Of the “pocket pets” – the name given to the class of diminutive rodents most often kept as pets – the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) requires the most care.
The average lifespan for a guinea pig is 5-7 years; however, there are records of some that have lived until 11 years of age. Like other domesticated pets, care has improved over the years thus increasing lifespan.
Care and Diet
Cavies require a diet of timothy hay (or alfalfa for young cavies) and fresh vegetables. Timothy pellets or alfalfa pellets are also recommended; however, recent schools of thought suggest that pellets are perhaps not necessary to a healthy diet and in fact cause weight gain. Adding pellets to a diet, therefore, should be done at the discretion of the caregiver.
Feeding fresh vegetables daily; however, is not debated by any cavy owner. Guinea pigs are unable to produce Vitamin C – so they require vegetables to get this much needed resource into their diets. The best and safest way to insure good nutrition is to use fresh, leafy greens. Parsley, cilantro, romaine lettuce (avoid iceberg), endive, kale, green peppers and cucumbers are all good sources of Vitamin C for cavies.
Guinea pigs require a great deal of space to be kept properly. A cage for a single guinea pig should be 2’ X 3’ at the minimum. If two or more guinea pigs are kept than the cage should be expanded 2’ per guinea pig. Most commercial cages sold for guinea pigs are not adequate and should be avoided for use other than as transport or quarantine cages for sick cavies. The best way to get a sufficiently sized cage is to build or buy a C&C cage (cubes and chloroplast) cage. Not only do these cages grant ample room, but they are significantly cheaper to buy/build and are also easier to clean.
Aspen shavings, Carefresh bedding or Yesterday’s News bedding all make excellent substrates for a cavy cage. Fleece linings also work; however, this will require a good deal of laundering to keep the cages fresh. Bedding should be changed every 1-2 weeks depending on if spot cleaning is done daily.
Guinea pigs are herd animals so they prefer to live in groups of two of more. Special care should be taken that only same sex pairs be housed together or, if opposite pairs are chosen – that the animals be properly altered to prevent unwanted births. Before making the decision to breed cavies – it is important to note that many unwanted guinea pigs already exist and are currently seeking homes. Also, guineas pigs have a pregnancy mortality rate of twenty percent making the endeavor risky for the sow (female guinea pig) and the potential babies. Sexing guinea pigs is difficult to do when they are young and therefore should often be left to a veterinarian familiar with cavies.
Boars (male guinea pigs) may be housed together; however, if a cage is too small or one is too dominant they may fight and may need to be separated. There are many ways to introduce cavies to each other to insure successful pairings.
Housing two guinea pigs is ideal for their happiness; so much thought should be given to this important decision.
Handling & Exercise
Guinea pigs can and should be handled on a regular basis. The best way to pick up a cavy is by supporting is rear with one hand while scooping its upper body up with the other hand. Given their naturally docile temperament, guinea pigs rarely bite.
Ideally a guinea pig should be picked up and held daily. Since cavies are sedentary creatures watching TV or reading a book is a great way to socialize them. Younger guinea pigs may require more “floor time” and thus a small pen should be constructed so that they may run about. Rare is the guinea pig that is litter-trained so placement of the pen should be done on a towel or area that can be easily cleaned.
Guinea pigs may be taken outdoors only if proper care is taken that they are not put into any danger while outside. A cavy in the wild is prone to aerial predators, fleas and even poisoned foliage so similar concerns exist for pet cavies. To insure safety, guinea pigs should never be left unattended. Also, if any sort of treatment has been given to foliage or lawn grass, then consider it unsafe for guinea pigs and do not take them outside to graze. Cavies are prone to heatstroke, so extremely hot temperatures should be avoided. If all safety measures are observed then a herd may enjoy a pleasant day grazing on fresh grass and clover.
Guinea pig care is high maintenance and requires special considerations given their unique diet and needs. While cavy care is not to be ventured into lightly, with the proper research even a novice may consider owning these pocket pet gems.