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Guinea Pigs as Pets


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Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, belong to the family Caviidae and the order Rodentia. Native to South America, they were domesticated by the Incas more than 1000 to 1500 years ago and were introduced into Europe by the Spaniards. Guinea Pigs are good pets as they rarely bite or scratch, are relatively long-lived, and lack objectionable odors. Male guinea pigs are known as boars and the females are called sows. Offspring are referred to as piglets. Much drug information is available for this species as they are used in many laboratory setting to test new drugs for human and veterinary use. They are thought to be the species most sensitive to the effects of drugs.guinea pig photo


Non-aggressive, guinea pigs demonstrate scatter/freeze behavior when frightened and are likely to squeal when handled. Temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat stroke in this species. Guinea pigs groom themselves and their cage mates using their front teeth, tongue and back claws. However, they do require frequent brushing and combing to stay clean and tangle-free (especially the long hair breeds).


As guinea pigs are very active pets, they need plenty of room to move around. Their cages should be at least 18 inches wide, 14 inches high and 25 inches deep with adequate ventilation. Be sure the cage floor is not made of material such as mesh or wire as these may hurt their tender feet. They require help with their housekeeping chores because their cage lining doubles as bedding and a toilet. Cages should be scrubbed and disinfected several times a week but let the cage dry before lining the floor with fresh bedding. Water should be provided to them in a bottle with a sipper tube and this should be cleaned daily to prevent buildup of food, algae and bacteria.


They have exceptional sense of smell and use scents for marking and identification. They also have a sophisticated language of grunts, purrs and squeaks depending on the nature of the stimulus. They are easily trained, both positively and negatively, with sound. Their vision is excellent and they can see color. Guinea pigs are happiest when they are with other guinea pigs. They can be housed in same-sex pairs or in small colonies provided they all are compatible.


The average life span of a guinea pig is four to eight years. Males average 30 – 40 ounces in body weight while females are slightly smaller at 23 – 30 ounces depending on the breed. Males become sexually mature at 3 months of age and females at 2 months. The gestation period averages 68 days and the litter size ranges from one to six with the average being three to four piglets. Average birth weight is 2 1/3 – 3 1/3 ounces. Piglets can be weaned from the sow at 21 days of age.


Average body temperature of guinea pigs is 101 – 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Their heart rate ranges from 230 – 380 beats per minute while they have a respiratory rate of 41 – 104 breaths per minute. Their normal urine is white to yellow in color with a pH of approximately 9. Guinea pigs cannot sweat. They have a moderate subcutaneous space located at the dorsal nape of the neck and have a dense fur over their entire body except inside the pinnae


Guinea pigs are herbivores. They require a high fiber (>16%) and low fat (<4%) diet. Like rabbits, they have primarily gram-positive gastrointestinal flora. They do not like salty, bitter or sweet rations and addict quickly to certain flavors. A proper diet for guinea pigs includes fresh water, quality dye-free pellets, unlimited grass hay, fresh vegetables and Vitamin C. The following is a list of palate pleasers for these animals: alfalfa, apples, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, cherries, clover, grapes, grass, greens, lettuce, oats, oranges, parsley, strawberries, sweet peppers and tomatoes. 


Guinea pigs must consume vitamin C since they are unable to make it themselves. The daily recommended dose is 10 mg/kg for non-pregnant and 30 mg/kg for pregnant guinea pigs. It may be added to the drinking water at the rate of 1 gram per quart of water. Drinking water must be changed daily, since up to 50% of the vitamin C is lost in an open container over a 24-hour period. The average guinea pig will consume 6 – 8 ounces of water per day.


There are a number of health issues that affect guinea pigs. These include Vitamin C deficiencies (scurvy), antibiotic toxicities, coccidiosis, dental malocclusions, respiratory infections, parasites, gastrointestinal diseases and pregnancy toxemia. Respiratory infections such as pneumonia include poor or no appetite, nasal or ocular discharges and difficulty breathing. Vitamin C deficiency makes these infections more likely.


Other signs of illness include: ulcerative scabbing lesions around the lips, loosening or loss of incisors, swollen joints, lameness, exaggerated grooming reflex, biting or aggressive behavior, hair loss, scabs or flaking, straining to urinate, abdominal distention, not eating, fatigue and depression. If your pet exhibits any of these signs or if it’s normal behavior changes noticeably contact your veterinarian or us, as this may be a sign of illness. Some diseases may be transferred to humans so it is very important to consult a veterinarian if you think your guinea pig may be ill.


The following are foods that are likely to create toxicity if fed to guinea pigs:


  • Long celery stalks, as the strings are difficult to digest. Cut them into small pieces.

  • Iceberg Lettuce or cabbage (they are high in nitrates and have no nutritional value)

  • Any shelled nut or seed as Guinea Pigs can choke on the shell fragments

  • Raw beans

  • Rhubarb – extremely toxic

  • Green potato peelings – also extremely toxic


With a little bit of knowledge and some common sense guinea pigs can be great pets and very simple to care for. One last word of advice – you need to be gentle when handling them as lung, liver and diaphragm injuries can happen as a result of over aggressive restraint around the abdomen and thorax. Feel free to contact us if you have any further questions concerning the care and health maintenance of your guinea pig.


Courtesy, in part, of the American College of Veterinary Pharmacists


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