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Guinea pigs are herbivores rather like rabbits although the physiology and function of their gastrointestinal system is less well understood than that of the rabbit which has been well investigated. The critical area of dietary science in guinea pigs of which you should be aware is their requirement for vitamin C, covered further below. Apart from that, the key to a healthy diet in a guinea pig is variety. Imagine what the guinea pig has to eat in its native environment of the South American forests: a bit of everything from fruits through greens to root vegetables. We often feed a dry guinea pig mix with few fresh vegetables and expect that to satisfy the animal's requirements. It does not.

Vitamin C

For every animal there is a set of essential nutrients and another set of nonessential nutrients. Animals need a regular dietary supply of essential ingredients, while they can produce their own supply of the nonessential nutrients. These essential elements differ between species so that, for instance, the cat and ferret require a regular supply of the amino acid taurine while other mammals like ourselves can produce taurine by metabolizing other amino acids. In the guinea pig and man one key essential nutrient is vitamin C. The vast majority of other animals can produce their own vitamin C from their intestinal bacterial flora but for some reason guinea pigs and human beings are not able to do this. This is why eighteenth century sailors developed scurvy when not able to eat fresh fruit. Vitamin C is vital in the normal development and maintenance of skin and mucosal surfaces like gums. It is also important in the healing of wounds to these structures. As well as predisposing to skin problems, a lack of vitamin C seems to make the body more prone to other diseases, infections and poor condition. A guinea pig which is reluctant to walk, has swollen feet or hemorrhages and ulcers on its gums or elsewhere is likely to be deficient in vitamin C.

There is no reason why a guinea pig should be deficient in this nutrient, since it is available from fresh fruit and green vegetables. But it is a relatively unstable compound. If you are giving only a dry mix with old hay, most of the vitamin C will have decomposed by oxidation. If your guinea pig develops a deficiency, it is much better to give a crushed tablet by mouth rather than in drinking water, since the vitamin breaks down in water and loses its potency. To ensure vitamin C in the diet feed broccoli which has a very high level of the vitamin.

What else to feed?

Given that guinea pigs are adapted to a diet of fibrous vegetable matter good quality hay is important with commercial guinea pig pellets forming the bulk of the food. A good mix like this will keep your guinea pig happy and healthy.

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