Just because a pet is more common does not mean it does not have special requirements. Guinea Pigs make great alternatives to smaller rodents like hamsters and can offer many rewards.
Guinea Pigs make excellent pets. They come in many different colors and hair patterns, long, short, fancy, and even bald (called Skinny Pigs). Guinea Pigs are often overlooked by children who are attracted to the more cuddly looking animals like hamsters, but hamsters are nocturnal (they will keep you awake at night), and are more likely to bite than a Guinea Pig is. Guinea Pigs “talk” to you, making them easier to bond with, and are a good manageable size for a house pet.
Two male Guinea Pigs of different hair types, photo from Flickr
Like real Pigs, female Guinea Pigs are called sows, and males are called boars. But remember, they are rodents and are apt to be nervous at times if they feel threatened. They originated in the Andes Mountains of South America and were used for food, and possibly even as sacrificial animals. They are also often referred to as the South American Cavy.
Selecting your Guinea Pig
You should look for a Guinea Pig that is used to being handled and is tame and friendly Often those sold in pet stores are not as used to being handled as ones you can find from a private seller, a person whose Guinea Pig has had babies (pups). You can usually find them for adoption from animal shelters, generally at a lower price than you would get from a pet store, and they may even come with their cage and supplies.
How long to you want your pet for? If you are not prepared for a 5-8 year commitment, then perhaps you should consider getting an adult Guinea Pig rather than a youngster, or not getting a Guinea Pig at all.
Housing and Care
Guinea Pigs cannot climb so they need a fairly large horizontal surface to walk around. A short cage is acceptable, it should be at least 3 feet long, and 1.5 feet wide, but as with most pets, a bigger cage is always better. It is possible to keep two same sex animals together if they are siblings or were raised together. Introducing two Guinea Pigs otherwise can be a risky procedure. Breeding of Guinea Pigs is not recommended, simply because shelters often find more are being bred every year, than there are homes for, and you may find the only market for your baby Guinea Pigs is to be snake food.
You will also need to provide them with a house, it can either be a plastic one you purchase or a cardboard box with an entry cut into it, a shoe box will work well. They like tubes to play in. The bedding should be pine shavings, never use cedar. You will need to clean the corners of the cage pretty much every day and dump the entire cage out once every week – 10 days or so depending on how large the cage is and how many animals you have in it.
Guinea Pigs cannot tolerate too much heat, so keep them out of direct sunlight in the summer.
If you find your Guinea Pigs nails are growing long they may need a trim or will eventually curl under causing it great pain and distress. If you are not familiar with how to do this, have an experienced person show you how even a dog groomer can do it.
Make sure your Guinea Pig gets sufficient time out of its’ cage. Otherwise, it will become bored and depressed. They really should be allowed out every second day at least.
Guinea Pigs are herbivores, and they have a requirement for Vitamin C. This means they must be given proper Guinea Pig food with vitamin C added, or you can supplement it with their water. They should be given timothy (grass) hay every few days, and fresh fruit or vegetables as well. Carrots, peas, apples, and broccoli stems being some of their favorites. They can also have dandelion greens or flowers, but only if you know they have not be sprayed with pesticide or herbicide. Wash all fruit and vegetables from the store. Do not offer potatoes or rhubarb to your pet Guinea Pig. You will want to make sure they have pellets all the time.
They can be given water in a bowl or from a water bottle, however, some people find they are very rough on their water bottles. If you are going to put the water in a bowl try to select a heavy ceramic or non-spill one, even a stainless steel bird bowl which will clip on the sides of the cage may work well for you.
They need to chew things to keep their teeth worn down, the carrots and broccoli stems will help this, but you can even give them a branch from an apple tree, or willow. Stores usually sell chew items for rodents. Try to avoid the ones with color dyes.
They are not related to pigs at all, the name Guinea Pig comes from the cost for one, which used to be “One Guinea”.
How you handle your pet Guinea Pig is every important. They need to be supported from underneath and should be held with two hands, never squeezed around the middle. Because they have rather sharp nails it may be easier to put a towel underneath them when you have them on your lap. Also, this is good if they happen to urinate. Guinea Pigs are not that bright they will fall off tables or beds if left unattended. A fall could easily kill or cripple them.
Guinea Pigs make a variety of different sounds to indicate pleasure, displeasure, or excitement (like when they see you bringing treats). A new owner will have to get used to his or her pets way of communicating.
You can brush your Guinea Pig with a cat brush. They generally do not require bathing but if you must, use baby shampoo or preferably gentle pet shampoo, and make sure they are thoroughly dried before returning them to their cage.
Guinea Pigs and all pets should never be a child’s pet. All animals require a commitment, and a child cannot understand or accept a “lifetime” commitment. It is okay to have it be a “family” pet, with the child allowed to help, but make sure it is YOU, the adult who will be willing to provide the ongoing care should the child get bored.
A good alternative pet to a Guinea Pig is a rabbit, the main differences (other than the obvious appearance) being that rabbits do not require the Vitamin C in their food, are litter trainable, and they do not “talk”.