Guinea Pig Care
We wanted a pet that would be easy to care for and could also take care of itself while we were away at work. We looked into cats, dogs, fish, even birds! On a day off together we toiled in a local pet shop and met the sweetest little docile creature called a guinea pig. My husband and I had never owned a guinea pig but were very intrigued by the noises it was making and its mannerisms. It grunted and squeaked like a piglet and was so soft and snugly. Yep, the guinea pig was definitely the right choice for us. Read on to find out more about our journey into the land of guinea pig care!
Guinea pigs are a very timid species of rodent. They scare easily and can be difficult to train without a commitment of time and patience. As far as costs go, it won’t break the bank but being frugal about your piggy’s care can lead to a decrease in their overall happiness. What you’ll lose most is your time and effort in cleaning and maintaining a safe and acceptable environment for them to frolic in.
You may read about them being referred to as a “cavy.” Its genus is Cavia and its species is Porcellus. It’s a very important animal in parts of South America and is often used in cuisine and even spiritual rituals to curse or determine an unseen sickness in people. As we often call people under questionable treatment "guinea pigs", these critters were often used in scientific and clinical experiments since their bodies are very much like human bodies in specific ways helpful to medical research.
There are many types of guinea pigs. They come in all different shapes, sizes, colors and hairstyles! There are the punk-rock Abyssinian, the sleek American short and long haired, the skinny hairless, the fancy Peruvian, the comfy Himalayan, the Teddy, Texel, and sheltie. As far as I can tell there are no behavioral differences between breeds. Some are easier to keep clean than others, being some are furrier.
Guinea pigs have been domesticated over the last few hundred years and have made great house pets for children and adults alike. In my honest opinion, a child interested in caring for two or more cavies should posses a high level of interest in their livelihood as it is a very time consuming ordeal at times. Sometimes children don’t realize what is being asked of them from their pets until it’s already assimilated into the family and the parents are left to pick up the pieces… of poo, liter and hay that is.
I say “two or more cavies” because guinea pigs are very social animals that fair better with company in their cage or play area. A lonely piggy might fall into a depression which can actually be quite harmful to it and destroy their quality of life. If you’re going to invest in caring for a guinea pig, please strongly consider purchasing two that are the same sex (two boars or two sows) at the same time. The more the merrier, the extra food cost notwithstanding.
The common guinea pig is specifically a prey animal and its defense mechanisms cause them to fall victim of their own demise. One defense technique they have is hiding their illnesses. If they’re sick in the wild, they will do their best not to be picked out of the bunch as the weakling and hide it as much as possible. That’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on their health and be sure to properly clean them and their cages. Changes in their behavior are the best signals to watch for in detecting pain, illness and even depression. If you find that your once bubbly piggy is now isolating itself and stops eating and drinking, give it some attention and check it over, then take it to your vet to be sure their okay.
Additionally, you might come into the room suddenly or something will make a loud noise and you'll see that your pig has frozen in it's spot. It won't move blink or make a noise until its convinced the danger has passed. If you have a group of them, they'll mirror each other and wait until the warning pig gives the all clear. They'll freeze at almost anything -so don't worry if they're afraid of your entrances.
You’ll find that guinea pigs basically potty train themselves. They just need a clean hygienic area to do their business that gives them some comfort and security and they will designate it as their official bathroom. Don’t be worried if you see them eating their poo from the ground, or even their own bums. This is a normal process of their digestion. Sometimes their food isn’t digested completely and they make a leftover meal out if it as it passes through the first time. Guinea pigs will urinate where they claim their territory like a lot of mammals in the wild and if they’re a young cavy you may notice that their pee is cloudy and white. This is normal for newborns and months old guinea pigs and it should clear up within the year. If it doesn’t or it doesn’t seem right, please take your cavy to the vet to be sure there isn’t an underlying illness. Also, please note that the Cavy does eat where it goes to the bathroom. This is normal.
The last thing your guinea pig wants to do is pee or poo on you. They’ll let you know if they need to be put down if you’re holding them in your arm or lap and will squirm around looking for a crevice to do their business. Be sure to learn and recognize these indicators so that your poor piggy isn’t holding it for very long. They’ve only got about a 10 minute window of holding it at the max before the dam breaks lose!
A healthy diet is the key to keeping them healthy. Guinea pigs are vegetarians and enjoy all kinds of fruits and veggies. There are certain foods, however they cannot eat. Stay away for whole or crushed nuts, raisins, grapes and anything else that has a film or skin on it that isn’t a vegetable. These are indigestible. Foods high in vitamin C are best for young and growing cavies and love crunchy veggies like carrots, cucumbers and peppers. You'll notice in the picture a pack of piggies are enjoying some iceberg lettuce. For cavies, wetter is not better. Try to stay away from overly watery food items like lettuce as they don't provide very much nutrients and may make their poo runny. Some piggies are picky. It might take a while before you find out what they like and what they love!
I would not recommend feeding your cavies food from the outdoors unless you know for sure it's chemical and pesticide free. Be sure to monitor their grazing. Also try not to have them out in the heat. They're not very good at regulating their temperature in hot and cold environments.
After a while your pig will know when it’s snack time and may even fall into a routine. Whenever we open our refrigerator door one of our piggies start wheeking loudly, this is one way they beg for their treats. It’s cute- most of the time.
Remember to always afford your guinea pigs unlimited hay and purified water throughout the day. They will need constant grinding for their teeth, as their teeth never stop growing, and hay is the perfect snack for keeping them sharp and trimmed. Without anything to chew on their teeth will grow into their mouths. Let them chew!
Just like our own nails, cavy nails get long and dirty if not properly cleaned and clipped every once in a while. A feral guinea pigs nails would look almost like talons as they hook under their feet, causing debilitating pain and deformity from not being manicured. Try to cut a few millimeters above the quick of their nails 2-3 times a month to avoid your piggy getting hurt. I tend to think they like being pampered after a while. Please be careful when cutting their nails as this may be uncomfortable for them the first few times. They should get used to it and squirm less over time. If you do accidentally clip your cavy's nail down to the quick and it starts bleeding, grab a clean cloth or towel and wet it with cold water. Grab some flour and put in a few drops of water to make a paste. Once the bleeding has almost stopped, dip the toe in the mixture and allow it to dry before putting them back down. This won't hurt the guinea pig and they'll be just find.
Be sure to keep their living area clean as well. Guinea pigs are very prone to respiratory infections from certain materials being so close to their sniffers. When lining your cage, I would suggest using fleece blankets or recycled paper litter. Cedar chips are actually harmful for your piggy and hurt their delicate feet, and flat newspaper isn't very comfortable for them to run atop of. Fleece can be washed and recycled paper is a great way to stay green!
Guinea pigs are neither nocturnal nor do they stay up all day. They sleep intermittently throughout the entire day but are most active at dusk and twilight, when their nature prey is getting up or settling in for the day. You may, then. notice them have watery eyes, as if they're tearing up. This is absolutely normal. Since they very rarely close their eyes (even when sleeping) their bodies secrete mucous tears to keep their eyes hydrated. To see a guinea pig sleeping in front of you with its eyes closed is a magical and well earned trust gesture from them. Great job making your piggy so content!
Bath time for piggies will either be a pleasure or a challenge, sometimes both. Guinea pigs are swell in the water itself, but washing them can be very uncomfortable and even downright frightening for your pet. It's very important that you dry your guinea pig off completely before putting them back in their enclosure. Guinea pigs can easily get hypothermia and being wet while in the open air could be fatal for them. Wrap them in a clean, dry towel and hold them until their dry to the touch. I would not advise the use of a heater or hair dryer as you could unwittingly burn them. Just as they catch cold quickly, they'll also over heat just as easily!
When you're ready to hold and cuddle your guinea pig, please keep the following factors in mind:
- Guinea pigs are very afraid of you, no matter how long you'veknown them. Speak gently and quietly with them so they can get used to your voice.
- Don't get discouraged if you attempt to coral your piggy and they run away. They're programmed to do this. Just calmly corner them with your hands and scoop them up from underneath very carefully.
- Guinea pigs are also very afraid of heights. After you reach down and pick them up, cup them and hold them securely to your chest and under your chin, supporting their rear legs. Their eyes sight isn't good, but they can tell when they're not in a safe position.
- Always support their bottom. Whether they're in your lap or on your chest and shoulder, make sure they know they won't fall.
- Guinea pigs will sniff and lick and nibble on anything they please so be sure you're not near or wearing anything that could be harmful to them.
- When petting and stroking them, keep in mind that their skin is a lot more sensitive than you might think. Touch them gently and don't pet against the natural direction in which their hair grows. This can be very annoying and somewhat painful for them.
- With your guinea pig this up close and personal you're going to hear their noises much better. You'll should hear bubbling, a soft coo like that of a bird and sometimes sniffs. You should not be hearing any low pitched rumbling, clacking or teeth gritting from their mouth. These are sounds of discomfort fear and eventually it will lead to aggression. Mind their wishes and slowly, carefully and gently put them back in their enclosure.
- After about 10 minutes of holding, your guinea pig will more than likely have to go to the bathroom. If it comes before that time, you'll know by the fidgeting, circling and panicked look in their eyes. They really don't want to pee on you. Go ahead and put them down.
Pay very close attention to your guinea pigs’ mannerisms. These are their way of directly communicating their needs, wants and wishes with you on a daily basis. The sooner you understand what their wheeking and rumbling means the earlier you and your cavy can become the best of friends.
When a guinea pig is feeling good and in no way in particular, it will roam around its enclosure and sniff things, eat things, bite things and potty. When it’s happy and full of zest you’ll know immediately. It will hop up in the air and twist its body in excitement. This is commonly known as “popcorning.” Guinea popcorn is involuntary and sends them into fits of spasms. Newborn Guinea pigs will popcorn out of excitement within hours of its birth. (No doubt from the change of scenery.)
An angry guinea pig is just as unmistakable as a happy one. Guinea pigs simply don’t want to be picked up or played with sometimes and they will let you know. You’ll hear or sometimes even see them rumbling in a low-pitched growl in short bursts. This could be triggered by a noise they don’t like or aren’t sure of, it could be the act of touching it when it doesn’t want to be, and of course it may be another guinea pig or pet making it upset. Try and rectify the situation as calmly and compassionately as possible. It will not attack you unless it absolutely needs to, in most cases this rarely if ever happens.
Guinea pigs are generally not hostile or aggressive towards each other except in the event of the classic turf war. Cavys usually have their usual hang out spot and prefer another pig not be in their space. There are two gestures you may confuse the first time you see it and their equally rare. When you’ve made a good bond with your piggy and they’re perfectly fine with lounging in your presence, you may actually witness their legendary yawn. It’s wide and tall and you’ll be able to see the inside of their mouth including their four large teeth in front, two on top and two on the bottom. Charming, isn’t it? However, if you see your guinea pigs yawning at you or each other, something bad is about to go down. When the present their teeth in a defensive way, this is a neon sign that reads, “I’m going to wreck you.” Separate them as well as you can and watch to make sure they don’t continue this behavior. For the most part they’ll settle down and become friends again.
Very rarely do they bite each other or humans. You’ll get nibbles and lick while holding them as they might smell food on your hand. Some people think they like the taste of the salt on your skin. Biting hard might occur if the guinea pig needs to be put back down from lap time – most likely to use the bathroom.
Biting may also occur if it’s agitated from being pregnant. They’re very worrisome of their condition while carrying a litter and do not like to be held certain ways. When we bought Buffy, pictured, we had no idea that she was carrying our little Angel! She was quite young and small but after a few weeks we noticed her getting massive on one side of your belly. We didn’t put it together until the night before the delivery.
Our guinea pig Angel as a newborn
Guinea pigs sows are typically fertile after the first 4 months and will usually only have 1-3 babies their first litter. After a successful litter the next litter count my rise to 10-12 at once! This, as you can imagine, can be very dangerous for a young sow as your assistance with the birth can only be very minimal. Your pregnant guinea pig will go to a quiet secure place and wait for the baby to come. Leave her alone while she does this but monitor her progress to make sure there aren’t any complications you can help with. She will deliver the baby herself, bit the sack and eat it for the nutrients and most likely leave the baby alone for a bit. She is most likely traumatized as she may not have known she was carrying, which may leave you wondering why she isn’t very concerned with the baby cavy.
Mommy and Baby
After a few minutes, the cavy will open its eyes and try out its limbs for the first time and eventually popcorn. It will be clumsy but will get the hang of it all within the week. The mother will nurse the newborn until it’s read for solid food and hay. No assistance is needed in the process. If you bought your mother guinea pig at a store and she ended up having a litter, you may notice that the newborn cavy or cavies may grow a bit bigger and stronger than the others. At least this was true for our baby guinea pig, Angel. She is half the age of her mother at this time and she’s already bigger than her! I strongly believe that this is because Buffy and Willow did not receive the nutrients and nurturing environment that Angel has received in her forever home.
After about 4-6 months the guinea pig will be fertile so make sure you’ve sexed the newborn to be
sure that it is the same sex as the mother. You should be able to tell within 3 weeks. If it is a boar, it is suggested that it be separated and joined with another boar if it is at all possible. Boars and sows are able to get along together but they will always try to mate and without sterilizing your boar, it will almost certainly happen.
Sterilizing your male guinea pig, especially at such a young age is dangerous and in my honest opinion should not be an option at all. Firstly, you’ll be lucky to find a vet who can safely and confidently perform a surgical procedure as uncommon as this in your area. Second, the surgery alone can lead to infection and then death if he’s not cared for properly during recovery. Sterilizing a sow is even more rare and unnecessary. Separation is the best way to go about caring for your piggy’s social life.
Just as humans do in society, sows and boars will show off their prowess to whoever will give them any attention. Properly separated, boars will show off to other boars and sows will show off to the other sows. Sows will slowly rumble, much louder and prolonged than their warning growl, and sway their hips back and forth while facing another pig. Boars may mount each other and you may find that they spray on things they’d like to claim as their own. It’s not a sexual interaction per se, more along the lines of a vindictive beauty pageant and a raging muscle man competition, respectively. I actually find it quite amusing when one of the girls is in heat and terrorizing the other girls with her “milkshake” bringing all the boars to the yard.
Each guinea pig is as unique as we are and need your time, cuddles, attention and love. What they give back is a long lasting and special relationship with an amazing pet that otherwise couldn’t live the life you’ve given them.