Pet Articles

Vitamin C and Guinea Pigs

What do guinea pigs and people have in common? The answer is that they are both unable to make their own vitamin C. This means that they need vitamin C supplied in their diet in the correct amount every day to remain healthy. Now, why is it then that some animals have the ability to make their own vitamin C? It is all the result of one type of protein in the body that is ‘guardian’ of a reaction involving chemicals that change the food eaten into vitamin C. Think of this as a metamorphosis of a cocoon into a butterfly – there are many aspects that affect if the butterfly will emerge from the cocoon. Extreme heat or cold might cease the metamorphosis, just as certain factors help food entering the body to be transformed into vitamin C, or others might stop this from occurring. The main contributor to successful vitamin C production in the body is the ‘guardian’ protein. However, this specific protein is not found in humans, guinea pigs, nonhuman primates, and some fruit bats. This is why they cannot produce vitamin C like other animals do.

Since guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C, when they are not getting enough in their diet problems can arise. In humans, scurvy was noted in sailors that remained at sea for long periods of time when they did not have foods containing vitamin C. This vitamin deficiency was actually a huge problem for English sailors in particular, especially around 1600s-1700s. They would get very tired, get swollen painful gums, leg bruises, and their teeth would fall out after a couple months at sea, but they had no idea why this was occurring. They soon discovered that it was because they would have to eat all the fresh fruit within a couple of weeks, and then would be left with no source of vitamin C. Similarly, scurvy is also a condition that your guinea pig can develop if it is not getting enough vitamin C. There is not one telltale sign that your guinea pig has a deficiency of vitamin C, especially if it is only getting a little bit less than it needs, but some signs are:

  • Weakness, not moving as much
  • Difficulty walking/stiffness
  • Not eating
  • Poor skin coat and hair coat
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Does not like when you touch it (hurts)

In order to prevent these problems from arising, a proper amount of vitamin C should be provided to the guinea pig daily to maintain its health.

Vitamin C is most definitely not a difficult vitamin to find in foods. It is present in a wide variety of foods that you are likely giving to your guinea pig as treats already! Some foods that are excellent sources of vitamin C are leafy greens, broccoli, kale, peas, tomatoes, oranges, kiwi, dandelion greens (not sprayed) and many others. A general rule is that the darker green vegetables are usually better to give to guinea pigs as treats. For example, give romaine lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce; iceberg lettuce is almost pure water and contains little or no nutrients so if fed in excess can cause diarrhea and upset stomachs.

Remember, just as with your own diet, everything in moderation is key. A treat is called a treat because it is not a meal, but an extra special small piece of food to be given occasionally. In addition, vitamin C is included in guinea pig food pellets, however, depending on when the food was actually packaged, and how long it has been sitting on the shelf at the pet store, most or all vitamin C in the pellets might have disappeared. The vitamin C in the pellets will generally degrade to very low levels approximately 90 days after packaging, so if you know it is fresh food, then this will likely take care of your guinea pig’s vitamin C requirements. However, this is impossible to know in most cases, so it is better safe than sorry – some other form of vitamin C can be provided to them.

Moreover, along with the pellets and fresh fruit, vitamin C can also be given to guinea pigs in the form of a supplement. If your veterinarian suggests this, or you do not give your guinea pig fresh fruits, or perhaps just want to make sure it is getting the correct amount of vitamin C every day, it is a good option. Vitamin C is available as a liquid, powdered, or tablet form and can be directly fed to the guinea pig or put in the water. If putting the vitamin C in the water, be sure to let the water sit out for 24 hours before adding the vitamin C. The reason behind this is because there are chemicals, such as chlorine, in tap water that can inactivate vitamin C so that your guinea pig’s body will not be able to use it. Check with your veterinarian to ensure that you are giving a sufficient amount of vitamin C as a supplement for your guinea pig. Overdosing, as well as under dosing, can be harmful to your guinea pig.

Now that you are aware of the extra special care that your guinea pig requires you can take matters into your own hands to ensure your precious guinea pig always has a proper amount of vitamin C to keep it happy and healthy. He/she will thank you with guinea pig squeaks and kisses.

By – Laura Platt – writer

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