Ginger guinea pig

This weekend I was called out to some guinea pigs who had been found collapsed in their hutch. Unfortunately two of them had died before I arrived but the third was successfully treated and is doing well. The reason for their sudden illness? Heat stroke.

The owners had only had the guinea pigs for a few weeks and hadn’t realised that the hutch was in a fairly sunny position. It was also insulated with a cover which had acted like a greenhouse causing the hutch to become an oven.

There is much publicity about the dangers of leaving dogs in hot cars, but very little about the risks of heat stroke in our smaller pets. I have seen cases of deaths in the past, also in guinea pigs, where they have been outside in a run without shade, or kept in an indoor cage in the conservatory.

Guinea pigs do not cope well with extremes of temperature. Hamsters and guinea pigs should ideally be kept at a fairly constant temperature of between 16 and 24 degrees Celsius.

Rabbits cope better with colder temperatures but struggle more in the heat. Their ideal environmental temperature is between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius.

If you are unsure about the temperature where your pet is, you can get a simple minimum-maximum thermometer which will allow you to monitor and act when it gets too cold or too hot.

How to reduce the risk of heat stroke

Two rabbits sitting down
  • Ensure that all accommodation is out of direct sunlight and that any exercise area has a good proportion of shade – remember that the sun moves during the day!
  • Never leave pets in a conservatory as these heat up very quickly.
  • Make sure that any indoor pets’ cages are away from the windows and do not get direct sunlight. Window glass will intensify the sun’s heat.
  • Put ice cubes into water bottles and bowls to cool the water down – but make sure they do not block the drinking pipe of water bottles.
  • Place freezer packs well wrapped in towels around your pet’s accommodation.
  • Use a fan to provide cool air flow for your pet.
  • Use foil to reflect the heat away from solid hutches.
  • Check your pet frequently throughout the day to make sure they are comfortable.

Signs of heat distress

Guinea pig lying down

If your pet is showing any of these signs, they may be in heat distress and at risk of heat stroke.

  • breathing with their mouth open/panting – this is not normal in any of our small pet species so is always an indication of something severely wrong
  • not responding to noise or movement
  • lying down, often stretched out

What to do if your pet is showing signs of heat distress

Hamster sitting on towel
  • Move them out of the hot area immediately
  • Lie them on a damp towel in a cool area and wet their fur with cool water
  • Offer them something cool, not cold, to drink
  • Call your vet and get them checked out as soon as possible

Heat stroke can cause internal organ failure and is often fatal.

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