Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, have been beneficial to humans for thousands of years! The ancestors of Guinea Pigs have been around for millions of years. They were first domesticated by the Incas in Peru, and today they are distributed throughout the world. Their small size, hardiness, and ease of care make them widely enjoyed as pets.
Guinea Pigs are popularly kept as a pet, but are also used for both meat and laboratory research. The guinea pig history is very long. They known as cavies and are classified in the sub-family Caviinae, which is one of two sub-families in the Caviidae family. Members of the Caviidae family first appeared in fossil records in the Miocene period some 20 million years ago.
Description: Guinea pigs can vary in size anywhere from the size of a large rat to that of a small dog, with an average weight of approximately 2 pounds. If well taken care of they can live from 8 to 10 years.
There are thirteen different recognized breeds of guinea pigs, as well as several types that have not yet become recognized. The recognized types of guinea pigs are acknowledged by the American Cavy Breeders Association, with the American, Peruvian, and Abyssinian being the most generally available and well-known. There are also different color variations in guinea pigs, with nineteen that are acceptable for showing.
Satin varieties of guinea pigs have a glossy satiny coat. The actual hair particles are smaller in diameter, which gives these pigs the satiny look.
Recognized Guinea Pig Breeds:
- Abyssinian Guinea Pig – Abyssinian Satin Guinea Pig:
These guinea pigs have swirls of hair that resemble cow-licks, called rosettes. Their hair is more rough and wiry. For showing, the more rosettes the animal has, the better.
- American Guinea Pig – American Satin Guinea Pig:
These are the most common guinea pig with fine, short, glossy hair. Because of their short hair, their coat requires little care. (also referred to as the English Guinea Pig)
- Coronet Guinea Pig:
These are longhaired guinea pigs with a single rosette on the top of their head, a ‘roman’ type nose, and no part in their coat.
- Peruvian Guinea Pig – Peruvian Satin Guinea Pig:
With long, soft hair, these guinea pigs take more time and dedication to care for since daily brushings are needed. These animals are often used for showing.
- Silkie Guinea Pig (Sheltie Guinea Pig) – Silkie Satin Guinea Pig:
As mutations of the Peruvian, these are also long-haired guinea pigs, only without hair growing over the eyes. Rather, they have long hair growing to either side of their face, like a mane.
- Teddy Guinea Pig – Teddy Satin Guinea Pig:
These guinea pigs have short kinky hair that is similar to that of teddy bears.
- Texel Guinea Pig:
These fur of these guinea pigs is thick, long, and soft. The hair forms ringlets, making it one of the most difficult to groom.
- White Crested Guinea Pig:
This breed is also known as the American Crested Guinea Pig. These guinea pigs look like the English short-haired ones, with one single rosette on their foreheads. For showing, the rosette must be white and there can be no other white on it’s body.
Other Guinea Pig Breeds:
- Coronet Satin Guinea Pig: A variety of the Coronet Guinea Pig with a ‘satin’ coat.
- White Crested Satin Guinea Pig: This variety of the White Crested Guinea Pig has a ‘satin’ coat.
- English Crested Guinea Pig: This variety has short hair with a single crest on the head and is one solid color.
- Himalayan Crested Guinea Pig: This crested variety has short hair with a single crest on the head and both are either white or off-white. This is contrasted with black or chocolate feet, nose and ears, and the eyes are pink. This variety has short hair with a single crest on the head and is one solid color.
- AOV Crested Guinea Pig (any other variety): “Any Other Variety” of Crested Guinea Pig includes the Magpie, Belted, Harlequin, and solid Agouti types.
- Texel Satin Guinea Pig: A variety of the Texel Guinea Pig with a ‘satin’ coat. This is a like the Peruvian Guinea Pig, but with coarser hair that parts in the center. Like the Texel Guinea Pig, the hair forms ringlets, making it more difficult to groom also.
- Skinny Pig (Hairless Guinea Pig): This variety has almost no hair on most of its body with the exception of the nose and feet. Some have a small amount of hair in other areas.
- Baldwin Guinea Pig (Hairless Guinea Pig): These hairless guinea pigs are noted for having no hair on most of its body.
Popular Guinea Pig Color Variations:
- Agouti: Every hair has the bottom and the tip the same color, with the middle being a contrasting color. There are silver, golden, and cinnamon Agouti’s.
- Self: Solid colored coats
- Himalayan: White body with a black nose, ears, and feet.
- Tortoise Shell: Patched dark and light brown colors with all the patches having distinct lines.
- Tortoise Shell and White: These are basically the same as the Tortoise Shell, but also have white.
- Dutch: White body with brown or tan markings.
- Brindle: Dark and light tan.
- Roan: Dark hairs evenly mixed with white.
- Albino: Completely white coloring with pink eyes.
- Dalmation: White with dark spots.
- Mixed: Any assortment of colors, including collared varieties.
Purchasing a Guinea Pig: You can readily find cute guinea pigs for sale, or you can adopt a guinea pig. But there are many types of guinea pigs, so it is good to know what you want. If you plan to show then you want one that matches the show standards as closely as possible. If you plan to breed then make sure it is the proper age and with the desirable characteristics. But if you want a pet, then you will want a good disposition, and will have to decide how much maintenance you want to do based on its type of coat.
The most important thing though, is choosing a guinea pig that is fit. A young guinea pig, about 5 to 8 weeks old and completely weaned from its mother can be ideal, but even an older pet guinea pig can make a good companion. A healthy guinea pig should feel full and solid, have bright eyes, good sound teeth, a dry nose and clean ears, a healthy coat with no hair loss or thinning fur, and the nails on its small feet should not be splaying out in different directions. Observe the guinea pig in its cage. It should be active with a lively spirit and be able to run in a swift and smooth manner.
Guinea pigs are social animals and either sex will make a good pet. Males do get a little larger and can be somewhat more active. Also as males reach sexual maturity they can put off a bit of an odor, but it will go away if you have your pet neutered. If you plan to buy more than one, two females would be the better choice since males that have not been neutered will almost certainly fight (especially if there are females around). But if they are neutered there is generally no problem.
Care and feeding:Guinea pigs are herbivores and thus need fruits, vegetables, and grains in their diet. Carbohydrates and fibres are the basis of their diet. They have a high Vitamin C and folic acid requirement and unlike most mammals, they cannot manufacture their own vitamin C. It must be provided in their diet. A good staple food is guinea pig pellets, found in pet stores, and provides all these essential nutrients. Rabbit pellets will not work as they are not equivalent in nutritive value.
Even with the guinea pig pellet though, much of the necessary vitamin C is lost in a short amount of time. You should supplement their pellets with a vitamin C supplement either by offering a small piece of a chewable tablet or a small amount of liquid drops; alternatively a handful of kale, cabbage or other dark leafy greens high in ascorbic acid.
Other additions to the guinea pig’s diet should be made carefully. The majority of their diet should be pellets along with the Vitamin C supplements mentioned above. The balance of their diet includes the addition of fresh greens, timothy / grass hay, and small amounts of fruit. Some of these supplements can include such things as Romaine lettuce (no iceberg), carrots, apples, tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, endive, kale, cucumber, strawberries, and grapes. An excellent food for them is bell pepper (especially red bell pepper), because it is high in Vitamin C. Grass can also be given, but make sure it is pesticide or spray free.
Always remove any non-eaten greens at the end of the day. Food should be put in heavy china or pottery dishes (making it harder for them to spill the contents) and should be thoroughly washed with hot water at least twice a week.
Also make sure that a constant water supply is available, as water is very important. Gravity-flow water bottles, which can also be found in pet stores, are a good idea.
Grooming needs vary depending on the breed and the activities of the guinea pig. Guinea pigs with short or smooth fur only need to be groomed a couple of times a week, and this is only in the spring and fall during shedding season. Those with long fur need to be brushed daily. Guinea pigs rarely need bathing.
The nails of caged guinea pigs will grow faster than they can be worn down, so will need to be clipped occasionally. Proper nail clippers are available at pet stores.
Be safe and only clip the tips, as the nails further in have nerves and blood vessels. Clip at a slight slant from the front of the nail to the back.
Guinea pigs teeth grow constantly. Be sure to provide hard chewables to give your pet something to wear its teeth down on. These can include hard bread, twigs from willow, birch or fruit trees, as well as chew sticks and chew toys from a pet store.
Housing: Housing your guinea pig is limited only by your imagination, ingenuity, and budget. Adequate housing is a major factor in the maintenance of a healthy pet. Important considerations include what it is constructed from, that it provides good ventilation, is easy to clean, and provides plenty of room. There is no single correct way to house your guinea pig as long as its well being is the most important criteria.
Enclosure can be made of wire, stainless steel, durable plastic, or glass; wood is not as good being more difficult to clean and guinea pigs may destroy it by chewing. The size of the enclosure needs to allow for normal guinea pig activity, the more room the better. Some authors and sites recommend a minimum size of approximately 2 square feet of space but the trend is going up to a larger cage, over 7 square feet. Ideally pet guinea pigs will appreciate lots of room, the bigger the space the better!
Use bedding materials that are clean, non-toxic, absorbent, relatively dust free, and easily replaced. Some available bedding’s for the cage are wood shavings such as aspen and kiln-dried pine (not cedar), shredded paper or Carefresh (a recycled paper bedding), processed ground corn cob, and commercial pellets. Put in a cardboard house or logs for the guinea pig so that he has a place to go when he gets frightened or is tired.
Keep the guinea pig cage up on a sturdy stand or table away from cold damp areas, out of drafts, and away from direct sunlight. Guinea pigs have a sensitive nature and are more comfortable in a quiet spot away from noise and stress. Keep them in a place to keep where other animals can’t get at them. Clean the cage thoroughly with hot water at least once a week.
Maintenance: Clean the food bowls everyday and the water bottles twice a week. Change the bedding at least weekly. Wash the pan weekly and wash the entire cage thoroughly with hot water and a safe cleaner monthly, or more often if needed. It is important to use ecologically safe cleaners, such as vinegar or lemon based agents. Avoid cleaners with chemical agents as they can cause skin irritations
Social Behaviors: Guinea pigs are social creatures and will like to have a companion. Most get along fine together however there are some things to take into consideration. Females almost always get along, and you can usually keep as many of them together as you want. Males may also be fine together, especially if they are use to each other or grew up together. However, new males may occasionally fight if in the presence of a female, and the dominant (older) animals may also chew on the ears or hair of subordinate cage mates.
Guinea pigs are great companions for children, and though it is okay to have only one as long as it is given a lot of attention, they will do best with another guinea pig companion. They should be kept away from other household pets unless they are well acquainted with each other.
Though rabbits and guinea pigs may or may not get along fine together, there are a some important considerations regarding shared housing. Their dietary needs are very different and often one species can carry a virus that can be deadly another. Also, a kick from a hyper rabbit can harm or even kill a guinea pig, and sometimes a guinea pig will nuzzle the rabbit’s fur creating bald spots.
Guinea pigs can also be quite vocal, making a variety of noises. Guinea pig sounds can range from chirpings, rumblings, purring to squealing. These sounds indicate when they are hungry, courting, aggressive, enjoying attention, just plain happy, in pain or are experiencing other things. You may find that your guinea pig will start chirping or squeaking whenever you open the fridge or have a plastic bag in your hand, this is often because they’ve learned it means they are getting a treat. Getting familiar with their different sounds can help you know what your pet needs or wants.
Handling/Training: When picking up a guinea pig make sure not to only grab it by it’s shoulders. Pick it up evenly with your hands supporting it’s entire body, and be careful not to drop it.
Guinea pigs can also be taught simple tricks. They can be taught to stand on their hind legs and eat from your fingers once they are comfortable taking food from your hand. Some guinea pigs can even be taught to use a litter box, if enough patience and time are used.
Activities: Guinea pigs need plenty of exercise and they also love to play. You can let them outside or run around in the house for short periods of time under supervision. They love to explore and need about one hour of supervised ‘floor time’ every day. You can also place short ladders and blocks in their cage that they can climb on. Though they are diurnal (active during the day), guinea pigs often require a quiet rest period during the day
Breeding/Reproduction: Guinea pig breeding can have complications. The foremost challenge is that a female needs to be bred between 4 and 7 months of age, if she is to be bred at all. During this time the pelvic bones are only partially fused. An unbarred female that is older than this can have a very difficult time giving birth, due to the pelvic bones fusing. If breeding the female is delayed until she is older than 4 to 7 months, she will require a caesarean section for delivery of the young.
A female’s first litter is very small. A certain percentage of females die giving birth. Abortions and stillbirths are not uncommon with guinea pigs, and females are not overly maternal in caring for their young. Guinea pigs do not build nests and females will sometimes even remain sitting while nursing the young.
Females are sexually mature between 4 and 6 weeks old, but shouldn’t be bred until they are a at least 3 months old. Males are sexually mature at about 6 to 7 weeks of age but should be 4 months old before breeding. When breeding, you can either have a pair of guinea pigs or you can put one male in with several females.They can produce about 4 litters a year until they are 6 years old, but they shouldn’t be bred that long.
The gestation period for females is 63-70 days and they have from 1 to 6 offspring, with the average being 3 or 4. Babies are well developed at birth (eyes open, fully furred, and have teeth), and can run around a few hours after being born. In a few days they can eat solids, but should continue to nurse until about 3 weeks old, at which time they are weaned.
It is important to be aware that a female often goes into ‘heat’ within a few hours after giving birth. This is known as ‘postpartum estrous’. If she is with a male, she can end up nursing one litter while being pregnant with another. This is very stressful and dangerous for the female.
***If the mother dies you will need to know how to raise guinea pigs. There are milk substitutes that are available at pet stores to use when hand nursing baby guinea pigs. You can give the milk to them with an eyedropper. You don’t need to force the milk into their mouths because they have a natural tendency to suck, and will suck at the eyedropper. They should be fed every 2 hours, and at least once through the night until they are weaned.
Ailments/Treatments: Proper care and feeding are primary in maintaining good guinea pig health. Guinea pigs are hardy animals and rarely get sick. However, if not taken care of properly they can become ill. Most ailments are preventable simply from taking proper care of the animal.
Signs that the animal is not feeling well include: listlessness, huddling in a corner, a dull matted coat, refusing food, labored breathing, runny noise, watery eyes, and constipation. In most cases, there are medications available at pet stores which can be used to aid in treating the animal. In other cases a trip to a veterinarian may be required. Guinea pig illnesses include:
- Upper Respiratory Infections (URI) – The indications that your guinea
pig has a URI or even pneumonia are weight loss, runny eyes and nose, coughing, sneezing, and labored breathing. Respiratory diseases are generally caused from being in drafts and/or damp bedding. Make sure he is taken out of drafts and the cage is completely clean and dry, and place a dry cloth over the cage.
Occasionally, middle or inner ear infections accompany respiratory disease, additional symptom in these cases include lack of coordination, torticollis (twisting of the neck) circling to one side and rolling.
- Pneumonia – Pneumonia is one of the most common bacterial diseases of the pet guinea pig. Many of the disease causing organisms inhabit the respiratory tracts and conditions of stress, inadequate diet, and improper husbandry will often predispose a pet to this ailment. Symptoms may include difficulty breathing, discharge from the nose and eyes, lethargy, and loss of appetite. In some cases, sudden death will occur without any of these signs.
- Diarrhea: If your guinea pig has watery droppings and appears to have diarrhea, then the cause is most likely from having too many fresh greens, fruits, or iceburg lettuce. The simple remedy to this is to remove them completely and not feed them at all for a few days until he appears to be getting better. Then slowly re-introduce greens by giving them every few days. A fecal float done by your vet will determine whether your guinea pig’s diarrhea is caused by parasites.
- Scurvy: If you notice that your guinea pig seems in pain, is losing a little weight and has a general loss of condition, it may be scurvy. This is caused from a deficiency in Vitamin C. Feed your pet more fruits and vegetables especially those high in Vitamin C. There are also liquid vitamins you can add to the water, but they loose their effectiveness rather quickly and make the water taste bad. Other symptoms of scurvy are swollen painful joints and ribs, reluctance to move, poor bone and teeth development, spontaneous bleeding especially from the gums, into joints and in muscle, if left untreated this disease can be fatal.
- Constipation: If it appears that your guinea pig is constipated, then it is most likely either not getting enough greens or water, so check both of those. Feeding a little romaine lettuce dipped in mineral oil, can help the relieve the condition.
- Lice and Mites: If your guinea pig is constantly scratching, it could be a sign that it has either lice or mites, which are parasites that live on the skin. A skin scraping by your veterinarian may be necessary to diagnose this problem. The only way to treat this is Ivermectin or Selemectin. Follow your vets orders.
- Fleas and Ticks: Fleas and ticks are bigger than lice and mites, but cause the same scratching and discomfort as lice and mites. Completely clean and disinfect the cage. The best way to naturally control fleas is as simple as a flea comb, hot soapy water, and a good vacuum cleaner. A home remedy used for dogs and cats is to season their food with brewer’s yeast and garlic, a natural flea repellant. Medication designed for cats can is often suggested for use, but a cat treatment flea dip can be harmful. Flea products are known to have caused deaths and illness in pets, so despite strong warning labels, we are hesitant to recommend them.
- Ringworm: Ringworm is a fungus infection on the skin. It is best to go to a veterinarian for this.
- Coccidiosis: Signs of this disease include diarrhea, loss of appetite, and listlessness. It is a protozoan parasite and is spread from contaminated food. The feces also carry it, so the guinea pig can be re-infected through it’s own droppings. Make sure the cage is thoroughly cleaned everyday to reduce the chances of this happening. Take the guinea pig to the veterinarian in order to obtain effective medication. A fecal analysis is the only way to correctly diagnose coccidiosis.
- Heat Stress – Guinea Pigs are very susceptible to heat stroke particularly
those that are overweight/and or heavy furred, inadequate shade and
ventilation contribute. Signs of heat stroke include panting, slobbering,
weakness, reluctance to move, convulsions and ultimately, death.
- Footpad Infection (Bacterial Pododermatitis) – Commonly caused among guinea pigs housed in cages with wire flooring, fecal soiling of the wire potentiates the problem. Symptoms include swelling of the affected feet, lameness and reluctance to move. Consult your veterinarian for treatment.
- Enteritis-Bacterial – Causing infections of the gastrointestinal tract through contaminated greens, vegetables or water. Most common bacteria that cause intestinal disease is Salmonella spp. Other bacterial species that may cause diarrhea and enteritis are E.Coli, Clostridium spp etc… in addition to diarrhea other common symptoms for intestinal disease are lethargy and weight loss. Supportive care is required, fecal floatations and cultures can be useful.
- Slobbers/Dental malocclusion – Slobbers is the condition where the fur under the jaw and down the neck remains wet from the constant drooling of saliva. The primary cause for this condition is overgrowth of the premolars and /or molars. An overgrown tooth causes injury to the tongue resulting in an inability to chew and swallow food, drooling down the chin and neck, and weight loss. Diagnosis is confirmed by your veterinarian. A correction of diet is often required as low fibre diets are a possible causative factor. Periodic trimming or filing of the teeth by a veterinarian is usually necessary. Guinea pigs with this problem should not be bred since dental malocclusion can be
- Barbering (Hair Chewing) – Hair loss is a common problem in guinea pigs. ‘Barbering’ is just one of the many causes of it. This vice (bad habit) occurs when guinea pigs chew on the hair coats of other guinea pigs that are lower than them in the social ‘pecking order’. The dominant ‘pig’ and main culprit is identified by its normal, full hair coat while others have areas of alopecia (hair loss). There is no treatment for this condition except separating the guinea pigs if it becomes a serious problem.
- Hair loss or hair thinning can occur for a number of other reasons as well. It is a common phenomenon among sows who are repeatedly bred or weakened, and newly weaned juvenile guinea pigs. Certain fungal diseases and external parasite infestations also influence hair loss problems.
When looking to acquire a pet guinea pig make sure it is a healthy animal. A healthy guinea pig will have brilliant eyes, good sound teeth, and a healthy coat. Any age and either sex will make a good pet, however unless you can devote a lot of constant attention, you should plan to get more than one. They are very social and do best with a companion. Get a same sex pair or you could end up having babies.