Guinea pig is not from Guinea, nor are they pigs. No one is quite sure where the name comes from, although there are several educated guesses. Their owners sometimes call them “cavies” or “cavy” as a more affectionate name for these small mammals. They are extremely social and require daily interaction with others, human or cavy, for good mental health.
Guinea Pig Types
Guinea pigs were originally domesticated in the Andes, where they were raised as meat animals. They were brought to Europe on sailing ships, possibly as a portable source of food, or as a curiosity. Today, nearly every country in the world has guinea pigs, either as pets or as a feral population, or both. They were also frequently used in laboratories as test animals, hence the term “guinea pig” for humans who volunteer for medical testing.
What is a Guinea Pig?
Although originally bred as a food animal, guinea pigs or cavies, are what is popularly known as a “pocket pet.” Like most pocket pets, guinea pigs can be tucked in a pocket (although hopefully not outside the house), cuddled while watching television, and provide interaction with a living creature for people who might not have much contact with the outdoor world. They are rodents of the Caviidae family, of the genus Cavia. In the Andes, they are known as cuy. In Peru, a breeding program focused on developing larger cavy, known as cuy mejorados. Bred primarily as a meat animal, cuy mejorados are not cute, cuddly creatures. They grow to be as large as six to eight pounds, as compared to two pounds for an ordinary guinea pig. The Marin Humane Society reports an increasing incidence of unsuspecting pet parents winding up with these wild giants instead of the cute, cuddly pet they had expected. To be safe, if you are purchasing a guinea pig from a pet store, ask about its origins.
Guinea Pig Breeds
There are several different breeds and styles of cavy including the Abyssinian guinea pig, which has long hair; the American guinea pig, which has shorter hair and is usually spotted; the skinny pig, which has very short, mouselike hair, nearly hairless; the Peruvian guinea pig, which has long, flowing hair; and the Texel guinea pig, which has curly hair. These are only a few of the many variations on this sweet, loveable domestic rodent.
Where Do Guinea Pigs Come From?
At some time long ago, people living in the Andes started breeding cavia porcellus, the domestic guinea pig. Some people think that they might have descended from the montane guinea pig, C. tschudii. C. porcellus, does not usually naturally exist in the wild. Other close relatives of cavia porcellus, the domestic guinea pig, include the capybara, which is the largest living rodent species in the as well as the agouti, chinchilla, and the coypu or nutria.
Guinea Pig Locations, Guinea Pig Names, and Their Uses:
- Peru – Cuyes. Farmed for meat, but also kept as pets, cavia porcellus. Found in the wild: Cavia cutleri (original term), Cavia tschudii. Their range extends into:
- Bolivia – Cuyes. Farmed for meat, kept as pets.
- Brazil – cavia aperea
- Brazil & Argentina — Cavia fulgida
- Democratic Republic of the Congo – Dende or Cochon d’Inde (Farmed for meat)
- Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo
Europe – primarily kept as pets, but also used as lab animals. Originally transported on sailing ships.
- Belgium – pet remains dating to 1500 found during excavation
- France — cochon d’Inde; pets, lab animals.
- Spain — conejillo de indias, cobayo, cobaya, cuí, cuye, cuy, cuyo, cuyé
- Italy– Animali Esotici Cavie; Note: several rescue centers in Italy.
- Germany — Meerschweinchen
- Britain (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales) – most popular pet
- Switzerland – pet, ruled act of cruelty to have only one
- India, kept as pets
- China, farmed for meat, considered a delicacy
- Prohibited to import to Japan, although there is a zoo exhibit
- New Zealand – guinea pigs are only legal if imported from Australia; kept as pets.
- Australia – Guinea pigs are on the “don’t bring” list for Australia. However, if you have a guinea pig in Australia, it is illegal to own just one. You can rent-a-pig if you somehow wind up with a single.
- Hawaii – kept as pets; are on the “approved” list for animals you can bring to the island. Leillani Farm Sanctuary
North & Central America
- USA, mainland; Few to no regulations for guinea pigs as pets. In some areas, such as New York, there is a market for guinea pigs to eat, and they are approved, as a species, by the USDA in the same classification as rabbits. However, it is illegal to eat guinea pigs in California. Check local laws before adding to cuisine.
- Canada – guinea pigs may enter Canada as pets; but guinea pig meat cannot be imported. It is not illegal as of time of writing to raise them as food animals.
- Ecuador – Guinea pigs are a delicacy.
What is The Behavior of a Guinea Pig Usually Like?
A happy guinea pig will greet you with a series of grunts or chirps. With a properly sized cage, they will “popcorn”, that is jump straight up with delight when they see you. If you fail to feed them on time, or if they simply want attention, they will yell at you with a sharp, strident whistle. They love to explore, poking through mounds of hay, or getting treats out of specially made toys. Although they are somewhat sedentary, a large, wire playpen will provide exercise space while keeping your possessions safe from sharp cavy teeth, and your cavy safe from eating or chewing things that would be bad for him. A guinea pig that does not want to move around at all, refuses to eat, or that has diarrhea is a cavy that needs to visit the small animal doctor. A single cavy is probably a lonely cavy. They are extremely sociable and are usually happiest if you have at least two of them.
Guinea Pig Lifespan:
On average, guinea pigs will live four to eight years. Diet, care, and environment play a part in longevity. Breed counts, too. Skinny guinea pigs tend to live the longest, followed by silkie, white, Peruvian, and Himalayan guinea pigs. Abyssinian guinea pigs usually live five to seven years.
How Do You Know If a Guinea Pig is Male or Female?
It is fairly easy to determine if an adult guinea pig is male or female. The adult males have pronounced testicles, with a penile shaft leading away from anus and testicles toward the belly. Females appear to have a Y shape at their anus. Babies can be a little more difficult to determine, so if you are unsure and do not wish to wait, ask your vet for a determination.
Guinea Pig Care: Gaining the trust of your Guinea Pig
Because guinea pigs are prey animals, gaining their trust requires time and patience. Speak quietly to your cavy while you clean his cage and provide the staples of his diet. Offer to chew toys, appropriate amounts of favorite fruit and vegetable treats.
Timothy hay is recommended for cavies, but try switching it out with other appropriate types of hay. Nearly any kind of grass hay that is clean, fresh, and free of mold will do. It provides fiber and chewing exercise both of which are essential for your cavy. Guinea pig’s teeth grow throughout their entire life. Without some tough fibers to chew, their teeth can become overgrown.
They are not fond of being picked up or carried about, but can be persuaded to snuggle on your lap or against you, especially if their favorite treats are involved. This might be fresh fruit or a commercially prepared guinea pig treat.
Is it Advisable to Let the Cavy Out of Its Cage?
Yes, getting your cavy out of his cage for at least a little while each day is a good idea. Guinea pigs need a spacious cage, and will actually appreciate having a full room to explore. If your home is not large enough to provide that much space for your cavy, a roomy playpen can provide a safe space for exercise time. You can also use a coop to take your guinea pig out of doors and allow him to act as a mowing “tractor” for your lawn, providing it is never sprayed with fertilizer, insecticide or herbicide. As with all small pets, your cavy should be supervised during exercise time. Care should be taken not to let your guinea pig have access to electrical wires or similar items that might harm them or be harmed by them.
What Should Be in The Cage of The Guinea Pig?
Guinea pig cages should have a solid bottom. If the only available guinea pig cage has a wire bottom, place a board or at the very least a thick layer of corrugated cardboard over the wires, since these can damage your cavy’s feet, sometimes even causing a condition called “bumblefoot.” Over the solid bottom, they need a thick layer of bedding. Clean straw will work very well, but you can purchase specialized guinea pig bedding. You can keep the edible hay separated from the straw bedding by putting it in a hay rack. You will also want a container for pellets, a water bottle with a metal ball tip to help prevent unwanted chewing, and a hiding house. You can use aspen, pine, or recycled paper bedding, but avoid cedar. Cedar has natural toxins that are bad for your guinea pig. Your cavy will also appreciate an assortment of chewing toys, as well as toys that have treats hidden inside. It is also a good idea to have a guinea pig carrier for travel or trips to the vet.
What is the Best Guinea Pig Cage Setup?
Guinea pig cages setup need to be at least 24 by 12 by 12 inches in size for one cavy. They need to have a solid bottom. Guinea pig cages should be placed in a location that will not reach more than 80 degrees F., or less than around 68 degrees, but should be free of drafts. A cage placed at medium height in your living room is likely to do nicely. They will like an area where they can see what their human family is doing and where they can communicate with everyone.
Guinea Pig Noises – Your Cavy Likes To Talk
You will come to enjoy your guinea pig’s noises. They make cute little whuffles, grunts and chirps. Guinea pig noises are their way of telling you if they are content or unhappy. If they whine or whistle at you, there is something that needs your attention. If they stop eating and huddle in a corner, they are unhappy or might be ill.
How Do You Clean a Guinea Pig Cage?
To clean a guinea pig’s cage, first, remove the guinea pig and place him in a carrier, or let him run around in his exercise cage. Next, remove everything. Scrape out and place all the soiled bedding, uneaten hay, bits of food, and other debris in a box or bag for disposal. Wipe down the cage floor and the wires. You can use distilled white vinegar and water, or you can purchase a small animal cage cleaner. Rinse the cage to remove any odor after cleaning. Wash any fabric items, and all toys as well as his hiding house. Replace chew toys as needed. Add a fresh liner to the bottom of the cage, put in fresh bedding, fresh food, and refill the water bottle and attach it. It is a good idea to have two sets of toys and fabric items so that you do not have to wait for them to dry before returning your cavy to his home.
How Do You Clean the Guinea Pig?
Guinea pigs keep themselves very clean and usually do not need bathing. However, if he seems messy or smudged, you can clean him up with a damp cloth or specialized guinea pig wipe. Skinny pigs might need rubbed with aloe vera lotion. Long haired pigs will need to be brushed.
Where Should the Guinea Pig Cage Be Located?
Place the cage where your guinea pig will be at a comfortable temperature, and where there are no drafts. He will appreciate being where people can talk to him and where he can talk back.
What Do Guinea Pigs Eat?
Guinea pigs need clean, fresh hay, and guinea pig pellets. About 12 to 20 percent of their diet should be fresh fruits and vegetables, given daily. Observe their favorites so that you can keep them on hand. Never give your guinea pig bread, crackers, any kind of dairy product, peanut butter, or chocolate. Sweets are not good for them either.
What Diseases Can Cavies Get?
Guinea pigs are rather delicate creatures and can get a long list of diseases and conditions. These include Pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, scurvy, tumors, some benign, some cancerous, abscesses, urinary “stones”, ringworm, fleas, and mites, barbering (where the guinea pig will chew nervously on his fur or on that of his cage mate), pododermatitis or bumblefoot.
Although some guinea pigs might be more sensitive to some of these conditions than others, prevention is your best course of action. That means keeping a clean cage, providing clean water, appropriate amounts of hay, guinea pig pellets, fresh fruit and vegetables, and at least a few minutes of attention daily.
What Steps Should Be Followed To Train a Guinea Pig?
Training your guinea pig involves lots of treats, patience, and understanding of guinea pig behavior. A good one to start with is “come when called.” Offer a treat, making sure your guinea pig can see it. Call his name, and give him the treat when he comes to look for it. Repeat this many times. Eventually he will come when you call his name before he sees the treat.
Turn in circles is another good one. Show your cavy the treat, and move it in circles just out of his reach. He will turn to follow the treat. Say a word that has a distinctive sound, such as “Turn” as he does this. Give the treat after he has turned a couple of times. Repeat until he will do it to the vocal command. Always reward him at the end so he will want to do it again.
Toilet training is another desirable thing to teach your guinea pig. Place some of his droppings in an otherwise clean litter box. Reward him if you see him using it. When you do daily cleaning, place a few dung pellets in the litter container. Clean at the end of the week, reserving a few fresh pellets to keep it properly scented.
What Should You Know About Breeding Guinea Pigs?
Female guinea pigs mature sexually around age 2 months, the males around three months. The sows, as the females are called, have an estrus cycle of about 16 days, which can occur at any time of year but is most common in the spring. They are actually fertile for 6 to 11 hours. They begin a new cycle almost immediately after giving birth.
Gestation is 59 to 72 days. Litter sizes range from 1 to 8 pups. Two to four is most common, however. If several males, often called boars, are available when she gives birth, they will compete for dominance so as to be her next mate.
The pups weigh about 3.5 ounces. They can see and run at birth. They will nurse, but by the end of two days they can nibble on moist food. At about 3 weeks of age, or when they reach 6 ounces in weight, they will eat the same foods as their parents.
It is a good idea to handle the babies as soon as they are about two or three weeks old to get them accustomed to being handled by humans.
Most veterinaries do not recommend that private owners breed pet guinea pigs because of the difficulty of finding homes for the babies. However, the best birth control for them is to separate males and females. While it is possible to spay or neuter, it is not advisable because these best exotic pets do not deal well with anesthesia or surgery.
What Else do You Need to Know About Your Cavies?
There are a number of guinea pig clubs, such as the British Cavy Council, or the Loan Star Cavy Club. Thee organizations set standards, hold shows, and competitions. Even if you do not plan to show your cavy, you can learn a great deal by visiting their websites or going to an exhibition.
Guinea pigs have their place in literature and film. An especially well-known humorous short story “Pigs is Pigs” published in 1905, has been both filmed and animated. This story inspired the Tribbles in Star Trek, and the Martian flat cats in the Robert A Heinlein novel, the Rolling Stones.