Guinea pigs, or Cavies, are small, sociable, friendly, chatty, adorable and inquisitive. There are over 40 different breeds of guinea pig recognised by the British Cavy Council and these include many different colours, coat types and coat lengths so there is definitely a guinea pig to suit everyone.
With their gentle natures they make great pets and, if given a lot of love and attention, can make wonderful companions for both adults and children (an adult should always supervise the care and any interactions between children and their pets). Guinea pigs live on average for 4-8 years and owning them is very rewarding, but it is also a big responsibility and commitment in terms of care and finances, so please think about this before you buy your guinea pigs.
Guinea pig varieties – courtesy of Intervet
Guinea pig history
Guinea pigs have certainly been around people for a very long time and have played an important role in the culture of many indigenous groups in South America, not only as a food source but also in medicine and in religious ceremonies; statues depicting guinea pigs that date from around 500 BC to 500 AD have been unearthed in Peru and Ecuador and it is said that the Moche people of ancient Peru often depicted the guinea pig in their art.
The guinea pigs that we now keep as pets are descendants of wild guinea pigs found in the Andes that were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. No one knows exactly where the name Guinea Pig came from, but in the 16th century traders brought guinea pigs over from South America to Europe and it is possible that they stopped at Guiana on their journey, which may have led to people thinking this is where they came from. It may also be a reference to coin known as a Guinea, which could have been the price of the “friendly rodent that squeaks like a pig”.
Guinea pigs were kept as pets by the aristocracy and became even more popular when it was discovered that Queen Elizabeth I kept one as a pet too.
Guinea pigs need company (but not from rabbits!)
In South America, wild cavies live in burrows in rocky areas, savanna, forest edges, and swamps, they are very social and live in groups of up to 10. Pet guinea pigs do best when housed in groups of 2-3 or more of the same sex or neutered. They also love plenty of human company and gentle handling, chatting and stroking.
Guinea pigs and rabbits should not be housed together
- They have different dietary needs and guinea pigs cannot synthesise vitamin C which must be provided adequately within their diet.
- Rabbits may injure guinea pigs by kicking them with their powerful back legs, by jumping on them, or by trying to mate with them.
- Rabbits may bully guinea pigs, which can make them distressed if they cannot get away.
- Rabbits carry a bacteria called Bordetella Bronchiseptica and while this does not harm the rabbit it is the most common cause of respiratory disease in guinea pigs and can make them very poorly (cats and dogs can also carry this bacteria).
- Rabbits behave and communicate in very different ways to guinea pigs, so they don’t understand each other’s behaviour and therefore do not make ideal companions.
Guinea pigs have evolved to be able to extract all their nourishment from the poor quality vegetation that is often the only source of food available to them in the wild. This means that they require a diet that is low in calories but high in fibre. Guinea pigs also require a diet that is rich in vitamin C because unlike most other mammals, they cannot synthesise this themselves (we humans can’t either!).
Dietary problems are one of the main causes of most illnesses and problems that we see in guinea pigs at Castle Vets and a poor diet can lead to obesity (and its related complications), soft stools, diarrhoea, fly strike, scurvy and bone and teeth problems.
The following feeds are listed in order of importance
- Water – fresh water should be provided daily and bowls and bottles cleaned regularly.
- Hay – fed Ad Lib. the fibre contained in hay is extremely important to the guinea pigs diet. Dried grass can also be fed in unlimited quantities.
- Fresh vegetables – a minimum of 3 different types daily, veg is an important source of vitamins. Variety will be appreciated by your guinea pigs, but remember to introduce any new veggies one at a time and in small amounts.
- Fresh fruit – Don’t over do the fruit as although your guinea pigs will love it, it contains lots of sugars and can lead to obesity and dental problems.
- Dried food – guinea pig pellets are better than the muesli versions of dried food as they prevent selective eating. Dry food should only make up a small percentage of your guinea pigs daily diet.
Your guinea pigs will also love to graze on fresh grass when they are out and about. They will also enjoy dandelions, dandelion leaves (care should be taken to ensure they don’t eat too many though) and clover.
Guinea pigs are ‘prey’ animals and are genetically programmed to always be on the lookout for and run away from danger, which can mean that it may take a little while for your guinea pig to learn to trust you. Approach them by letting them know you are there and by moving your hands towards them from the side, rather than from above. Try to offer them a really tasty piece of food while you are handling them so that they learn to associate being picked up and cuddled with a positive experience.
When you pick up your guinea pig always do it by placing one hand under the chest and use the other to support their hind quarters – always make sure you have a firm hold of your guinea pig while you are cuddling them, as falling from a height can injure them.
If children are handling or cuddling a guinea pig it is best for them to do so while sitting on the floor or on a low chair.
Often if you sit on the floor quietly, your guinea pigs will come to you when they want some attention (or treats!).
Traditionally Guinea pigs have always been kept in hutches in the garden, however guinea pigs are just as happy (if not happier) when kept indoors. Wherever you decide to house your pets, there are a few things that need to be considered
1. Hay and straw are generally good materials for bedding, and the bottom of the hutch or enclosure can be lined with newspaper. Wood shavings as sawdust are not recommended as they have been linked to causing respiratory problems in small mammals. Other popular bedding materials include
- Fitch – recycled perforated paper, it is very absorbent and is actually marketed for horses.
- Finacard – dust free cardboard bedding.
- Megazorb – made from wood pulp, highly absorbent and safe for use with small animals.
- Fleece/Vetbed/Towels – commonly used for indoor guinea pigs This keeps guinea pigs dry and is soft on their feet also. You do need to supply an area for foraging in (i.e., hay) if using these materials.
2. Enclosures/hutches should have a minimum floor area of 2ft x 4ft with a height of at least 40cm (the bigger the better) There are a wide range of hutches and indoor accommodation available for Guinea pigs but please remember that most of the cages available from pet shops are far too small for them.
3. The cage and exercise areas, including the wire mesh, feeding bowls, bottles and toys should be thoroughly cleaned once a week using a pet safe disinfectant. Rinse the cage and allow it to dry properly before putting your guinea pigs back inside.
Guinea pigs are surprisingly active and can happily mooch around for up to 20 hours per day, so they will need plenty of space for exercise and toys for stimulation.
- The exercise area should be at least 2 metres long, 1.25m wide and 0.6m high to give your Guinea pig plenty of space.
- They should have an outside space for when the weather is nice and an inside space so that they can get exercise in cold or wet weather.
- The exercise space will need to be secure to protect your piggies from getting into trouble, escaping or being attacked by predators. People may tell you that guinea pigs don’t jump, but they definitely can.
- You will need to provide toys and hiding places such as tunnels or pipes to crawl through and cardboard boxes to hide in or chew. A link to a supplier of guinea pig toys can be found at the bottom of the page.
- The exercise area should include some shade from the sun and shelter if the weather is windy or wet.
Guinea pigs can be trained to do tricks with a little patience and some tasty food rewards. Training is great mental stimulation for your pets and will really improve your bond.
Daily Health Care
- Bottom – Guinea pigs normally pass faecal pellets as well as the softer caecotrophs which they eat.Guinea pigs with consistently dirty bottoms may be suffering from an illness that causes loose faeces or diarrhoea, or they may be overweight and cannot groom themselves properly. Your pet’s bottom should be clean and dry with no mats or faecal matter stuck around it which could attract flies to lay their eggs leading to fly-strike. Dirty bottoms can be cleaned using cotton wool soaked in warm water and then thoroughly towel drying the area afterwards (do not use a hair dryer on your guinea pig).
- Breathing – Guinea pigs breathe a lot faster than we humans do (50-150 breaths per minute!). Check for any signs that your pet may be having difficulty, such as wheezing noises or panting which may indicate a respiratory problem or infection.
- Coat – Guinea pigs should be groomed daily (go on they enjoy it!) and their coat should look and feel clean and healthy. Most guinea pigs groom themselves really well so if you notice that your pet is not looking after him or herself this may indicate a health problem. Any mats that you find in the coat should be carefully groomed out because they will only become worse and very uncomfortable if they are left. Any signs of excessive moulting/shedding or any bald patches may indicate a parasite or health problem.
- Ears – The ears should be clean and dry with no waxy or mucky discharge or crusting.
- Eating and Drinking – Make sure your guinea pig is eating and drinking well every day.
- Eyes – The eyes should be clean, clear and bright. Any discharge could indicate an infection such as conjunctivitis or a blocked tear duct.
- Feet – The feet should be clean and dry. Sore patches or faecal matter on them may indicate a health problem (or that you need to clean out your pet’s toilet area more often!). Make sure that your pet’s nails are not too long – nail clipping can be done at home if you have someone to help hold your guinea pig for you. Your veterinary nurse can show you what to use and how to do it properly.
- Mouth – Check that the upper and lower front teeth (incisors) meet properly in the middle and that they are not overgrown as this may prevent your guinea pig from eating properly and could cause infections if the teeth are rubbing other areas of the mouth. Make sure there is no excess salivation or dribbling which may indicate that there is a problem with your guinea pig’s teeth or gums.
- Movement – Look for any signs that your pet might be lame (limping) when moving about his or her hutch or exercise area, or that your pet is reluctant to exercise.
- Nose –The nose should be clean and dry with no discharge. Any snuffling, discharge or crustiness may indicate a problem.
- Skin – The skin should look clean and healthy. Stroking your guinea pig will help you feel for any lumps, bumps or wounds on the skin; if you find anything out of the ordinary make a note of exactly where it is before contacting your vet as small lumps can be difficult to find again! Flaky or dry skin could also indicate poor diet or a parasite problem.
Common illnesses and problems
On the whole guinea pigs are usually relatively healthy pets and the problems or illnesses that they suffer from are often as a result or poor husbandry or nutrition.
- Abscesses (an infected swelling within a body tissue, containing pus) – these can affect the skin, teeth, muscles and lymph nodes. They are usually caused by infected wounds and bites or as a result of a dental problem.
- Dental problems – overgrown or sharp teeth can be very painful and may need to be filed down by a vet. This is often a result of not eating enough hay and dried grass.
- Gut/intestinal problems – these are usually caused by poor diet or too many watery vegetables or sweet treats, but they can be caused by bacterial infections and imbalances. Symptoms can include inappetance, diarrhoea, soft stools, constipation, hunched posture (pain).
- Mouth sores – this is usually as a result of a dental problem or from eating too many watery or sugary foods.
- Obesity – this is a common problem in all pet animals and can lead to heart and respiratory problems, flystrike (because they can’t clean themselves properly), sore joints and skin sores and bumble foot.
- Parasites – Guinea pigs can be infested by mites and fleas and get fungal infections such as ringworm. Symptoms include hair loss, scratching, crusty/scabby skin and open sores or wounds caused by scratching.
- Respiratory problems – these can be caused by a number of bacteria, including Bordetella, which is carried by rabbits. If your guinea pig is wheezing or has noisy breathing he needs to be seen by a vet.
- Scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) – Guinea pigs cannot make vitamin C themselves, so it needs to be provided in the form of a healthy diet. Symptoms include poor coat, inappetance, diarrhoea, reluctance to walk, painful, swollen feet or joints and hemorrhages and ulcers on the gums or skin.
- Urinary Problems – guinea pigs can develop cystitis which may be caused by a urinary infection and/or urinary calculi (stones), which normally form in the bladder but can form in the kidneys too. Symptoms include inappetance, blood in the urine, straining to pass urine, a hunched posture or a complete lack of urine production.
If you suspect that your guinea pig is unwell or may have any of the problems listed above, please don’t delay and get him or her to the vet as soon as possible for a check over.
Colin showing us his teeth
Neutering guinea pigs
Neutering prevents unwanted pregnancies and also means that males and females can live together. Neutering also helps control the number of unwanted pets in this country, reducing the numbers being abandoned, neglected and put to sleep. It is very uncommon to neuter a Sow (female) and is usually only necessary for medical reasons. More commonly the Boars (male guinea pigs) are neutered so that they can live with females – this group dynamic works really well.
If you are going to have your guinea pig neutered then be aware that every anaesthetic carries a risk of complications and death (this is the same with any species). It is worth checking that your vet has equipment and facilities for the anaesthesia and recovery of small animals and that they are experienced in the anaesthesia and neutering of guinea pigs.
Castle Vets and guinea pigs
At Castle Vets we have a specialised ward for our Exotic patients (Guinea pigs, rabbits, rodents and birds) enabling us to keep them completely separate from natural ‘predator’ animals such as dogs and cats. This means that our exotic patients can receive the care they require in an appropriate, warm and secure environment and undergo far less stress when hospitalised for any length of time. We are also very pleased to have veterinary nurses with special interests in exotic pet care, medicine and anaesthesia.
Rodents with attitude – a very informative guinea pig site and forum
British Cavy Council – information on the various breeds and showing guinea pigs