Guinea pigs or cavies are a great little pet. They are very popular with younger children as a first pet and are highly intelligent. Like any pet, they need a certain way of caring for them and making sure they are healthy and happy. This Pets4Homes article gives 14 tips to help you achieve this.
All guinea pigs require vitamin C otherwise they will end up quite ill. The problem is that unlike the majority of other animals, they cannot make it themselves, their bodies are unable to synthesise it (primates can’t either). This means their diet must contain enough vitamin C to keep them healthy and to stop problems such as:
Poor coat condition - their coat becomes quite rough.
Speak to your vet if you see any of these signs, as generally a guinea pig needs from 10 to 50 mg of vitamin C per day - but this is dependent on the animal’s age, health, and whether they are pregnant.
So, we know guinea pigs need vitamin C each day, but how is it best for them to get it? Don’t think to give them a citrus fruit is an easy idea - these fruits are not good for them. The answer is in a variety of foods for their diet. The most common way to make sure they get enough is using a good quality guinea pig pellet food. Make sure these are replaced every day, as any leftover pellets will not keep their vitamin C content.
They also need:
Their diet can also contain some herbs and plants such as dandelions.
Guinea pigs are herd animals, which means they are incredibly sociable and like being in a group. This means that guinea pigs should really have at least one companion, unless your vet advises against it for health reasons. The other companion should be another guinea pig. To avoid fighting and aggression the combinations should be ideal for the animals, such as:
Guinea pigs like to have as much space as possible to be able to run around in. Even their hutch needs to be as big as possible – no less than 1.2 m long. They love to exercise by running around and exploring, and they especially need a well-built and safe outdoor run, that can be placed on grass for them to graze on.
Safety is deftly a factor, making sure the run is completely secure so they can’t escape and other animals such as cats can’t get in. You can also provide them with cardboard boxes and other items such as pipes that they can run through.
They’re not normally animals that really play with toys, but you can stimulate them mentally, by hiding small amounts of food in different areas that they can access.
Guinea pig teeth are just like those of a rabbit – they grow constantly. This means they need to wear them down by grazing a lot through the day, good quality hay, grass or other foods to help keep them short.
Overgrowing teeth are more common in rabbits, however the same can happen in guinea pigs – this is termed malocclusion. It is normally because the jaws do not line up properly so the teeth cannot grind together. If you have a guinea pig with misaligned teeth, they will need regular vet visits to help keep them short and avoid problems.
It is very wise to neuter guinea pigs, as they can reproduce very quickly. There are stories of rescue guinea pigs being found in horrendous conditions, that have just reproduced and reproduced, resulting in hundreds of guinea pigs.
Neutering is best done on the male as it is a much easier operation than that of a female. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to give you more advice, but unneutered males, if kept together, can end up fighting and giving each other nasty wounds.
Of course, an unneutered male and female would give you lots of babies. Your vet will also be out to give you the protocol that they prefer for neutering as some practices will do operation very young, whilst others prefer the guinea pig to be a bit older.
Guinea pigs like all other animals can pick up parasites, both internally and externally. They tend to get fleas and lice more than other parasites; however, mites can also make an appearance on your guinea pig.
If they do have a mite infestation, the chances are you will know about it, because your animal will scratch and scratch. This scratching can set up a secondary bacterial infection, so sorting the cause out in the first place is a good idea. If they have lice, these normally affect around the face, including behind the ears. The best idea is prevention, so speak to your vet if you are worried about parasites and your guinea pig – they will be able to advise and recommend suitable products.
Flystrike is a horrible disease, commonly seen in rabbits – but guinea pigs are just as susceptible. It is when a fly is attracted by a smell such as urine or faeces around your guinea pig, lands on them and lays eggs. These eggs quickly hatch maggots that start to eat into your poor guinea pig.
Many animals that suffer from flystrike are sadly put to sleep, so it is vitally important that you check your guinea pigs daily – at least twice a day during warm weather or the summer. If you see any signs whatsoever that could cause flystrike such as matted smelly rear, sloppy faeces or the hutch is a bit smelly, everything needs a clean.
When you come to check your guinea pig if you find signs of maggots try to get them off as soon as possible. Call your vet for their advice and try not to be squeamish – your guinea pig’s life could depend on it.
All animals can suffer from lumps and bumps, and guinea pigs are certainly no exception. They can get various different lumps as they get older including skin and breast tumours. You normally can discover if your guinea pig has a new lump during the time you play with them or groom them – and because they have a rapid metabolism, the lumps can grow fairly quickly. If you are worried about any lump on your guinea pig, please speak to the vets – many times these lumps are benign, and some can be easily removed using surgery. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to advise you on the best course of action.
Because guinea pigs really enjoy company, their behaviour can become abnormal and they may even start to suffer if they are left alone, as they hate being bored.
Boredom is a big factor in unhappy guinea pigs. Like any animal they need to be mentally stimulated, that stimulation can come in the shape of you. Some guinea pigs have such great characters that they like spending time with their human parents, following them all over the house and getting up to all sorts of mischief. This is a great idea and stops your guinea pig from having poor mental health and ability. Some owners make up large mazes for the guinea pigs to run about in. If you were to try them with toys, probably the best option is something they can gnaw on. Some guinea pigs are partial to small branches from apple trees but find out what works for you and your guinea pig.
Unfortunately, guinea pigs can have problems with respiratory infections and diseases. One of the most common in guinea pigs is pneumonia. This pneumonia is often caused by several different types of bacteria and is more commonly seen in younger animals.
Animals that show signs and symptoms of respiratory problems are often put on a course of antibiotics to help clear them. As in many species, the young, elderly and the pregnant are more risks. It goes about saying that if your guinea pig seems to have some respiratory distress, call your vet as a matter of urgency. Some do not even show any symptoms and can be healthy in every other way, then go downhill quickly with a respiratory infection.
One of the more common ailments guinea pigs can get is urinary problems. They are very susceptible to bladder stones (known as urinary calculi). These stones can form in the kidneys or ureters but most often found in the bladder. If the stone becomes lodged in the ureter or urethra it is a medical emergency as this could be a life-threatening blockage.
Female guinea pigs can also pick up cystitis (males can get it, but it’s not very common). Due to the infection stones can form in the above areas. Look out for signs of problems including:
Any of these signs need urgent investigation by a vet. The guinea pig may be given fluids, x-rays or even surgery to remove the stones.
Rabbits and guinea pigs do not make ideal companions. You can often find them together, and even some of your friends may have both together in one hutch and run, but the fact is there may be some bullying.
Rabbits can tend to bully guinea pigs (sometimes even vice versa) and a bullied guinea pig can be unhappy, go off their food and generally feel miserable. If the rabbit is very aggressive, they may even end up injured. One other consideration to take into account is that, as you now know guinea pigs require vitamins C in their diet, whereas rabbits do not. This means their dietary requirements are different and if the guinea pig eats the rabbit's food it is not getting enough vitamins C into its body.
The biggest thing about being an owner of a guinea pig is to enjoy each other’s company. They are such sociable little creatures that when looked after correctly, will give you years of special friendship. They are very intelligent and can also have the run of the house and live indoors – much like an indoor rabbit!
They do make an ideal first pet for a child, but of course, as an adult, you will need to take overall responsibility for the animal's welfare. Involving the children as much as possible can really be beneficial, as they get a stronger bond. Consider asking them to make a cardboard house, perhaps with some large cardboard tubes inside it, something for the guinea pig to enjoy and play in.
Owning a guinea pig and a companion for them is a good introduction to pet welfare for all ages. They do need a lot of care, but they repay you with a lot of love. If you have any worries at all about a guinea pig, or want further advice about getting one as a pet or companion to another, please speak to your own vet.