It’s always exciting waiting for guinea pig babies to be born, but it can also be a worrying time too. During pregnancy, problems can occur, of which the most serious is likely to be pregnancy toxaemia. Find out more about this very serious condition below.
Young guinea pigs can be orphaned by pregnancy toxaemia if their mother is affected after birth.
One of the most common causes of death for a female guinea pig after mating is pregnancy toxaemia.
This can lead to the babies being aborted or sometimes orphaned, and if you breed guinea pigs, it is therefore very important to be aware of how to hand-rear a litter of pups if this becomes necessary.
What is pregnancy toxaemia?
Sometimes described simply as ketosis, this is a condition that is nearly always fatal. It typically strikes guinea pig sows during the last two or three weeks of pregnancy, although it can also develop during the first week following the birth of the young.
Although usually a concern for breeders, it is not tied to pregnancy specifically. Allowing any guinea pig to become severely overweight is dangerous to its health.
Under these circumstances, both male and female guinea pigs are vulnerable to the condition, if they are obese.
The importance of a well-balanced diet cannot be highlighted enough, as, during the normal metabolic process, fatty acids in the body are broken down, creating toxic ketone bodies.
For numerous reasons, however, including most commonly an inadequate diet, the amount of these metabolites produced by the body may be more than the guinea pig is able to remove from their system. This creates a surplus of ketone bodies in the blood, and it is this that is invariably fatal!
What are the symptoms?
Having witnessed the condition, once the symptoms are present, it is unfortunately often too late to do anything.
I have discovered from experience that a common symptom is lack of appetite; and this alongside a lack of thirst means the guinea pig will quickly become dehydrated. Breathing difficulties often follow.
As a result of its loss of appetite, so a guinea pig will have less energy and so it soon becomes lethargic. Sadly, death usually occurs within 2-5 days of the symptoms first appearing.
Although guinea pigs with pregnancy toxaemia usually do not recover, it is crucial to seek veterinary advice without delay. This is partly because the condition can be easily confused with calcium deficiency.
The symptoms are very similar, but if treated early, a calcium deficiency is much less severe, with the guinea pig often making a full recovery.
Fitness is also important, and guinea pigs suffering from pregnancy toxaemia will appear lethargic.
What causes pregnancy toxaemia?
There are a number of reasons underlying this condition. Wendy points out that inadequate feeding throughout the pregnancy, and in particular during the latter stages before birth, can most commonly lead to the condition.
Another factor, is the sow being overweight from the beginning of the pregnancy, given that as obesity alone can cause ketosis.
If the sow is carrying too many young, then this can have an effect, as well as the guinea pig being housed in a stressful environment. Sometimes, however, pregnancy toxaemia is impossible to prevent.
Although I have never encountered it, some breeders have found that a sow can inherit a rare condition from their mothers, where the blood vessels in the uterus do not develop properly. Unfortunately, this developmental problem also leads to pregnancy toxaemia.
Can pregnancy toxaemia be prevented?
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, and this is most certainly applies in the case of pregnancy toxaemia.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure it does not occur, including allowing sows to receive a limited diet of high-quality food throughout their pregnancy, to meet the demands of their developing offspring.
This then ensures that the sow is obtaining all the necessary nutrients that she requires, but in moderation, so she will not become obese.
It is also important that guinea pig mothers-to-be are fed at regular intervals throughout the day.
This method of feeding reduces the risk of ketones building up within the body, and so helps to lower the risk of pregnancy toxaemia occurring.
Stress too can be a factor in triggering this illness and so trying to avoid any unnecessary disturbance or handling during the latter stages of pregnancy, and keeping a pregnant guinea pig in a quiet environment should help to reduce the chances of the sow suffering from pregnancy toxaemia.
A good diet during pregnancy will help to guard against pregnancy toxaemia.
Is any treatment possible?
Unfortunately, there is no certain cure for ketosis, and as suggested, treatment is rarely effective.
Nevertheless, you should seek veterinary advice at the earliest opportunities, even if the outlook is grim. There may be a chance that your guinea pig could pull through.
Will the young survive?
Although pregnancy toxaemia usually leads to still births, affecting the developing young as much as their mother, it is possible, particularly if the sow shows symptoms after the birth, for the young to survive and the pups to be unaffected by their mother’s illness.
In these cases, it is best if the babies can be fostered by another sow who gave birth at a similar time, but in practice, this simply may not be possible.
Nevertheless, hand-rearing the young guinea pigs is another option.
This tends to be quite challenging, but it is significantly easier than with other types of rodents, such as hamsters, where the young are born in a very undeveloped state, with their eyes closed and without fur. Young guinea pigs soon start to nibble solid food.
How can baby guinea pigs be hand-reared?
I have successfully raised numerous litters for different reasons, and have some very useful tips to help if you are left in the unfortunate situation of being faced with orphaned guinea pigs.
I was able to raise a litter of three coronet pups, which were orphaned when their mother sadly died from pregnancy toxaemia.
One of the most important steps when hand-rearing young guinea pigs successfully is to acquire some colostrum, particularly if the pups had no opportunity to suckle from their mother before she died.
This so-called ‘first milk’ helps to protect them from the risk of early infections before their own immune systems are fully functional.
Luckily for this litter, they had been able to suckle from their mother before she became ill, and so this was not a concern. The colostrum they received from her significantly helped to boost their immune system.
While you cannot purchase guinea pig colostrum, supplies sold in either fresh or powdered form to help young lambs or foals can be advantageous for young colostrum-deprived guinea pigs.
You can speak to your vet about finding a local supplier. Although colostrum can be bought on-line too, it is vital to get it into the young guinea pigs as soon as possible after birth. Otherwise, it will be of no use.
What is a suitable rearing food and how should it be provided?
There are many contrasting opinions regarding what young guinea pigs should then be fed when they are being hand-reared.
Some people believe that milk replacers are not suitable for guinea pigs, whereas others have raised orphan litters using goat’s or sheep’s milk.
Wendy has always found Royal Canin’s puppy milk to be as good as anything, and certainly, many litters have done fantastically well on it.
Finding something to feed young guinea pigs through can also be difficult, as they are so small.
I used a bottle with an extremely small teat that was originally used to bottle feed a miniature Jack Russell puppy.
I have known other breeders to use a paintbrush, dripping the milk into the guinea pig’s mouth, but this can be riskier than using a bottle since it is possible for milk to enter the air pipe and pass into the lungs, where it will almost certainly cause death from pneumonia.
How often should the newborn guinea pigs be fed?
Like the young of many species, the pups should be fed little and often.
During the first few hours, I fed her young coronets small amounts regularly, partly so that they got used to feeding on the bottle quickly.
I found that feeding them hourly for the first 12 hours and then moving onto a feed every two hours works best. This meant getting up every two hours during the night which is not very pleasant, but they soon got to know when it was feeding time, and they’d be so noisy that they would wake me up.
After a week, I was able to move them on to a milk feed every four hours and introduced them to a muesli mix.
Once they were three weeks old, I also introduced them to fresh vegetables, particularly spinach as it is very good for them and they love it!
What age should the young be weaned?
By the fourth week, the young only required a bottle every eight hours.
Although guinea pig pups are usually weaned from their mother at around four weeks, I continued to feed them three times a day for just over an extra week to ensure they were okay.
It has been recorded that hand-reared guinea pig babies can appear healthy, only for them to die unexpectedly once they had been weaned.
Whilst I was feeding them regularly, I kept them in their cage in the house because as I was up during the night, it was easier to have them nearby.
It also ensured they were kept warm, and I provided a soft toy to act as a surrogate mother for them to cuddle into. I also covered their cage with a blanket to make sure they were not in any draughts.
Although it is never pleasant to end up having to raise a litter by hand, as a result of the death of their mother, I am delighted to say that the three young guinea pigs have gone from strength to strength and are now strong, healthy adults.