What do guinea pigs and pirates have in common?

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but there is a common medical condition that both guinea pigs and pirates suffer from, and that is scurvy. Also known as hypovitaminosis C. This occurs because both guinea pigs and humans cannot make their own vitamin C, and must ingest adequate levels in their diets.

Most other mammals are able to make their own vitamin C, and it is mainly humans, some other great apes, and guinea pigs that cannot. Guinea pigs require 10-50 mg/kg daily to maintain good health.

Vitamin C is an important cofactor in the production of several enzymes and tissues, particularly collagen. Collagen is the “glue” that holds all our cells and tissue together, and so the symptoms of vitamin C deficiency often are caused by the lack of maintenance of this collagen matrix. Symptoms include lethargy and unwillingness to move, painful joints, poor condition, weight loss, dental issues, bruising or hemorrhage, diarrhea, and a rough coat or alopecia.

Hypovitaminosis C is easiest to diagnose in consultation with the client. A thorough history is warranted, going into detail about the diet. In terms of diet, find out what the guinea pig is fed every day, especially in terms of fresh vegetables and fruit. A guinea pig should consume 80% of the daily diet in hay or grass, with 5% being a pelleted diet formulated for guinea pigs, and the remaining 15% fresh fruit and vegetables. The fresh fruit and vegetable component is the most important part of maintaining adequate vitamin C intake. Vitamin C deteriorates and breaks down with storage and processing, meaning that even if the owner provides supplementation or the pellets containing vitamin C, it is difficult to rely on those sources solely for vitamin C.

Vegetables high in vitamin C that are suitable for guinea pigs include parsley, broccoli, kale, and red capsicum. Other dark green leafy vegetables are also a good source of vitamin C, and Chinese vegetables such as bok choy or kai lan are other options, as they are easy to find and store while maintaining good level of vitamins and minerals. Avoid vegetables such as iceberg lettuce as they contain a high amount of water and not a lot of nutrition. Guinea pigs that develop scurvy will often require supplementation with injectable vitamin C to increase the rate of recovery, as well as prevent further deterioration. They can then be maintained on an oral supplement while the diet is being improved.

Oxbow produces a good tableted vitamin C supplement that can be fed as a treat. Inwater vitamin C additives are often not appropriate as the vitamin tends to degenerate as the water is stored and comes into contact with light and air.

With good owner education and co-operation, many guinea pigs will do well after a diagnosis of scurvy. With guinea pigs that present for other conditions, it is still a good idea to investigate and evaluate the amount of vitamin C in the diet, and supplement the diet if needed.