Guinea pigs are also known as ‘cavies’ and originate from South America where in the wild they live in a collection of abandoned burrows, caves and shelters within vegetation. They are prey animals, part of the rodent family and are herbivores (plant eaters). They typically live for around 5-6 years, are very vocal and sociable and can make good pets if cared for properly.
It’s important for us to consider how we can provide the five welfare needs for all animals that we consider keeping as pets - they need:
Diet - what do they eat?
Guinea pigs are herbivores - this means that they eat a combination of high fibre foods (hays/grasses), fruits and vegetables.
Fibre is very important in their diets and they need two important types in their diet: digestible fibre and indigestible fibre. The digestible fibre passes through their digestive tract and is seen as faecal pellets (poo), the indigestible fibre is broken down in the caecum (part of the digestive tract) then passed out as sticky-poos called caecotrophs, these are then eaten again to provide essential nutrients to the guinea-pig which couldn’t be absorbed the first time around. Fibre is also very important for dental health. They require access to good quality hay at all times (an amount equal to their body size each day) to help with digestive, dental and mental health.
Vitamin-C is very important in their diets as they are unable to produce their own and deficiency can result in serious health issues or even death. Vitamin-C is found in fruit and vegetables; it is also supplemented into many commercial guinea pig diets. We recommend choosing a good quality complete grass-pelleted guinea pig food rather than the traditional ‘muesli’ type diets as this avoids them picking out the ‘good bits’ and leaving the rest.
Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for storage and feeding of food as the levels of vitamin-C in food decreases over time. Consider buying smaller bags which can be replaced frequently as after about 6 weeks as much as 50% of the vitamin-C may have degraded. You can also consider a vitamin-C chewable treat for your guinea pigs.
Fruit and veg should be fed alongside hay and pellets. Everyday foods = leafy greens (high in Vit-C), broccoli, herbs (mint, basil), dandelion leaves, peppers Occasional treats = root veg (small pieces), apple, banana.
Never feed = citrus fruit, potatoes, peas.
Always ensure access to fresh water - either in a bowl or bottle.
Housing and behaviour
Guinea-pigs are prey animals and this must be taken into account when choosing housing type and location. Housing should be secure, away from potential predators or noisy areas in the house and provide safe areas for them to hide and shelter within the housing. Their scared response is to freeze still and this can last for a few seconds or minutes until they feel able to run and hide.
Suitable housing types include large wire cages with plastic bases, hutches (but take care they don’t get chewed). There should be access available to an outdoor run - to allow fresh air and also access to grass. An enclosure can never be too large - the more space the better!
As a bare minimum your pet must have space to run from one end to the other and to stand to full height and stretch out in any direction. Guinea-pigs are active around 20 hours of the day so remember they need lots of entertainment. This can be provided with safe toys: cardboard tubes/boxes stuffed with hay and treats are a good way to encourage natural foraging behaviour, just ensure they don’t eat the cardboard! Apple or willow sticks can make good chews too (ensure they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals if from a garden).
Companionship is very important for guinea-pigs, in the wild they live in colony groups of 5-10! It is important that they have the companionship of another guinea-pig, a different species such as a rabbit, cat or even human is not good enough (and can damage their health). This is because guinea-pigs can communicate properly with each other, look out for each other, groom and lower stress levels. In mixed-sex groups please remember that guinea pigs will breed even if they are littermates (brother and sister) and we recommend neutering the males to avoid unwanted pregnancy as this can cause severe problems for the females during birth.
Vitamin-C deficiency (scurvy)
Signs of ill-health
Due to being prey animals, guinea pigs won’t always give you much warning if they’re not feeling themselves and they can deteriorate quickly. If they show any of the following signs (or anything else you’re concerned about) you should contact your vet immediately:
Are guinea pigs the right pet for you?
If you think that you have the space and time for guinea pigs in your family and can provide for their needs then they can be very rewarding pets. We’d also encourage you to contact your local rescue centre for guinea-pigs to adopt that you may be able to offer an excellent new start in life.