Is a guinea pig the right pet for you and your family?

Guinea pigs can make excellent pets for the first-time pet owner or the seasoned animal lover. Also called cavies, cavy pigs or, simply, “pigs”, guinea pigs are domesticated rodents once found in mountainous regions of South America. Larger than mice, hamsters, and gerbils the guinea pig has large floppy ears, short legs, and lacks a tail. The modern guinea pig sports a variety of hair coat colors, patterns, and textures.

Never adopt adopt an animal without thorough research and planning. Who will clean the cage? Who will be responsible for feeding? Where will you house your pigs? Who will pay for food, bedding and, if needed, veterinary care? This article will cover housing, diet, normal behavior and social structure, maintenance, longevity, and considerations for adoption.

Is the guinea pig the right pet for you?


Do

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  • understand housing requirements
  • learn about the diet
  • know the social structure
  • find out about grooming
  • learn how to communicate with your pig
Don't

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  • overlook life span
  • forget cleanliness
  • breed your guinea pig
  • ignore health problems
  • rush to the pet store

Laura Kiehnbaum, DVM‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand housing requirements

Guinea pigs need a protected environment and you will appreciate a space which is easy to clean. The cage should be indoors in a draft-free area and temperatures should never rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Elevate the cage if you have other pets and consider forgoing a guinea pig if you already have a cat.

When it comes to housing, the bigger the better. One guinea pig requires a minimum of seven square feet of cage space. Each additional pig needs two to four additional square feet. Most commercially available guinea pig cages are not large enough, so oftentimes constructing your own cage is easiest.

Guinea pigs cannot tolerate standing on wires, so a smooth cage floor with bedding is required. Recycled paper products, towels, and fleece material are the most hygienic. Never use pine shavings, or other aromatic woods, as the oils cause respiratory distress and skin irritation.

Lastly, guinea pigs need exercise in addition to the space most cages allow. However, their short, relatively weak legs and large, heavy bodies mean running wheels and exercise balls are unacceptable. Pigs need daily “floor time” or a safe space to play and get additional exercise.

Do learn about the diet

Guinea pigs are herbivores and require quality forages, such as timothy hay, as well as fresh green vegetables. Vitamin C supplementation is crucial as the guinea pig cannot manufacture this nutrient. Fresh fruits are also appreciated, but must be given in moderation to prevent obesity. For a complete and balanced diet, pigs also require a commercially available pellet.

Do know the social structure

If you adopt one guinea pig you should strongly consider adopting a second. Guinea pigs were prey animals and prefer to live in groups. For optimal mental health a guinea pig should not lead a solitary life.

Pigs develop a social hierarchy and care should be taken to introduce animals slowly and choose the right companions. Males from the same litter can live together; neutered males and females are also okay together; and female-only pigs can be housed together.

Do find out about grooming

Guinea pigs have four toes on the front legs and three toes on the hind legs and the nails grow continuously. Your pig requires regular toe nail trims by either you or your veterinarian.

Long-haired pigs need regular brushing to maintain their beautiful coats. Since they tend to poop everywhere some pigs require bathing to keep their coats and feet clean, dry, and odor-free.

Do learn how to communicate with your pig

Guinea pigs recognize their owners, communicate readily, and enjoy cuddling. A new pig will require gentle, diligent handling to build trust. The length of time for a pig to accept you varies between animals. Try to handle your pig several times daily and make the experience positive, using treats and a calm, soothing voice. Always handle guinea pigs appropriately and protect from falls as these animals are neither agile nor acrobatic.

Almost all pigs will run from you in the cage when you pick them up. Understand this is a normal part of pig behavior, likely as a result of being a prey animal.

A surprising variety of sounds are made by guinea pigs, so take the time to learn each vocalization to better understand your pig. A quick internet search yields some excellent sound files and explanations.


Laura Kiehnbaum, DVM‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not overlook life span

The average lifespan of a guinea pig is five to seven years. Whereas most other rodents have much shorter lives the guinea pig requires a much longer commitment. Do not view these animals as temporary or “throw away” pets.

Do not forget cleanliness

Guinea pigs can be difficult to impossible to litterbox train, so expect fecal pellets everywhere. While guinea pigs have a characteristic odor the smell should never be overwhelming. If you neglect cleaning the cage will begin to smell and your pigs can develop foot and respiratory problems.

Do not breed your guinea pig

It is recommended to keep at least two pigs together, but make sure you know the sex of each pig. There are simply too many animals waiting for adoption, do not inadvertently create more!

Males and females should not be housed together unless the male is neutered. A female guinea pig reaches sexual maturity in as little as 2 months of age. As a female ages her skeleton becomes inflexible and she is unable to give birth to babies if she has not had a litter before a certain age. In this case pregnancy and birth become dangerous to the female pig’s health.

Male guinea pigs adopted from the pet store or local humane societies are not typically neutered. Neutering the guinea pig requires surgery, anesthesia, and a skilled small mammal veterinarian.

Do not ignore health problems

Again, guinea pigs should never be viewed as “throw away” pets. It is your responsibility to provide for your pig, nurture him/her and monitor for health and disease. If your pig becomes sick it is inhumane to ignore the problem and wait for nature to take it’s course. Like all mammals, guinea pigs get sick and feel pain, too!

Do not overlook the importance of an experienced small mammal or “exotics” veterinarian. Your pig should visit the veterinarian if he/she becomes sick and this will cost money. When deciding on a guinea pig, or any animal as a pet, remember to budget for trips to the vet clinic.

Do not rush to the pet store

Consider adopting a guinea pig from a local rescue or humane society. There are many wonderful animals that need a loving, forever home. Pet stores or in-home breeders churn out guinea pigs for profit and not all of these companies deserve your business. Research all options before choosing where to adopt your new pig.


Summary

Guinea pigs are cute, cuddly and can make excellent pets for the right person. Considerations prior to adoption include size of the cage and location in your home, type of bedding, nutritional concerns, number of pigs to be adopted, grooming, and on-going care of your pigs. In addition, guinea pigs are relatively long-lived rodents, so a commitment to maintenance as well as costs, including food and veterinary care, must be considered. Look at adopting a guinea pig as your next pet!

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