Since your guinea pig can't tell you when she doesn't feel well, it's up to you to notice when her appearance or behavior changes, possibly pointing to a health concern. Head tilt, otherwise known as "wry neck," commonly affects pet rabbits. It's relatively rare in guinea pigs, but it does occur. Head tilting has a single primary cause and it requires immediate veterinary treatment; this symptom indicates a life-threatening illness in your pet guinea pig.
Your guinea pig's head tilting results from an ear infection. Like head tilting itself, this condition isn't typically a concern for guinea pigs, but they're certainly not immune to it. Ear infections usually start from a bacterial infection, but they can also be a complication of a respiratory infection like pneumonia, which may have begun from a viral or other type of infection. Once head tilting sets in, the ear infection has spread to the middle ear, and often all the way to the inner ear. This throws off your guinea pig's equilibrium. After an infection reaches the inner ear, it can rapidly affect the central nervous system and become fatal.
Head tilting is an obvious symptom of a serious ear infection in your guinea pig. Hopefully, you'll catch an earlier indication of an ear infection to provide treatment in a more timely manner. You're most likely to notice pus or discharge in your pet's ears, though ear pain is another early symptom. Perhaps you'll notice your guinea pig scratching at her ear a lot or otherwise reacting to pain there. If your guinea pig has an ear infection -- and especially once it progresses inward -- she may also partially or completely lose her hearing. Once the infection reaches the inner ear, symptoms associated with its effects on the nervous system, such as circling, loss of balance and rolling around, also often appear.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Only your vet can definitively diagnose your guinea pig's condition. Her symptoms provide clues as to how far into the ear the infection has gotten; the head tilting points to it having reached the inner ear. Your vet may test blood or discharge from the ear to determine the infective agent at work there. You guinea pig can't recover from an inner ear infection on her own. Long-term treatment with oral antibiotics is the primary course of treatment. Unfortunately, many of the most effective oral antibiotics usually cause serious adverse reactions -- including death -- in guinea pigs. An antibiotic called enrofloxacin is one of the better tolerated. Your vet may prescribe antibiotic ear drops, which aren't as effective. He may also prescribe a topical anesthetic to relieve pain associated with the ear infection and an otic cleanser to keep the ear clean. Keep your guinea pig in a clean, quiet, stress-free environment during convalescence and follow all your vet's instructions carefully.
There's no fool-proof way to prevent ear infections and associated head tilting in guinea pigs. However, keeping your guinea pig in as hygienic an environment as possible is the best step you can take. This includes your entire home, not just your pet's cage. If your home is clean and sanitary, fewer infective agents are around to get to your guinea pig. Remove droppings, soiled bedding and uneaten food from your guinea pig's cage every day, as these quickly foster bacterial growth. Replace all bedding and completely disinfect the cage once per week. Wash the food bowl and water bottle with soap and warm water once per week, too, and provide fresh food and water daily. Although your guinea pig takes care of most of her grooming, brush her hair once every week to remove any food or droppings stuck in her coat.
Eric Mohrman has been a freelance writer since 2007, focusing on travel, food and lifestyle stories. His creative writing is also widely published. He lives in Orlando, Florida.