Keeping guinea pigs

Guinea pigs can make adorable pets for both children and adults. They are fairly quiet (except at feeding time!) and don’t need a huge amount of space to remain happy. Follow these tips to keep your pet happy and healthy.

  1. They are social little animals and do best when kept in pairs or small groups. It is simplest to introduce the animals while they are still young, as adults may take a dislike to one another. Your groups can be all female (sows), all male (boars) or one male with several females. (Ideally, make sure they are sterilised otherwise you may end up with unwanted litters.) Serious fights may occur in groups where a new boar is introduced to a stable group of one boar and several sows.
  2. Guinea pigs are not good climbers and can easily be kept in an area with a low 30cm fence. The largest area possible should be used for their caging, with a minimum of 1m2 per piggie.

Higher walls or even a roofed enclosure will be needed if dogs, cats or other predators such as ferrets and birds of prey will be able to get to the inhabitants. Guinea pigs love eating fresh grass and supervised outdoor time is very healthy. Make sure there are no toxic plants in the garden that they can eat!

  1. As they are a prey species, guinea pigs need hiding places to feel safe. Purpose-built huts are available but wooden nest boxes or kennels are also suitable.
  2. They are prone to developing sore feet if they are kept on hard or rough surfaces, so a soft substrate is important. The substrate should also be dust and chemical free. The best substrates are those made from reclaimed wood pulp or paper pellets. Fleece blankets may be used in the nesting areas.
  3. Probably the most important and also the most commonly mismanaged aspect of looking after guinea pigs is proper feeding. These animals eat hard grasses in their natural environment, which wear their teeth down. For this reason their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives. If your pet does not eat enough fibrous hay, his teeth will grow too long, become painful and he will stop eating. If not addressed quickly, loss of appetite can have disastrous and even fatal consequences.

Good-quality grass hay should make up the majority of the diet, with a small amount of extruded guinea pig pellets and safe greens and veggies (there are lists of safe foods on many guinea pig websites).

  1. Guinea pigs, just like people, need a source of vitamin C in their diet. This is why only high-quality guinea pig pellets should be fed, as these are fortified with vitamin C. Rabbit pellets are not suitable. Signs of vitamin C deficiency include a rough coat, lameness, weight loss, poor growth and loss of appetite.
  2. Tame guinea pigs enjoy being handled and cuddled. They should be picked up with one hand under the chest and the other supporting the rump. Please remember that scared guinea pigs may freeze when picked up but then jump and kick explosively. Dropping them could lead to severe injuries.
  3. One fascinating aspect of having guinea pigs as pets is learning to understand their unique vocalisations.
  • Wheeking is a loud whistling sound made when the piggie is excited or expecting a treat.
  • Purring has different meanings. A deep purr indicates contentment while one rising in pitch can indicate annoyance.
  • Males make a deep rumbling sound when courting a female.
  • Teeth chattering, often accompanied by baring the teeth, is a sign of aggression.
  • A soft cooing sound is made by a mother to her young.
  1. Owners should be aware of the signs of illness in their pets. Common problems are itching and hair loss. Typically, this is caused by a tiny mite that burrows under the skin. These bugs are too small to see without a microscope. Your exotic animal veterinarian can easily treat the condition as long as it is caught early. The poor guinea pigs can become so itchy from these mites that they can actually have fits!
  2. A healthy, happy guinea pig eats almost constantly and will be excited when offered treats. Any changes in behaviour, appetite or the size, number and shape of the droppings are an indication that your pet should have a visit to the vet. Problems are always easier to treat if they are diagnosed early. Because guinea pigs are a prey species, they know that if they look weak they will be a target for predators. For this reason they will try to hide any signs of illness for as long as they can, making it more difficult to see that they are ill.

It is always a good idea to do as much research as possible before deciding to purchase an exotic pet, and also to have your new pet checked out by a veterinarian to make sure he is healthy to begin with. Enjoy your guinea pigs!

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