Do guinea pigs need vitamin C? Absolutely, yes! One of the main differences between a guinea pig and rabbit's dietary needs is the addition of vitamin C. Guinea pigs and primates, like us, are unable to make their own vitamin C. Because their bodies can't synthesize or store it, they need to receive around 10-30 mg per day through their diet. Guinea pigs that don't get enough vitamin C are at risk for scurvy, even when deprived for as little as two weeks.
Symptoms of Vitamin C Deficiency
Vitamin C deficiency can lead to fragile blood vessels, causing tissues to hemorrhage in the mouth, skin, muscles, and internal organ surfaces. Being deprived of this essential vitamin causes abnormal cartilage and bone formation, enlarged adrenal glands, and painful swelling of limb joints. Guinea pigs may hop like bunnies rather than walking normally, or be hesitant to move at all. Scurvy can also involve tooth problems, leading to difficulty eating. A guinea pig with scurvy will generally look unwell, with poor body condition, a dull and rough coat, and sunken eyes. They may seem listless or depressed, lose weight, and show signs of pain or tenderness when touched.
Complications from Scurvy
You can treat and reverse scurvy if it is caught early enough. The longer a guinea pig is deprived of vitamin C, however, the more likely they are to develop complications. One possibility is permanent arthritis. If the guinea pig still suffers from stiffness and lameness after treatment, a vegan glucosamine supplement can help sooth ongoing arthritis.
Another possible consequence of prolonged deficiency is ongoing tooth problems. Scurvy can impact the anchoring of teeth in their bony sockets. Once a guinea pig needs dental work, you run the risk that trips to the dentist will be come a regular date every few months or even weeks. The relationship between scurvy and dental woes can go both ways. A guinea pig with overgrown molars, elongated roots, or dental abscesses will eat increasingly less, potentially not getting adequate nutrition.
Supplementing Vitamin C
Most guinea pigs need around 25 mg per day of vitamin C. In normal circumstances, they will get all they need from a high-quality pellet with stabilized vitamin C and a cup of fresh greens every day. Those being treated for scurvy, or recovering from illness, injury, or surgery can benefit from a supplement. Giving at least 25 mg twice daily should resolve most symptoms of vitamin C deficiency in a week or so. Guinea pigs that have suffered from scurvy in the past should have their vitamin C intake monitored closely, adding a supplement if necessary.
Drops for the water aren't a recommended method for supplementing vitamin C. (And that's not what our Vita-Drops are... they're not meant to be an orangy mai-tai with an umbrella treat.) Vitamin C will degrade quickly in the water; the next day it'll already be less than half as potent. In addition to being an unreliable way to dose, adding anything to the drinking water can change the taste. We don't recommend adding vita-drops to water... this could cause them not to drink as much as they should. The drops can and should be given via syringe.
A children's chewable tablet works well, too. If using a human formula, try to find a vegan one without a lot of added sugar or sweeteners like xylitol, artificial colors and flavors, or hard-to-pronounce preservatives. Never give a multivitamin to guinea pigs. Vitamin C in excess will safely exit the body through the urine, but too much of other vitamins and minerals can make your guinea pig sick. Again, 25 mg once daily is enough for most guinea pigs, but those with scurvy will need higher doses more often until they have recovered.
Giving a little bit too much vitamin C isn't a big deal. What the body can't use will be flushed out in the urine. But giving large amounts of vitamin C over time has been associated with everything from arthritis to bladder stones. Giving a guinea pig high doses of vitamin C, such as 300 mg daily rather than 30 mg, puts them at risk for developing pseudo-scurvy.
If the guinea pig becomes used to the supplement and then it is no longer given, they can develop symptoms just like scurvy, even if fed a normal, nutritionally complete diet. This happens because the normal mechanism in the guinea pig for absorbing vitamin C has been manipulated. The guinea pig no longer has the ability to absorb enough when it is offered in normal amounts. Luckily, pseudo-scurvy is easily avoided and the condition is usually temporary.
Preventing Vitamin C Deficiency
A proper diet is all that is needed to meet the daily vitamin C requirement for most guinea pigs. Unlimited grass hay is the majority of what they should be eating, but a high-quality pellet with stabilized vitamin C is an easy way to guarantee your guinea pig is getting a balanced diet. Just an 1/8 cup per guinea pig should do the trick, although most won't overeat as long as hay is always available.
Pellets are a lifesaver for the guinea pig that won't try veggies. (Side tip: guinea pigs who live with others almost always jump on the veg bandwagon eventually). The addition of vitamin C is the main difference between guinea pig and rabbit pellets. Temperature and humidity can impact the vitamin C in pellets, so proper storage is important. Stabilized C is less likely to break down, meaning these pellets will retain their nutritional value longer.
Fresh veggies are a fun way to add variety to the diet and make sure your guinea pig is getting all the vitamin C she needs. All veggies aren't created equal. Bell peppers are a great everyday food for guinea pigs. Rotate colors to switch things up. A few slices is all they need. Bell peppers are packed with vitamin C, but still low in calcium, sugar, and acid.
Some fruits and veggies high in vitamin C come with a catch. Parsley, for example, is too high in calcium to feed daily or in large amounts. Luckily, just spring or two packs a big punch for team C. Oranges are juicing their vitamin C reputation for all it's worth, but are a bit too high in sugar as well as acid to compete with bell peppers. Oranges, like most fruits, are best reserved for treats every now and then.
Vitamin C is necessary for a healthy guinea pig. Growing guinea pigs, weak or recovering guinea pigs, and those that are picky eaters are most at risk for a deficiency. The symptoms can be fully cured if caught early. An easy-to-dose supplement is a recommended addition to every guinea pig first aid kit.