By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Guinea pigs are cuddly, full of personality, and live on average 7-9 years. Unlike many other pets, such as dogs, cats, or rabbits, guinea pigs typically need minimal grooming and are fairly simple to care for. For these reasons, guinea pigs make terrific pets for families with elementary age or older children, and for individuals who live alone. They are easy to care for pets that make wonderful companions for many years.
Grooming guinea pigs includes nail trimming, coat brushing, and occasional bathing. Most guinea pig owners find that with a little training, they can learn to groom their pets at home. How often are these grooming activities required, and what should guinea pig owners know to make grooming easier? Here are some basic tips for owners about grooming guinea pigs.
All guinea pigs need to have their nails trimmed periodically, typically every month to two months. The frequency of trimming depends on the guinea pig’s age, diet, cage substrate, and activity level. Younger guinea pigs’ nails typically grow faster than older ones’, and those that are fed nutritionally balanced diets generally grow faster as well.
More active guinea pigs typically wear down their nails more quickly than sedentary pets, especially if they walk on hard surfaces rather than spending all their time sitting on soft bedding.
Guinea pigs’ nails may be trimmed using nail trimmers meant for cats — either scissor-style clippers or guillotine-style ones. If two people are available for the task, one person can gently hold the animal close to his/her body, supporting it with a hand under its chest and abdomen so that its legs aren’t dangling, while the other person does the clipping. If only one person is available to both restrain and clip, the guinea pig can be gently burrito-wrapped in a towel and held “football-style” under one arm, leaving both of the owner’s hands free for clipping.
One nail should be clipped at a time, being careful not to come too close to the blood supply, or “quick”, which is typically visible as a red line at the base of the nail. The clippers should be positioned just below that red line so as not to cause bleeding. If the quick is accidentally cut and the nail bleeds, styptic powder or a styptic pencil, both available at pet stores, can be applied to the tip of the bleeding nail to make the bleeding stop. If the bleeding does not stop, gentle pressure on the cut nail with a paper towel for several minutes should eventually stop the bleeding.
Some guinea pigs initially may only tolerate a few nails clipped at a time. If your guinea pig gets fussy or stressed during a nail trim, it’s best to stop and try again later. Most guinea pigs will tolerate nail clipping if they are distracted with their favorite foods. Generally, when plied with yummy treats, they will get more used to nail trimming over time and eventually will learn to sit quietly for it.
Guinea pig owners can get their pets used to nail trims simply by pairing the touching of their pigs’ toes and the sight of the clipper with the taste of a delicious treat. Eventually, once they see the nail trimmer, they anticipate the treat and aren’t bothered by the trim.
Typically, guinea pigs need to be brushed only once or twice a week to minimize shedding. Brushing also gives an owner a chance to monitor their pet’s skin for parasites (such as mites or lice), lumps, or crustiness — all of which warrant a trip to the veterinarian.
Very short-coated breeds, such as the Rex or Himalayan, typically do not need to be brushed more than once a week. Longer haired breeds, such as Peruvians or Abyssinians, should be brushed several times a week to prevent their long, flowing hair from becoming matted.
Narrow-toothed pet combs are best to use on guinea pigs, as their hair is fine; wide-tooth combs may be ineffective, as they may not catch such fine hair between the teeth. Hair combs designed for guinea pig or rabbit hair are commercially available in pet stores, but fine-toothed combs designed for cats can be used as well.
In general, guinea pigs do not need to be bathed unless their skin or hair becomes soiled with urine or feces. When this occurs, a simple “butt bath,” in which the pet’s hind end is shampooed and rinsed in the sink, with a towel in the basin to prevent slipping, is all that is needed. Longer haired breeds may need more frequent bathing, as their hair may become matted and dirty more easily.
Guinea pigs do not typically like to be immersed in water, so just an inch or two of warm water in the sink, with a sink sprayer to rinse off the shampoo, works great. Non-medicated soap, such as liquid Dawn or Ivory, or any mild pet shampoo, is fine, as long as all of it is rinsed off thoroughly. Generally, towel-drying is all that’s needed after a bath. However, if it’s very cold, a warm hairdryer set on low can help dry long-haired breeds quickly.
Guinea pig's teeth are "open rooted" and grow continuously throughout their lives. They wear down the surfaces of their teeth by chewing on high fiber hay every day. They also need daily vitamin C supplementation to keep their teeth and gums healthy.
Guinea pigs’ teeth don’t need to be brushed at home or cleaned by a veterinarian regularly; however, guinea pigs that do not eat hay and simply eat crumbly, dry pellets do not wear down their teeth properly and frequently develop tooth root impaction (like wisdom tooth impaction in people) which leads to pain on chewing, drooling, and frequently, decreased appetite. These are all signs that the guinea pig needs to see a veterinarian.