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Itchy guinea pigs: a guide to common skin parasites

Like other animals guinea pigs occasionally suffer from itchiness. There are many causes, but parasites are amongst the most common. These parasites include fleas, mites and lice, and are all readily treatable once the cause has been identified. 

Fleas

Guinea pigs usually become infested with fleas when another pet in the household brings fleas in from outside the property.  Symptoms are similar to the symptoms in other pets. They include:

-         Itching

-         Hair loss

-         Crust formation on irritated parts of the skin

-        Anaemia if the animal is very heavily infested 

Fleas are visible to the naked eye as moving black specs, making them the easiest of the common guinea pig parasites to identify.  An infested guinea pig will also have flea dirt present in the coat which is often best identified with a flea comb. To confirm that the debris is flea droppings and not regular dirt you simply comb the guinea pig over a sheet of plain white paper, then mix a few drops of water with the debris that collects on the paper. If the debris is flea dirt the water will turn a dark reddish-brown as mixing occurs – this is due to the blood present in the faeces. 

In recent years products have become available for the treatment and prevention of flea infestation in guinea pigs specifically. One such product is Xenex Ultra Spot-on, which is administered onto to the back of the neck and controls infestations caused by flies, and fleas, lice, and ticks.  Application every two weeks provides appropriate cover.  It is not recommended to use flea products designed for other species, as no data exists regarding the safety of these products in guinea pigs. 

Mites

Trixacarus caviae is the most common mite to affect guinea pigs. T. caviae causes extreme itchiness in guinea pigs, often causing the guinea pig to chew and scratch excessively. This self-trauma is thought to further exacerbate the itchiness, which is so extreme in some cases that the guinea pig appears to have a seizure when handled. Symptoms of T. caviae infestation generally include:

-         Hair loss

-         Skin thickens and becomes red

-         Raised red bumps

These lesions are normally located on the head, back, flanks and shoulders of the guinea pig. Your vet will usually perform a skin scraping to identify the mite, they can be tricky to find though! 

T. caviae may be transmitted through direct or indirect contact with infected animals. It can persist in the environment, making treatment of the hutch a very important element of control if your guinea pig contracts the mite. Failure to treat the environment thoroughly may result in re-infestation.

Once the problem has been diagnosed your vet will discuss treatment options with you. It is important that all animals in contact with the affected animal are treated as well. Traditionally treatment has been antiparasitic injections, administered by your vet, usually 10 days apart for 3 treatments.  Xenex Ultra spot on is also effective against T. caviae and has become a popular choice because it may be used at home. Do ensure that you return to the vet at the end of the course of treatment to check that the infestation is fully cleared if you choose to treat your guinea pig with a spot-on treatment at home. 

Lice

The common lice affecting guinea pigs are Gliricola porcelli and Gyropus ovalis. Lice are mainly found on the head and neck area and are visible to the naked eye.  They are most easily identified by taking a hair or skin sample with cello tape. Itching and hair loss will only occur in severe infestations – most guinea pigs will show little or no signs of infestation.  In rare cases itchiness does result, and this leads to hair loss, redness and skin irritation similar that caused by the other parasites we have mentioned. Lice can also persist in the environment; failure to treat the environment thoroughly may result in re-infestation. Once the problem has been diagnosed your vet will discuss treatment options with you. It is important that all animals in contact with the affected animal are treated as well. Lice can be treated with anti-parasitic injections in the same way as mites, and Xenex Ultra spot on will once again be effective in controlling lice infestations.  As with any illness, make sure that you return to the vet for a follow-up appointment at the end of the course of treatment to check that it has been fully successful.