Keeping Guinea Pigs as Pets
Guinea pigs are small, sociable and ‘chatty’ rodents. They’re traditionally thought of as great first pets for children.
Guinea pig fact file
Guinea pigs, also known as ‘cavies’, are social animals with a compact, rounded body shape, short legs and no tail. They originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. There are different breeds and varieties of guinea pig, with a wide range of colour and coat lengths.
Here are some more top facts about guinea pigs:
- Typically guinea pigs live for 5-6 years, but some may live longer.
- Guinea pigs are active up to 20 hours per day and only sleep for short periods.
- Guinea pigs are highly social – in the wild, they live in close family groups of 5-10 guinea pigs, though several groups may live in close proximity to form a colony.
- Guinea pigs get lonely and shouldn’t be kept alone – they’re happiest in pairs.
- Guinea pigs need a high fibre diet supplemented with vitamin C, as they lack the enzyme needed to synthesise vitamin C and can only store it for short periods.
Guinea pigs are domestic, docile, social rodents that originate from South America. The fact that they make squeaky sounds like little pigs is the reason for their misleading name. They do not compete over food thus leaving little reason for aggression. Guinea pigs are a domesticated species of rodent, also called cavies (Cavia porcellus – means “little pig” in Latin).
- Male cavies are called boars and females are called sows. Baby Guinea pigs are called pups.
- Life span: 4 to 8 years.
- Weight: 750 to 1200 g (males larger than females).
- Sexual maturity: 4 to 6 months of age (sterilise at this age).
- Unable to naturally produce vitamin C in their bodies, they must receive it through diet or supplements.
- Guinea pigs also are unable to sweat.
Guinea pigs are social animals and therefore should preferably be housed in groups. They need a lot of social interactions with humans and other guinea pigs. They are hardly ever aggressive towards each other, and only when unfamiliar male adults are put together can fighting take place.
It is important for guinea pigs to have places of refuge. For this reason, it should be ensured that cardboard tubes and/or empty coffee cans with smoothed edges be placed in the enclosure.
Various objects such as flower pots, bricks and rocks for climbing are some examples of practical enrichment.
A solid bottom cage with bedding material is preferable to a cage with a wire base. The latter leads to welfare problems which could include the animal losing hair as well as body weight plus the risk of bone fracture and footpad inflammation. Aquariums are not suitable due to poor ventilation.
All guinea pigs need caves for sleeping and resting, thus a covered sleeping box should be available. Sleeping boxes made of cardboard/plastic/wood should be provided for a sense of safety and security.
Here are some great ideas for creating a DIY house for your guinea pig.
Guinea pigs choose to manipulate their own microenvironments via activities such as huddling, nest building and tunnelling. The cage/hutch must be in a quiet location, away from direct sunlight, and should be kept at a temperature range of 16.0°C to 23.°C.
Prevent heat stress, and avoid high humidity and temperatures above 26.7°C.
Guinea Pigs don’t do well in the heat. Temperature regulation should ensure that there are no undue fluctuations that could cause unnecessary stress or clinical welfare problems.
Sawdust/wooding shavings are commonly used as bedding material and should be free of fine dust and microbial and chemical contaminants.
At least 4 cm of bedding should be placed in the habitat. Resinous wood shavings especially cedar and pine, which can irritate the respiratory tract, should be avoided. Thick layers of fibre bedding such as aspen shavings, recycled newspaper, shredded paper or imitation grass and even towels can be used.
Routine cleaning and maintenance plus a high standard of hygiene are essential for good husbandry. Remove soiled bedding daily, change bedding weekly or more often, as needed.
Cages should be thoroughly cleaned once a week with hot soapy water. It should also be sprayed with an animal-friendly disinfectant.
Food bowls, water bowls and water drinkers must be washed daily.
A regular day/night cycle is essential for establishing normal behaviour patterns and for the normal expression of many physiological processes. They should have access to a shaded area especially when breeding.
Water: Clean fresh water must always be available. Guinea pigs do not lick the drinking nipples but gnaw on them so nipples should be made of stainless steel. During drinking, guinea pigs blow mouth-fluid and food particles back into the bottle and therefore the water become polluted very quickly so the water must be frequently changed and the nipple and bottle must be cleaned regularly.
Feed: Guinea pigs have a good appetite and eat regularly during the day as well as during the night. Large quantities of grass/hay, such as Timothy, Rhodes grass, Teff and Oat hay must always be available (Chewing action prevents teeth from overgrowth, and fibre aids in digestion.)
Vitamin C cannot be synthesized by guinea pigs and is therefore, in most cases, added to commercial guinea pig feed. However, the shelf-life of feed containing vitamin C is less than 3 months so it has to be stored in a cool and dark place. Vitamin C can also be given via the drinking water (220 mg/litre). The water should be free from chlorine, otherwise the vitamin will be inactive. The supplementation of good quality hay to the diet provides a good source of crude fibre, and provides the animals with a distraction which also helps to prevent hair-biting.
Some fruits (such as strawberries, melon, raspberries, and kiwi) high in vitamin C.
Vegetables (such as turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, parsley, green peppers (80.4mg per 100g), red peppers (127.7mg per 100g) and yellow peppers (183.5mg per 100g), as well as broccoli, and collard greens are high in vitamin C. Green, red and yellow peppers can be given daily.
All fruit and some vegetables contain too much sugar, this should be fed as a treat and only occasionally. Small amounts of guinea pig pellets must be given daily.
- Do not feed rabbit pellets.
- Do not feed Alfalfa based (Lucerne) pellets, as this is too high in calcium and will make your guinea pig very ill and can cause it to die.
- Feed mixes containing dried fruit, vegetables, grain, or seeds must not be given, this contains sugars and carbohydrates that can disturb the digestive tract.
- Change diet gradually to prevent stomach upset.
- Only purchase feed that is formulated especially for guinea pigs.
- Remove uneaten fruit and vegetables from the cage and replace them with fresh food.
Here is some useful nutritional info and how often you can feed what fruit and vegetables.
- Guinea pigs are very social herd animals. They like to be with their own kind, but also thrive from human affection. They are crepuscular, which means they are most active during dusk and dawn.
- When they are awake, Guinea pigs spend their time feeding, grooming or investigating their cage/hutch.
- They vocalise often, using a variety of squeaks, “wheeks,” purrs, growls, rumbles and squeals.
- They are docile and rarely bite or scratch.
- They are easily stressed when frightened they will run around at high speed and hide in a safe place.
- Monitor your guinea pig’s health and condition daily.
- Monitor your guinea pig’s movement, as they need lots of exercise as they are prone to obesity.
- Visit your vet yearly.
- Monitor the teeth, as this can become overgrown and cause health issues.
- Consult your veterinarian for a deworming and de-fleaing program.
- Regular toenail trimming, if necessary, and combing/brushing of longhaired breeds.
- Bathing is not advised but if they soil themselves they can be washed off with warm water and dried gently with a towel.
Signs of a healthy animal:
Active, alert, and sociable, eats and drinks regularly, healthy, clean fur and clear eyes, breathes clearly and walks normally.
Signs of ill health:
Skin lesions, abnormal hair loss, distressed breathing, lethargic, overgrown teeth, eye and nasal discharge, diarrhoea or dirt around the anal area.
Common Medical Conditions
- Dental problems
- Gastrointestinal stasis (diarrhea)
- Scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency)
- Hair loss or itching due to mites, lice, fungal infections, or hormonal problems
- Respiratory infections (Pneumonia)
- Urinary tract problems such as bladder stones
Caring for Guinea Pigs are costly and will take up a lot of your time to clean, care and feed them. Unless you can keep two or more Guinea pigs, provide them with a large safe living space, provide them with the best quality vegetables, fruit and hay, stick to a strict feeding/dietary plan, it would be advisable not to keep them as pets.