Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products
Getting to Know your Pet Guinea Pig:
Guinea pigs are popular pets for many reasons. They come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. They are docile, friendly animals that enjoy attention and social interaction. Many families without the yard and housing space for dogs find satisfying companionship with guinea pigs.
These pets require a lot responsibility, including cage management, measured daily feeding and adequate attention, so they should never be the sole responsibility of a child. They become part of the family!
If you are looking for a new guinea pig, consider contacting a local rescue organization or a pet store that partners with animal shelters.
Fun Facts about Guinea Pigs:
- Guinea pigs are cousins to the chinchilla. They come from South America, and were initially domesticated by the Incas of Peru.
- Most common varieties in pet stores: English Shorthaired, Peruvian Longhaired, Abyssinian Rough-Haired. Newer breeds include the smooth-coated Silkies and the rough-haired Woolies. Many of these pets are actually mixed breeds.
- Another name for the guinea pig is “cavy”, which comes from its scientific name, Cavia Porcellus.
- Average life span is 5 – 6 years. They have been known to live as long as 10 years.
- Average weight of an adult male: 2 – 3 pounds or more.
- Average weight of an adult female: 1 ½ – 2 ½ pounds.
- Gestation period: 59 – 72 days. Because the gestation period is longer than some pets, babies are well-developed, with open eyes and full coats of hair. They eat solid food just days after birth!
- Average number of pups per litter: 2 – 4, with as many as 13.
- Optimal weaning age: 21 days.
What you Need to Start:
Large wire cage with solid flooring
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Heavy food bowl
Spaying, Neutering and Breeding
It’s difficult to find homes for many baby guinea pigs, so it’s important to spay or neuter your pet to prevent unwanted litters.
Also, breeding guinea pigs can be a full-time job that requires sufficient knowledge of nutrition, feed management and emergency care. After six months of age, for example, the pelvic cartilage stiffens, which makes it difficult to give birth to the usually large, developed young animals.
Guinea pigs love to explore, play and hide. Choose a cage large enough to accommodate food bowls and some cage furniture, which can be as simple as a cardboard box and a piece of PVC tubing. Add a pile of hay for hours of exploration! The cage should have a solid metal or plastic bottom, but avoid aquariums and cages that don’t have good ventilation. Guinea pigs are sensitive to overheating, and ammonia from urine can cause respiratory problems.
Because guinea pigs are social animals that thrive on human or animal companionship, place the cage close to household activity, but away from direct sunlight and drafts. When you position your guinea pig’s food and water, remember they have short necks and cannot reach very high. Make sure you place food and water at a level your guinea pig can reach.
To avoid health problems, clean your guinea pig’s cage at least twice a week. Make cleaning easier by lining the cage bottom with newspaper, then covering it with bedding. A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur. You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets. Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances. Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Do not use cat litter. It contains clays that are not safe to ingest and they cause respiratory ailments.
Guinea pigs love to play and perform entertaining stunts in tunnels and boxes, and this exercise is important to avoid obesity. In addition to playing with toys, hay cakes, wood chews and cage furniture, guinea pigs enjoy the opportunity to run outside the cage. Place them on vinyl floors to make cleanup easier and give your pet a chance for extended exercise. Toddler gates work well for sectioning off safe areas of the house. Guinea pigs also enjoy being outdoors in the grass, but they need to be closely supervised. Guinea pigs love to burrow. For enrichment, fill a plastic toddler pool with oat hay and watch them wheak and whistle as they tunnel.
Guinea pigs have distinct personalities that they express through vocalizations. They can make a variety of noises, including chatters, whines, squeals, purrs, whistles, screams, chirps and grunts. Happy, healthy guinea pigs sometimes make characteristic spring-kicks known as “popcorning” because it looks similar to popping corn.
Guinea pigs are herbivores, which means they eat only plant material. It’s important to feed your pet correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy.
Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better for your guinea pig than a water bowl, because the bowl can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. However, your pet will chew the sipper tube if too much of it is accessible.
Hang the bottle on the outside of the cage, so just the tip of the spout is inside. Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.
Hay: At least 75% of a guinea pig’s diet should be unlimited, free-choice grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard or oat hay. Free choice means a pet can choose when to eat the hay—at any hour of the day. Hay provides essential fiber, which helps maintain intestinal and dental health. It prevents boredom, obesity and dental disease by satisfying the guinea pig’s innate desire to chew. To avoid pickiness, be sure to feed a variety of hays. To assure freshness, wait until the pet nearly finishes one batch of hay before restocking. Guinea pigs under one year old should receive alfalfa hay in addition to grass hay. Alfalfa hay also can be used to help boost the nutrition of sick, pregnant, nursing or older animals as needed. After one year of age, alfalfa hay can be used as a treat (see treat information below).
Complete, high-fiber pellet: Another important source of fiber that also contains specially formulated, balanced nutrients, including critical vitamin C, is a pre-packaged feed pellet designed especially for the distinctive nutritional needs of the guinea pig. In a sturdy crock bowl that can’t be upset, feed a carefully selected quality brand of food to animals of all ages to maintain intestinal health and prevent digestive upset. Look for guinea pig feed that contains high fiber and low protein, calories and calcium, as well as an optimal calcium-to-phosphorus ratio that helps maintain a healthy urinary system.
Alfalfa-based feeds designed especially for young, pregnant, nursing, ill or old animals contain more protein, calcium and energy. Clean dishes daily and discard any leftover food.
Supplements: Guinea pigs are not able to produce their own vitamin C, a peculiarity they share with humans and other primates. In fact, a lack of vitamin C is the most common nutritional deficiency in guinea pigs. If the guinea pig feed you choose does not include vitamin C, prevent disease and lengthen the life of your pet by feeding a stabilized vitamin C supplement daily. Avoid using vitamin supplements that go into your guinea pig’s water, because these can alter the flavor of the water and decrease water intake. The daily requirement of vitamin C for a guinea pig is 35 mg.
Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much—and guinea pigs are good beggars!
Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet. Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. Do not feed colored fresh fruit and vegetables—they have too much sugar/starch, phosphorus and calories. A high phosphorus diet can contribute to brittle bones and bladder sludge. Do not feed yogurt drops, nuts, seeds or granola sticks, because they have too much sugar and fat. Leafy greens are a good treat alternative. Fresh greens might include romaine, butter crunch or red leaf lettuces, or cilantro, carrot tops and dandelion greens (no more than ½ cup a day). Enrich the treat diet by adding a sprig or two of fresh herbs, such as oregano, basil or mint. To prevent digestive upset, feed the same treats consistently and avoid gas-forming treats such as broccoli and cauliflower.
Guinea Pig Troubleshooting:
Frequent urination, decreased water intake: Bladder stone formation is relatively common in guinea pigs. These stones might form as a result of urinary tract infections, decreased water intake (sometimes as a result of adding vitamin C to the water), high oxalate intake, or an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus in the diet. Unbalanced dietary levels of vitamin D and magnesium also might contribute to the problem. To avoid these problems, choose feeds designed especially for guinea pigs that include a nutritionally appropriate calcium-to-phosphorus ratio, as well as appropriate levels of magnesium and vitamin D.
Eye irritation, nasal discharge, wet chin: Guinea pigs have continually growing teeth. In captivity, they are prone to serious dental problems that can cause these conditions, although the symptoms often go unnoticed. A diet low in fiber or a lack of suitable chewing material can result in the development of malocclusion or molar spurs—sharp points on the upper and/or lower molars. These points can be painful to the animal’s cheek and tongue. If you see any of these abnormal signs or consumption of hay decreases substantially, a visit to the vet might be in order. To avoid these painful conditions, provide plenty of hay and blocks of wood for chewing.
General health: Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your guinea pig healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.
What you Probably Didn’t Know About Guinea Pigs:
Guinea pigs eat their own poop—both solid fecals and soft, moist cecals, which they consume directly from their bottoms. Although it seems strange to us, this is natural behavior, and it’s good for your pet because the poo is packed with nutrients!
Guinea pigs shed naturally all the time. They have an average of two big sheds each year. They can be more prone to hairballs at this time, so make sure plenty of hay is available to aid in digestion.