Guinea pigs as pets
A guinea pig (other name is Cavy) can be one of the most endearing and wonderful pets. They may live as long as 9 years (the average is 5 to 7), so the decision to bring one into your home must be made carefully.
Guinea pigs are extremely social, herd animals and are much happier in the company of another pig. A human can't take the place of a guinea pig companion. If you are going to be away for a large part of the day, it is even more important to get a pair of guinea pigs of the same sex. You will end up with a brighter and happier animal.
A few of the advantages of keeping more than one:
Exercise: Two or more pigs means space needs to be shared, claimed, or discovered. A little competition between them keeps them active and fit and fun to watch!
Diet: Sometimes a new pig is unfamiliar with the foods you provide. Guinea pigs can learn from each other about which foods to eat and how, for example, to use the water bottle.
Happiness: Even the rare Guinea pig that prefers its own cage appreciates having a nearby guinea pig companion. Sick Guinea pigs (on antibiotics and non-infectious) benefit greatly from being near their companion, and usually get better more quickly.
It is a common myth that two male guinea pigs will fight. Compatibility between two guinea pigs is determined by the personalities of the individuals rather than their gender. Some guinea pigs will fight with any pig you try to pair them with but the vast majority enjoy company. The best match is usually between two babies or a baby and an adult guinea pig, but adults can be paired up successfully as well.
Handling Guinea pigs:
Some Guinea pigs are very nervous and will try to jump out of your hands when held, therefore it is important to know how to handle them correctly. A Guinea pig can seriously injure itself if it jumps or falls from a height. Never rush into handling a new Guinea pig. Always give it time to get used to you and to recognise your voice. Offer healthy treats by hand to gain trust and start by just stroking the Guinea pig.
The key is to support the entire body. Wrap one hand securely around the chest. Restrain one front leg by placing a finger in front of it. Use your other hand to support the hind feet and rump.
This hold is particularly helpful with nervous guinea pigs who have a tendency to bite when being transported (carrying can be very scary for a guinea pig).
Guinea pig housing:
In Iceland, it is best to keep Guinea pigs indoors, whether in the home or in a well insulated building in the garden. You’ll need to give them a large indoor shelter (cage or hutch) with free access to a secure exercise area. This could be a large guinea pig playpen or a guinea pig-proofed room (where electrical wiring is covered, poisonous houseplants are removed and anything you don’t want chewed is covered or removed- see article on rabbit-proofing your house). Place their home in a quiet area of the house away from radiators and other pets. Ideally provide access to a secure outside exercise area in good, warm weather or provide daily opportunities to graze on grass grown in trays.
Housing should be a minimum of 0.65 square metres per Guinea pig, adding an extra 0.3 square metres for each extra Guinea pig, plus an exercise area.
The most commonly used beddings and litters are wood shavings and paper products but you will find a number of interesting and sometimes innovative beddings. Some pet owners who use large cages have found that lining the cage with fleece or towels (used in combination with litter boxes) is a good solution.
It is important to provide hiding places such as tubes, pipes, tunnels and boxes, since these will provide Guinea pigs with the privacy they sometimes need from humans and from other Guinea pigs. Wooden toys for them to chew keep them occupied and help to keep their teeth at a healthy length. The housing should be well ventilated to prevent the build up of ammonia which can sometimes cause health problems.
Feeding Guinea pigs:
There are some basics that all Guinea pigs need to get every day-
Vitamin C- Guinea pigs are unable to manufacture their own Vitamin C so it is important they eat plenty of fresh vegetables and a good quality pelleted food. Without Vitamin C, they can develop scurvy. Some people supplement their Guinea pig’s diet with Vitamin C drops onto the food. Your Vet can advise you on the right amount for your Guinea pig. Do not use multi-vitamin supplements.
Complete pellet food- made from Alfalfa hay for growing and pregnant Guinea pigs, and from Timothy hay for adults. It must be specifically for Guinea pigs because of the extra Vitamin C requirements. Rabbit pellets are not suitable.
Grass hay- helps the digestive system to function properly and also helps to keep the teeth a healthy length.
Fresh vegetables- small amounts of fresh vegetables are an important source of Vitamin C and other vitamins. Examples are green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, apple. New vegetables and fruit should always be introduced in small amounts to prevent intestinal upsets. Always make sure these are fresh and washed clean.
Water- fresh, cold water should always be available. It is better not to use mineral water or distilled water, and never add Vitamin C to the water supply.
To keep your Guinea pigs healthy, it is a good idea to clean out their housing every week, and use a pet-safe disinfectant to clean the enclosure. It will be necessary to clean out the toilet area more frequently, usually daily. This will help keep ammonia levels to a minimum. Using small litter trays with Guinea pig litter can help with this. Try to keep some of the old bedding in the house when cleaning it out, because this will reduce stress.
Guinea pig health problems:
Guinea pig illness can sometimes be very difficult to treat. Guinea pigs do not often show signs of illness until the condition is advanced, therefore it is important to take your Guinea pig to the Vet as soon as you notice any worrying signs of ill health. These are some of the more common health problems that can affect Guinea pigs.
Vitamin C deficiency- as mentioned before, if a Guinea pig does not get enough vitamin C in its diet, it can become deficient in this essential vitamin and develop a condition called scurvy. Scurvy can cause general signs of illness including reduced appetite, weight loss, lethargy, diarrhoea, discharge from the nose and eyes and sometimes hopping and pain when picked up. Always take your Guinea pig to the Vet straight away if you are concerned about scurvy, because quick treatment is important. Scurvy can develop secondary to other problems, such as dental disease, so a thorough check up is very important. Some Guinea pig owners give their pets 25mg of Vit C daily by mouth to prevent scurvy (using one quarter of a human chewable 100mg Vit C tablet).
Tooth problems- dental disease can occur when the teeth become overgrown. This can make it very difficult for a Guinea pig to eat. A good diet of hay and providing wooden chew toys can help prevent this problem. If your Guinea pig stops eating, make an appointment with your Vet as soon as possible.
Respiratory infections- a discharge from the nose, heavy breathing and refusal to eat could indicate a respiratory infection, and again quick treatment is vital.
Bloat- a gas-filled intestine due to a blockage of the intestine can be life threatening, so if your Guinea pig’s abdomen looks swollen, take them to the Vet as soon as possible.
Urinary tract problems- infections and bladder stones are relatively common. If you see blood in your Guinea pig’s urine or your pig is showing signs of discomfort when passing urine, seek Vet advice straight away.
Diarrhoea- too much fresh food and some infections can cause diarrhoea. If your Guinea pig is bright and eating, try stopping fresh food for a couple of days, but if your pig has stopped eating and seems lethargic, take them to your Vet as soon as possible.
Skin and abscesses- mite infestations and skin abscesses are relatively common and both need medical treatment. Look for flaky skin, hair loss and abnormal swellings.
There are other conditions which affect Guinea pigs, so if you have any concerns about any signs your pet may be showing, always speak to your Vet. Alway remember to groom your Guinea pigs regularly and trim their nails either at home or ask the Vet to do it. Overgrown nails can be uncomfortable and make it difficult for your Guinea pigs to move around. A good diet, clean and spacious housing, gentle handling and regular check-ups at the Vet will mean that your Guinea pigs should live long and happy lives.
Guinea pig essentials check-list:
Vitamin C supplements
Ceramic food bowl
Water bowl or bottle