I was counselling a sad owner who had lost his beloved guinea pig, Wilma, at just three years old. He just could not believe that she could sicken and die so fast.
He was beginning to convince himself that Wilma’s love of sweet things had caused her tooth problems, resulting in tooth decay like we might experience, and her eventual death.
But the reality was so different and much more sad. She did die of tooth problems, but not because of her ‘sweet tooth’. Guinea pigs have a similar evolutionary dental detail to rabbits: all their teeth are constantly growing and being replaced. So, whereas the set of teeth I have now will never change or be replaced, her crowns are replaced every month.
It is a delicate balance in a piglet’s mouth. Each tooth root creates new crown at a set rate each day. They chew their food, and the grinding of the rough foliage files down the tops of the crowns at exactly the same rate.
If anything happens to stop them eating, even for a short time, the crowns start to overgrow and get too sharp. This causes pain in the mouth if they should try to eat, and then a rapid downward spiral of weight loss and pain. The only solutions are an anaesthetic to allow me to re-shape the teeth again, or Heaven.
Sadly, by the time Wilma was brought to us she was deemed too poorly and weak to anaesthetise, leaving her owner utterly devastated.
So, here are my tips for guinea pig owners: always check on your piglets twice a day at least. You will get to know their little characters and foibles. Then, if anything changes at all, bring them straight in for a check up. They are good at concealing their pain.
In Wilma’s case, she seemed normal, except that she stopped ‘chattering’ to her owner at meal time. I think her mouth was too sore to ‘speak’.