What is Vitamin C and why is it so important?

By Kim Halford BVetMed MSC, Masters in Animal Behaviour and Welfare

Vitamin C is found in many different foods but predominantly fruit and vegetables. It is essential for the creation of a substance called collagen, which is sort of like a glue which holds the body together. As collagen is found in every part of the body, a vitamin C deficiency will affect all the body systems.

Why Do Guinea Pigs Need to Eat Vitamin C?

Most animals can synthesise (another word for make) their own vitamin C by combining different compounds and nutrients in their body. These animals don’t need it in their food and will do fine if there is a shortage of foods containing vitamin C. Guinea Pigs, like people and primates,cannot synthesise their own vitamin C dueto a gene mutation. They NEED it in their diet just like we do.

Sources of Vitamin C for Guinea Pigs

Vitamin C is found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, parsley, and kale. There are also large amounts in tomatoes, bell peppers (especially red and green), broccoli and, if you’re out in the garden, dandelion leaves

Guinea pig food also has added vitamin C. This degrades over time, leading to the amount in the food reducing. To help keep the food as fresh as possible it is recommended to keep food bags sealed shut though this may still not affect the amount of vitamin C. As such it is always better to buy a new bag of food every three months. Most hay does not contain significant levels of vitamin C.

Vitamin C Deficiency Causes Scurvy

Vitamin C deficiency is usually due to either a guinea pig not being offered enough vitamin C in their diet or them not eating enough due to illness, stress or injury.The illness caused by vitamin C Deficiency is known as Scurvy. Scurvy can develop within as little as 2-3 weeks of guinea pigs being vitamin C deficient due to this vitamin not being stored for long inthe body

Symptoms of Scurvy

  • Limping, shuffling or being reluctant to walk
  • Swollen joints
  • Not wanting to be fussed or picked up (due to pain)
  • Red dots on their gums, thecorner of their eyes or their skin
  • Depression
  • Anorexia (not eating)
  • A rough coat
  • Drooling and teeth grinding
  • Wounds not healing
  • Immunosuppression, so they pick up infections easier

The Link Between the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Scurvy. What Can be Done?

The COVID-19 outbreak makes it difficult for people to get to the shops as often and shops may have fewer fruits and vegetables on offer. Guinea Pigs need at least 10 mg per kilogram that they weigh, every day. Vit C with those who are ill, stressed, or pregnant needing 20-60mg per kilogram body weight per day. Usually, it would be easy to provide this through their usual diet of pellets and vegetables (alongside necessary grass/hay). If you can’t get as many vegetables, this may be harder.

What Can you do to Help

If you usually give them quite a lot of veg, maybe ration it out so it lasts longer. Take a look in your garden and see if there are any dandelion leaves or other plants suitable for guinea pigs. My garden has a large number of strawberry plants which my guinea pigs are enjoying munching on. HOWEVER, only provide these if there hasn’t been any weed killer sprayed on or near them. Remember to run these under the tap to get rid of any debris. Always check that they are definitely the species you think they are; some plants are poisonous or can cause other issues(e.g. Bloat). 

If needed, buy vitamin C supplements designed for guinea pigs and use them as directed on the packaging. Some vitamin C supplements are drops added to their water. The vitamin C in these breaks down quickly. Multiple sources state that if vitamin C Supplements are added to water then after only 8 hours, only 20% of the original vitamin C that was added is still in their water. To help; put in fresh water at times when they are most likely to drink (i.e.,change the water before feeding them) and water with vitamin C supplements should be changed at least every 12 hours. If the water isn’t changed very regularly,your guinea pigs will not benefit from the supplement you added.Vitamin C supplements added to the water changes its taste and guinea pigs may refuse to drink it. To help start by only adding very small amounts. Slowly add more over the next few days until you reach the recommended levels. Your guinea pigs won’t notice the change in taste as much and so keep drinking, get their vitamin C and don’t become dehydrated.

You can also buy treats, tablets and pastes containing vitamin C. I would strongly recommend only using products designed for guinea pigs and DO NOT give adult human vitamin C tablets (even if broken into small pieces)or multivitamin/mineral supplements as these could cause other problems.Remember, if possible, try and meet their vitamin C needs through good quality guinea pig pellets and fruit/vegetables.

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Guinea pig water bottles & quirky drinking techniques

Back in our January and February 2020 issue (issue 54), we featured an article from Dr Stephanie Hammond, Expert and Manager of Wheek Away Boarding, sharing some of her insights regarding guinea pigs’ water bottles and quirky drinking habits.

With the warm summer months upon us, we’re sharing the article on the GPM blog to help ensure that you keep your piggies hydrated and happy.

Animals need fresh water to survive. The daily requirements vary for individual guinea pigs, but as a rough estimate, it is suggested around 50mlto 100ml a day. This can be influenced by temperature: as guinea pigs can’t sweat, they tend to drink more (and therefore pee more) when it is hot to help them to cool down.

Other reasons for excessive water consumption include medical conditions such as urinary tract infections and kidney failure.

In some cases it might look like your pig is drinking a lot but it could be that the water bottle nozzle is leaking (some bottles do this when you refill them,but they are not full to the brim, or sometimes you may need to tap the end of the nozzle a few times with your fingertip to stop it dripping) or it could be that your piggy just has a poor drinking technique which ends with most of the water dribbling down their chin!

It may be that your piggy doesn’t drink very much. This is possibly because they don’t feel very thirsty or it could be because there is a problem with the water bottle setup. The first thing to do is to check that the nozzle on the water bottle is not blocked. Tap the ball at the end of the nozzle (presuming in this case that you have a standard style water bottle with a ball bearing in the drinking spout) and make sure that water is coming out.

The next thing to look at is the water bottle placement. Many shop-bought cages (and also hutches) suggest either by demonstration set-ups, instructions or by what is supplied, that you clip the bottle on the outside of the cage using the clip supplied and then push the nozzle through the bars. Firstly,the bottles that come with the cages often have bottles with spouts that are too big for most piggies, and secondly,that placement is not always compatible with piggy drinking techniques. You can purchase suitable plastic and glass water bottles in most pet shops and online.I use the large Classic Deluxe plastic water bottles.

The best place to put a water bottle is on the inside of the cage. Use the bottle clip (or a large cable tie if you no longer have the clip) to attach the bottle to the inside of the cage, then use the wire that comes with the bottle (classic ones) to hold the bottle at a suitable height by putting it around the lid.

Why is this better? The simple answer is that the guinea pig has access to more of the nozzle. You may have a piggy that politely licks the end (and appears to chew the water) in which case your piggy can probably use any setup of the bottle. Other piggies like to put the whole nozzle into their mouth and suck the water out. Some piggies place it straight in the front of their mouth, but many place the nozzle in through the side behind their incisors.

You may have a pig who likes to pull the nozzle so far to one side to get it in a position they like to drink from, that they end up pulling the bottle horizontally, so it falls off the cage. If you have a ‘bottle puller’ then it may be prudent to use a cable tie instead of the clip to secure the bottle.

You could also try placing the bottle higher as they may be trying to pull the nozzle higher up.Then there are the piggies who feel the need to put their head upside down to drink- this I have no answer for!

If you are unsure how your piggy likes to drink, then the first thing to do is watch. This can be easier said than done as some timid piggies will only drink at night or when you aren’t watching. In fact, guinea pigs are masters at waiting until the house is at its quietest and drinking in the noisiest manner possible! What you can do is place two bottles at different heights/positions and see which one they prefer. If all else fails and you are still worried then you can put both a water bottle and bowl in the cage.

You may have a piggy who is a ‘back-washer’. These are piggies who like to drink while they are eating, often as they are eating nuggets, (probably to help to soften the nugget) with the result being the water bottle becoming full of foodbits and sediment incredibly quickly. If you have a clear bottle, then you will probably find this sediment settling at the bottom of the bottle by the nozzle cap. More frequent changes of water will be required in this case. Regardless of whether you have a back-washer, it is beneficial to invest in some good bottle brushes to clean the bottles. I find the narrow ones with soft mop ends the best.

Hot Soapy water or a baby disinfectant such as Milton can be used (following the product instructions), making sure you thoroughly rinse the bottles afterwards. Cotton buds are useful for cleaning the nozzle, and you would be surprised what comes out.

There are always exceptions to the rule. Some glass bottles have long nozzle bent at the right angle for drinking, but I think we can all admit that guinea pigs are quirky little creatures.

Finally, during the colder months, make sure you check any outside water bottles for freezing, particularly in the morning as temperatures drop colder overnight.

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