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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