All pets are vulnerable to parasitic infestations of one sort another and guinea pigs are no different. The most common “ectoparasites” include mites and lice. If you think your pet has an infestation you must contact your vet to have them diagnosed so you can get the right treatment for them
Although tiny, these parasitic creatures can cause great distress to your guinea pig and can result in secondary infections. If they are not treated, mites can cause great pain and these nasty infestations can be fatal for your pet.
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How do guinea pigs get mites?
Guinea pigs will often have a small number of mites which is quite normal and won’t usually cause them any problem. However, certain circumstances can make the mite population increase leading to an infestation.
They can get mites from other guinea pigs. However, a cage or hutch that is not cleaned regularly enough can result in your pet getting an infestation as can dirty or contaminated bedding.
There are also other reasons why your pet may get mites. This can include stress, a low immune system, the inability to groom properly (eg if they are very overweight). A guinea pig who is pregnant, very young or very old or ill may also be more likely to succumb to a mite infestation.
Types of ectoparasite
The following ectoparasites are the most commonly found in guinea pigs:
Static Fur Mites (Chirodiscoides Caviae)
Static fur mites and their eggs are usually found on the lower back and sides of the hindquarters on the hair of a guinea pig.
These mites feed on the scales of the hair and because they’re not burrowing creatures they don’t generally cause a great problem. However, they should be treated early as serious symptoms can occur if left.
With severe infestations of this static fur mite, you may notice your guinea pig scratching and grooming more often. The skin may be red, scaly or crusty and there may be patches where there is no hair. You may also notice the hair has a generally low-quality appearance compared to normal. It has even been known for guinea pigs to suffer from anorexia if they suffer a severe infestation due to the intense grooming which creates hairballs in the mouth.
These more serious infections usually occur in guinea pigs who have a low immune system or are sick.
It is common for these mites to inhabit your guinea pig with no apparent symptoms showing for a long period of time so it’s important to check the fur regularly for any signs of infestation. Although very tiny, these mites can in fact be seen without magnification. This makes it easier for you to inspect your pet and find any that may be lurking. Lice infestations can often happen at the same time as these mites so make sure you check for these unwanted creatures too.
Sarcoptic mites / Mange mites (Trixacarus caviae)
Sarcoptic mites, also known as mange mites, bury themselves into your guinea pig’s skin where they lay eggs in short tunnels made in the skin. As the mites reproduce, so they create more tunnels for their eggs and this process keeps repeating.
Mange is an extremely dangerous disease - and the most severe form of mites. As you can imagine, it is an extremely painful condition and one that should be treated as soon as possible. It is in fact the most common form of dermatitis in guinea pigs and most often seen in those aged between 1 and 3 years.
These burrowing mites (members of the arachnid family) cause severe itching (pruritus) which will cause your guinea pig to scratch intensely. The scratching itself can be extremely painful and due to the extreme pain can cause your pet to have dangerous, life-threatening seizures.
Here is a video of a guinea pig who is having mange seizures due to the pain from scratching a terrible mite infestation (the video is quite long and upsetting too but well worth watching) It's from LA Guinea Pig Rescue (in the US) who provide some fantastic videos and do great work:
Scratching can also create secondary infections - both fungal and bacterial which will cause further complications.
The infestation usually begins on the face and ears after which it can spread to the lower back and sides of the legs.
Symptoms to look for are intense scratching, restlessness, weight loss, thickened skin or greyish, yellow or white crusts on the skin which may also be dry or a bit greasy.
This condition can be passed on to baby guinea pigs from an infected mother and within 72 hours of being born, the young can start to show symptoms so it’s important to get a pregnant guinea pig treated as soon as you see any signs of an infestation.
If you notice your guinea pig scratching more than usual, it is important you check their fur and skin for any of these symptoms. If the problem is left untreated, your guinea pig may not survive so even if no other symptoms are present, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your vet to put your mind at rest as this is an incredibly nasty infestation for any guinea pig to endure.
There are 3 types of lice that can affect domesticated guinea pigs - Gliricola porcelli (slender louse), Gyropus ovalis (oval louse) and Trimenopon hispidum. The most common is the slender louse. All these lice are biting or chewing lice rather than blood sucking.
Measuring around 1 to 1.5mm as adults, these lice attach themselves to the hair shaft. They chafe the skin and absorb fluids.
You may not realise your guinea pig has a lice infestation but the signs to look out for are scratching, redness of the skin, patchy hair loss or scabs on and around the ears and neck.
These lice can be passed on to a guinea pig via contact with other lice-ridden guinea pigs or contaminated bedding.
If you think your guinea pig has lice, it is important to get the correct treatment for their own comfort and to avoid any secondary infections caused by scratching.
Take a look at this video by LA Guinea Pig Rescue which gives you an idea of what lice look like.
What are the symptoms?
If you see any of these signs, it could be a sign that your guinea pig has some sort of mite or lice infestation:
- patchy fur, or any baldness or hair loss
- skin inflammation or scabs from scratching
- scratching more than normal or biting themselves
- not eating/drinking normally or is losing weight
- having seizures or convulsions (extremely serious!)
- lacking energy or seem generally unwell
- they seem agitated
Is your guinea pig having seizures?
It is very dangerous to leave an infestation until it has got to the point where your guinea pig is having seizures. With a serious infestation, what can happen is that your guinea pig will have intense itching, scratch the itch and cry in pain then go into a seizure. This is very extremely upsetting for any guinea pig owner to witness and incredibly concerning. Each time your guinea pig has a seizure he is in danger of having a heart attack or stroke which will put his life in jeopardy.
Diagnosing mites and what to expect at the vet
If you suspect your guinea pig has mites, you should make an appointment with your vet for a professional diagnosis.
It is important that you choose a vet who is competent with the diagnosis and treatment of guinea pigs. The best veterinarians to opt for are those who have guinea pig rescue centres as customers. This is because they will often have to diagnose and treat the guinea pigs who are brought to a rescue with problems such as mange, mites and other illnesses making them more of an expert with these particular pets.
Bear in mind that some vets may recommend having your guinea pig put to sleep. However, your pet can make a full recovery if treated so please don’t go for this option - request treatment and give them a chance.
Your vet might suggest taking a skin scraping which they will then place under the microscope to check for mange. This is painful for your guinea pig and they often come back incorrectly as negative which can result in your pet not getting the treatment they really need. If a case of mange is suspected, it is a good idea to treat for this suspected infestation rather than your guinea pig having to undergo a stressful test.
In the case that your guinea pig is having seizures, they may be given steroids to relieve the pain and in turn reduce the seizures, but this treatment should always be used with extreme caution.
How to treat a mite infestation
The best way to treat an infestation is with a medication called Ivermectin. This is a safe, effective product for the treatment of mites and can be given by injection, orally or applied to the skin behind the ear where there is less fur.
An injection is painful for your guinea pig and if your vet suggests this, you should ask if they can have it dropped on their skin instead. There is no reason why they shouldn’t offer this alternative. After the Ivermectin drop has contact with the skin, the medication will be absorbed into the bloodstream and begin to fight the infestation.
It isn’t advisable to treat guinea pigs who way under 340 grams with this but you should take your vet’s professional advice on this matter.
Some experts also recommend giving Benadryl as this reduces the itching but this should be prescribed by a vet as it is important the correct dose is given. Diazepam may alternatively be given to control this.
The vet may also prescribe some medication that you can apply to their sores or any skin infections that have come about from scratching due to the mite infestation.
If you have other guinea pigs, they too should be treated for mites as it is contagious and can be passed between them.
Washing with antifungal, anti-bacterial shampoo won’t get rid of the mites but might relieve and soothe skin. However, if they are in a bad state you shouldn’t bathe until they have had treatment and begin to make a recovery. Bathing may cause them pain resulting in potentially deadly seizures. In fact, because of the danger of seizures, you shouldn’t handle them unless you need to until they begin to improve.
Make sure your guinea pig’s nails are kept short to prevent them causing too much damage from scratching.
Give you pet’s cage a thorough clean and change all the bedding to get rid of any eggs that haven’t yet hatched which may cause reinfestation after treatment.
You should avoid treatments such as sprays, powders, shampoos etc for fleas and ticks as they may contain pesticides which are dangerous to guinea pigs.
Keep a close watch on your pet and look for signs of stress or sickness. If they don’t start to improve very soon or if you are in any doubt whatsoever about their wellbeing, take them back to the vet.
How to prevent a mite infestation
Even though you can take all the preventative measures, it is not guaranteed your guinea pigs won’t get mites but taking these steps will give your pets the best chance of not having to experience a painful and life-threatening illness:
- Ensure the bedding is regularly changed and the housing is kept clean.
- Make sure your guinea pigs are happy as stress can be a contributing factor. Guinea pigs need plenty of space and at least one guinea pig friend to be happy.
- Give them a balanced diet with the right nutrition.
- Give them a regular health check. Look through their fur, parting it in different places to check for any signs of mites.
- Always check a new guinea pig for mites before introducing them to other guinea pigs.
Are guinea pig mites contagious to humans
These mites are species specific so will not transfer to you as they have an inability to live in human skin. However, there have been cases where people with sensitive skin have come out in an itchy rash after coming into contact with infected guinea pigs.