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Why Guinea Pigs Need Vitamin C

Yes, guinea pigs can get scurvy if they don’t have vitamin C added to their diet, and the result can be painful and even fatal.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: November 2, 2015, 9:05 p.m. EST

guinea pig lying down
Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM 
Scurvy causes painful joints, which can make a guinea pig reluctant to stand or move about.

When it comes to human nutritional disorders, scurvy is generally not a problem that we spend a lot of time thinking about. In fact, when I think of the disease I immediately imagine poorly nourished sailors from centuries long past. While it is of little concern in human medicine, scurvy continues to be a problem in veterinary medicine, especially for guinea pigs.

A Lack Of Vitamin C
Scurvy is a disease that is due to insufficient vitamin C in the diet. Vitamins are vital nutrients that are essential for life and are mostly obtained through food because the body cannot generate enough of them, or none at all. Like humans, guinea pigs cannot make vitamin C and must obtain it through food.

What Vitamin C Does
Vitamin C is especially important for the production of collagen, the main protein in connective tissue. Collagen helps wounds heal and maintains healthy cartilage, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, teeth, skin and heart tissue. Weak collagen leads to joint instability, loose teeth and weakened blood vessels. When tendons and ligaments lose their strength, joints become unstable, which leads to excess wear and tear and subsequent arthritis. 

Guinea pigs with scurvy often appear to bunny-hop when walking. Loose teeth cause malocclusion. In guinea pigs, the teeth can shift so much that the tongue becomes entrapped, which prevents them from being able to eat. Damaged collagen due to a lack of vitamin C leads to other clinical signs, including:

  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking, swollen joints
  • Bruising
  • Rough hair coat
  • Pain
  • Diarrhea and weight loss

If a guinea pig has been diagnosed with scurvy, it is critical that he be started on vitamin C immediately. Secondary problems will also need to be addressed, and this may include feeding by syringe, treatment of dental disease, pain relief and so on. Unfortunately, some changes are often permanent and require lifelong treatment, these can include arthritis and dental disease.

Preventing Scurvy In Guinea Pigs
Scurvy can be prevented by ensuring there is adequate vitamin C in a guinea pig’s diet. It is important to know that vitamin C is light sensitive, so providing it via drops in water bottles that are transparent is not recommended. It is also difficult to control how much a guinea pig drinks, which might make offering it via drops in a water bottle an unreliable vitamin C source. 

Vitamin C has also been shown to rapidly degrade in food over time, so I caution people about relying solely on vegetables, especially in northern areas where fresh produce is transported long distances during winter months. For my clients, I recommend using solid vitamin C supplements like Oxbow’s Natural Science Vitamin C biscuits. In general, guinea pigs require 25 to 50 mg/day but this can vary depending on age, reproductive status or illness. 

Talk to your veterinarian about how much vitamin C is right for your guinea pig.

Note: All articles by Dr. Materi are meant for educational purposes only and in no way represent any particular individual or case. They are not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

Posted: November 2, 2015, 9:05 p.m. EST

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