Guinea Pigs (also known as cavies) are a species of rodent native to the South American Andes. They are social inquisitive creatures and make lovely pets. Although they are commonly thought to be easy first pets for children, they require plenty of attention, care and time, and a well-researched approach to their care.
The following information is only a basic overview. It does not cover every aspect of guinea pig care and we strongly advise that you seek further information to ensure the health and welfare of the animals in your care.
Guinea pigs are very social animals, and are happiest when kept with other guinea pigs. Ideally, your guinea pigs should be desexed, but if not it’s a good idea to keep only females or only males to avoid unwanted breeding.
Guinea pigs are natural herbivores, who would spend their time foraging and grazing in small herds in the wild. Their teeth are continuously growing, which is one of the reasons why they need plenty of roughage to encourage chewing, which wears down their teeth and helps prevent serious dental problems.
For your guinea pig to be happy and healthy, they need plenty of the following basic components in their diets:
- Ensure that your guinea pigs have a constant supply of grass and/or grass hay (such as Timothy, Oaten, Barley, or grassy hay). This should be dry, sweet smelling and not contain any mold, mildew or fungus. Guinea pigs should not be fed Lucerne (alfalfa) or Clover hay, as these are too high in protein and calcium.Providing the opportunity for your guinea pig to graze on grass is also important to their wellbeing. If they do not have an areas where they can graze safely (for example, free roaming in a safe enclosure), then offering cut grass is another alternative (however, they should not be fed lawn trimmings, as these can cause digestive upsets). See this article for more details. Just as with hay, Lucerne (alfalfa) should not be given fresh and clover should be avoided where possible and not given in large quantities.
- Fresh leafy green vegetables & herbs. Some examples of these include broccoli, cabbage, dark leafed lettuce varieties, and parsley.
- A dietary source of Vitamin C because, like humans, guinea pigs cannot make their own Vitamin C from other food substances. This is usually supplied sufficiently by the fresh leafy green veggies, but it is safer to supplement this with small quantities of Vitamin C rich foods such as citrus or kiwi fruit.
- High quality commercial ‘Guinea Pig’ pellets (minimum 16% fibre content) may be offered in small quantities, but these should not form the main part of the diet.
- Access to clean fresh water at all times
It’s important to also know what not to feed a guinea pig, as there are plenty of items that might seem harmless but can in fact cause significant health issues.
Guinea pigs should have as large an enclosure as possible, ideally with the right amount of lined, covered space and soft grass hay to provide cushioning. Sawdust or wood shavings can cause respiratory issues and should be avoided. Make sure to clean out the hutch regularly and dispose of any waste.
Daily grooming is essential for long-haired guinea pigs to help keep their coat in good condition, and is good for short-haired guinea pigs too. Using a suitable brush, brush the coat gently in the same direction as the hair grows, and gently remove dead hairs, tangles and pieces of twigs, dry leaves or burrs. During grooming take the opportunity to check your guinea pigs’ health and to ensure that they are free from external parasites, such as fleas and mites which cause itching and skin irritation. Also check the length of your guinea pigs’ toenails (ask your veterinarian to teach you to assess whether the nails need clipping). If the toenails are found to be overlong, have them clipped by a veterinarian or someone experienced in clipping guinea pigs’ toenails (you can also ask your veterinarian to teach you how to safely clip the nails).
Daily handling and grooming is important in building your guinea pigs’ confidence and for developing friendly and social guinea pigs.
It is best to handle guinea pigs when they are young to help them feel comfortable. Make sure that you handle them carefully, securely, and gently. If they want to, you should allow guinea pigs to retreat and hide. Try never to remove them from a hiding area and force interaction or handling with them; they need to feel that their hiding areas are safe and secure.
Exercise and enrichment
Guinea pigs need exercise, mental stimulation, environmental enrichment (e.g. toys, tunnels etc), and the ability to express normal behaviours. The normal behaviours that guinea pigs need to be able to express include social interaction with other guinea pigs, walking, running, tunnelling, exploring, playing, stretching horizontally, retreating to a shelter and hiding, foraging, chewing, gnawing, and jumping.
Guinea pigs reproduce from a young age, as early as 4-8 weeks old. So, to prevent unwanted litters of guinea pigs it is important that they are desexed before they can reproduce, at around 3-4 months of age. Before that time, undesexed male and female guinea pigs should not be kept together from 3 weeks old (males must be removed and weaned from their mothers at 3 weeks of age). Desexing your guinea pigs will not only prevent unwanted litters but will also prevent some health problems. For example, in females desexing will prevent ovarian cysts, and in males desexing can prevent or limit the development of a condition called ‘boar butt’ (this is where the muscles around their bottom stretch, this can lead to the accumulation of faecal material in their rectum causing discomfort and health problems).
Guinea pigs who are ill or injured must receive appropriate treatment from a veterinarian that will relieve any pain or distress. Guinea pigs are good at hiding illness and pain. Get to know your guinea pigs’ behaviour; if they are behaving abnormally this may be a sign that something is wrong. If your guinea pig is behaving abnormally please contact your veterinarian promptly.
Guinea pigs should also have regular veterinary check-ups; this can help to pick up problems such as overgrown teeth or parasites before these become a major health conditions for your guinea pigs.
It is important to undertake some advance preparation to ensure your guinea pigs’ wellbeing in the case of an emergency or disaster, including assembling an animal specific evacuation kit (e.g. travel cage, at least 2 weeks supply of feed and fresh water, bedding and animal specific medication that your animal needs). You should also think about what arrangements can be made to ensure good care of your guinea pigs if, for some reason, it is no longer possible for you to look after them.
There are legal obligations for people who owns or are in charge of an animal; these are in place to protect animals’ welfare.
There are no national laws applying to animal welfare, but all states and territories regulate animal welfare in their jurisdiction. The legislation in each state and territory can be found in this article.
Source: rspca.org. au