Guinea pigs are great! But they’re not for everyone.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a good starter pet for children, I can’t think of a better one.
Guinea pigs are sturdy, personable little creatures that generally live about 6-8 years of age, and are not very intensive as far as financial and time input required to keep them happy. Appropriate housing includes cages that are quite large (1/2 x 1 meter or larger, and 1/2 meter high), with plastic bottom and wire sides. Gravity fed water bottles, clean flooring and fresh good quality hay are the minimum requirements; an area to hide in also helps keep them calm, especially if housed in high traffic areas of the house. Substrate on the floor of the cage may be print-free newspaper, paper towel or commercial bedding. Such bedding is available at many pet stores; if you go with wood chip bedding please choose aspen if possible and stay away from cedar chips, for its aromatic resins can lead to foot and respiratory problems. Guinea pigs like what we consider room temperature, so there is no special need for additional heating or lighting. They are not nocturnal, so that fits in nicely with our schedules too. In addition, they are often quite sociable. They can be very happy as solitary animals, but also do well in groups (it is best to have all of the same gender together though, unless you are planning on multiplication). When the weather is nice, guinea pigs enjoy going outside and running around in the grass (which is fine as long as there has been no pesticide or herbicide use). Do keep an eye on them at all times or put them in an escape-proof enclosure for they are sure to wander off when given the chance.
Guinea pigs are a prey species and frighten easily. However, they tolerate gentle handling very well and some become quite friendly – they each have their own characteristics! The dental issues mentioned in a previous blog on rabbits equally apply to guinea pigs, so provision of hay as main diet source (with very few pellets used as supplementary feeding only) is important. They can also be fed a wide variety of fresh vegetables, which they usually eat with gusto! Just like other pets, they may well enjoy unhealthy foods, and get fat if we let them. Fat guinea pigs are susceptible to the same heart and joint and other problems that fat people are – so don’t let them down by giving inappropriate foods please. Guinea pig hay racks are available and useful for keeping hay off the ground and reducing wastage. Several days worth of hay and water can be placed in a guinea pig cage at a time, making maintenance of the animal quite simple. Usually a complete cleaning of the living area on a weekly basis is sufficient.
Guinea pigs can get gastric stasis as mentioned for rabbits in the previous blog, but other diseases are rare in solitary animals. Skin problems and infected lymph nodes are not uncommon, but when the environment is always clean such difficulties are minimized. Common respiratory and eye infections are also largely prevented by regular cleaning and good air quality.
Two species specific conditions that guinea pig owners need to be aware of are pubic bone fusion and vitamin C deficiency. Female guinea pigs that remain unmated by about 8 months of age will develop fused pubic bones as they mature. This means that the normal movement of pubic bones necessary at time of birthing is not possible in older guinea pigs that have not had litters by the time they are nine or ten months old. This is extremely important to remember when guinea pigs of both genders are housed together. A successful breeding of an older virgin guinea pig sow is a death sentence – cesarean section surgeries are the only way to save the mother and her young in such a situation. I recommend guinea pigs be spayed and neutered by the time they are 4-6 months of age, partly for this reason.
Secondly, although many animals can synthesize their own vitamin C in body cells, guinea pigs are like humans in that they cannot. Without supplementation of vitamin C (necessary for cell wall integrity in all cells of the body), guinea pigs will develop scurvy – an illness manifested in many parts of the body including skin and gastro-intestinal tract. Supplemental vitamin C is available in chewable tablets (give about 50 mg per day to each adult) or you can add it to the drinking water at the rate of about 600 mg/liter water.
Guinea pigs too can enrich the quality of our lives to a far greater degree than we enrich theirs. When children and guinea pigs get together, one can often hear squeals of delight from both.
Which just goes to show – pets are great!