Looking for a pet that’s gentle and loveable but doesn’t require the run of the house? Then you may want to consider a guinea pig. Guinea pigs are one of several small, domesticated mammal species commonly known as “pocket pets.” In 1996, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 583,000 U.S. households kept at least one guinea pig as a pet.
While we’re not sure how they got their name, guinea pigs have been bred for more than 400 years. They descend from wild porcupine-like rodents of South America and are called “cavies” (a shortened form of their Latin name) by many breeders and owners. A guinea pig’s claim to fame is that it is the only domestic rodent with no tail.
Guinea pigs rarely bite or scratch, but they can be messy-scattering food, water and bedding all over their cages. Their vocabulary includes about nine sounds, from whistling to purring to squealing. They are most active at dusk and dawn, but easily adjust to the routine of your household. Guinea pigs can be fun to watch. They like to explore new settings, but if scared, they’ll either freeze or scatter in different directions.
Choosing your new pet
Before welcoming Piggy into your home, it’s a good idea to read up on guinea pigs and their care. Also, find a veterinarian in your area who is comfortable treating guinea pigs; not all of them are.
Your new guinea pig should be at least six weeks old before bringing him home. Guinea pigs can already breed at this age, so be sure not to keep a male and female in the same cage unless at least one is neutered. (Check with your veterinarian for more information about getting your pet spayed or neutered.)
Guinea pigs come in a variety of colors and coats from which you can choose. They may be a solid color, or a combination of two or three colors. Their coat may be short, long, silky or whorled. There are even hairless guinea pigs! If you choose a long-haired guinea pig, be prepared to help him groom himself by combing him once every two or three weeks.
Creating the best home for Piggy
Guinea pigs are social animals and can live with others of their kind in the same cage, but be sure that enough space is provided for each animal. Partitioning the cage is suggested to provide each animal with separate sleeping quarters. Male guinea pigs should not be housed with young ones. If you notice any signs of aggressiveness between guinea pigs living in the same cage, separate them at once. Some guinea pigs will engage in “barbering,” or chewing on each other’s hair. This is not usually an aggressive act, but rather may be due to boredom, excitement, a hereditary behavior or perhaps a dietary deficiency. If the barbering becomes stressful or harmful to one or more of the guinea pigs, however, you should provide them each with their own home.
Piggy’s cage should be at least 18 inches high, 24 inches wide and three to six feet long with a solid floor (wire floors are irritating and can lead to foot or limb problems). Be sure to place the cage in an area free from drafts, chills, extreme heat and sudden temperature changes. Also, keep your new friend in a quiet area with few disturbances. The cage may or may not have a roof to it; if not, be sure that the walls are high enough to prevent escape, and that no predators (mainly other household pets) can reach into it. The lower three inches of the walls should be solid-this prevents bedding and food from being scattered outside, yet still allows the guinea pig to see what’s happening around him.
The cage should be easy to take apart and clean. Make sure it’s well-ventilated (no glass aquariums!), with no sharp edges or corrosion and no small openings that can trap Piggy’s feet or limbs. The cage should also offer your pet a place to hide (see below for objects that you can put inside to make life more interesting for him).
You’ll also need to provide at least 2 inches of bedding for your new friend. The best bedding is hardwood shavings, or ground corn cob mixed with a nesting material such as cotton. Shredded newspaper works well, too. Whatever type of bedding you use, it must be nontoxic, nonabrasive and inedible, as well as dust free and absorbent. Also, make sure no sharp objects are mixed in it. The bedding should be easy to form into nests and tunnels, as well, since guinea pigs like to nap and hide in these. Sawdust should never be used, and while cedar chips are a popular bedding choice, they do tend to make your guinea pig’s coat a bit reddish in color.
Cleaning and entertaining
OK, you’ve got the right cage and the right bedding. But you can’t just plop Piggy into his new home and feed him now and then. The cage will need to be cleaned and the bedding changed. And guinea pigs thrive on loving attention and play, just as cats and dogs do.
To keep your pet’s home clean and safe, change the bedding daily. Once a week, thoroughly wash and disinfect his cage with a solution of 1 ounce of bleach mixed in a liter or quart of water. Be sure the cage is rinsed well and completely dry before adding fresh bedding and putting Piggy back inside. Rinse feeders and waterers every day, too. And keep your friend’s home dry, as dampness can cause illness.
In addition to spending quality time with Piggy, help keep him entertained by giving him objects to play on. Try adding one or more of the following to his cage: running wheels, escape tunnels (PVC pipe-wide enough so that Piggy can’t get stuck in it, of course-makes a good tunnel), ladders or plywood boxes (to climb on). On mild days, you can supervise him in a safe, outdoor pen (with shade always available), and you can make an indoor playpen, as well, to provide him with more room to roam. Your friend would also enjoy exploring a closed room now and then, under your watchful eyes, of course.
Guinea pigs are strict herbivores. They should be fed a complete, pelleted diet made especially for guinea pigs that contains at least 16% crude protein. The pellets should not be fed more than 90 days after their milling (check the bag or box for the milling date). Also provide small amounts of grass hay, and supplement Piggy’s diet with a source of active ascorbic acid, such as a handful of cabbage or half a handful of kale (washed and fresh) or a quarter of an orange. Because guinea pigs can’t produce their own Vitamin C, you should add a Vitamin C supplement to their water-a teaspoon of Vitamin C liquid to 12 ounces of water. The water will need to be replaced daily, however, as the Vitamin C will lose its potency rather quickly.
In addition to the above, the following fruits and vegetables-fresh, washed, and with seeds or pits removed-can be fed as treats:
- pea pods
Also, dandelions, grass and wild clover can be picked from your yard (but only if you’re sure they’re free from pesticides) and offered to Piggy, along with oats or graham crackers. But no more than 10% of your guinea pig’s diet should be made up of foods other than the pellets. And to be sure he doesn’t have a bad reaction to a new food, offer only one new food to Piggy at a time.
Don’t feed powdered food; it just gets wasted, and the dust from it can gather around Piggy’s mouth and in his nose and cause health problems. No table scraps or other animals’ food, either! These, too, can cause health problems resulting from an unbalanced diet.
To prevent obesity and nephrosis (a disease of the kidneys) in older animals, decrease the amount of pelleted food offered and supplement with more hay. In these aging pets, hay can constitute up to 25% of their diet.
Food and fresh water should always be available. Mount feeders and waterers to the cage walls to avoid spills, and only use water bottles with metal sipper tubes, as Piggy will just chew up plastic tubes.
Guinea pigs commonly ingest their own feces, so although you may be disgusted to see such behavior, don’t be alarmed! This is normal and provides them with proteins and vitamins.
Health and handling
Guinea pigs should have veterinary exams done twice a year. At your first visit, have your veterinarian show you how to clip Piggy’s nails, which will need to be done every two weeks or so. He or she may also suggest having your pet’s teeth trimmed regularly, as well.
The most common health problem seen in guinea pigs are colds that result from drafts, dampness or temperature fluctuations. While we don’t think of colds as being too serious, Piggy’s cold can quickly develop into pneumonia, so it’s important to have him examined by your veterinarian as soon as you notice signs of illness. Also, if your pet stops eating, have him seen immediately by the veterinarian, as this can be life-threatening.
To keep your guinea pig as healthy as can be, take time every day to examine him for lumps, cuts, fleas, ticks or lice. If Piggy displays a hunched or huddled posture, he could be injured or sick. Guinea pigs are prone to abscesses under their chins, too, where their lymph nodes are. Other common signs of illness include diarrhea, weight loss or excessive weight gain, inactivity, not going to the bathroom, nasal or eye discharge, hair loss, incoordination, or limping. If you notice any of these signs, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away to get your friend back on the road to good health.
When handling your guinea pig, be sure to pick him up carefully to avoid injury or discomfort. Use one hand to support him under the chest, and the other hand to support him under the hindquarters. Never grab him over his back, as doing so can inhibit his breathing. And, of course, such a small pet can be easily injured if dropped, so be careful!
A healthy, happy guinea pig
With good care, guinea pigs live up to 12 years, with about six or eight years being the average. By learning all you can about your new pet; providing him with a clean home, a nutritious diet, and expert veterinary care; and giving him lots of love and affection, you can help Piggy enjoy a healthy, happy life.