Guinea pigs have been a popular pet since I was a child. I remember going to the store and picking one out. When I brought it home I named him Hammy and kept him in a small cage and I loved him! I'd feed him pellets and some hay and occasionally a veggie treat. My, how the times have changed. As time passes, we learn more and more about the guinea pig and how to properly care for them. The archaic ways I cared for my pig and the diet I gave him were all wrong! If only I knew then what I know now.
Let's start by breaking down the scientific classification of the guinea pig. They are an animal which makes their kingdom Animalia. Because they're a mammal, their class is mammalia! Their four ever-growing incisors makes them rodents--order: rodentia. The Caviidae family means they have short bodies, three back toes and four front toes, and a large head. This includes the largest rodent, the capybara, as well as other American cavies such as the Patagonian Cavy.
They come from the Andes Mountains and were first domesticated as a staple food (called cuy) and were sometimes used for medicinal purposes. Around the 17th century they became the subject in many scientific experiments--which is where we get the use of the word guinea pig as a test subject.
Eventually, the docile nature of the guinea pig made people bring them into their home as a pet. As pet owners it's our job to make their lives as comfortable as possible, mimicking their natural habitat while providing the safety of our care.
Guinea pigs should always be housed in at least pairs. They are social creatures. In the wild, they live in herds of one male and up to 12 females. If you're planning on keeping them as pets, having a male pair or female pair is a good start. Housing 3 males can only be done if they have plenty of space. Having a neutered male and several females is also a great option. Several females may live together as well. Just know, the more guinea pigs you have, the happier they will be, but also the more cleaning and space required!
Despite being known as sort of a "pocket pet", guinea pigs need quite a bit of space. It's recommended that they are housed in at least 8 sq ft. Some great cages that meet these requirements are the Prevue Small Animal Tubby in jumbo/x-large, the Midwest Guinea Pig Habitat, or a DIY C&C cage (made of cardboard and chloroplast).
Midwest Guinea Pig Habitat
Prevue Small Animal Tubby (Jumbo)
C&C cage (DIY)
HABITAT SET UP:
Having houses they can hide in are essential. I always say one hide per guinea pig plus an extra! Tunnels are better for newly introduced guinea pigs because sometimes submissive guinea pigs can be backed into a corner by more dominant guinea pigs and can end in a fight. Having tunnels instead of houses can keep them from fighting in the early stages of their relationship.
Toys are great behavioral enrichment. My favorite toy is Kaytee's knot nibbler, treat kebobs, and willow balls. They are rodents, so their teeth are ever-growing. Having toys is essential to wearing down their teeth and the tots provide lots of entertainment.
They should have a dust free substrate! Using a paper based bedding works great. Fleece with an absorbent material underneath is also a popular choice. Using a paper based bedding (like Carefresh or Kaytee Clean n Cozy) means you can toss the bedding at the end of the week but means you will be buying bedding on a regular basis. Fleece requires weekly washing, but is a more sustainable and economical alternative. Stay away from pine and cedar as these beddings' dust and aromatic oils can cause respiratory infections.
Their diet should consist of unlimited hay, daily cup & a half of veggies and a 1/8th cup of pellets (per pig).
Guinea pigs 6 months or younger should receive legume hay rather than grass. This includes Alfalfa hay or Clover hay; they are higher in calcium and protein which is good for growing babies and pregnant/nursing sows. Adult guinea pigs should be given grass hay. This includes Timothy Hay, Botanical Hay, Oat Hay, etc. Replenishing their hay regularly is important. The hay is essential to keeping their teeth worn down and their fiber high.
They should be given produce on a daily basis. They need daily veggies because guinea pigs, like humans, can't produce their own vitamin C. It must be supplemented! Some people even like crushing up human Vitamin C tablets and giving it to their pigs. Just make sure it's 100% Absorbic acid. I like giving them morning and nighttime greens and, in my experience, guinea pigs love Green leaf, red leaf, and romaine lettuce, bell peppers of all colors, rainbow/swiss chard, and other leafy greens. The internet is a great resource when it comes to finding out what your pig can/can't eat. Stay away from low-nutrition water heavy veggies such as celery and iceberg lettuce and stay away from things high in sugar like carrots and fruit. I give about a cup and a half of produce per day per pig.
Pellets should be uniform. They should be just brown pellets without any colorful pieces or seeds. My favorite brand is Ox-Bow. When buying a bag of pellets make sure the pellets have a nutritional value of 18 to 20 percent crude protein and 10 to 16 percent fiber. A young or pregnant/nursing guinea pig should receive alfalfa based pellets which are higher in calcium and protein. A common misconception is that guinea pigs should receive a lot of pellets on a daily basis. They should only receive about 1/8th cup of pellets a day per guinea pig.
A water bottle is my favorite way to provide water to my piggies. Bowls can be used too, but must be replenished/replaced twice daily. Vitamin drops for water are often ineffective because the vitamins oxidize quickly and end up not working. When using vitamin drops I like to use a syringe and hand feed it to them rather then wasting it on the water. However, if your guinea pig is getting the proper diet, they will not need this kind of supplement.
Guinea pigs are skittish by nature. As a prey animal, they are constantly being hunted in the wild. Being cautious and scared of other animals is what keeps them alive in the wild and has been passed down to the wild cuy's domesticated cousins. The fastest way to a guinea pig's heart is through it's stomach. Hand feeding pieces of veggies is the easiest way to get a guinea pig to trust you. Once a piggy trusts you, it can be very affectionate and super handleable.
Guinea pigs are amazing animals and can make wonderful pets. We've come a long way in making sure that guinea pigs are comfortable in our care and we're proud that we make sure every pair of guinea pigs that goes home is comfortable, healthy, and happy.