How to identify two common cavy parasites

11 Jul

Generally speaking, in the cavy community there are basically two kinds of parasites with which most everyone is at least vaguely familiar: lice, and mites. Unfortunately, both are common enough that anyone who spends enough time caring for cavies will eventually encounter them. And usually once is enough — once you’ve seen lice or mites on your cavy, you’ll know the telltale signs when you see them again.

But for newcomers, signs of parasitic infestations on a guinea pig can be difficult to detect. Consequently, first-time cavy fanciers rarely notice symptoms before the infestation has become large and difficult to manage. If this is you, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad pet owner. It just means your new, and we’ve all been there before. However, it is important to note that, without timely treatment, some kinds of infestations can kill your cavy.

Because these common pests can result in permanent harm and even death in cavies, it is important to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of two common cavy parasites: lice, and mange mites.

Cavy Lice

What a lovely little cavy louse looks like up close. Beautiful, isn’t he?

First, let’s address that crawly feeling you’re experiencing right now: guinea pig lice is completely different from human lice. The most common species of guinea pig lice is known scientifically as Gliricola porcelli, and although there are a few other minor species of lice that live on guinea pigs, none of them can infect humans. All species of guinea pig lice rely completely on a single source of food — guinea pig blood. They can’t drink human blood, so even if they were inclined to wander from their host — and they aren’t — they’d starve to death on you in relatively short order.

While cavy lice can case your furry friends a great deal of discomfort, it isn’t nearly as destructive as mites. However, lice is also much more difficult to detect, and can multiply and spread to cause significant infestations before it starts manifesting any easily noticeable symptoms. In my experience, this is the most problematic part of dealing with cavy lice — it spreads quickly, easily, and silently. If you see it on one of your cavies, then it is safe to assume that ALL of your cavies need to be treated for lice.

Cavy lice are long, flattish, yellow or whitish creatures that are just large enough to be visible to the human eye. If your cavy has lice, you will see tiny, almost worm-like insects wriggling on you cavy’s skin underneath its hair. Large infestations will become obvious upon close inspection. But light infestations may be difficult to detect visually. Symptoms of lice include scratching, hair pulling, thinning hair, and rough or rashy-looking skin (as a result of scratching).

Cavy lice spread from one guinea pig to the next via direct contact with other guinea pigs or contact with other contaminated objects, which may include cage bedding, toys or other cage furnishings, grooming utensils and supplies, or, quite frankly, humans who have handled other guinea pigs with lice (like I said, the lice won’t live on you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a louse on your hand or shirt and drop it off in another cavy’s hair). Because they spread so easily, cavy lice is a chronic problem anywhere numerous guinea pigs may be found. Common problem spots include cavy shows, pet stores, rescues, and other caviaries. It’s worth noting that your cavy is not going to get lice from bedding or food bought at a store; but it may pick up lice whenever it enters a situation where there are other unfamiliar guinea pigs.

As a general rule of thumb, if I plan to take my cavies anywhere there will be other cavies with which I am are not familiar, I always treat those cavies that traveled as though they have come into contact with lice.

The good news is, lice is relatively easy to treat and get rid of. Common treatments include topical sprays, various over-the-counter topical medications, or prescription topical treatments you can get from your vet. If you feel your pet has lice and you are not comfortable treating it, please take it to your local exotics vet.

Mange Mites

The hair loss and scabby skin seen on the back of this cavy is typical of a mange mites infestation.

Given the two options, every guinea pig ever would prefer to get lice, rather than mites. Mange mites are nasty creatures — nearly microscopic arachnids known scientifically as Trixacarus caviae, and similar, though still separate from, the pests that cause scabies in humans. Like cavy lice, you can’t get mange mites from your guinea pig, because mange mites can’t live off human blood. However, mange mites are very bad news for your guinea pig, because if left untreated, the infestations can be fatal.

Unlike lice, mange mites do not just passively sit on the skin and drink your cavy’s blood. Mange mites lay their eggs beneath the skin, which means the mites themselves burrow into the skin and create passageways through the skin that can sometimes be seen as raised, web-like rashes on the guinea pig’s back or belly. This causes the cavy extreme discomfort. If infested, your cavy will scratch and bite at itself, will become sensitive to being touched or petted and may suddenly become aggressive toward its caretakers, and, as the infestations grows larger, your cavy may appear to have fits where it runs wildly about its cage or has convulsions.

Mange mites are not visible to the human eye. Observable symptoms include radical patchy hair loss, crusty skin, and patch-work open sores on the cavy’s back and sides. If you observe these symptoms in your cavy, seek treatment immediately, as advanced infestations often cause such discomfort that the cavy may stop eating and drinking, ultimately resulting in death. Additionally, even though the sores will heal with time and proper treatment, many heal over with scar tissue, and the cavy’s hair may never grow in properly. If you are trying to show your guinea pigs, the prevention and timely treatment of mite infestations is essential to maintaining your cavy’s competitive condition.

The good news is, mange mites do not spread as easily as lice. Like lice, mites are not inclined to leave the comfort of a host. Unlike lice, mange mites also spend part of their life cycle underneath the cavy’s skin, which means the mites and their eggs are unlikely to fall off a cavy and into bedding or other materials that might allow the infestation to spread. Most mite infestations result from direct cavy-to-cavy contact. However, the death of a host will cause the mites to seek out a new home. Additionally, overpopulation and unsanitary living conditions can aid the spread of mite infestations.

Topical treatment is not usually an effective means of getting rid of mites. If your cavy shows symptoms of mites, seek out over-the-counter medications that can be administered orally, or talk to a veterinarian to treat the infestation via a series of injections. While lice can in some cases be treated with a one-time dose of certain topical medications, mites will require more than one dose. Most medications that kill mites will not kill the eggs, and mite eggs can live in a dormant state beneath the skin for several months.

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