Guinea pigs or cavy’s are hystricomorph rodents (related to chinchillas and porcupines) that originated from the Andes Mountains region of South America. They were probably first domesticated by the Indians of Peru, who used them for food and as sacrificial offerings to their Gods. In the 16th century Dutch explorers introduced guinea pigs to Europe, and selective breeding and captive rearing began in earnest.
Guinea pigs are very popular pets because of their availability, docile temperaments, tendency not to bite or scratch when handled, and relatively clean habits. They are not long-lived, which can be disconcerting to owners (especially children). Many parents, however, believe that having their children experience the relatively short period of companionship and subsequent death is a meaningful way to expose children to the “ups and downs” of life.
In their natural habitat, guinea pigs live in open, grassy areas. They seek shelter in naturally protected areas or burrows deserted by other animals. Guinea pigs are sociable animals and tend to live in groups. They are strictly herbivorous (plant-eating) and do most of their foraging for grasses, roots, fruits and seeds in the late afternoon and early evening.
Aside from the fact that guinea pigs are incredibly cute, there are a variety of reasons why they make good pets. In particular, the common guinea pig is a low-cost, low-maintenance animal. You will need to change their bedding once or twice a week, supply fresh water every day or two and provide them with food and hay on a daily basis. Bedding material of either sawdust or straw, which is inexpensive. Pellets and hay are also inexpensive, and fresh vegetables can be obtained from the grocery store or grown in your own back yard, not to mention scraps!
For children, the guinea pig is an ideal pet. They are extremely docile, rarely bite and are very sociable. They love to be patted, and will gurgle and grunt happily and nonstop when given this kind of attention. They are larger than most other popular small mammals, such as mice, making them easy to handle (and catch, should they happen to get away). Although they are not as intelligent as rats, the guinea pig is trainable and far more lively.
For most people, including young children, owning one guinea pig is probably enough. It will quickly adjust to being around humans, and will make an excellent playmate. Most commercially available guinea pig cages are designed to hold one or two guinea pigs comfortably.
There are however several advantages to owning more than one guinea pig. Unlike some rodents, guinea pigs get along very well if housed together, and if you aren’t going to be spending a lot of time at home with your pet, it is advisable that you do get it a companion. Otherwise, your cavy will become very lonely and its health will suffer.
If you are about to get a Guinea Pig, you need to make sure you have the basic requirements, before you even bring them home! Here is a list of the basic requirements for any Guinea Pigs.
- Small Animal Cage
- Sawdust or Straw bedding
- Ceramic food dish
- Drip/Sip water bottle
- Guinea Pig Pellets
- Hiding dens & houses
- Toys, ramps, balls
- Salt & Vitamin lick stones
- Nibble treats & drops
Suitable For People Aged: 5 & over
Experience Required: None. Care sheet & info
Feeding Care Time Required: 15 minutes a day
Maintenance Time Required: 1/2 Hour Twice a Week
Minimum Space Required: Small animal cage
Cost of Upkeep: (approx) $4 Per Week
Life Span: (approx) up to 5 years
Availability: All Year
Guinea pigs or cavies are rodents of South American origin. Their wild ancestors, Cavia Cutleri, can still be found in the natural state of Peru. In the wild they occur as small family groups but sometimes form large
colonies with complex burrow systems. They are highly vocal, emitting a range of squeaks and grunts, and are completely vegetarian. The wild guinea pig has only one colour form and hair type (agouti, short hair), the
domesticated species has three main varieties:
- English: Short hair (3-4 cm)
- Abyssinian: Short hair but rough in the form of rosettes
- Peruvian: Long haired (about 15 cm).
All three can be obtained as single, bt or tri-coloured forms involving white, cream, ginger, rust-red, brown, black and agouti.
If you intend to keep your guinea pigs indoors, a specially designed indoor hutch is preferred. This will have a sealed base and usually a cage top much like a bird cage but with a flatter shape. However, a good cardboard box can do the job if maintained and cleaned daily. Cavies are able to be house trained, so you can eventually let them hop in and out of their home at their discretion. For outdoor housing use a hutch no smaller than 24″x15″x12” (60x45x38cm). This would be a permanent hutch and would need to be larger than an indoor one unless they are allowed out to roam. Keep in mind the dangers in allowing your guinea pigs to roam in your yard, cats & hawks will see your pet as a tasty meal.
Whichever enclosure you choose, you will need to line it with an appropriate material as bedding and to absorb waste. This can be either straw or wood shavings, preferably both. They need straw or hay to keep warm and also to eat, to aid in digestion. Ensure the enclosure is away from draughts as guinea pigs are very susceptible to colds. Also make sure it is not in direct sun, or has sufficient shelter so your guinea pig can hide, if left in the full sun they will dehydrate quickly and die. Do not expose them to either extremes of temperature. They will
stay as clean as you keep them. Frozen bottles of water can be placed in the hutch on hot days to keep an area cool.
Grass, greens and fruit are the most suitable source of food for your guinea pig. These are supplementary foods as they should always have a supply of pellets. Pellets alone are insufficient as many of the vitamins (particularly vitamin C) are lost during storage. However, pellets are necessary as they provide a hard food to
keep the ever growing rodent incisors trimmed, and also to provide essential minerals. They should be given both dry and green feed daily. A bran mash can be given in winter as it is warming. Bread and milk are also good. It is amazing the amount of food a guinea pig eats, some (but not all) have enormous appetites. Take care though, some things such as rhubarb leaves, sour sobs, onions, oleander and some garden shrubs are poisonous.
IF IN DOUBT DO NOT FEED IT TO YOUR GUINEA PIG!
Fresh water should always be available. It is recommended to use a sip/drip bottle available from most pet shops. Water in a bowl can quickly become soiled and will not stay fresh.
Ideally do not buy a male (boar) and a female (sow) unless you intend to breed with them. If you do, keep them apart to prevent any unwanted litters. Sows come into season every 14-16 days. They carry their young for 65 days, and wean at 14 weeks. Young boars, which have been left with the litter after 5 weeks have been known to father litters at this age, so they should be removed at about 4 weeks. You can run as many sows together as your cage size permits. Young boars, which have not be separated or mated, can usually be caged together up to 6 months of age.
They will have to be separated when 6 months old, as they will fight. Adult boars cannot normally be caged together as they will fight. They may damage one another badly and the grating (chattering) of teeth is the first sign of a fight. One boar in a pen of sows is the usual when breeding. The pair should be separated when you find the sow is pregnant.
It is recommended that very pregnant or ‘in pig’ sows are removed to a maternity hutch to have her young quietly. Handle pregnant sows as little as possible or you may have problems, as you can damage the unborn young. If for any reason, you lose a sow, another nursing sow may foster the newborns.
A guinea pigs life span is about 5 years. Breeding a sow up to 3 years of age is advisable, then retire her. Begin breeding a sow by 5 months if she is well developed and in good condition. Only plan 2-3 litters a year and give them a good rest between litters. Having litters one after the other will weaken the sow and produce poor quality young. It may also eventually kill her. Two to four young in a litter is the norm.
This can be done with a soft brush to remove loose hair. A dampened hand run over the fur also does a good job. Toe nails often grow too long and are uncomfortable for your pet. You can clip with ordinary nail clippers or dog nail clippers, but be very careful and only cut the tip of the nail and not the darker portion(blood vessels) as it will bleed and be very painful. If the toe does bleed, apply cornflower or styptic powder(from your local pet store) to the nail to stop the bleeding.
If you have any problems with your guinea pig and you are unsure what to do, take them to a vet for a check up. The following are common problems that may be resolved at home if they can be identified.
- LICE- Often caused by mouldy straw or hay, look for tiny white specks, especially behind the ears and inside the back legs. Treat with a small animal mite/lice spray available from your local pet shop.
- COLDS- Keep them warm, preferably indoors if you suspect a cold. Try a dab of eucalyptus oil on the inside front paws to prevent a cold going too far. Check the hutch for draughty spots or dampness. Wet bedding will lead to colds, and can be fatal. With care they can be avoided.
- BAD STOOL/STOMACH- Droppings should be firm. If looseness is noticed, limit greens, especially lettuce and give a little more dry food. When normal’ again, gradually introduce green feed. Too much lettuce can cause this problem, as can stale, limp old greens.
- MITES- Constantly scratching guinea pigs usually means mite. If you suspect mites, use a small animal mite/lice spray from your local pet shop. There may also be sores from scratching which will need to be treated separately.
Guinea Pigs are prey animals. They are timid by nature, but will learn to trust you as they develop. They will make excellent pets, especially for children that need to learn the responsibilities involved in caring for an animal. They are well mannered, clean and will make the perfect companion. Because they can be litter trained, they
can also have a free run of a room or even the whole house. They also don’t chew your possessions like rats or rabbits.
Keeping guinea pigs is interesting, fun and easy.