Not everyone knows that guinea pigs and many other animals can get both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, just as people can. Type 1 is insulin dependent and develops when the islets in the pancreas do not secrete any insulin, needed to metabolise the glucose taken in in food. This type of diabetes can only be treated by insulin injections and usually occurs in younger guinea pigs, most typically under a year old. Type 2 diabetes means that not enough insulin is produced, or if it is, the body cannot utilise it properly. Usually it is the older guinea pig which develops this type of diabetes and it is the most common form found. Rather oddly, diabetes in guinea pigs can go into remission. This is not known in humans and no one knows quite what the process is, but the animal regains the ability to produce insulin normally and is then taken off medication or special diet and goes on to live quite normally.
Signs to watch out for
You canít tell which type of diabetes your guinea pig has by watching for the warning signs, but whichever one it is, it will need immediate diagnosis and treatment, or it could lapse into a coma and die. Often a guinea pig will not display more than one or two of the warning signs but if you are a careful owner who handles their animal at least once a day and knows its usual behaviour patterns, you should pick up that it is unwell. Often the first sign of diabetes is excessive thirst. Make sure that the drinking bottle is not leaking, then monitor the water uptake of your guinea pig. Obviously, there may be the odd day when it drinks a little more than normal, but generally speaking its water consumption will remain fairly constant, so any change can be a useful diagnostic tool. Another giveaway sign is cataract formation in a relatively young animal and also a wet rear end. This is indicative of other problems in guinea pigs but together with any of the other symptoms can be an important marker. The animal may also lose weight, although as a rule the appetite is not affected.
Going to the vet
Many owners take their guinea pig to the vet and have more or less made the diagnosis already. What the vet will then need to do is to decide whether the guinea pig has Type 1 or Type 2 Ė this can be decided on age, but also blood tests are needed. If the animal has Type 1 the only treatment is insulin and this has to be injected. The guinea pig will tolerate this very well as a rule and with careful feeding, it can live a reasonably normal life. It may not be very practical to keep it in a cage with others, as monitoring its food intake will be more difficult, but it could be allowed to socialise at times during the day without too much difficulty. The vet will give you training on how to do the injections. If you are not comfortable with doing this, the guinea pig could be rehomed Ė it is certainly not a reason to have it put down, as it can live a normal lifespan.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 can be treated with either oral medication or insulin. A diabetic guinea pig will also need a special diet and if you are in a position to monitor the animal completely, some can be managed with diet alone. The guinea pig will not be allowed any sweetened treats at all. You may have to start reading box labels very carefully, as the most unexpected foods may have added sugar. You can provide small amounts of fruit if the animal is particularly partial to it, but it should be limited. Its fat intake should be also cut right down, which will mean in practice no seeds or corn. The animal should be encouraged to eat as much hay as possible, as a high fibre diet is very beneficial. To do this, you may have to reduce the amount of vegetables you are offering, so that the guinea pig will eat more hay because it is hungry. The main thing with diabetic animals is to make sure that they always have something handy to eat, as they will naturally balance their glucose levels, if given the opportunity to do so. Donít forget as well that they can recover from Type 2, so they will need frequent checks and a watch on their behaviour, especially if they are on medication or insulin.
There is no way to predict the onset of diabetes, although there is some research that suggests that keeping weight within normal limits reduces the risk. This is good advice in general terms, as animals should not be overweight. Their natural habitat does not offer them the opportunity and anyway fat animals would soon be culled by predators, so it is not a natural condition for them. To prevent the diabetic animal falling into a coma, which can result in death, a close eye must be kept on them and the vet will give advice on how to detect and how to treat a hypo or hyperglycaemic episode.