Abyssinian Guinea Pig – Everything You Need To Know

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The Abyssinian is a colorful and unique character in the pantheon of guinea pig species. What sets it apart from the rest of its fellow rodents are the whirlpool-shaped swirls of fur on its coat.

An Abyssinian can always be easily recognized in a crowd of guinea pigs by these beautiful cowlicks of hair which are known as rosettes. It comes in a variety of colors and patterns such as agouti, tortoiseshell, albino, brindle, and roan.

Abyssinians, also known as Abbys for short, are common as household pets and show animals. They’re no strangers to competitions and guinea pig shows, being almost always present in lineups during events that are held around the world.

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History

The Abyssinian is one of the oldest types of guinea pigs in the world and it’s believed to have been domesticated by early South American tribes more than 7,000 years ago. It hails from the Andean region of the continent which includes countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and Ecuador. Most other guinea pig species are also indigenous to the same region.

The origin of its name is a mystery. Unlike the Abyssinian cat breed which actually did come from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), the Abyssinian guinea pig can’t be found in Ethiopia nor are there any existing species in the country that even remotely resembles it.

Researchers believe that when the exotic-looking Abby guinea pig arrived in England, fanciers were eager to turn a profit. Its arrival on British soil during the Victorian era of monarchs drew much attention and it quickly became popular due to its unique coat.

In order to effectively increase sales, a novel name and backstory had to be created for the guinea pig. Thus, the name Abyssinian was given and perhaps it was accompanied by a fanciful tale regarding the creature’s distant home of Abyssinia (which hadn’t been fully explored in those days).

This theory is supported by the fact that other guinea pig species were also given similarly novel names such as the Lunkarya and the Alpaca.

Turns out that even the name of the species itself is a mystery as guinea pigs are neither from Guinea or Papua New Guinea nor are they pigs or even closely related to swine. So where does this name come from?

Some etymologists have proposed various theories which may or may not be correct. There are some words and names in our dictionary that we may never know the origins of.

One theory states that “guinea” was used in the animal’s name because it was first brought to Europe by way of Guinea, which is in Africa. People naturally began to believe that the furry critter actually originated there which is a viable theory, even though there isn’t any evidence to support it.

Others believe that, for the same reason that the Abyssinian got its name, “guinea” was used as a colorful descriptor of an exotic animal.

The word “pig” might be a little easier to explain. Researchers believe that the guinea pig gained the title due to its appearance and the sounds it makes. Its body structure is somewhat similar to a pig’s, having a large head in proportion to its body, an almost non-existent tail, and a stout neck. Its scientific name is Cavia Porcellus, which means “little pig” in Latin. This is why an alternate name for a guinea pig is a “cavy”.

Guinea pigs in their homeland of South America play an important role in medicine, rituals, and traditional festivals. They are also a major part of the diet in Peru and Bolivia, with more than 65 million guinea pigs being eaten in Peru alone each year.

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Physical Characteristics

An Abyssinian’s hair is about 1 ½ inches long all over the body and its coat is marked with the unique swirls of hair known as rosettes. Some look like they have a small mustache or beard due to ridges of fur that may be protruding from the neck leading towards the chin.

It usually has a ridge of fur coming from different directions and meeting towards the spine. Besides these unique traits, an Abby is built pretty much the same as a regular guinea pig.

However, Abby guinea pigs that are aiming for competitive shows are required to follow a breed standard; otherwise, they will not score many points and may even be disqualified.

A perfect show Abby should have 8 to 10 rosettes on its body in specific locations – either two or four on its back, one on each shoulder, one on each hip, and two on the rump. It’ll also get more points if the rosettes are clearly defined and perfectly symmetrical.

It is very difficult to breed Abyssinians with perfect rosettes like this. For more information on the subject, professional breeders with a lot of cavy experience should be contacted.

Wild guinea pigs have grey or brown fur, but in captivity, many different colors and coat types are mixed and matched. Here’s a guide to help you learn more about the various types of Abyssinian coats:

  • Agouti – A sort of grey color. The guinea pig’s hair should have a mixture of black and white.
  • Albino – The Abby should be pure white all over and have piercing red eyes.
  • Brindle – This is normally a mix of black and red, but it can be a dark color mixed with a light color. It can range from “light brindle” to “dark brindle” depending on if the majority of hairs are dark or light.
  • Dalmatian – Like the dog, a Dalmatian Abyssinian should be white all over and covered in black spots.
  • Dutch – The middle of its body will have a white band going all the way around and the rump will have a brownish or blackish color. Each side of its face will also have a different color; either black or brown.
  • Himalayan – Abyssinian cavies to meet this standard should have a brown or black nose, ears, and feet, and a pure white body with red eyes.
  • Roan – You’ll usually see mixed colors towards the greyish end of the color palette. There are Strawberry Roans which are a mixture of white and red, and Blue Roans which are a mixture of white and black.
  • Self – This is simply one solid color. It can be white, black, red, or any other color.
  • Tortoiseshell – A fan favorite, tortoiseshell Abbys have patches of non-symmetrical colors throughout the body. The most common colors are black and red.

Behavior and Special Abilities

Although there haven’t been any studies conducted on the matter as of yet, Abyssinians have been observed to possess an unusual amount of energy compared to other species of guinea pigs. They seem to be more inquisitive, louder, bolder, and more lively and playful.

They are also easier to train than other types. Due to their sometimes-misplaced intensity, Abbys have gotten a reputation for being “mischievous”.

There’s a belief among breeders and owners that they are more troublesome than other species. There’s no evidence to support this, however. It might just be due to their more upbeat personality and energetic behavior in comparison to other short-haired guinea pigs that tend to be more shy and quieter. They can be a handful to raise but you can be sure that they’ll return the favor.

Abyssinians, like most other guinea pig species, use motion as a self-defense mechanism when they feel threatened. An Abby in fear might hop around and chase its tail or make erratic movements in odd directions.

In the wild, guinea pigs do this to distract their enemies and buy time to run for shelter. This is a particularly effective tactic, given their lack of fighting ability, method of attack or way to easily escape danger.

They’ll also use vocalization as a means of communicating with other guinea pigs. These vocalizations can range from warning calls to sounds of enjoyment to excitement.

The most common sound is the “wheek” sound, which is a sort of whistling noise that they make when they’re enthusiastic. A rosette guinea pig might also “wheek” if it got lost and is calling for help.

Other types of vocalizations that guinea pigs love to make are rumbling sounds, purring sounds, chattering sounds, shrieking sounds, and chirping sounds (like a bird).

Healthcare and Maintenance

Abyssinians are easy to clean up after and care for. Besides the standard guinea pig care that should be given, only a little extra grooming and perhaps attention is required.

In order to keep the rosettes straight and sharp-looking, try carefully brushing them using an old toothbrush or a hairbrush with soft bristles. Guinea pigs love this activity and will happily stay still for hours while you groom them.

The good thing is that they’ll also spend some time self-grooming throughout the day, so they do a pretty good job of keeping their coat in good condition.

It’s recommended to brush an Abby’s hair once every other day to prevent tangles and remove debris. You can also just keep an eye on your pet and if the fur looks matted, go for grooming.

Most guinea pigs don’t like taking a bath. However, it may be necessary to wash them if, and only if, they smell strong. Abyssinians groom themselves pretty well, so it’s definitely not going to be a regular thing. If you do end up giving your Abby a bath, use a neutral soap (unscented) and warm water to wash, and dry it thoroughly afterward.

Keep an eye on your pet’s feeding schedule and observe if it’s eating properly. Weight loss or lack of appetite can indicate health issues which Abyssinians are more prone to than other guinea pigs.

Your Abyssinian should have all the standard accessories available for guinea pigs including toys, a sleeping area, and food bowl. Another tip: invest in a larger cage so your Abby has more space to run around in and get a much-needed workout. Abbys are a bit more energetic than their relatives and will need an outlet to channel their energy.

If the floor space is an issue or you can’t afford a large cage, make sure to take your Abyssinian out regularly to get exercise. Just be careful when holding it up too high if it hasn’t bonded with you yet. If they see the chance to escape from your hand, they’ll surely take it – which can result in an injury or worse.

Playtime in a garden or grassy area is the best as it gives them the chance to take in sunlight, run without risk of injury, and fresh air.

Abyssinians are the happiest when they have a friend to talk to. If your pet is acting aloof or hides every time you approach, consider getting a pal to keep it company. Companion guinea pigs get along well most of the time and can motivate each other to exercise, play, and socialize.

Be aware that males sometimes do squeak and scrap with each other so keep a close eye on them to observe how they’re getting along for the first few weeks.

Diet

Being a grazing animal, Abyssinians primarily eat grass. Their diet can also be supplemented with either alfalfa or timothy hay, or food pellets. Besides their staple meals, guinea pigs also need a bit of Vitamin C daily and the only place they can get it is from food.

Since grass and hay don’t contain any Vitamin C, small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables may be provided every day. Some of their favorites are apples, broccoli, celery, spinach, and carrots.

It may not be easy to introduce fresh produce to an Abby’s diet right away. Some guinea pigs have grown into habits throughout their years and may refuse or even starve themselves rather than eat something new.

Start off with very small portions and make sure to include plenty of Abby’s regular hay during meals. A fresh supply of food must always be available or your pet may begin to form bad habits such as biting its hair or chewing the bars of its cage.

Be aware that there are several plants that are poisonous to Abyssinians. Steer clear of these or your pet could get very sick or even die. Some examples are buttercups, bracken, lilies of the valley, wild celery, rhubarb, and any plant that grows via a bulb such as tulips and onions.

Like their fellow rodents, guinea pigs’ teeth and nails never stop growing. Consequently, they constantly have a need to gnaw on objects in order to keep their teeth at an optimal length. It’s recommended to have plenty of chewable items and toys available in their cage in order to keep them occupied. Good materials to use are paper, cloth or rubber.

Purchasing an Abyssinian Guinea Pig

If you’re thinking about buying an Abyssinian, chances are, you’ve probably already checked your local pet stores to see if they carry any. While it is easy and convenient to buy a guinea pig from a pet store, be aware that it may not be the best choice health-wise, as many pet stores get their stock from breeders who practice mass breeding for commercial purposes.

A better method of obtaining an Abby is to rescue one from a local animal shelter. The guinea pigs in shelters are usually healthy and have been well-cared for. Rescuing pets is more affordable and it also helps free up space at animal homes which are overloaded half of the time.

Pay careful attention to the appearance of the Abyssinian that you’re intending on purchasing. Be aware that certain types of Abbys should never breed with each other as their offspring will produce defective guinea pigs that are deformed and have multiple health issues.

Two roan Abyssinians or Dalmatians should never be bred as it causes genetic problems in the offspring because of the white gene that provides the coloration.

A roan Abyssinian can be bred to a guinea pig of any other color. The gene responsible for the mutation is called Microphthalmia, also known as the “Lethal Gene”. Cavy pups that have the lethal gene are called “Lethal Whites”.

Lethal whites are characterized by white hair completely covering the body and red eyes. They may be born blind in one or both eyes or even with no eyes at all. Lethal whites may also be deaf and have varying dental and health issues.

If you see a lethal white being sold somewhere, do not buy it. You will only be supporting unscrupulous breeders who already know the unfortunate results of mating two Roans or two Dalmatians but choose to do so anyway in the hopes of making a quick buck.

It was also discovered that laboratory workers who were in close proximity to guinea pigs exhibited allergic symptoms such as rhinitis, conjunctivitis, and asthma. This was soon followed by reports that came in of pet owners that had shown the same symptoms.

Since then, two major guinea pig allergens have been identified. If it’s your first time to handle a guinea pig, do so with caution. If you begin to experience the symptoms, it is possible to get allergy shots to combat the allergens.

Parting Words

Captivating to behold and even more enjoyable to take care of, Abbys are people-pleasers and highly sought after due to their loud, noisy, and playful antics. They possess a certain level of energy that seems to overshadow other guinea pig species.

Abbys love children and vice versa! Kids enjoy bonding and spending many happy hours playing with them. Adults also enjoy them as pets as they can appreciate an Abby’s intriguing fur markings and its passion when interacting with humans.

Abyssinians are also a hit with millennials as they make the perfect coffee shop companions for those picture-worthy Instagram moments, Snapchat stories or Facebook timeline updates.

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Carlye Yancey
Carlye Yancey

Between internships, volunteering, and paid jobs over the last 4 years, I have pretty much-gained experience with domesticated animals. Currently being in school for my veterinary technology degree, I spend my leisure time with 3 critters that I own.

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