By Dr. Becker
Guinea pigs can be ideal companions for people looking for a pint-sized pet.
Small and impossibly cute, guinea pigs are known for their lively personalities and sociability.
The guinea pig, Cavia porcellus -- cavy for short -- is a tailless species of rodent.
Despite the name, these little guys don't belong to the pig family and aren't from Guinea.
Cavies are native to the Andes in Peru.
Studies suggest they are domesticated descendants of a closely related species, probably Cavia tschudii, and do not exist naturally in the wild.
Guinea pigs have been popular as pets in Western societies since the late 1500s.
This is due to their easy-going nature, responsiveness to handling and feeding, and because cavies are relatively simple to care for.
Guinea pigs are large as rodents go, weighing between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds, with lengths ranging from 8 to 10 inches.
The average lifespan is 4 to 5 years, but some cavies can live to 8 years.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest living guinea pig lived to be almost 15.
Species C. porcellus isn't found naturally in the wild.
However, some species of domestic guinea pigs may be been reintroduced into the wild in the 20th century and become feral.
Wild cavies roam the grassy plains, much like herds of tiny cows.
Social by nature, they live and move around in small groups of several females (sows), a male (the boar), and youngsters, called pups.
Wild cavies aren't nest builders or burrowers, but they're known to take shelter in the burrows of other animals. They are most active at dawn and dusk, making them crepuscular animals.
Domesticated Guinea Pigs
Domesticated cavies do best in groups of two or more, usually females together, or one or more females and a neutered male. (Guinea pigs multiply quickly, so don't house an intact male and female together unless you're prepared to care for several litters of cavies.)
Groups of males may also get along if they are introduced at an early age, the cage has ample space, and there are no females in the group.
Guinea pigs recognize and bond with other individuals in their group, and males who live with a bonded female have significantly lowered stress responses.
Unlike their counterparts in the wild, tame cavies have long periods of activity followed by short periods of sleep. Their activity level follows no particular pattern or rhythm over a 24 hour period.
A good rule of thumb when housing groups of cavies is to provide a minimum of 4 square feet of cage space per guinea pig.
Cages should be escape-proof and made of safe materials, including plastic, wire, stainless steel or a combination of these materials. Glass enclosures don't provide adequate ventilation, and your cavies will easily chew through anything made of wood.
The bottom of the cage should be solid, not wire or wire mesh that can cause problems for tiny, sensitive feet.
Cover the bottom of the cage with aspen or hardwood shavings (never cedar), paper products, grass hay or another form of safe bedding. Avoid cedar or pine chips -- these woods contain phenols that can be dangerous for cavies and other small pets.
You can also add a litter box to the cage. Cavies can be litter trained, but it requires time and patience.
The cage should be located indoors and away from drafts and extremes in temperature. Guinea pigs can easily suffer heatstroke. A temperature of 60oF to 80oF is ideal.
Cavies love to hide during play, so be sure to outfit the habitat with hiding spots like nesting boxes, PVC pipe or cardboard boxes. Also add things to climb on like ramps and other furniture and low plastic shelves. Provide toys including tunnels, tubes, wood blocks, wooden chew toys, and hanging bird toys.
Guinea pigs also appreciate caves for snoozing and resting.
Since your guinea pigs eat, sleep, eliminate and play in the same space, needless to say, the cage will get messy. Dispose of soiled bedding, droppings and old food daily or more often, if possible.
Clean the cage thoroughly at least once a week. Remove dirty bedding, scrub the bottom of the cage with warm water, dry completely and line the enclosure floor with fresh bedding.
Guinea Pig Nutrition
Guinea pigs are herbivores. They eat only plant material and need a constant supply of food moving through their little digestive tracts, so a diet of mostly hay is necessary.
Cavies decide what foods they do and don't like when they're very young, so it's important to introduce yours early to all the different foods you'll want to feed them throughout their lives.
Choose a commercial fortified pelleted diet specifically for guinea pigs, and feed a small amount of pellets, about 1/8 cup, daily. Take care not to overfeed pellets, as they can add unwanted weight to your pets. Avoid pelleted blends that contain corn, seeds, nuts or fruit. Your guinea pig can't adequately digest these rich added ingredients. Also, you want to make sure your pet maintains his taste for hays and pellets rather than other less healthy temptations.
Make unlimited amounts of grass hay available at all times. Timothy is preferable to alfalfa, which is quite high in carbohydrates, calcium and protein. Unless your cavy is under 6 months of age, pregnant or nursing, feed alfalfa sparingly if at all. Other good choices are oat hay and orchard grass.
As with any pet in your family, it's best to try to feed your cavies the highest quality, least preserved commercial nutrition available.
Guinea pigs have a unique requirement for vitamin C. Cavies don't make their own vitamin C, so they must get it daily through their diet.
A variety of fresh vegetables high in vitamin C should be offered to your pet several times a day, but add any new foods gradually to avoid digestive upsets. Choices can include kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, other dark green leafy veggies, snow or sugar snap peas, and red pepper.
Make sure to offer a variety of veggies to prevent mineral imbalances.
Offer only small amounts of fruit. Kiwi, oranges, papaya and strawberries are rich in vitamin C.
If a cavy in your group isn't eating well or you suspect he isn't eating enough veggies high in vitamin C, I recommend talking with your holistic vet about supplementing with vitamin C in drops or tablet form. I don't recommend adding vitamin C to your pets' water supply, because C degrades quickly when exposed to moisture, light and heat. Also, if your guinea pig doesn't like the taste of the supplement in the water, he may not drink enough to stay hydrated.
Also make sure your pets always have fresh, clean water available. Use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube, freshen the water daily and also check the drinking tube to make sure water is actually passing through it.
Beyond hay, pellets, fresh veggies, a few fruits and fresh water, anything else you feed your cavies should be considered a treat and offered very sparingly. You want to help your guinea pigs live long, healthy lives in trim condition.
I recommend you weigh your pets frequently with a small gram scale to insure they neither gain nor lose an unhealthy amount of weight.
Caring for Your Cavy
Like other rodents, your guinea pigs' teeth grow continuously. That's why your gang will need something available to gnaw on at all times. Branches and twigs from untreated trees, or any small piece of untreated wood are good choices.
It's important to get your cavies used to being handled. You can start by feeding small treats. Once they're comfortable taking treats from your fingers, you can begin carefully picking them up one at a time. Slide one hand underneath to support the bottom, and place your other hand over the back.
Once your guinea pigs are used to being handled, you can and should let them loose in a small enclosed area or room to exercise each day. Make sure there are absolutely no escape routes from the enclosure or room.
Always supervise your cavies while they're loose. Guinea pigs will chew on virtually anything they encounter, including electrical wires and other hazards.
Cavies groom themselves, but regular brushing will help keep the fur clean and remove any loose hair and debris. Long-haired varieties should be brushed daily to avoid tangled or knotted fur.
Guinea pigs are naturally inquisitive little creatures. And they make interesting noises. Often they make a sound called 'weeking' when searching for treats. They are also known to purr while being held.
Try getting down on your cavy's level -- the floor -- to bond with him.
Like most pets, cavies depend on a daily routine, so it's best to develop a regular schedule for feeding, playtime, cage cleaning and so forth. Altering the regular schedule can cause stress, so if something needs changing (for example, the location of the cage, or if you need to move the morning feeding up or back by an hour), try to do it gradually.
Generally speaking, guinea pigs are more active at dawn and dusk and tend to nap during the middle of the day.
One cavy behavior you might notice and be concerned about (or grossed out by) is coprophagia. Poop eating. This is a natural behavior for guinea pigs and is actually essential for their good health.
Many guinea pig health problems arise from improper nutrition, digestive issues, dental problems or obesity.
Signs your cavy is dealing with a health problem include irregular eating or drinking patterns, loose stools, blood in the urine, overgrown front teeth, bald patches of skin, and sores on the feet.
If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment right away with a veterinarian who has experience with small pets.
Where to Find a Guinea Pig Pet
Many people don't realize their local animal shelter often has cavies available for adoption.
There are also small animal and guinea pig rescue organizations in many states and internationally that have pets waiting for homes.
Other resources include: