Very excitingly, it is the first ever Guinea Pig Awareness Week (GPAW) this week. So, what better a time than this to consider what we can do to keep our guinea pigs happy and healthy.

But how do we know if our pets are happy and healthy?

Sadly, we can’t speak to our guinea pigs and ask them how they are feeling, what they like (or don’t) and what they want to change in their house to make their lives better. If Dr Dolittle could come and help us we would appreciate it!

However, what we can do is ensure we are meeting all our pets welfare needs. And, as such, ensuring they have optimum physical and psychological health.

So how do we do this?

The welfare needs of our pets broadly fall into the following five categories, known as the five domains:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Environment
  3. Health
  4. Behaviour
  5. Mental state

You can find out more about the five domains of animal welfare here.

So how do we apply those to our Guinea Pigs?

Let’s take a look at each domain individually and how we can make sure we are meeting our guinea pigs individual needs for each area.

Nutrition

Having an appropriate diet is really important for keeping your guinea pig healthy.

Hay

The bulk of your guinea pig’s diet, approximately 80%, should be good quality hay (the type appropriate for feeding, not bedding) and/or grass.

Dry food and pellets

You may have seen a variety of commercial diets available at your local pet store, ranging from muesli type feed to small brown pellets. The muesli may look colourful and more enticing to the human eye. However, it is actually not a good choice, as it allows your pet to selectively pick the yummy bits and avoid all the healthy pieces.

This means they can end up with a very unbalanced diet. The best choice is good quality complete guinea pig pellets, which have been specially formulated and balanced with the nutrients they need.

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

It is important these pellets are fed in small amounts to avoid excess weight gain, the packets usually tell you how much to feed, but if in any doubt speak to your veterinary surgeon who will be able to advise you how much is appropriate for your guinea pig.

Fresh vegetables

Your guinea pig should also be given a small amount of fresh green vegetables daily – such as broccoli and spinach, to provide additional nutrients. This includes vitamin C which your guinea pig needs to get from its diet, as unlike some other animals they cannot make it themselves.

You can find a list of appropriate vegetables to feed here.

Fresh water

As well as providing a good quality balanced diet, it is very important fresh water is available at all times and is accessible. Commercial rabbit and guinea pig water bottles with a metal spout are usually the best choice. These are widely available and can be found in most local pet stores.

It is important you observe your guinea pig using the bottle. If they are unfamiliar with them, they may not realise this is where their water is coming from. As a result, they can quickly become dehydrated without intervention. It is also important these bottles are cleaned regularly to avoid bacteria building up, which can make your guinea pig unwell.

Environment

Where you keep your guinea pig is also hugely important. Getting this environment right will help to enjoy a healthy, happy life.

Guinea pig hutch – size and security

Guinea pigs love to explore and move around. So a small hutch is not an ideal environment for any guinea pig. The basic rule is the bigger the better!

A large secure space entirely for your guinea pigs is the best environment for them to be in, ideally with access to an outdoor grassed area so they can graze as often as they like. The most important thing is that these areas are secure, and protected from predators such as foxes if in the garden and dogs and cats in the house. They also need to have a place to hide as guinea pigs can be shy, so providing areas in their enclosure where they can get out of sight is imperative.

Indoor living

If your guinea pig is living indoors then the same principles apply, and instead of having access to grass it is important they have additional hay provided to ensure they can eat hay at all times should they wish.

Outdoors hay should still be provided ad-libitum (freely available at all times), and the run should be moved periodically to ensure there is fresh grass to graze. It is important not to use weed killer/pesticides on your grass as these can be very toxic to guinea pigs.

Vetster option 02 (Blog)
Getting the temperature right

Temperature is also a very important factor. Outside your guinea pigs are exposed to the elements. So it is important they are sheltered from drafts, are in well ventilated areas to avoid damp and protected from extreme heat/frost.

The ideal temperature to keep your guinea pig at is room temperature, so around 18-21 degrees celsius. The best way to monitor this is to get a digital maximum/minimum thermometer that can attach to your enclosure. 

Inside this is still an important factor, as keeping them near radiators or windows which get a lot of sunlight can cause excessive temperatures. This can quickly become dangerous for your guinea pig. If the temperature goes above 26 degrees celsius, your guinea pig is at risk of heat stroke which can be fatal if not treated quickly. 

If the temperature falls below 15 degrees celsius (especially if cold or damp) then your guinea pig may be too cold and can quickly become unwell if they don’t have a warm dry shelter to retreat to.

Bedding

All bedding material used should be dust-free, warm and safe to eat. Cotton wool or fluffy bedding can be very dangerous as they may eat this. When eaten, it can cause blockages in the stomach and intestines of your guinea pig which can be fatal. It is important their enclosure is cleaned regularly with a guinea pig safe disinfectant. All faeces and wet bedding should be removed daily to avoid bacteria building up and damp, dirty living conditions.

Health

Guinea pigs are prone to a number of health conditions, but some of the most common conditions can be avoided by having an appropriate diet and environment. These include sore feet, not producing faeces, bloating and dental disease. 

Digestive issues

If your guinea pig stops producing faeces, has diarrhoea or is bloated this is an emergency and you should take them to your veterinary surgeon without delay. 

Guinea pigs have very sensitive digestive systems. So feeding an appropriate diet, as described above, is very important. This keeps their guts moving and ensure their teeth continue to wear.

Dental problems

Guinea pigs’ teeth grow continuously as they are built to ingest a lot of long fibre such as hay and grass. If they have not had enough of this in their diet, their teeth are likely to overgrown, causing painful dental disease. This will also result in them being unable to eat properly, which then causes gut issues.

Other issues

As you can see they are very complex individuals and require excellent husbandry to ensure they do not become unwell. Other common issues are ulcers on the eyes, which are very painful, and often occur due to pieces of straw or hay getting stuck in the eye.

Handling and examining

It is good practice to get your guinea pig comfortable and calm with being handled so you can examine them regularly to check there are no sores on their feet, they are moving around well, producing good quality faeces, have bright clear eyes with no discharge, have no discharge from their nose and are eating with no issues.

If you have any concerns with your guinea pigs health it is important you take them to your veterinary surgeon with no delay as they can become unwell very quickly, and being prey species are very good at hiding signs they are unwell.

Behaviour

Guinea pigs are social animals and should always be kept with others. They naturally live in groups so should, as a minimum, be kept as a pair, ideally larger groups. Once they have formed a stable social group they form strong bonds and relationships with each other, and should not be separated wherever possible, as this can cause distress.

If you need to introduce new guinea pigs to your group, this should be done in a controlled way following expert advice. It is a good idea to discuss this with your vet before starting as they can provide top tips related to your individual guinea pigs needs.

Adult male entire guinea pigs, in particular, can fight and show aggression towards each other. So it is important this is considered and animals are neutered to avoid unnecessary breeding. If you have any concerns about your set up or aggression between individuals then speak to your veterinary surgeon. They will be able to provide you with further advice.

Mental state

Your guinea pig should be bright and bubbly, inquisitive and interactive. They should also be able to hide away to get away from things that may scare them. Some individuals will really enjoy human interaction, others may find this scary and shy away.

It is important you treat every guinea pig as an individual and tailor the way you interact with them. For example, forcing play on a shy, scared individual will lead to a negative mental state and poor welfare for that animal. However, an animal that is used to lots of human attention but is left alone will likely suffer as a result of that; so it is important to know your pet and what suits them. 

All of the other domains above will together affect your guinea pig’s overall mental state. So it is important all those needs are met to make a happy healthy guinea pig.

Outside of these broad considerations each individual will have their own specific needs that have to be met. For example, if your pet has a long term health condition, then specific changes may need to be made to their environment, diet and health checks to ensure they have a good quality of life. These changes can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon who will be able to provide you with suggestions on how to ensure you are meeting the welfare needs of your guinea pig and keeping them happy and healthy.

That’s a wrap

Guinea pigs make great pets. Like us they all have an individual personality, some love attention, others prefer the quiet life. But they do need friends, so make sure you keep at least two; it might be double the trouble, but great for their socialisation and mental health.

Give them plenty of space, the right food and keep everything clean. They can live for up to 8 years (and beyond), so are a long-term commitment. But also an extremely worthwhile one.

Find out more about Guinea Pig Awareness Week and access some great resources on all things Guinea Pig here!

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