While we're not sure how they got their name, guinea pigs have been bred for more than 400 years. We can speculate that although they are not found in New (or Old) Guinea nor are they a member of the porcine family, they were thought to have cost a guinea when the Eurpean settlers first saw them being raised in domesticity, and the squeals they emitted sounded remarkably like tiny pigs. They descend from wild porcupine-like rodents of South America and are called "cavies" (a shortened form of their Latin name) by many breeders and owners. A guinea pig's claim to fame is that it is the only domestic rodent with no tail.
Guinea pigs rarely bite or scratch, but they can be messy-scattering food, water and bedding all over their cages and often on the surrounding floor area. Their vocabulary includes about nine sounds, from whistling to purring to squealing. They are most active at dusk and dawn, but easily adjust to the routine of your household. Guinea pigs can be fun to watch. They like to explore new settings, but if scared, they'll either freeze or scatter in different directions. Since they are a prey animal in the wild, they tend to be very leery of open spaces and things overhead. It's best to give them a tunnel, a wooden house or a 'Pigloo' to hide under so they feel secure.
Choosing your new pet
Before welcoming Piggy into your home, it's a good idea to read up on guinea pigs and their care. Also, find a veterinarian in your area who is capable treating guinea pigs; not all of them are. You must find a competent veterinarian who can treat guinea pigs before you have an emergency. Things to ask your vet of choice include:
* Have they performed surgery on rodents?
* Have they undergone exotic animal training, even avian training is helpful?
* Will they prescribe penicillin or it's deriviatives to your cavy? If the answer is yes, politely hang up and find another veterinarian. Penicillin will kill your cavy.
* Are they willing to learn from you and your cavy?
Your new guinea pig should be at least four weeks old before bringing him home. Guinea pigs can breed at this age, so be sure not to keep a male and female in the same cage unless at least one is neutered. (Check with your veterinarian for more information about getting your pet spayed or neutered.)
Guinea pigs come in a variety of colors and coats from which you can choose. They may be a solid color, or a combination of two or three colors. Their coat may be short, long, silky or whorled. There are even hairless guinea pigs! If you choose a long-haired guinea pig, be prepared to help him groom himself by combing him once daily. The hair of longhaired cavies (including texels, peruvians, silkies, coronets, merinos, and alpacas) grows about an inch a month, and must be trimmed to the length of the floor or wrapped up. If you wrap a cavy, care must be taken not to set the wraps to tightly, or that will provide discomfort to the animal.
Creating the best home for your Cavy
Guinea pigs are social animals and can live with others of their kind in the same cage, but be sure that enough space is provided for each animal. It is suggested to maintain space of 12" x 24" per each cavy for territorial and resource needs. Male guinea pigs may be housed with young ones, but care is to be taken if housing multiple females together. If you notice any signs of aggressiveness between guinea pigs living in the same cage, separate them at once. Keep in mind, when you initially introduce two animals, there is going to be a dominance tousle directly off the bat. This is to be understood. If the aggression continues after an hour or even a couple of hours, or you notice one is not allowing the other food or water, then at this point, they might be separated. Some guinea pigs will engage in "barbering," or chewing on each other's hair. This is not usually an aggressive act, but rather may be due to boredom, excitement, a hereditary behavior or perhaps a dietary deficiency. If the barbering becomes stressful or harmful to one or more of the guinea pigs, however, you should provide them each with their own home.
Your pet's cage should be as large as you have room for, but no less than 18" x 18" x 12", with a solid floor (wire floors are irritating and can lead to broken legs, lacerated feet or other problems). Be sure to place the cage in an area free from drafts, chills, extreme heat and sudden temperature changes. Also, keep your new friend in a quiet area with few disturbances. The cage may or may not have a roof to it; if not, be sure that the walls are high enough to prevent escape, and that no predators (mainly other household pets) can reach into it. The lower three inches of the walls should be solid-this prevents bedding and food from being scattered outside, yet still allows the guinea pig to see what's happening around him. Most if not all cages come with a pan that is either slid out or as a base that the cage is lifted away from.
The cage should be easy to take apart and clean. Make sure it's well-ventilated (no glass aquariums!), with no sharp edges or corrosion and no small openings that can trap your pet's feet or limbs. The cage should also offer your pet a place to hide. Some animals play with bells or ropes, you can find multitudes of pet toys in your home or at your local pet store.
You'll also need to provide at least 2 inches of bedding for your new friend. The best bedding is pine or aspen shavings, mixed with a nesting material such as cotton. Shredded newspaper works well, too. Whatever type of bedding you use, it must be nontoxic, nonabrasive and inedible, as well as dust free and absorbent. Also, make sure no sharp objects are mixed in it. The bedding should be easy to form into nests and tunnels, as well, since guinea pigs like to nap and hide in these. Pellets may be used, but may not be as comfortable as possible for the cavy. A lot of folks prefer the Carefresh paper bedding, I don't like the odor and it doesn't look very comfortable to sleep on.
Cleaning and entertaining
OK, you've got the right cage and the right bedding. But you can't just plop your pet into his new home and feed him now and then. The cage will need to be cleaned and the bedding changed. And guinea pigs thrive on loving attention and play, just as cats and dogs do.
To keep your pet's home clean and safe, change the bedding daily. Once a week, thoroughly wash and disinfect his cage with a solution of 1 ounce of bleach mixed in a liter or quart of water. Be sure the cage is rinsed well and completely dry before adding fresh bedding and putting your pet back inside. Rinse feeders and waterers every day, too. And keep your friend's home dry, as dampness can cause illness.
In addition to spending quality time with your pet, help keep him entertained by giving him objects to play on. Try adding one or more of the following to his cage:
* solid running wheels larger than 15" (although none of my cavies ever used these)
* escape tunnels (PVC pipe-wide enough so that he can't get stuck in it, of course-makes a good tunnel)
* ladders or plywood boxes (to climb on or hide under)
On mild days, you can supervise him in a safe, outdoor pen (with shade always available), and you can make an indoor playpen, as well, to provide him with more room to roam. Your friend would also enjoy exploring a closed room now and then, under your watchful eyes, of course.
Guinea pigs are herbivores in nature. They should be fed a complete, pelleted diet made especially for guinea pigs that contains at least 16% crude protein. The pellets should not be fed more than 90 days after their milling (check the bag or box for the milling date). The reason for this milling check is to ensure that the added Vitamin C is fresh and hasn't begun to break down yet. Also provide small amounts of grass hay, and supplement the diet with a source of active ascorbic acid, such as half a handful of kale (washed and fresh) or a quarter of an orange. Because guinea pigs can't produce their own Vitamin C, you should add a Vitamin C supplement to their water-a teaspoon of Vitamin C liquid to 12 ounces of water. The water will need to be replaced daily, however, as the Vitamin C will lose its potency rather quickly.
In addition to the above, the following fruits and vegetables-fresh, washed, and with seeds or pits removed-can be fed as treats:
* lettuce (romaine only, no iceberg!)
* broccoli (small amounts only)
* pears (in small quantities)
* collard greens
Also, dandelions, grass and wild clover can be picked from your yard (but only if you're sure they're free from pesticides) and offered to Piggy, along with oats, like Quaker oats. The common outlook is that no more than 10% of your guinea pig's diet should be made up of foods other than the pellets, however, the more modern knowledge leads us to believe that hay is not only a more natural and nutritious diet, but is much more beneficial in terms of nutrients and fiber and protein levels. Keep a dish of pellets available at all times, but provide as much hay as your pet can eat daily.
Be sure your diet doesn't have a lot of powder, as this can accumulate around the mouth and in his nose and cause health problems. No table scraps or other animals' food, either! These, too, can cause health problems resulting from an unbalanced diet.
To prevent obesity and renal failure (a disease of the kidneys) in older animals, decrease the amount of pelleted food offered and supplement with more hay. In these aging pets, the idea is to wean off of the higher protein, 'hotter' alfalfa, and more onto grasses such as orchard, bluegrass and timothy.
Food and fresh water should always be available. Mount feeders and waterers to the cage walls to avoid spills, and only use water bottles with metal sipper tubes, as your pet may chew up plastic tubes.
Guinea pigs commonly ingest their own feces, so although you may be disgusted to see such behavior, don't be alarmed! This is normal and provides them with proteins and vitamin B's, as well as giving their intestines much needed microfloras.
Health and handling
Guinea pigs should have veterinary exams done twice a year. At your first visit, have your veterinarian show you how to clip Piggy's nails, which will need to be done every two weeks or so. He or she may also suggest having your pet's teeth trimmed regularly, but your vet will be able to tell when this needs to be done. Common symptoms at home are listlessness, excessive drooling, lethargy, decrease in appetite and loss of weight. Usually what happens is that the back molars grow up and over the tongue, trapping it down in the lower jaw, preventing the cavy from being able to utilize the tongue to push food back into the molars. It can be quite painful, but if caught early enough, can be taken care of.
The most common health problem seen in guinea pigs are colds that result from drafts, dampness or temperature fluctuations. While we don't think of colds as being too serious, Piggy's cold can quickly develop into pneumonia, so it's important to have him examined by your veterinarian as soon as you notice signs of illness. Also, if your pet stops eating, have him seen immediately by the veterinarian, as this can be life-threatening. Loss of appetite and sniffles are the two most common signs of a sick cavy.
To keep your guinea pig as healthy as can be, take time every day to examine him for lumps, cuts, fleas, ticks or lice. If Piggy displays a hunched or huddled posture, he could be injured or sick. Guinea pigs are prone to abscesses under their chins, too, where their lymph nodes are. Other common signs of illness include diarrhea, weight loss or excessive weight gain, inactivity, not going to the bathroom, nasal or eye discharge, hair loss, incoordination, or limping. If you notice any of these signs, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away to get your friend back on the road to good health.
When handling your guinea pig, be sure to pick him up carefully to avoid injury or discomfort. Use one hand to support him under the chest, and the other hand to support him under the hindquarters. Never grab him over his back, as doing so can inhibit his breathing. And, of course, such a small pet can be easily injured if dropped, so be careful and always supervise handling of your cavy.
A healthy, happy guinea pig
With good care, guinea pigs live up to 12 years, with about five to eight years being the average. By learning all you can about your new pet; providing him with a clean home, a nutritious diet, and expert veterinary care; and giving him lots of love and affection, you can help your cavy enjoy a healthy, happy life.