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Itchy guinea pigs: a guide to common skin parasites

Like other animals guinea pigs occasionally suffer from itchiness. Itchiness can be caused by a variety of ailments, but parasites are amongst the most common. These can 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.  Symptoms are similar to those seen in other pets. They include:

Guinea pigs usually become infested with fleas when another pet in the household brings fleas in from outside.  Symptoms are similar to those seen 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. The best way to find flea dirt is with a flea comb. To check if the dirt is because of fleas, comb the guinea pig over a sheet of plain white paper, and 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 specifically in guinea pigs. These products typically contain either ivermectin or permethrin, and are administered on to the back of the neck to control infestations caused by flies, and fleas, lice, and ticks.  It is not recommended to use flea products designed for other species, as no data exists regarding the safety of these products on 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, in some cases, is so extreme that the guinea pig appears to have a seizure when handled. Symptoms of T. caviae infestation generally include:
-         Hair loss
-         Skin thickening and becoming 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 survive in the environment, so treatment of the hutch is a very important element of control. Failure to treat the habitat 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. Ensure that you visit your 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 at home. 

Lice

The common lice that affect 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.  Rare cases can result in itchiness. This will result in hair loss, redness and skin irritation similar to those caused by the other parasites we have mentioned. Lice can also survive off the animal; 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. Again, 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.