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, there's definitely cause for concern. You’ve got a guinea pig respiratory infection on your hands.
It’s Not Unusual…
An upper respiratory infection (URI) is a common illness for guinea pigs. When caught early, antibiotics can usually knock it out. However, as prey animals, guinea pigs are skilled at hiding illness. Therefore, sometimes we don't notice until things have gone downhill. Once the guinea pig 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. However, we don’t want you beating yourself up for not noticing how sick your pig is. A 14-day course of Baytril (antibiotic) is far from the only option for treating a stubborn guinea pig respiratory infection.
What Causes a Guinea Pig Respiratory Infection?
First of all, 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.
Secondly, unsafe bedding, like cedar can set guinea pigs up for a weakened respiratory system. Next, a draft from a forgotten open window or damp hair after a bath can set things off. Finally, 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, signs 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
Non-Emergency Home Treatments While Waiting to See Your Vet
If you notice URI symptoms when your regular vet is closed, assuming it's not yet an emergency-isolate your guinea pig from her pals. This prevents the whole herd from getting sick. Also, 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.
Need Tempting Treats?
Antibiotics = Key
Guinea pigs don't get "colds" like we do. A vet visit is essential, along with antibiotic treatment. 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 nasal discharge culture. 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 guinea pig respiratory infections. Check with your vet first, but be sure to give a probiotic an hour or two after each dose, as the double whammy can be tough on the gut. Azithromycin has generated a fan base in recent years for respiratory infections that just won't give up.
We've Got Probiotics Too...
The dose can be as important as the proper medication. Your vet may have started with a low amount 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. This concentration is higher than what's usually given to rabbits but lower than what dogs and cats need.
Giving too high of an antibiotic dose can cause severe consequences to the GI tract. Therefore, always follow your vet's advice and monitor your guinea pig closely. Some guinea pigs tolerate antibiotics better than others. Similar to humans, not all antibiotics will produce the same reaction in every guinea pig.
Whatever medication is prescribed, always triple-check it's not an antibiotic 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 guinea pig respiratory infections. 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 condition harder to treat. Ask your vet about the diuretic furosemide.
Additionally, a nebulizer can be a lifesaver, literally. Ask your vet about using sterile saline solution 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. These compounded with oral antibiotics pack a triple punch. A bronchodilator such as Albuterol or steroids might be added to the mix, too.
In addition to calling in the troops with medications, don't underestimate the importance of supportive care. Keeping your piggie calm and warm, plus syringe feeding, extra vitamin C, and fluids (if necessary), has an improved chance of recovery.
It Came Back... Again. Now What?
If a guinea pig 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 also can try switching types of bedding and/or hay. Children's Benadryl is sometimes prescribed for confirmed environmental allergies.
Heart problems are a more common cause of chronic respiratory infections. Congestive heart failure can explain lookalike URI symptoms that don't respond to antibiotics. Sometimes vets can hear an abnormal heartbeat. An X-ray or echocardiogram can confirm the diagnosis. Unfortunately, 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. Keep working with your trusted exotic vet and seek a second opinion if you're concerned about their approach. Your wheeker will thank you for it!
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