The guinea pig is an animal of many firsts. It was the first rodent to be domesticated, one of the first small mammals in space – on the Soviet space ship Vostok – 3A No. 1 on March 9, 1961, along with a mouse, and a dog called Chernuska. It is also an ideal first pet for many people. The guinea pigs, also known as a cavie (pronounced “ka-vee”), is an infrequent biter and unfussy eater popular among breeders and casual pet owners alike.
History and Origin
There is a lively debate over the origin of the guinea pig’s common name, since guinea pigs are neither from New Guinea nor are they pigs. Instead, they are rodents from the grasslands of South America who were domesticated by the Incan Indians. They were kept for food – cooked in a style not unlike that of a suckling pig – and also sacrificed to deities. European explorers returning from the New World in the 1500s brought the guinea pig back with them. In the 1770s they came to America as pets and fancy animals.
Guinea pigs are “porcupine-like” rodents rather than “rat-like” rodents. They are more closely related to South American maras, woodchucks and chinchillas than to gerbils or mice. Wild cavies, Cavia aperea, have small, streamlined bodies and weigh only about half as much as their domestic cousins, Cavia porcellius. Domestic guinea pigs are usually around 10 to 12 inches long and weigh between two and three pounds at maturity. They have short legs, stocky bodies and no tails. Unlike many other rodents, guinea pigs are bad climbers and do not pick up food in their paws or store it in hordes for later. Their life expectancy is between 5 to 10 years.
Domestic guinea pigs range in color from agouti-brown like their wild grassland relatives to glossy silver or lilac – there’s even a tortoiseshell variety. Some guinea pigs have smooth coats while others look like punk-rockers with perpetual bed head. You can get a shorthaired American guinea pig or a Peruvian with 18-inch-long locks. The variety seems almost endless.
Healthy, happy guinea pigs require some very specific housing considerations. They produce amazing amounts of feces, turn over any unstable container and may defecate and urinate in their feed and water containers. They 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.
A plastic, metal or wire cage of at least 18 by 18 inches will provide enough room for one adult but your cavie would probably enjoy more room. 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. The flooring of the cage may be either solid or wire. A wire mesh of 12 by 38 mm will minimize the chance of leg injuries but a solid floor is preferred.
Guinea pigs require a great deal of good housekeeping. Provide an abundant amount of clean, absorbent, relatively dust-free bedding that is easy to replace. Good examples include recycled shredded paper and non-scented wood shavings. Avoid cedar chips and other wood shavings that have oils. Corncob bedding often harbors bacteria and fungi, and is not recommended. Whatever bedding you use, remove and replace it frequently to prevent a buildup of high ammonia levels from your pet’s urine and feces. Ammonia can stress your animal, irritating its nostrils, eyes, and lungs. If left unattended, these symptoms can become life threatening. Good ventilation is imperative. If the cage has solid sides, change all of the bedding at least twice a week.
Cavies need places to hide. An upside down cardboard or wooden box with a cut-out door work well. Replace boxes if they get soiled or chewed on. Although they don’t climb well, guinea pigs still like to walk up ramps and climb into low, secure shelves. They also enjoy rooting and burrowing in hay or straw.
Creatures of habit, cavies do not adapt readily to changes in texture, appearance, taste and presentation of their food and water. Expose your young guinea pig to small amounts of different guinea pig chow and vegetables so they become accustomed to change and variety.
The nutritional needs of adult non-breeding, non-lactating (producing milk for young) and inactive pet guinea pigs have not been as well established as for some of the other plant eating small mammals. Fresh guinea pig pellets (18 to 20 percent crude protein and 10 to 16 percent fiber) make up the mainstay of the diet, along with an unlimited supply of high quality timothy hay. (Alfalfa hay is too high in calcium and protein for guinea pigs).
Add vitamin C to the animal’s drinking water. Vitamin C is light sensitive and loses 50 percent of its potency in 24 hours. Keep the bottle covered (with a sock or foil) and 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. The optimum vitamin C required in a day is one to two mg of vitamin C for every 100 grams of animal weight per day. A male’s average adult weight is 900 to 1200 grams and female’s is 700 to 900 grams. Since vitamin C is water soluble and the kidneys excrete excess amounts, overdosing is rarely a problem.