Guinea Pig History
Guinea pigs are small rodents, descended from the wild cavy. These cute little creatures are native to South America. There is much debate over the Guinea pig’s history, but archaeologists believe that its domestication may have begun as early as 5000 BCE in Peru and Bolivia. The Inca are also known to have bred guinea pigs as a food source and as offerings to the Gods. Selective breeding for different flavors has also contributed the variety of coat colors, patterns and textures we see in guinea pigs today. It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that Spanish conquistadors brought Guinea pigs to Europe, where they first gained popularity as pets.
Breeds and Appearance
Guinea pigs range from eight to eleven inches in length and between one to two pounds in weight. There are several breeds of guinea pigs, but the most common are the America, Abyssinian, and Peruvian guinea pigs. American Guinea pigs are most popular because of their good temperament, short hair (which requires less grooming), and ability to get along exceptionally well with other guinea pigs and with children. Abyssinian guinea pigs, with their fairly long, swirly hair, are great for shows but require extra grooming. With their long, straight hair, the Peruvian guinea pig is another popular choice. They are the most alert and curious of the breeds and make good companions for children.
You will also occasionally find “skinny pigs” in pet stores. This hairless guinea pig is believed to be the result of breeding between regular guinea pigs and a mutant hairless laboratory strain.
What to Expect
Guinea pigs are generally quiet pets, but they are active both day and night and can call out quite loudly. They are naturally nervous before being socialized and may bite when scared. When happy and excited, guinea pigs are known to “popcorn”. It can be quite a surprise for new guinea pig owners to witness this joyful behavior!
It is important to socialize guinea pigs from an early age. Be ready to commit to your little pet for five years or more; their average lifespan is 5-7 years, and they occasionally live up to 10 years. Importantly, don’t plan for just one guinea pig – plan for two. Guinea pigs are social animals, so they should always be kept with one or more same-sex buddies.
Cage and Habitat Requirements
As a responsible pet owner, it is important to get a large enough habitat to keep your pet happy and healthy. Guinea pigs need room to exercise and to have separate areas for nesting, eating and drinking, and doing their “business.” Unfortunately, most cages marketed for guinea pigs are too small. For a pair of guinea pigs, the cage should be at least 7.5 square feet. For each additional guinea pig, add at least another three square feet – and of course, the larger the better. There are a wide variety of suitable cages available, ranging anywhere from $35-$350. Some owners will opt for an open habitat made of several attached compartments. This is ideal as guinea pigs are not jumpers or escape artists. Other owners will convert a chinchilla cage or a bunny hutch to provide plenty of space for their guinea pigs to walk around.
Along with providing a water bottle (costing around $10-15), you will need to lay down an absorbent bedding on the cage floor. Common bedding types are wood chips, paper bedding, and fleece. While wood chip bedding is cheap and easy to find, avoid aromatic woods such as cedar, which can cause respiratory problems in rodents. Pine is a safer choice. Paper bedding is a bit more expensive, but generally provides better absorbency and odor control. A relatively new option being used is fleece, which is less expensive in the long run because it can be washed and reused. Guinea pigs love its softness, and you can have fun with your choice of colors. Toys and shelters can also be used to enrich the guinea pigs’ environment, but wheels are not suitable toys for them.
Your guinea pig should always have access to grass hay, which provides fiber for digestion and helps them grind their ever-growing teeth. Alfalfa hay is ideal for guinea pigs under 6 months old. However, the calcium content of alfalfa is too high for adult guinea pigs; after the age of 6 months, they should be switched to timothy hay. Guinea pigs under 6 months old should also have a pellet food (which can include alfalfa) available at all times. Older guinea pigs should be given about 1/8 cup of alfalfa-free timothy pellets each day. Daily vegetables are also essential for guinea pigs. They should be given three different vegetables each day, and one of these must be a leafy green vegetable. Your grocery list should include parsley, cilantro, lettuce, kale, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes. Give your guinea pigs an occasional slice of apple or a piece of banana and watch them eat with delight. Because guinea pigs don’t produce their own vitamin C, it is a good idea to give them vitamin C supplements. Oxbow vitamin C biscuits and Hyland’s Baby Tablets (give one tablet per guinea pig) are suitable sources. Finally, while guinea pigs love the occasional treat, be sparing. Commercial treats are especially unhealthy, being high in sugar.
Potential Health Issues
The most common health problems of guinea pigs are respiratory problems, diarrhea, vitamin C deficiency, abscesses and tumors, urinary issues and infestations of mites, lice, and fungus. When choosing a guinea pig or checking the health of your guinea pig, look for the following symptoms –
Overweight or underweight
Swellings, lumps, and bumps
Bald or red patches of skin
Wetness, staining or crusts around the eyes and nose
Overgrown or unaligned teeth
Wet or matted fur on the chin
Wheezing, clicking or gurgling noises while breathing
Lameness or stiffness
If you notice any of these signs, your guinea pig may be suffering from a health issue and should be taken to a veterinarian.
Upkeep and Maintenance
While guinea pigs are relatively low-maintenance pets, there are several things that must be done on a regular basis to keep your guinea pigs healthy. To reduce matting and shedding, guinea pigs – especially long-haired varieties – need regular grooming. Their cages must be cleaned at least once a week using a non-aromatic cleaner, and visible poop and wet spots should be removed from the cage daily. Check your guinea pigs’ teeth periodically to ensure they are being properly worn down by grinding. If a guinea pig’s teeth become overgrown, they will need to be clipped by a veterinarian. In addition to their teeth, guinea pigs’ toenails also grow continuously, so they must be clipped on a regular basis. Although guinea pigs are generally clean animals, they may occasionally need to be bathed if they have skin problems or get exceptionally dirty. Use a specialty shampoo for small pets.
Are Guinea Pigs Good for Kids?
With the proper care and supervision from parents, guinea pigs can make great pets for children. They are interactive, attention-loving pets that are fairly low-maintenance compared to a cat or a dog. Living five years or more, they can help teach children that pets are long-term commitments. However, parents may need to help with cleaning the pets’ cage and cleaning up after them when they are let out of the cage. Parents should also ensure their pets’ nutritional needs are met and supervise young children to ensure they handle the guinea pigs gently. Another consideration is that guinea pigs can trigger allergies, especially when shedding.
Where to Adopt
If, after doing your research, you decide that a pair (or more) of guinea pigs is right for you, it’s time to decide where to get your furry new pals. Guinea pigs can be adopted from pet stores or breeders for $10-$90, depending on the breed and markings. It is a great idea to check local animal rescue centers for guinea pigs, so you can provide animals in need with a new, loving home. Be sure to purchase all the supplies you need before taking your little ones home!
Initial investment and cost of ownership (estimate for two guinea pigs)
– Two guinea pigs: $80
– Cage or habitat: $200
– Water bottle / Litter box / Food bowl: $50
– Bed / Igloo / hideout: $20
– Toys and treats: $20
– Bedding: $10/month
– Hay: $15/month
– Pellets: $10/month
– Veggies and greens: $20/month
– Vitamin C supplements: $15/month
– Nail clipper: $7