it is comparatively high in calcium)!

  • Open your window on a good day and let in some fresh air! We tend to forget that the guinea pig sense of smell is so much stronger than ours and how much information comes in on the wind for them.

  • On balmy days, being able to soak up some fresh outdoors air and some gentle sunshine for half an hour is something to treasure.
    Be prepared to move your piggy out of the direct sun if it starts squirming or turning its head or place it so the eyes/head are out of the direct sun.

  • A supervised trip to the sun-warmed, dry lawn that is still comfortable for your bare feet after 5 minutes will also give your piggy a lot of pleasure.
    Please do not leave it too long in one place as grass does not absorb pees and your piggy will get a very soggy bum.
    Do not take it outside unless temperatures are right and the ground is warm but neither hot nor cold. Keep in mind that your guinea pig is more vulnerable than healthy guinea pigs!
    Check for fly strike when bringing it back in.
    DSCN3508_edited-1.jpg
    Nerys is celebrating her 7th Adoption Day with a special trip to the lawn!

  • Find out whether your piggy loves to still snuggle up in the hay tray for a nap. This is especially welcome during a cage clean or tidy up!

  • Test different fleeces or cosies and see whether your piggy has a favourite.
    DSCN3572_edited-1.jpg
    A change of scenery next to the hay corner

  • If your piggy is alone, see whether it likes a toddler-safe stuffed guinea pig sized soft toy to snuggle up with. If you can, rub it over the companion or other piggies.

  • A soft rag with the scent of other guinea pigs or even some soiled bedding (their own or from other guinea pigs) to sniff at is some important sensory stimulation. Guinea pig pheromones are an important medium of communication. For your guinea pig it is like reading a newspaper or a letter from the other side of the world!

  • In the case of a separation, keeping the companions next to each other and allowing them to communicate, see and touch noses with each other is vital. Create a vantage point from where your immobile piggy can get – quite literally – in touch with their mate or allow daily free-roaming time in a divided run that allows full-body view and interaction through the bars.

  • You can also move any single boar next to sows or boars (he will love that!), but you cannot move any sow next to any bonded boar pairs because of the upset that sow pheromones can cause between bonded boars. Single piggies of either gender can be moved next to mixed gender pairs or groups.
    Please always make sure that a determined mobile boar cannot wiggle through or climb/jump over any grids when a sow is in season!
    DSCN3728-1.JPG
    Gradually expanding the area and facilities that Nerys can move in and do (like using the water bottle again) as she very slowly regains use of her back legs with the swelling from the fluid build up subsiding.

  • Wheels: Despite some showy videos and pictures making the rounds online, improvised wheels can further damage the spine/body and should only be considered after consultation with and the support of your treating vet and ideally with the input of a person with orthopaedic knowledge to take care of any long term strain on muscles, bones and nerves in order to not aggravate any problem.

Allowing your piggy as much as possible to do things and visit places it used to enjoy when still mobile can go a long way to keeping it happy, even if it is only for a short while.

Enrichment is important to keep your guinea pig’s interest in life and will to live going and to keep it happy for as long as possible and to add quality to its life in as many varied ways as possible.
 

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Conclusion

I hope that these tips will help both you and your guinea pig to still have as much quality of life during recovery or while needing permanent care.

As long as a guinea pig with mobility issues is begging for food, it has enough quality and zest for life to keep going and be kept going.
 
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