Guinea pigs are neither pigs, nor did they come from Guinea, or contrary to popular belief did they cost a guinea (an old British coin worth Ā£1.05). The name pig most likely came from their shape, and also from the endearing squeaking noises that they make. The Latin name for the guinea pig is Cavia porcellus , and porcellus means little pig in Latin. This is also why you may hear of them being referred to as 'Cavies'.
Guinea pigs are rodents from South America, and have been kept as domestic pets for over 400 years. Wild guinea pigs today can still be found in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Peru. In the wild they inhabit grasslands, forest edges, swamps, and rocky areas. Domestic guinea pigs are still raised by the Indians of the Altiplanos.
Although naturally quiet, nervous animals, Guinea pigs make wonderful affectionate pets if given careful handling and lots of time and attention. They have lots of special noises that they make which can give you an indication of their mood, for instance, they make lots of squeaks and whistles, showing distress or contentment according to the volume. They will also āpurrā or vibrate the whole body when they like something, such as a potential mate. Their teeth are constantly growing and they will spend lots of time gnawing on things. If they cannot keep their teeth worn down, they will become overgrown and may need veterinary attention. Guinea pigs almost never bite unless mishandled, irritated or taste what they think is food.
The three main breeds of guinea pigs are; English/Common (short, straight, fine hair), Abyssinian (rough, wiry hair in rosettes or whorls), and Peruvian (long, straight, silky hair). Crosses of all breeds results in a wide range of coat colors and patterns.
The eyes are large and placed on either side of the head. They have a wide field of vision so that they can detect predators coming from above or from any angle. However, this arrangement means that guinea pigs have a central blind spot and are unable to see directly in front of their noses. Their sight is not particularly good, although they are believed to be able to determine between different colours and are capable of seeing moving objects.
Guinea pigs have a very well developed sense of smell, and they also have whiskers around their nose, eyes and mouth which are very sensitive to touch. The senses of smell and touch are very important when choosing food items as because of the blindspot previously mentioned, they are unable to see what they eat.
The guinea pig has a very good sense of hearing, and can hear sound frequencies that are inaudible to the human ear.
Guinea pigs have twenty teeth in total, the ones that are most visible are the 4 incisors at the front of the mouth, 2 at the top and 2 at the bottom. These are used for gnawing and biting their food. The rest of the teeth in the back of the mouth are the molars, and these do the chewing. Guinea pigs chew with a side-to-side movement, and may make 200 of these movements every minute. The teeth are known as open-rooted, and grow all the time, but with all that eating and chewing they are constantly worn down.
If kept outside the hutch should have a waterproof roof and be placed in a position that provides sufficient shelter from the rain and sun. Guinea pigs are particularly vulnerable to chills so it is important to ensure that the entrance is also sheltered from the wind. The sleeping compartment or hutch should be at least four times the size of your guinea pig, and a large sized wire run should be attached so that your pet can readily enjoy the grass and fresh air. If kept indoors the cage should be placed away from direct sunlight, away from draughts and in a room of constant temperature. Avoid putting the cage near a heater where the guinea pig may become hot and be sure to put the cage out of the way of any other pets which may harm your guinea pig.
Look for a cage with a solid bottom, as wire floors and ramps can injure their feet. Cover the floor with bedding such as Carefresh or Aspen shavings. Avoid pine and cedar, which contain harmful oils, and sawdust. Since cedar bedding is toxic to guinea pigs, bedding made from pine shavings or recycled paper products should be used. You may want to spread a thin layer of cat litter underneath the bedding to control odour. If you notice that your guinea pig is nibbling on the litter, stop using it. Guinea pigs are defenseless animals in nature, so they feel secure when they are hiding. A wooden box or cardboard box placed inside the cage will provide a safe haven for your new pet as well as a comfortable place to sleep.
 Companionsrabbits, however, this shouldn't be done as there is a risk the guinea pigs will be bullied and seriously injured. The best combination is a pair or small group of the same sex, although neutered males and females may get along.
- Pellets - Pellets should be provided daily in a ceramic or stainless steel heavy bowl that is cleaned daily. Timothy-based pellets specifically for guinea pigs should be provided. Alfalfa-based pellets should be avoided as they are too high in calcium. High quality guinea pig diets contain vitamin C, which your guinea pig requires. Ensure that the pellets are eaten within 90 days of the mill date on the bag as the vitamin C begins to deteriorate after this time.
- Hay - A high quality timothy or other grass or oat hay should be available to your guinea pig at all times. Alfalfa hay should be avoided as it is too high in calcium. Hay should be green; if it is brown or yellow it is old and should not be used. To prolong the quality of your timothy hay, store it in a cool dark area away from all light.
- Vegetables - Guinea pigs enjoy a variety of leafy greens and vegetables. Feed these foods in small portions since they should be removed from the cage in a few hours if not eaten. Some vegetables you may feed your pet include: carrots, carrot tops, parsley, broccoli leaves, red and green peppers, dandelion greens, collard greens, beet greens, kale, radish tops and red leaf lettuce.
- Fruits - fruits such as apples and grapes should only be considered treats and should comprise no more than 5% of the guinea pigs daily food intake. An orange slice can be given daily for additional vitamin C.
- Please remember to wash all vegetables and fruits thoroughly before feeding them to your animals.
- Pet stores and pet websites sell many different types of rodent treats (e.g. yoghurt drops), however, these are not recommended because the main ingredients are usually sugar which can cause disruption of the gastrointestinal tract of your guinea pig and this is not good for your pets health.
- Supplements - Guinea pigs require 10-30 mg of vitamin C supplemented daily. You should include one or more high vitamin C foods daily in your pets diet. Some foods containing vitamin C are orange, cabbage, kale, red or green peppers, and spinach. Vitamin C is available in tablets for guinea pigs from your local pet store. The correct amount of vitamin C tablet can be crushed and sprinkled over the fresh vegetables offered. Vitamin C should not be placed in the drinking water as the vitamins are inactivated almost immediately after submersion.
- Dietary Precautions - Guinea pigs develop dietary preferences early in life and do not adapt readily to changes in the type, appearance, or presentation of their food or water. It is very important to introduce your guinea pig to a large variety at a young age to prevent potentially dangerous self-imposed fasting by your guinea pig at a later stage. Guinea pigs have sensitive intestinal tracts and sudden alterations in their diet may result in serious gastrointestinal upset and loss of appetite.
Guinea pigs make good pets. They are nonagressive and they rarely bite or scratch. If frightened, they may run around their enclosure at a very fast speed, which makes them hard to catch. Guinea pigs are social animals that seek physical contact with other guinea pigs when housed together. The vocalizations of guinea pigs have been well characterized. Some common call types include; chutt, chutter, whine, tweet, whistle (single or in long bouts), purr, drr, scream, squeal, chirp, and grunt.
Approach the guinea pig from the front and on its level. Pick it up using both hands, one around the hindquarters, the other around its shoulders (for a young guinea pig) or around its chest (for an adult). Guinea pigs may become upset by too much handling.
When keeping a guinea pig as a pet it is important to keep a close eye on them to help maintain their health and wellbeing. The list below includes the most common ailments that affect captive guinea pigs.
- Pregnancy Toxemia - Commonly seen in stressed, Guinea pigs that have been pregnant for more than 50 days with 3 or more fetuses. Sudden death may occur within 24 hours with no sign of obvious symptoms. However, some symptoms may include a ruffled hair coat, lethargy and a loss of appetite 3-5 days prior to death. In most cases, the condition is fatal irrespective of any treatment given. It is not clear why this happens, although the condition is more prevalent in obese pigs.
- Respiratory disease - Sniffling, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose are all typical symptoms of upper respiratory tract disease. Other signs include blood stained crusts around the nose, discharge from the eyes, and difficulty breathing. Common causes include bacterial infections, allergy, and irritation due to inhalation of smoke, fumes or odours from cedar/pine shavings. Do not use cedar or pine as bedding. These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
- Swelling around the neck - Lumps may appear around the neck that are commonly caused by infection and abscess formation in the lymph nodes of the neck. This condition may or may not be painful to the pig. Treatment varies from oral medications to surgical drainage or complete removal depending on the extent of the infection.
- Bacterial infections - Can happen anywhere in the body, however, typical areas are in the skin (sores and abscess), lungs (pneumonia), blood in urine, intestine (diarrhea), or blood (septicemia). Infections may cause depression, decreased appetite and may rapidly progress to death. Consult your veterinarian immediately if you suspect any of these conditions. Use of medications without veterinary supervision may result in the death of your pig, as many medications used in other animals can be deadly to your pet.
- Blood in urine - Bloody urine may appear red or brown. This may indicate infection of the bladder or kidneys, bladder stones or problems with the clotting ability of the blood. If your pig is female, it can indicate a problem with the uterus. Other reasons for abnormal colour of the urine include muscle damage, diet, and concentration of the urine i.e. very dilute urine is clear where as very concentrated urine is dark yellow to orange in colour. These changes may be normal or may indicate another disease is present. Normal urine is thick and white to yellow in colour.
- Diarrhea - Diarrhea can result from introducing new food items such as a new vegetable, or an unusually large quantity of fresh vegetables into your pet's diet. Try not feeding that new vegetable (or not feeding so many vegetables) for a day or so to see if the problem clears up. Whether or not his/her vegetable consumption has changed, if a day passes and your guinea pig still has diarrhea, contact your veterinarian. Diarrhea is a very serious problem. It doesn't take long for a small animal to dehydrate. If the diarrhea begins after the guinea pig has been on an antibiotics this can mean that the antibiotic is killing off the normal bacteria as well as the bad bacteria. Contact your veterinarian right away. In many cases, feeding live culture yoghurt while your guinea pig is on antibiotics can reduce the chance of this occurring.
- Scratching - Some scratching is a normal function of grooming, however, if the places being scratched are becoming red, irritated, raw or the causing hair loss, then the scratching is excessive. Reasons for this may be skin mites, fleas, a bacterial infection or a fungus, such as ringworm. Pine or cedar bedding can cause irritation and allergic type reactions of the skin leading to redness and itching. Skin infections due to fungus (ringworm) usually appear as scabby, scaly skin lesions around the face and may involve other parts of the body. A diagnosis is made by special culture and treatment is specific for this disease. Lice and mites may occur on pigs. Depending on the type of parasite, scratching may or may not be a factor. Consult with your veterinarian for selection of appropriate treatment.
- Trouble walking - If your guinea pig appears to have trouble walking or have stiff joints or is stumbling it may be a result of vitamin deficiency. Like us humans, guinea pigs are not able to assimilate Vitamin C in their body. If the diet is deficient in Vitamin C, signs of scurvy rapidly develop. Lameness due to Vitamin C deficiency may be seen after only 2 weeks on a deficient diet with fast growing young and pregnant pigs being affected first. The most common signs are decreased appetite and joint pain. Always provide a pelleted diet labeled for specifically for guinea pigs. These diets are formulated with higher levels of vitamin C. Buy the pellets in small amounts (no more than they will eat in two to three weeks) and always buy bags labeled with an expiration date or a milling date. Do not feed pellets that are older than 3 months past the milling date. Do not buy pellets from bulk bins at feed stores. This food may be old. As food ages, Vitamin C is one of the first vitamins that deteriorates. Adding Vitamin C to the food is helpful. Childrenās chewable vitamin C tablets can be sprinkled in your petās food each day (50 - 100 mg per day).
- Pododermititis - this is the condition of having sores on the feet, which commonly occurs in pigs kept on wire-floored cages. Treatment consists of moving the pet to dry, soft bedding, and caging on solid floor. Medications selected by your veterinarian may be needed.
- Loss of appetite - Being small animals, guinea pigs usually eat constantly and metabolize food very fast, so if an illness or other condition is preventing them from eating they rapidly loose weight and become seriously debilitated in a short time. Any illness, Vitamin C deficiency and overgrown teeth can cause a guinea pig not to eat.
- Overgrown Teeth - Guinea pigs teeth grow continuously throughout their life. If the incisors (front teeth) or molars (back teeth) are mal-occluded, i.e. they do not meet evenly, then they do not wear down sufficiently when the animal chews. This results in overgrowth. Malocclusion is usually caused by a congenital deformity of the jaw. Other causes can be injury or trauma to the teeth or jaw and infection in the tooth roots. Overgrown teeth can cause mouth infections, ulceration of the inner surface of the cheeks or tongue and inability to pick up and eat food. Guinea pigs may show interest in the food provided but seem unable to eat it, drooling seen as wet fur around the mouth and neck and weight loss. Overgrown teeth need to be trimmed and periodic trimming is often needed for the life of the guinea pig. If the molars are involved, or if the animal is very skittish, a general anesthetic may be required.