In theory, a guinea pig's sneeze should be cute. Let's be honest. All things they do are pretty cute. But too many sneezes can signify something more sinister. When accompanied by nose goop, crusty eyes, and labored breathing, it's definitely cause for concern.
An upper respiratory infection (URI) is a common illness for guinea pigs. When caught early, antibiotics can usually knock it out. However, because guinea pigs are so skilled at hiding illness, sometimes we don't notice until things have gone downhill. Once the respiratory infection is well set in, treatment becomes more challenging. A URI can turn into pneumonia between the time your trusted exotic vet closes at 5 p.m. on Friday and reopens at 8 a.m. on Monday. Don't beat yourself up. A 14-day course of Baytril is far from the only option for treating stubborn respiratory infections.
What Causes Respiratory infections in guinea pigs?
Guinea pigs can catch respiratory infections from species other than guinea pigs. Even healthy dogs and rabbits carry this risk. According to vet Julia Whittington, "causative agents include Bordetella bronchiseptica and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Rabbits and dogs are carriers of Bordetella and many species can serve as asymptomatic carriers of Streptococcus." To be on the safe side, it is always best to avoid interactions between guinea pigs and rabbits or dogs.
Unsafe bedding, like cedar, can set guinea pigs up for a weakened respiratory system. A draft from a forgotten open window or damp hair after a bath can set things off. Other times, respiratory infections pop up and we just don't know why. Harmful bacteria can hide out undercover and chose to wreak havoc at unexpected times.
Recognize the symptoms early
Because respiratory infections are so common, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the symptoms. According to Guinea Lynx, symptoms of an upper respiratory infection in guinea pigs include:
- Refusal to eat or drink
- No feces (as a result of not eating)
- Labored breathing, wheezing
- Sneezing, coughing
- Crusty eyes, eyes that are almost sealed shut
- Discharge from eyes or nose
- Dull and/or receding eyes
- Rough or puffed-up coat
- Lethargy, hunched posture
If you notice symptoms when your normal vet is closed, assuming it's not yet an emergency, isolate your guinea pig from her pals so the whole crew doesn't get sick. Putting your guinea pig in the bathroom while you take a steamy shower can help her breathe a little easier. If she's starting to lose her appetite, start syringe feeding sooner rather than later to avoid complications with GI stasis. If there was ever a time for tempting treats to keep her alert and eating, this is it. Go ahead, break out the dill.
Antibiotics are key
Guinea pigs don't get "colds" like we do. A vet visit is absolutely necessary. An upper respiratory infection won't get better without antibiotics. Baytril is commonly prescribed as a first means of defense. Because it is used so often, some bugs that cause URIs have become resistant to it. If your guinea pig doesn't show signs of improvement or gets worse after two or three days, a different medication might be needed. Luckily, other antibiotics can be used "off label" for guinea pigs if Baytril isn't working.
If your guinea pig isn't responding to the first antibiotic tried, your vet may want to take a culture of some nasal discharge. This is the best way to identify what bacteria is at play. From there, they can identify what medicine will be most effective. Culture results can take a few days, but sick piggies don't have much time to waste. It won't hurt to take a shot in the dark on treatment while waiting on the report.
Baytril and doxycycline is one combination that seems to work well for stubborn respiratory infections. Be sure to give a probiotic an hour or two after each dose, as the double whammy can be tough on the gut. Azithromycin is another that has generated a fan base in recent years for respiratory infections that just won't give up.
Dose can be as important as the proper medication. Your vet may have started with a low dose of Baytril, probably around 2.5 mg/kg. Guinea pigs can tolerate up to 10 mg/kg every 12 hours for those hard-to-treat infections. The doxycycline dose that works best for guinea pigs is the same that's often used for rats, 5 mg/kg twice daily. Note that this concentration is higher than what's usually given to rabbits, but lower than what dogs and cats need.
Giving too high of a dose can cause serious consequences to the GI tract, so always follow your vet's advice and monitor your guinea pig closely. Some guinea pigs tolerate antibiotics better than others. Not all antibiotics will produce the same reaction in every guinea pig.
Whatever medication is prescribed, always triple check it's not an antibiotic that is on the list of dangerous medicines for guinea pigs. Antibiotics in the penicillin family are potentially fatal to guinea pigs. Rabbits are more tolerant of penicillin if it is injected to bypass the digestive system. In guinea pigs, though, it is still toxic and can make a bad situation much, much worse.
Pull out all the stops
Antibiotics are crucial for treating respiratory infections in guinea pigs. Experimenting with different types, combinations, and dosages with your vet can make all the difference. Some respiratory infections, though, are sneaky. When they progress into pneumonia, antibiotics alone might not do the job. Guinea pigs with advanced respiratory infections sometimes start to accumulate fluid in the lungs. Not only does this make it hard to breathe, but it makes the infection harder to treat. Ask your vet about the diuretic furosemide.
A nebulizer can be a lifesaver, literally. You can use a solution of sterile saline mixed with an antibiotic like Baytril to deliver it deeper into the lungs. Even if Baytril isn't working orally, a nebulizer will send the medicine straight to the source of the problem. Antibiotics that aren't safe to give orally, like gentamycin, can be used in a nebulizer in addition to oral antibiotics to pack a triple punch. Bronchiodilator Albuterol or a steroid might be added to the mix, too.
In addition to calling in the troops with medications, don't underestimate the importance of supportive care. A guinea pig that is kept calm and warm, is force fed around the clock, and given extra vitamin C and fluids (if necessary) has an improved chance of recovery.
It came back ... again. Now what?
If a respiratory infection returns, the course of treatment probably didn't knock out all the bacteria. Catching a chill, stress, or just one of those days can cause your guinea pig's URI to return in full force. Your vet may recommend a different medication this time around or double the length of treatment. A two-week course of antibiotics is pretty standard, but some guinea pigs may require a month or more to fully kick it to the curb.
Chronic respiratory infections may be a sign there is more going on. While allergies are rare, they aren't impossible. You can try switching types of bedding and/or hay. Children's Benedryl is sometimes given for confirmed environmental allergies.
Heart problems are a more common cause for chronic respiratory infections. Congestive heart failure can explain lookalike symptoms that don't respond to antibiotics. Sometimes you'll be able to hear an abnormal heartbeat. An X-ray or or echocardiogram can confirm the diagnosis. Heart disease can be managed, but not cured.
If your guinea pig seems to be fighting a losing battle with respiratory infections, don't give up! There are more treatment options out there than you think.