When some people think of a guinea pig, they picture a “starter pet” for a child, a sort of stepping stone to a more traditional “adult” pet like a cat or dog. However, this could not be further from the truth. Small herbivores like guinea pigs can be exceptionally rewarding pets for anyone, but they require preparation and commitment. For many people, a small mammal can fill the need for companionship, without some of the space requirements of a cat or dog. However, it is vital to realize that small mammals are not intrinsically easier to take care of than larger ones, and that they require specialized care and housing. Below are a few pertinent points to consider if you are thinking about bringing one of these amazing animals into your life.
Background: Guinea pigs are rodents, like mice and rats. Their scientific name is Cavia porcellus, so they are often called cavies for short. Fun fact: they are also closely related to the largest rodent in the world, the majestic capybara!
Guinea pigs originally hail from South America, near the Andes mountains. The modern guinea pig is descending from the wild cavies that were domesticated as a source of food in that area. However, in North America, guinea pigs are more often considered pets than dinner!
Lifespan: Guinea pigs typically live between five to seven years, and sometimes up to ten. The
y are not a short term commitment. If you are thinking about getting a guinea pig for a child, keep in mind that this pet will be a part of your family for quite a while, even if the child is no longer interested in it.
Diet: The primary component of a healthy guinea pig’s diet should be free choice grass hay. Guinea pigs are meant to be grazers, and should always have a source of fiber to munch on. Without an adequate amount of this fiber, they will be prone to severe gastrointestinal issues. Timothy or orchard grass are good choices. Alfalfa is excellent for very young pigs or lactating sows, but is too high in calcium for typical adult pigs. A limited amount of a high quality, species specific pellet should also be fed. A typical rule of thumb is ⅛ cup per pig per day. Fresh greens should also be fed daily. Fruit is fine in small amounts as a treat, but is too high in sugar to be a major component of their diet.
Like humans, but unlike most other animals, guinea pigs cannot produce their own vitamin C, but must obtain it from their diet. Most commercially available guinea pig pellets are supplemented with vitamin C, but this will degrade over time. It is important to include some fruit and veggies with high vitamin C in a pig’s diet, like green peppers or oranges.
Sick cavies may also require additional vitamin C. Most pigs will happily eat chewable children’s vitamin C tablets, and you should aim for about 25 mg/pig/day.
Housing: A good rule is: the bigger the better! Most cages sold at pet stores are far too small for happy, healthy pigs. It is vital that pigs have enough space to exercise and move around. Look for a setup that is well ventilated and has solid flooring. Wire bottomed cages may seem easier to keep clean, but will often result in painful and debilitating foot conditions. There are some very easy to build enclosures outlined online, including at https://www.guineapigcages.com/howto.htm. Many of these are essentially open topped pens. Since guinea pigs are not great climbers or jumpers, they do not need high security cages.
Behavior: Guinea pigs are extremely social animals. In the wild, they live in herds. In captivity, they are best kept in groups of at least two. Same sex pairs are a good option, or a neutered male can be kept with females. Even if you provide your pig with all the love and care in the world, there is no substitute for a buddy of the same species.
Regular out of cage exercise is also important. Even if your pig has the most luxurious enclosure, they need to be able to exercise in a larger space on a regular basis. This is best done in a designated “pig proofed” room, like a bathroom. This should be a space that is easy to clean, and free of dangerous items to chew (like electrical wires).
In additional to exercise time, a well socialized pig should also be handled regularly. Many pigs can learn to love lap time, and may happily snooze away while you read or watch television. Although they may be skittish initially, with enough patience, almost all guinea pigs can be won over (and extra veggies during handling don’t hurt either!).
Guinea pigs also have a strong desire to chew. Like all rodents, their teeth growth throughout their lives. While they do not require fancy toys, they can get great enjoyment from a simple cardboard box or block of wood.
Cavies are very vocal animals. They may chut, putter, and purr to each other. Their most notable noise is the high pitched “wheek!” that they often make in response to food preparation.
Reproduction: Just like dogs and cats, there are many homeless and unwanted guinea pigs available already. Unless you have very specific plans for showing your pigs, there are few reasons to intentionally breed pet guinea pigs. Unplanned breedings can also be dangerous for your pets. If female guinea pigs do not have their first litter by a certain age, they will often by physically unable to deliver young. The pelvic symphysis (the connection between the two halves of the pelvic bone) needs to be able to stretch for a normal delivery, and this connection fuses in unbred females by about six months. Breeding an older female can lead to a life threatening dystocia, or difficult birth.
Many intact female guinea pigs will also develop ovarian cysts, which can be painful and dangerous. For these reasons, it is recommended to spay guinea pigs if at
Health: Guinea pigs are a prey species. This means that they may hide signs of illness until it is no longer possible to do so. If you notice that something is off about your small pet, they should be assessed by a veterinarian as soon an possible. Even a slight delay can be harmful, since they may already be quite ill.
A good way to monitor your pig for a subtle decline is to weigh him or her regularly on a gram scale. The first sign of illness in an otherwise healthy pig may be dropping weight.
Here are some other signs to watch for, and reasons to check in with your vet:
- Sneezing, runny eyes or nose, difficulty breathing
- Decreased appetite or fecal production
- Dropping food while trying to eat
- Excessive scratching
- Red, swollen feed
- Vocalizing when urinating or bloody urine
In general, guinea pigs are hardy little creatures. If properly cared for, and regularly interacted with, they can be affectionate and interactive. If you have the time, energy, and space to devote to a guinea pig, they will return your investment with interest!
Bradley Bays, T., Pollock, C., & Arbona, N. (2017, December 02). Behavior Basics: Clinical Approach to the Guinea Pig. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from https://lafeber.com/vet/behavior-basics-clinical-approach-guinea-pig/
Pollock, C. (2016, April 29). Basic Information Sheet: European Rabbit. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-for-european-rabbits/
Pollock, C. (2016, February 01). Basic Information Sheet: Guinea Pig. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-for-guinea-pigs/
Pollock, C. (2017, November 18). Guinea Pig Reproduction Basics. Retrieved December 13, 2017, from https://lafeber.com/vet/guinea-pig-reproduction-basics/