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Guinea pigs are undeniably cute, with their chubby faces, gentle natures and friendly dispositions. Despite their name, they are most definitely neither pigs, nor from Guinea- they are part of the rodent family, and it is thought that they originate from the Andes mountain range. Guinea pigs make a good first pet for children, as although they need gentle handling and can be nervous, they very rarely bite, even when alarmed. If you're considering a pet guinea pig for you or your children, here is some basic care information and a checklist of equipment to help you on your way.
Guinea pigs, like rabbits, live in large extended family groupings in the wild, and should not be kept alone if it can be avoided. Guinea pigs live happily together in same sex pairs (again like rabbits, they are prolific breeders and so should not be kept in male/ female couplings unless you intend to breed) or small groups. It's usually advised to introduce guinea pigs to each other when they are young, and keep them together for the duration of their lives. It used to be relatively common practice to keep pet rabbits and guinea pigs together, or one rabbit with one guinea pig- this is no longer thought to be a good idea, as the different species have different feeding and care requirements, and also they may fight.
Guinea pigs live happily in hutches, with an outdoor run area provided to stretch their legs. A homemade run made out of plywood and kitchen wire should be light enough to lift easily so that you can move it around the garden in order to stop any specific area from becoming overgrazed. Guinea pigs are sensitive to cold weather, and you should have provision to bring your guinea pigs' hutch into a shed, garage or outbuilding throughout the coldest months of the winter. The base of the hutch, whether inside or outside, should be raised off the ground to allow good air circulation and avoid damp, and also to protect from foxes and predators. The last ten to fifteen years has seen an increase in the phenomenon of the 'house rabbit' which lives within the home as a domestic pet like a cat or dog, and this trend is now increasing with guinea pigs too. There is no reason why your guinea pigs should not live happily inside your home, provided they can be let out to get enough exercise, and if possible play outside on the grass in a pen or other safe enclosure regularly too.
Guinea pigs are vegetarians- their natural diet in the wild is grass, and they enjoy grazing in the garden. For this reason it's important that you do not treat your lawn with any pesticides or other substances that are likely to cause sickness and ill health. Like other animals which graze their food, guinea pigs' digestive systems work constantly rather than in cycles. It is important that either fresh grass or soft hay (such as timothy hay) is available to your guinea pigs at all times, both in their run and in the hutch. Eating grass and hay helps grind down the guinea pigs teeth, which if left unchecked, can get too long and cause problems. As well as grass and hay, you will need to feed a specific premixed guinea pig diet of guinea pig nuggets/ pellets, or guinea pig muesli. If feeding muesli you may find that your guinea pigs feed selectively, leaving certain components of the mixture uneaten. It's essential that your guinea pig receives a complete and balanced diet, so if you find that this happening, you may need to switch to feeding pellets. Guinea pigs also greatly enjoy treats such as dandelions, broccoli, curly kale lettuce, and other fresh green vegetables. Take car not to overfeed treats and snacks, as the digestive balance of the guinea pig is very sensitive and it's important to avoid giving them an upset stomach.
Guinea pigs are generally nervous of new people, and so when you first take them home you should give them time to settle into their hutch and new environment before attempting to pick them up and play with them. Guinea pigs will come to recognise the sound of your voice in time, and you may find that they will run over to you upon hearing your approach, chattering excitedly! As your guinea pigs get to know you, you can start to introduce yourself to them by placing a hand in the cage, and attempting to gently stroke their sides and back. Do not make any sudden movements or loud noises, as guinea pigs, like most prey animals, are easily startled. Once your guinea pig is happy with being stroked, you can attempt to pick them up. Scoop them up with your hands under their body and support their weight t all times. Hold your guinea pig close to your body to prevent any falls and to make them feel secure. Guinea pigs can get bored easily if left without stimulation for long periods of time, so providing toys in their hutch and run can help to keep them entertained and facilitate play with each other. They enjoy tubes they can run through and hide in, boxes and balls. Specially designed guinea pig toys made from safe- to- chew wood are also handy in providing your pigs with something to gnaw on in order to keep the length of their teeth down.
Before selecting and bringing your guinea pig home, make sure you have everything on this tick list of essentials...
Finally, remember that guinea pigs can live for between four and eight years, so make sure that you can commit to caring for them for the entire duration of their lives. Teach your children the correct care and handling of guinea pigs early on, in order to avoid injury or fright to either the pet or the child. Never leave young children and animals together unsupervised.
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