Guinea Pigs (also known as ‘Cavies’) originate from South America (where they are still considered a staple food source), but were domesticated and brought to Europe in the 16th century.
They can live from 4 – 8 years, and a normal adult bodyweight is between 700 – 1200g, depending on the sex and breed of the guinea pig. They dislike change, so be very careful if you’re thinking of changing their food or habitat, as they can stop eating.
In the wild, guinea pigs live in social groups of 5 – 10. They love company, so it’s best to keep a pair or group of them together. It’s best to keep to single sex groups, or if you choose to have mixed groups, ensure they have been neutered to avoid unwanted litters and aggression. NEVER house guinea pigs and rabbits together, as the guinea pigs can be bullied and injured, or potentially even killed by the rabbits.
The size of hutch for your guinea pig should be at least five times the length of the guinea pig and at least a foot wide. If you have more than one guinea pig, then there should be at least 0.9m squared per guinea pig. Essentially though – the more space the better! Because they are a prey species, guinea pigs can become very frightened in large open areas, so tend to stay close to walls and like to have lots of things to hide in. Boxes, tubes and PVC/plastic drain pipes are all very good for them to hide in! Ensure there are wood chippings or shredded paper lining the bottom of the housing, and fresh straw bedding in their ‘bedroom’ area.
Guinea pigs can be kept indoors or outdoors, but ideally should be kept in temperatures between 18ºC – 26ºC. Extremes of temperature (especially overheating) can cause stress and discomfort, and can lead to more serious issues, such as heatstroke. Ensure outdoor guinea pigs can be in areas of shade in the summertime. Outdoor hutches should be raised up on legs or bricks to stop them from getting damp, and the roof should be waterproofed and sloped to ensure rain runs off and doesn’t form puddles. The hutch must be secure to prevent the guinea pigs from escaping and stop predators from getting in.
Any bedding or woodchip that has been used as a toilet area should be changed daily, and the entire hutch should be thoroughly cleaned at least once a week. You should clean the hutch at least 2-3 times a week in warmer weather to avoid damp and mould, and also to keep flies away (that can cause flystrike).
Guinea pigs can be easy to scare, so you will need to earn their trust before handling them. When you approach them, crouch down and speak very softly. Let them come to you – perhaps hold a treat in your hand for them to have, and be patient. They may not come to you the first time you try this. Once they are happy for you to have your hands near them, gently place your hand across their shoulder and have your thumb tucked between their front legs. Slowly lift them and support their weight by putting your other hand under their bottom. Then hold them close to your chest or on your lap. Take care not to put pressure on their abdomen. Once they are tamed, guinea pigs will be friendly and easy to handle.
It is best to brush your guinea pig every day, especially if they are a long-haired breed (such as a Peruvian or a Sheltie). Not only will it help to keep them clean and healthy, but will strengthen the bond between you and your guinea pig.
Guinea pigs can be neutered from 4-6 months of age. It is more common for the males to be neutered (castrated), as they can be aggressive towards other males in single sex groups, and to prevent unwanted litters when in mixed groups. The males are neutered more often than females, as they have a less invasive procedure than the females. However, female guinea pigs can be neutered (spayed).
You should be feeding your guinea pig a mixture of hay, pelleted food, and fresh greens.
Your guinea pig should have constant access to hay and grass foods, as this is important for their dental and gastrointestinal health. This should make up the majority of their diet. You also need to provide them with a commercial diet, providing them with the correct nutrients that they need. Ensure you choose a ‘nugget’ food, rather than muesli-style. With the muesli-style diets, they pick out the parts that they like and leave the part that they don’t, which means that they may not get all of their required nutrients. Nugget-style pellets prevent this selective feeding, as each pellet has an equal amount of nutrients. Finally, you can also give your guinea pig some fresh greens, but not too many! Please see the list below for details of good greens to feed, and ones that are bad for them, or even poisonous.
Apples, asparagus, basil, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe melon, carrots, cauliflower leaves and stalks, celery, chicory, Chinese parsley, coriander, cucumber, dill, garden cress, grapefruit, gooseberries, honeydew melon, kale, kiwi fruit, mangoes, oranges, parsley, parsnips, peas, red cabbage, red chard, romaine lettuce, Savoy cabbage, spinach, strawberries, tangerines, tomatoes, turnips and water cress.
Antirrhinum (snapdragon), bindweed, bryony, buttercup, bluebell, crocus, daffodil, dock, foxglove, hyacinth, laburnum, poppy, potatoes and potato tops, ragwort, rhubarb and rhubarb leaves, sorrel, tomato leaves, tulip and yew.
The above list of bad and poisonous greens is not exhaustive, so always be careful what you feed to your guinea pig.
Guinea pigs can be fussy eaters, so take care when changing foods, and always ensure you change foods over gradually over a few days.
NEVER feed rabbit food, or foods for any other animals, to your guinea pig as they need large amounts of vitamin C not found in food other than guinea pig food. You must also ensure that the food does not exceed its expiry date, as the much-needed vitamin C is the most perishable part of the food.
Common Health Problems
As soon as you see any of these symptoms, take your guinea pig to the vet, as it can be a sign of a very serious problem: –
Refusal to eat or drink, lethargy, difficult or laboured breathing, sneezing, crusty eyes, limping, loss of balance, excessive scratching, hair loss, uncontrollable bleeding, extreme drop in body temperature, diarrhoea, blood present in urine, signs of temporary paralysis.
Problems caused by poor diet:
Guinea pigs’ teeth grow continuously for their entire life, so it is important to give them the correct diet to ensure their teeth do not become overgrown. Typical symptoms of overgrown teeth (if it is difficult to inspect your guinea pig’s mouth) are excessive drooling and loss of appetite.
More commonly known as ‘scurvy’, this condition stems from a lack of vitamin C within your pet’s diet. Guinea pigs cannot naturally produce vitamin C, so you must ensure you feed your guinea pigs a diet that is very rich in vitamin C. Symptoms of this condition include lameness, loss of teeth, rough coat, loss of hair, pain on handling and anorexia.
Guinea pigs are very susceptible to abscesses, which can be caused by knocks or fights. Bring them into the vets quickly to treat them.
Skin complaints: these are very common, particularly mange, which is caused by a mite burrowing under the skin. Look for the symptoms: little raised spots which are itchy and cause your pet to scratch, and that leads to scabs and loss of hair. Always see your vet for a correct diagnosis and treatment.
Every guinea pig is different, so it’s good to regularly check your guinea pig, so you know what is normal or abnormal for your pet. It is best to do these checks once a week, it is also a good chance to bond with your guinea pig, and offer them a treat afterwards to show it’s a good thing! If you spot anything out of the ordinary, phone your vet for advice.
Gently look inside and make sure they’re clean and free from mites and fleas.
Make sure their eyes are clear and shiny. Dull, swollen eyes are often a sign of illness and can lead to blindness.
Check to make sure there isn’t any excessive drooling which can be a sign of dental problems. Be careful with this health check- your pet might not be comfortable with having their mouth inspected and may bite.
Gently feel and look to check that there are no bald patches, no signs of mites or fleas and no injuries.
Feet: Gently hold and feel the feet to make sure your pet hasn’t injured themselves. Check their claws too – they need to be clipped to keep them at a safe length; your vet or nurse can do this for you.
Weigh your pet on a regular basis to see that they are maintaining a constant weight that is healthy for their age. Regular visits to your vet will tell you what their weight should be. Watching the scales is important – obesity is a serious illness that can lead to other health problems.