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Treating guinea pigs seriously

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This month, a guinea pig owner debates whether veterinary teaching about cavies is good enough

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I TAKE my pets’ health very seriously, as most doting owners do, but the difference may be that my ‘walking vet bills’ are guinea pigs – five of them. In the three years that I have owned my group, I have had varying experiences with vets, which has resulted in my being registered with two practices and having favoured vets within each practice.

One practice, that I found through a guinea pig information sharing forum, has a senior vet with a special interest in guinea pigs. The problem is that this practice is a 40-minute drive away, so I use them only in non-emergency situations. I use a more local vet for emergency situations when they need to be seen within 30 minutes. In an emergency situation, I feel that a vet without extensive knowledge of exotics (with me watching them like a hawk) is better than losing an animal in the car on the way.

My interest in guinea pigs and meticulousness with their healthcare has received mixed reviews. At the closer, less favoured practice, I have seen many vets who seem to rush me out the door. Perhaps they think I’m wasting their time with such a small animal? Or maybe they lack confidence in their ability to examine this species?

I ask a lot of questions to obtain the full picture of the diagnosis and what my options are. I certainly don’t appreciate feeling like I’m having options withheld from me because of a misconception that I won’t consider a procedure that costs ‘X’ amount for the sake of a guinea pig. I’ve even met vets at conferences who scoff at my view that a dog would mean no more to me than my pet guinea pigs. I’ve had receptionists and vets squirm and blush at the price quoted for an eye extraction due to hay poke or for an out-of-hours call out fee, with one even remarking ‘that’s a lot for a guinea pig’. Since when should responsible ownership be viewed negatively?

It’s so nice to have a vet that is happy to see a guinea pig and gives them the care and attention that would be given to a dog or cat

On the other hand, I have had amazing experiences with my preferred practice. Our yearly check-up is a pleasure, and the vet remembers their past conditions so well. It’s so nice to have a vet that is seemingly happy to see that you’ve brought them some guinea pig patients and gives them the care and attention to detail that would be given to a dog or cat.

Of course, it isn’t just a problem at the practice level. Having been around student vets, and having been based at a veterinary campus during my degree course, it seems there is a lack of teaching and research about exotics. There also appears to be a lack of licensed medicines for exotics, compared with what is available for cats and dogs.

From my experience, there seems to be a real awareness among ‘cavy savvy’ owners of the importance of not having just any vet, but a knowledgeable exotics vet. This is through fear of being given an incorrect medicine, since many are unlicensed for guinea pigs, or having conditions undiagnosed due to a lack of knowledge. Some of these owners have had bad experiences themselves or have learned from the experiences of others. It worries me that many guinea pigs, and indeed other small mammals, may be receiving inadequate veterinary care due to a vet’s lack of experience, confidence, interest and an assumption of the owner’s receptiveness to treatment.

Yes, guinea pigs cost £25 at the local pet shop, but they deserve as much care as any pet. If vets lead the way with this attitude, they will surely influence owners too. This can only be a good thing for guinea pig welfare. Hopefully, we will begin to see more vets that are pleased to have five guinea pigs presented in their consultation room.

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If you know a client who might be interested in writing for us, please contact us at vet.clientview{at}bmj.com. Any contributions will be assessed by the column’s veterinary coordinator, Zoe Belshaw.

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