Foot sores in guinea pigs are also referred to as hock sores (the hock is the lower part of the back leg which touches the floor when the animal is sitting) or pododermatitis. Another name for it is bumblefoot, which sounds quite cute, like something from a children’s story – don’t be misled, though; foot sores are very serious and if left untreated can become life threatening, resulting in at the very least extensive surgery or in the worst cases euthanasia for the animal’s best interest.
Signs to watch out for
The most obvious sign of course is an uneven gait as the guinea pig goes about his everyday business. They are busy little animals and usually bumble around most of the time. If the guinea pig starts limping, or favouring one foot continually – it is most likely a forefoot which will be involved – then the owner should immediately check for foot sores. Guinea pigs being very vocal will probably have alerted the owner by squeaking loudly from the pain and when picked up will certainly do so if the foot is touched. There will be redness and swelling and if the infection has got a hold, there will be hair loss and a draining sore or abscess. In the early stages there may only be thickening of the pads, but it will already be very painful and the pig will certainly let you know! If the animal is in severe pain, it will stay quiet, probably in a corner of the cage or habitat and will not feed. With guinea pigs, offering a treat is often a good way of checking health. If they do not take something they have previously relished, they are probably ill.
Diagnosis of Pododermatitis
The diagnosis is quick and easy as it is an external condition. Problems begin if the infection is deep seated as it may invade the bone – it is then called osteomyelitis and is very serious. If, when the abscess is cleaned out the vet suspects that it may have gone further, an x-ray will be performed. If osteomyelitis is present, it is still possible to arrest the infection with antibiotics but guinea pigs do not tolerate antibiotic therapy well as it interferes with its gut flora to a sometimes fatal extent. Amputation is often the only answer.
Problems with Treatment
If the owner has been vigilant and the bumblefoot has been discovered at an early stage – when only swelling and redness are present, with no broken skin or abscesses – then a change in the bedding and floor may be enough. But if the infection has got a strong hold, it is very difficult to treat. Antibiotics are very difficult to prescribe for guinea pigs and a local dressing is not likely to be tolerated either. The foot will need to be kept dry between therapeutic soakings and any bandage is not going to last long in a cage environment. The guinea pig could be isolated for treatment, but they do not tolerate separation from the colony very well and may become depressed, which will impede healing. If the vet has had to abrade the abscess or sore, the wound will need to be kept scrupulously clean and to all practical purposes this is almost impossible.
Prevention is better than cure
A guinea pig with pododermatitis is a very sick animal and if this can be prevented it is far better. Foot sores are caused by rough flooring, or worse still, wire floors; obesity; wet bedding; dirty bedding; small cage environment or lack of Vitamin C. Most of these situations can be prevented by giving serious thought to the environment before even bringing a guinea pig home. A large cage is essential as guinea pigs love to forage about and play. Being active will reduce the risk of sore feet by a huge margin. As a guide, for two guinea pigs the cage should be at least 5.7 square feet (that is approximately 39”x21”) but that is an absolute minimum. Four guinea pigs should have at least 13 square feet. This environment should include different surfaces and they particularly like to have a raised resting board, so they can sit on a smooth surface occasionally. This should be smooth and free from splinters.
Wire flooring is sometimes used to help sanitation but it is very hard on tiny feet and it is far better to clean out the pigs regularly. Dry bedding and adequate ventilation (but no draughts) will help to prevent sore feet and if possible a run in the open air in inclement weather. Not only will this give the guinea pigs much needed fresh air and grass but will also encourage exercise, if excess weight has been a problem. An adequate diet should deliver enough Vitamin C, but very palatable drops or supplements are available for small caged animals and this should prevent the problem altogether.
Is it contagious?
As such, bumblefoot is not contagious, but of course if it is bacterial then it will pose a risk to cage mates. It is also more than likely that if one animal is suffering from it then others sharing the same cage conditions will also be prone to it and so every animal should be checked regularly. Sore feet, bumblefoot or whatever term is used to describe this condition is not one which any owner should take lightly. The animal suffering from it will be in a great deal of pain and distress and it is not something that will go away. If spotted, it is not enough to simply change the bedding and hope it will clear up spontaneously. The infection will still be present and will need addressing and only a vet’s advice will really do in this case. As with any domestic pet, total vigilance and spending time each day socialising with a guinea pig is the only way to make sure that it remains well and healthy.