How To Take Care Of a Guinea Pig?
Guinea pigs are rodents domesticated by humans as early as 5000 BC. In the 1500s cavies from South America were exported to Europe and to this day, the first four variants – the American/English, Abyssinian, Peruvian, and Sheltie – have expanded to more than 16 breeds; some of which were not yet recognized by the American Cavy Breeders Association (ACBA).
Guinea pigs, by nature, are mild-mannered, curious, and sociable creatures. They are smart enough to squeal when the refrigerator is open, knowing that fruits and vegetables – a couple of their favorite treats – come from the fridge.
They have many ways to express themselves – including purring and hissing – and they can be trained to walk on a leash or leap over low toy horse jumps. How can you use those signs to give more care to guinea pigs?
Guinea Pig Care Sheet – The Basics
Before bringing your new pet home make sure that you already have the following to make sure that you’ve everything ready to take care of your guinea pig:
- A properly made cage – the cage floor size is at least 4.5 sq ft. If your cavy is of the active breed like the Teddy Bear, you may want to consider 7.5 sq ft. for one piggy and an additional of 3 sq ft. for every additional pet for extra popcorning.
The cage flooring has to be solid to avoid harming your piggy’s feet and wall bars have to be spaced just enough to let your cavy enjoy the outside view but narrow enough to keep the cavy safe inside away from nosy and preying animals.
- A good location for your cage – make sure that it is away from your other pets. Area temperatures should be 16-24 °C unless your guinea pig is a hairless type that requires 75-79 °F. The cage should not be in a garage which has toxic materials and fumes; nor should it be placed in areas of the house where sudden loud sounds may easily upset your new pet.
- Pet carriers, playpens, and leash – pet carriers are necessary in bringing new cavies home. It is a good place to hide and feel safe in while your new pet still feels a bit of apprehension from all the new sounds and smells. Playpens are good for exercise, as well as for socializing with your pets. A leash is a good item to use for short walks and grazing outdoors.
- Old newspapers and bedding – these are needed to keep your cavies comfy. Bedding may be made of hay, dust-free wood shavings (make sure it is not pine, cedar, or any of the evergreens that can be toxic to your guinea pig) or fleece flippers. Old newspapers will act as lining underneath the hay or wood shaving for faster cleaning. But if you plan to use fleece flippers, no need for such.
- A hay rack – this is useful either as a bedding container or as a feeding area because it makes the cage easier to clean up.
- A stable or heavy feeding dish – each cavy gets a feeding dish, preferably non-toxic and stainless steel metal or hard ceramic since these cannot be gnawed off. The size of each feeding dish size should be high enough and the opening small enough to keep your piggy from turning it into a toilet bowl.
- A water bottle – the water feeder should be adjusted for your guinea pig to be able to easily drink from it.
- Chew toys, tunnels, and shelters – these are good accessories to have since they will keep your guinea pig occupied and their teeth well trimmed.
- An amply sized toy hut – a shelter for your guinea pig. It is private and may even be dark enough for your cavy to enjoy sleep.
- Hay – lots and lots of it. Timothy is the best kind of hay for your guinea pig as it not only helps cavies trim their teeth but also helps promote good digestion. For nursing sows and little pups, start with calcium-rich alfalfa hay.
Make sure that you have enough hay stored since guinea pigs need them constantly. Don’t pile them sky high in the cage unless you don’t mind cleaning the entire pile every day as guinea pigs can be messy.
- Substrate – these is just an option but good for your guinea pigs to tunnel and play with and sometimes chew on. Make sure they are made of cavy-friendly materials such as sawdust-free wood shavings with no pesticide, pine, cedar, or evergreen content.
- Storage bins – are definitely needed to keep your guinea pigs’ unrefrigerated food such as hay and pellets intact. You may even use a covered bin as a “mixing box” to toss their “salad” in. Assign storage bins for bedding supplies, as well.
- Hygiene and grooming materials – include a rabbit brush, a soft bristled-brush, nail clippers, and even shampoo. Make sure to know your cavy’s breed as some breeds like the Teddy Bear does not need to get bathed but still needs everyday brushing. Others, like the Silkie and Peruvian, need twice-a-day brushing.
- Emergency and Health Savings – these are seriously important for a healthy guinea pig. Your cavies will need regular health checks and may need emergency trips to the vet. Start working on your guinea pigs’ savings since available and good vets for your pets may not accept any health care plan.
- A good vet – choose a veterinarian with an expertise on exotic pets by trying to ask around the vet community. If there is none, you may try checking out nearby areas.
Introducing Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs are sociable creatures that can thrive well in a group; a trait that has been passed on to them from their ancestors that lived in herds. Having at least 2 guinea pigs together on the first batch keeps them from getting lonely – moreso if they are cage or littermates since they are familiar with each other’s smell.
Once your guinea pig gets home, allow it to settle in for 24 hours to get acquainted with its new environment. Cavies are creatures of habit; they get anxious and a bit stressed from all the travel and rapid changes in their surroundings.
When it has settled down, you may let your guinea pig get familiarized with its hooman by cuddling so it gets to know you, your smell, your warmth, and even your voice. If you have more than 2 cavies, it is even better to cuddle with them simultaneously as a form of shared bonding.
When you need to add one more cavy into your already existing mini herd, do not put them in the same cage straight away. This will stress out your newcomer and agitate the rest; making them vulnerable to any unchecked diseases your new cavy might have.
For the first 2 weeks, your newbie must be checked and treated for any medical conditions as it is gradually introduced to the rest of the herd.
Gradual initiation of the new pet can be done in many ways. One is to rub your unwashed used clothing as well as your other pets’ unwashed bath towel or rag after the new piggy’s first bath at home so that the rest of the herd will find the newbie smelling familiar.
You can also put the herd and the newbie in a huge neutral-smelling plate of food. Allow them to mingle as they eat, but be prepared to give the newbie – or the younger cavy, if you are introducing cavies of different ages – the exit route. If you see an impending fight – like attempts to bite each other’s snout, ears, and on the rump, then have them separated.
A few cavy owners let their guinea pigs – including the newcomer – bathe, dry, and enter a newly-cleaned cage which allows the cavies to share smells quicker. Some pigs, particularly those that have certain issues in their former homes may find this traumatic, so you have to mind your new pig’s personality when carrying out “bath bonding.”
The Guinea Pig Diet
Guinea pigs are grazers so they have no particular meal time and will snack anytime throughout the day. Divide their daily food into two servings (half a cup for each guinea pig for each serving) so they always have something to graze on. Cut the vegetables and fruits into chunks for easy consumption and to lessen the amount of food waste.
Being grazers also means your cavies need to drink water anytime, so water bottles have to be cleaned and refilled daily as well.
Here are some things you need to note regarding your cavy’s diet:
- What To Feed
Always have an adequate amount of hay for your Guinea pig to graze on as these encourage healthy bacteria to aid in the cavy’s digestion. Give calcium-rich alfalfa hay to pregnant or nursing sows and cavies under 6 months. For everyone else give orchard grass, bluegrass or – the best among the three – Timothy grass or hay.
Train your guinea pigs as early as possible to eat mixed food by mixing in one serving of hay, guinea pig pellets, crushed Vitamin C (since Vitamin C, if dissolved, becomes ineffective), and Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables like melons, oranges, spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage, and pod peas. Highly acidic fruits like strawberries and apples are to be given only occasionally.
Make sure to feed your guinea pigs good or high-quality pellet; one that is fiber-rich, protein-rich, and high in Vitamin C but does not make it the main bulk of their diet. Do not give seeded or flavored types or those intended for other small animals.
Do not give beet greens, cauliflower, grains and nuts, seeds, green peas, iceberg lettuce, potatoes, red leaves or rocket salads as these can cause diarrhea to cavies. Cocoa, coffee, and all high-sugar food should not be given.
Guinea pigs practice coprophagy which is the eating of their nutrient-rich “feces”, which comes from their caecum and not from the anus. Do not get angry, panicked or upset as this is natural among cavies.
- What Cavies Drink
Good plain water is the way to go. Make sure that the water is clean, potable, and does not contain high concentrations of chlorine. Flavored water, chocolate drink, coffee, milk, and juices are not substitutes and should not be given to the cavies. Nor should guinea pigs be given any alcohol or any other beverage.
Exercise and Socializing
Guinea pigs may be mild-mannered compared to highly energetic hamsters, rats, and mice, but they need all the exercise and socialization to keep them both physically and behaviorally healthy. It is during these periods where they get to enjoy mental stimulation as well as flex their bones and muscles.
Letting them stay cooped in cages might bore them, making them lethargic, lazy, and eventually obese and sickly.
- Roadwork and Working Out Your Cavy
Huge cages grant guinea pigs space for exercise, but this is not enough. Allow your pet to graze, walk or popcorn outside their cages using a playpen. Make sure that someone looks after the cavies to avoid your other nosy pets and neighborhood critters from barging in and scaring the poor fuzzballs off.
If you plan to let your guinea pigs run outside their cage without any playpens, have them do floor work either with a leash or low horse jump toys. Do not use exercise wheels and balls as these will harm your cavies, granting them back pains and bumblefoot.
- Socialization, Breeding, and Nursing
Guinea pigs have individual personalities, so it is important for a pet owner like you to ensure that all your cavies get along and no one is left behind. A good way to start is to pick a pair of the same sex.
Females are sensitive about the pecking order, but they are not as territorial and aggressive as males especially during the breeding period. Males, on the other hand, may do a lot of humping, smelling, and other forms of expressing dominance so you may want to keep any sow away from company during rut season.
Guinea pigs mature sexually and can mate as early as 3 months for boars, and 2 months for sows. Breeding, however, reduces a sow’s lifespan, especially after its 8th month. Spaying and neutering are costly and cavies generally do not handle surgery well, so the easiest would be to separate male and female guinea pigs.
Female guinea pigs have an estrus cycle of 16 days t 6-11 hours interval, usually at night. They begin estrus cycle a short while after giving birth, which is why it is better to separate your boars from a nursing mama piggy so that the latter can focus her care for her pups.
Sows are pregnant for 59-73 days, which means that they can produce a maximum of 5 litters a year, with 1-8 pups in a litter.
Guinea pigs weigh about 100g or 3.5 oz., complete with fur, good eyesight, and running abilities. Although they are weaned after 3 weeks, they are able to eat soft food already when they are 2 days old.
During this time, it is better to feed them moistened pellets and alfalfa while nursing sows must be given alfalfa hay and an extra serving of their regular diet in order to stay healthy.
2- or 3-week-old guinea pigs must start human handling exposure, including grooming. This will help them get used to human company and care with less anxiety or stress as they mature.
Grooming and Housekeeping
Guinea pigs need some grooming to keep themselves clean and healthy, but the degree varies from one breed to another. Housekeeping is also important since your guinea pig’s cage has to be properly cleaned every day to help avoid sickness.
- Keeping Your Cavy Squeaky Clean
Guinea pigs require regular hair brushing to remove debris on their coat because dirt and environmental elements can irritate their sensitive skin. Long-coat breeds like the Peruvian and Sheltie need to be brushed more than once in a day. Use rabbit or wide-toothed brush to groom cavy hair.
Guinea pigs generally do not need a lot of baths but they can have spot baths if parts of their body – usually the bum area – get stinky and dirty from urine.
Before giving a bath, put a warm towel or a rubber mat wet with warm water on the tub or sink floor. Use vet-recommended shampoo as instructed before rinsing. Use a soft towel to towel-dry your guinea pig before any necessary hair-cutting and nail-clipping.
If this will be your first time to trim your guinea pig’s hair and nails, you may want a professional groomer or the vet to demonstrate how they are done. Make sure that the vet or groomer is well acquainted with grooming small animals particularly guinea pigs. Additionally, keep your guinea pig occupied while grooming by giving it snacks and treats.
Hairless guinea pigs have no coat of hair, so rather than brushing, bathing or using any towel, gently apply a small amount of cold-pressed virgin coconut oil to the cavy skin without rinsing it off.
Cleaning your guinea pig’s scent gland is also highly important especially for male cavies. Scent glands are located near the bum just above where the tail should have been had your guinea pig have a tail.
Boars tend to release more of the greasy substance that if left unattended, could cause fungal and other skin infections on your cavy.
Use a soft brush to apply cold-pressed virgin coconut oil to remove the wax-like or crusty substance. Use your pet’s shampoo to remove the excess oil and grease, then rinse. Other owners use direct shampoo to spot clean and rinse the scent gland, which also works fine.
Your guinea pig’s ears also require occasional ear wax removal. Use soft, warm cloth or cotton swab dipped in mineral oil to clean the outer ear, but do not push any wax into your pet’s inner ear.
If the wax buildup is difficult to remove, use the mineral oiled cotton swab to soak the crusty part for a few minutes before removing the ear wax.
If you smell something stinky from your cavy’s ear or if you see some reddish-brown crusty gunk, refer your pet to the vet so that its ears may be disinfected, treated, and cleaned.
Lack of proper teeth care will result in uneven or accidentally chipped teeth that could seriously hamper your guinea pig’s feeding time. Taking care of your cavy’s teeth, fortunately, happens to be the easiest. Giving your guinea pig chew toys and Timothy hay should strengthen and even its incisors.
- Cleaning the Cage
Guinea pigs cages have to be cleaned daily to keep your pet healthy. Cavies are messy eaters and may poop and pee just about anywhere, so housekeeping is important.
How often you clean your cavy’s cage and what method you use is decided by your cage set-up. If you are using a hay rack, the first portion of the cage you need to clean is the rack itself since this is where your cavy tends to graze, eat and poop.
Having newspaper linings in the cage should help you with the clean up since all you have to do is roll or bunch the newspaper up along with the entire gunk and used contents inside. If you use fleece flippers, they will be easy to spot clean since only soiled or stinky flippers will be removed.
If you use wood shavings, spot areas that smell of urine or those that have your guinea pig’s poop. Replace any lost bedding with new ones.
Clean your guinea pig’s cage thoroughly at least once a week. More than once if you have more. The point is, the cage must not stink.
Remove all soiled beddings, linings, and wastes before disinfecting the cage and the toys using vinegar and water solution and wipe them dry. You may not use liquid soap and use a higher concentration of vinegar then have the cage sun and air dried to remove bacteria.
Have your guinea pigs preoccupied by letting a family member graze or walk them or play with them while you clean the cage. Do not forget to clean the cage accessories as well. When everything has been disinfected and dried, replace the bedding and the rest of the accessories before returning your cavies to their cage.
A cavy is a hardy little critter but this does not mean that it is not vulnerable to sickness and infection. Here are some things you can do to further ensure that your guinea pig is happy and healthy.
- Health Checks
Guinea pigs tend to hide their signs of illness and pain. This is an ancestral trait; in the wild guinea pigs are preys for other animals, so they cannot afford to appear “weak” and easy for picking.
The best time to do household health check among your cavies is when you groom each pig. Here are a few things that you need to check to ensure that your guinea pig is one happy and healthy pig:
Clear eyes free of discharge – an exception to this is a pre-grooming milky eye secretion, which they will use to clean themselves. Other than this, crusty eyes will mean a vet consultation.
Clean and clear nose – no mucus discharge or runny nose; any signs of nasal discharge may possibly be related to respiratory conditions, like a cold. Consult with the vet should there be any respiratory problem symptoms.
Dense, clean coat with no bald spots, crusts, abrasions or cuts on the skin – any hair loss, rashes, cuts, abscesses and other unnatural skin and coat problems (including dander and creepy crawly things) will have to be referred to the vet for diagnosis and treatment.
Well-shaped feet of proper length – your guinea pig’s feet must not be red, sore, or have a single portion or digit bigger or wounded than the rest of the fingers. Any changes in your guinea pig’s foot will have to be consulted with the vet.
Clean Bum – check if your guinea pig has a yellowish stinky behind, including the scent glands after grooming. Any scent problems could mean urinary tract infection or a scent gland problem.
Check the poop consistency and the caecum part, too – there should be no poop stuck anywhere. If you see any problems such as a possible fungal infection on the scent gland or watery discharge, check with the vet right away.
Even breathing – Examine your cavy’s breathing and spot for raspiness, labored breathing or wheezing. Check with your vet if you notice any respiratory-related signs.
Grazer’s appetite – your guinea pig is a grazing critter so it should hop into its feeding area from time to time to nibble treats. Any loss of appetite and water intake will have to be reported to the vet.
Additionally, weigh your guinea pig weekly using a kitchen scale. Normal weekly fluctuation is 2 ounces or less but if it steadily goes down or fluctuates greater than 2, then, it is time for a vet visit.
Popcorning and other indications of energetic disposition – young guinea pigs popcorn more frequently than older ones, but this does not mean older cavies do not move around.
Check your cavy’s movement – if it hobbles, walks or moves in an unsteady gait, check for any foot problem and report to the vet. Report as well if your guinea pig is lethargic, slow to respond or prefers corners.
Healthy back and posture – observe your piggy as it stands on its four feet or when it pees and poops. Is its back flat or relaxed? If it is hunched or if you notice it hunching or hesitating as it pees as if in pain, you may need to check it with the vet.
Even teeth – is your guinea pig drooling? If it is, check its front teeth if it is even and not too long as it could be an incisor problem. If it is, you will have to let your vet trim your cavy’s teeth to make it even or to shorten it.
Prevention and Cure
Prevention is always better than cure, which is why it is better to maintain your guinea pig a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and proper grooming.
Guinea pigs cannot produce their own Vitamin C within their bodies. A lot of their diseases and symptoms are related to Vitamin C deficiency such as respiratory illnesses, scurvy, urinary tract infection, and cancer. Make sure to add Vitamin C foods and supplements in their meals.
Have a constant supply of pesticide-free hay or grass, especially Timothy for your guinea pig. Give it chew toys and gnaws as well. Incisor filing can be a traumatic experience for your piggy, so it is better to have them enjoy hay and gnaw items.
Avoid guinea pig heat stress. If you happen to have the long-haired type or the hairless type, ensure that they are housed in an environment with the proper temperature. Albino types, light-colored coat types, and hairless breeds have sensitive skin and must avoid direct sunlight.
Guinea pigs should not be mixed with other animals in a cage. Cavies are mild-mannered, sociable creatures that can mingle with rabbits, cats, dogs, and others, but this should not be in cages. Other animals may carry microbes that your guinea pig cannot handle, and a rabbit’s playful or accidental kick is powerful yet fatal for a guinea pig.
Vet consultation may be at least once a year for regular health checks, but do not self-medicate health problems or symptoms as there could be an underlying medical illness aside from the symptoms your cavy is showing you. Neither should you give shampoo or products to your guinea pig without consulting your vet first if you really care about your cavy.