A Scurvy Dog Tale, Minus Pirates

Dr. John Kaya
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Wednesday - March 30, 2011
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The term “scurvy dog” originates from the colorful description pirates would shout at one another. The image is usually of an ill-kept, foul-smelling, splotchy skinned, rotten-toothed swash-buckler who’s been out at sea a little too long. What these pirates have gone through, however, has helped us understand and treat a medical condition in veterinary medicine. How so? Read on.

Skimpy, a 2-year-old male guinea pig, came in one day because of poor appetite and weight loss. His owner Thomas was extremely worried and paced during the whole appointment. He had a right to be concerned. Skimpy’s physical exam revealed a malnourished guinea pig with a body condition score of 2 out of 9 (5 indicates an ideal body weight). He walked with a slight gimp in his stride as he favored his right rear leg. There was a crusty discharge noted at the corners of both eyes and at his nostrils.

Skimpy also was breathing rapidly and with an increased effort.

“Well, Doc, how’s my little boy? Will he be OK?” asked Thomas.


“I think Skimpy may have a condition called scurvy,” I replied.

“Scurvy, like pirates?” queried Thomas.

“Yes. It comes from a lack of vitamin C in his diet. Guinea pigs are one of a handful of critters that need vitamin C in order to be healthy. Let’s review his diet.”

Thomas informed me that he gave Skimpy lots of hay, guinea pig pellets and occasionally offered iceberg lettuce as a treat.

Many owners don’t realize that there is a difference between rabbit pellet food and guinea pig pellets. Guinea pig pellets are fortified with vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Thomas was a very responsible owner to provide the right type of pelleted diet for Skimpy. Unfortunately, the average potency of vitamin C contained in pellets is around 90 days. Many times the journey from manufacturer to food dish is a lot longer than 90 days, negating the benefit of fortified pellets.

Skimpy also got iceberg lettuce, which does contain vitamin C, but he would need to eat a whop-ping 10 cups of shredded lettuce per day to get the recommended 20-25 mg. needed by his body. Offering other vegetables with higher concentrations of vitamin C such as parsley, broccoli or bell peppers would be more beneficial. Fruits are also a great option. Guava, strawberry, kiwi or papayas are examples of fruits high in vitamin C.


Liquid formulations of vitamin C also can be found at pharmacies and health food stores. Adding some to the water bottle would be another way of ensuring proper nutrition

Reviewing all this information, we set forth a plan for Skimpy. Thomas would continue the guinea pig pellets but offer vegetables and fruits daily as well as supplement vitamin C in Skimpy’s water bottle. Skimpy was started on antibiotics for his respiratory infection and probiotics to encourage a healthy digestive system.

One month later, Skimpy was a new guinea pig. He regained his sea legs and was ready for the sailing again, singing, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of vitamin C.”

Hmm, mental note to self: Don’t try so hard.

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