Caring for Your Guinea Pig
The scientific name of the guinea pig is Cavia porcellus and this is where their other common name, ‘cavy,’ comes from. The rodents are native to the Andes Mountains of South America. Peru’s Andean people 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 into 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 guinea pig (which have short and straight hair), the Abyssinian guinea pig (which have coarse hair with rosettes or whorls) and the Peruvian guinea pig (which have long, straight hair parted down the back).
Quick Guinea Pig Facts
Want to learn more about guinea pigs?
- A domesticated guinea pig’s average life span is between 5 and 7 years old. This is shorter than the average dog or cat, but longer than other household pets like mice or gerbils.
- The best environmental temperature range for guinea pigs is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (with humidity between 40 and 70 percent).
- Male guinea pigs are able to conceive between 3 to 4 months of age and females can conceive between 3 to 7 months of age.
- Males (called boars) are slightly larger than females (called sows).
Guinea Pig Behavior
The docile, lively, and charming personalities of guinea pigs have made them favorite pets to children and adults alike. Guinea pigs are social creatures who enjoy the company of other animals as well as their human counterparts. Male and female guinea pigs may be housed together. In fact, they do well in groups or “harems” with several females and a single male. Keep in mind, however, that male guinea pigs housed together may begin to fight. Guinea pigs do not interact through common grooming behaviors like some other pets. They instead seek direct contact by standing next to the object of their affection.
Guinea pigs are very vocal. The sounds they emit have been characterized as chatters, whistles, chirps, grunts, and squeals. Many 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 the texture, appearance, taste, and presentation of their daily food and water. When your pet is young, it is a good idea to expose them to small amounts of different guinea pig chow and vegetables so they become accustomed to change and variety.
Guinea Pig Care: Housing
A few things to keep in mind when accommodating a guinea pig:
- Healthy guinea pigs produce a considerable amount of feces
- Guinea pigs will often topple unstable containers and objects
- Your guinea pig may defecate or urinate into its food and water containers or regurgitate a mix of chewed food into its sipper bottle.
In general, simplicity is best. Since guinea pigs 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, the cage should include a tight lid affixed at the top.
In the laboratory setting in the United States, the minimum required floor space for guinea pigs is approximately 101 square inches. At home, this space should be at least double for pets. At least 18×18 inches can house one adult, but an active guinea pig may 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 inside the cage. These ammonia levels can lead to stress as well as irritation of the nostrils, eyes, and lungs. If left unattended, these symptoms can become severe and even life-threatening.
Guinea Pig Care: Flooring and Furniture
The flooring of your guinea pig’s 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 12×38 millimeters may minimize the chance of leg injuries, but a solid floor is preferred. If you opt for solid flooring, make sure to provide an abundant amount of clean, absorbent, and easily replaced bedding.
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.
Pet guinea pigs seek ‘visual security’ and need places to hide and feel secure. An upside down cardboard or wooden box with a door works 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. You’ll also notice that guinea pigs love to burrow and dig in their hay.
Floor Materials to Avoid
You’ve got plenty of options for flooring materials, but avoid these popular picks:
- Cedar and other oiled woods: These can irritate your guinea pig’s sensitive skin.
- Corncob bedding: This type of bedding can harbor dangerous bacteria and fungi.
Guinea Pig Care: Location and Temperature
The location of a guinea pig’s cage is just as important as the material and shape of 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. The recommended environmental temperature is 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Prolonged exposure to high heat coupled with high humidity may cause heat stroke.
Nutrition for Guinea Pigs
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. 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).
Timothy hay is an important dietary component for several reasons. It helps discourage teeth overgrowth while promoting the development of healthy digestive bacteria. When feeding your guinea pig, never forget the vital role that clean, high-quality hay plays.
In addition to hay, it is well recognized that all guinea pigs must have vitamin C (ascorbic acid) added to their diet. Just as with humans, the guinea pig body cannot make the vitamin on its own and must rely on supplements. Although commercial guinea pig pellets have excess ascorbic acid, it is active for only 90 days under the most ideal storage conditions. Realistically, the potency is lost within 5 to 6 weeks of the “best by” date listed on the package.
Vitamin C is light sensitive and loses 50 percent of its potency within 24 hours. If you’re adding it to your guinea pig’s water, cover the water bottle (with a sock or foil) and change it (adding 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 milligrams per 100 grams of your pig’s weight. Suitable fruits and vegetables to supplement your pet’s vitamin intake include guava, orange, lemon, parsley, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, collard greens, mustard greens, and kale.
Breeding Guinea Pigs
The most important rule of guinea pig breeding is that the sows must be bred between 4 and 7 months of age. If breeding occurs after this time, serious and often fatal (to both the mother and child) problems may occur during delivery. The pelvis of the sow fuses at an early age, which decreases the size of the birth canal. The young are born very large and will not be able to pass through the canal of an older guinea pig. As a result, delivery will be impossible without surgical intervention. If they are bred early, the sow’s pelvis is able to expand under the influence of certain hormones and she will rarely have complications with delivery.
Male guinea pigs (boars) will show sexual behavior as early as 3 to 4 weeks, but are unable to produce viable sperm until 11 to 17 weeks of age. Boars should be at least 4 months old before breeding.
Young guinea pigs are called pups (not piglets) and are well developed at birth. They are born with open eyes and fur and can stand within an hour of delivery. The pups are also able to eat solid food and drink from a bowl within just a few days, but it is recommended to allow them to nurse for three weeks.
Common Diseases and Disorders in Guinea Pigs
Your guinea pig is vulnerable to a range of health conditions. Be sure to watch out for signs of these common ailments:
- Diarrhea: Loose stool in guinea pigs can result from a range of factors including stress, parasites, unsanitary conditions, poor diet, and other underlying conditions. Be sure to consult your veterinarian to determine the root cause if your pet experiences prolonged bouts of diarrhea.
- Malocclusion (Overgrown Teeth): Overgrown teeth is among the most common conditions suffered by guinea pigs and other small mammals. Regular chewing is often enough to keep overgrowth at bay, but your veterinarian may need to file down teeth if they grow out of control.
- Scurvy: Caused by inadequate vitamin C levels, this sometimes fatal disease results in joint pain, bleeding gums, and appetite loss.
A Healthy Pet vs. An Unhealthy Pet
Worried your pet might be sick? Here’s a quick guide to healthy and unhealthy guinea pigs.
Healthy Guinea Pigs
- Alert, curious, and social
- Regularly eats and drinks
- Walks and breathes with ease
- Clean fur and clear eyes
Guinea Pig Health Concerns
- Sudden weight or hair loss
- Discharge from the nose or eyes
- Labored breathing
If you have any reason to expect that your guinea pig isn’t feeling quite their best, consult with your veterinarian to check their symptoms and get them back on the mend.