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Guinea Pig Care

By: Dr. Lani Steinohrt

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The scientific name of the guinea pig is Cavia porcellus and is where the other common name 'cavy' originates. They are rodents that are native to the Andes Mountain region of South America. The Andean Indians of Peru first domesticated the guinea pig and used them as a food source and a sacrificial offering to the Incan Gods. Guinea pigs eventually made their way to the research laboratories in the 18th century and, since then, have made significant contributions to the scientific community. Through selective breeding by cavy fanciers, an array of colors and hair types have developed. The most common breeds are the English (short and straight hair), Abyssinian (coarse hair with rosettes or whorls) and the Peruvian (long, straight hair parted down the back).

Quick Pig Facts

  • Guinea pigs must have vitamin C added to their diet.

  • Their average life span as a pet is 5 to 7 years old.

  • The best environmental temperature range is 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (humidity 40 to 70 percent).

  • Breeding age and ability to conceive is 3 to 4 months for the male, and 3 to 7 months for females. If never bred before, NEVER breed after 7 months of age.

  • The males (boars) are larger than the females (sows).

    Behavior

    The docile, lively and charming personalities of cavies have made them favorite pets to children and adults alike. They are non-aggressive and rarely bite or scratch. Guinea pigs are social creatures that enjoy the company of other cavies as well as their human counterparts. Male and female guinea pigs may be housed together. In fact they do well in groups or "harems" – several females with one male. However, if several males are housed together, they may fight.

    Cavies do not interact through common grooming behaviors as do many other pets, but rather seek direct contact by standing next to their object of affection. Guinea pigs are very vocal. Recognized sounds emitted by cavies have been defined as chatter, whistle, chirp, grunt and squeal to name a few. Many guinea pig owners can attest to the delightful scream of their guinea pig as they reach for the refrigerator door handle or a box of treats.

    Cavies tend to be creatures of habit and do not adapt readily to changes in texture, appearance, taste and presentation of their food and water (neophobic). When your pet is young, it is a good idea to expose him to small amounts of different guinea pig chow and vegetables so they become accustomed to change and variety.

    Housing

    Housing accommodations should be made with the knowledge that healthy, happy guinea pigs produce amazing amounts of feces, turn over any unstable container and may defecate and urinate in their feed and water containers. Guinea pigs have also been known to play with the water bottle nipple and spit a premasticated slurry of food into their sipper bottles. With these antics in mind, simplicity in housing is best.
    Since cavies do not jump or climb very well, the tops of their cages may be left open if the walls are at least 9 to 10 inches tall. Of course, if any 'predators' such as inquisitive cats or dogs are in the home, a tight lid should be affixed to the top.

    In the laboratory setting in the United States, the minimum required floor space is approximately 101 square inches. At home this space should be at least double for pet guinea pigs. At least 18 inches by 18 inches can house one adult but he would probably prefer more space.

    Cages can be constructed of plastic, metal or wire. Good ventilation is imperative so solid-sided cages are less favorable. If this type of cage is used, the bedding should be completely changed twice a week to prevent high ammonia levels from collecting in the cage. The ammonia levels can lead to 'stress,' and irritated nostrils, eyes and lungs. If left unattended, these symptoms can become severe and even life-threatening.

    Flooring

    The flooring of the cage may be either solid or wire. Foot and leg injuries (including broken bones and pododermatitis) are more likely with wire flooring. Wire mesh that is 12 by 38 mm may minimize the chance of leg injuries, but a solid floor is preferred. If a solid floor is used, an abundant amount of bedding that is clean, absorbent, relatively dust-free and easy to replace should be provided. The bedding should be completely removed and replaced frequently. Good examples of floor substrate include recycled paper materials, pellets and shredded paper. Non-scented wood shavings are also acceptable. Avoid cedar chips and other wood shavings that have oils. Corncob bedding often harbor bacteria and fungi and is not recommended.

    Hide Box and Cage Furniture

    Cavies seek 'visual security' and need places to hide and feel secure. An upside down cardboard or wooden box with a cut-out door work well. If the boxes get soiled or chewed on, they are easily replaced.
    Although they do not climb well, they still like to walk up ramps and climb onto low shelves. They also enjoy rooting and burrowing in hay or straw.

    Cage Location and Environmental Temperature

    Location of the cage is just as important as the cage itself. Cavies are more active at night, and they require quiet periods of time during the day for rest. They seem more comfortable and relaxed when they are housed in a quiet area free of noise, commotion and excitement. Guinea pigs tolerate cool temperatures better than heat and should be housed out of direct sunlight and in a cool area. The recommended environmental temperature is 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. High heat coupled with high humidity may cause heat stroke.

    Nutrition

    The recommended diet for pet guinea pigs consists of fresh guinea pig pellets (18 to 20 percent crude protein and 10 to 16 percent fiber) and an unlimited supply of high quality grass hay (timothy hay). Alfalfa hay is not recommended due to its high calcium and protein content, which may predispose some guinea pigs to diarrhea, kidney and bladder stones or urine "sludge"(sand in the bladder).

    It is well recognized that all guinea pigs MUST have vitamin C (ascorbic acid) added to their diet. Just as with humans, their body cannot make the vitamin and must rely on vitamin C added to the diet. Although commercial guinea pig pellets have excess vitamin C added, it is active for only 90 days under the most ideal storage conditions. Realistically, the potency is more likely lost in 5 to 6 weeks from the date that is on the package.

    It is best to assume that not enough vitamin C is being supplied and to supplement adequate levels of this vitamin in the form of vegetables, fruit and through the addition of vitamin C to the drinking water. Vitamin C is light sensitive and loses 50 percent of its potency in 24 hours. Cover the water bottle (with a sock or foil), change the water and add more vitamin C daily. Many guinea pigs like the taste of chewable vitamin C tablets and can be trained to eat them. An optimum daily amount is 1 to 2 mg per 100 grams of your pig's weight. Examples of vegetables and fruits that have 20 mg of vitamin C or more per ounce are: guava, orange and lemon with peel, parsley, brussels sprouts, broccoli, collard and mustard greens and kale.

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