Are guinea pigs the right companion animal for me?
There are plenty of studies that prove guinea pigs are very intelligent. They are very clever; they can comprehend and learn things; they have excellent memory. They need care, the right food, mental stimulation, and security. Guinea pigs are a herd animal (and, as such, need companionship from other guinea pigs or people) and mental stimulation.
The most common reasons for keeping guinea pigs are for their company, as a hobby (showing), and for relaxation. They make great pets for responsible children, as they rarely bite or scratch unless scared or hurt.
So, if you are looking for these qualities, guinea pigs may be the right pet for you.
Are these the right guinea pigs for me?
But which guinea pigs? There are many different breeds of guinea pigs. Some, with long hair, need daily grooming and brushing; others need no brushing and only washing if they get dirty. What characteristics fit in with your plans? The key to knowing the answer is research. Read up on the guinea pigs you are interested in, ask other people about them, talk to breeders, rescue groups, and veterinarians experienced with guinea pigs, visit online forums, and so on. Have a look at this article for more information.
One guinea pig or two (or more)?
Guinea pigs have evolved as communal animals, living in herds that provide greater and better opportunities for feeding, protection against predators, and a rich social life. So, it stands to reason that a guinea pig living a solitary life is an evolutionary aberration. Wherever possible, guinea pigs should have at least one other guinea pig as a companion.
Not all guinea pigs are compatible, though. They must be given the opportunity to learn to like each other and form a bond. For more information see this article. Mind you, care must be taken with pet guinea pigs that this is not taken to the next level, and they want to breed (see this article for more information on breeding guinea pigs).
Where can I keep guinea pigs?
Guinea pigs can be kept indoors, outdoors, or both.
Companion guinea pigs are often kept in indoor hutches and enclosures, although some are housed in either temporary or permanent outdoor enclosures. Outdoor enclosures offer a wide range of stimulation, but care must be taken to avoid temperature extremes, attacks by predators, or stress caused by loud noises and unexpected movement.
All guinea pig enclosures share some characteristics:
- They consist of a shelter and an attached run. The shelter is usually fully enclosed – top and bottom, and on all sides. It offers the guinea pig somewhere to hide when scared or stressed, or just to sleep. The run should offer a large area for exercise, contain some enrichment activities, and have an open floor (wire floors will damage the guinea pigs’ feet, leading to bumblefoot — see this article for more information).
- They are often mobile, allowing the guinea pigs to graze on fresh grass.
- They don’t have to be high (guinea pigs don’t jump or climb) but dogs, cats, and birds should be prevented from entering it or sitting on the top.
- They should be weatherproof, offering protection against the sun, rain, and cold winds.
See this article for more information on guinea pig enclosures.
Where can I obtain guinea pigs?
You may be able to adopt a pet guinea pig from shelters (such as the RSPCA) or from Rescue groups, or you may be able to purchase new guinea pigs from a pet shop, a breeder, or a friend or relative. There are pitfalls in selecting where you can get guinea pigs, and this article discusses some of the issues and planning that you need to consider before you add guinea pigs to your family.
What does a healthy guinea pig look like?
When looking at guinea pigs, you must be aware of the ‘masking phenomenon’. Guinea pigs are, for the most part, a prey species (i.e., other animals eat them). A natural survival instinct, developed over millions of years, is to hide signs of illness from potential predators – including people. So, sick guinea pigs will attempt to look healthy until they are so sick they can no longer hide their illness.
This means that, on first look, a guinea pig may appear healthy even if they are sick. Fortunately for us, most sick guinea pigs cannot keep this pretence up for more than a few minutes; leaving the guinea pig undisturbed in the hutch while you chat to the seller gives the guinea pig enough time to relax and start looking sick (if the guinea pig is, in fact, sick). Then look for any signs your guinea pig is healthy. This article will tell you what to look for.
What do I need to get ready for my guinea pigs before I bring them home?
Impulse buying of guinea pigs can be tempting when you see one of these cute and charming little creatures for sale. Always try and resist this, as often you don’t have everything set up at home ready for a new companion, and this can lead to problems, stress, and even resentment. So, take your time to think things through before you buy guinea pigs – perhaps a deposit to secure them until you are ready, but try to make the transition from the place of purchase to your home a stress-free event for the guinea pigs and for you.
Firstly, are these really the guinea pigs you want? Are you in a good place where you can commit to companions who needs a lot of care and attention? These guinea pigs will be with you for 5-10 years – do you have travel plans?
Next, do some research on where you can keep your guinea pigs (particularly if you are renting or live in a crowded city). Are there council regulations or body corporate rules that may affect your ability to keep pets like this? What about your family or housemates?
If the answers to all these questions still give you a positive vibe for buying your guinea pigs, you will need to get everything ready before your new companions come home. Things to think about:
- Where am I going to purchase a suitably sized hutch or run?
- Where am I going to position it?
- What am I going to furnish the enclosure with (water and food dishes, toys, hides for security)?
- Is the house guinea pig-proof and escape-proof? Is it guinea pig-safe?
- What are the guinea pigs currently eating, and what do you want to feed them? You may need to transition your guinea pigs to a new diet over a few weeks, so you may need plenty of both diets.
- Have I made an appointment with a vet experienced with guinea pigs so I can have my new guinea pigs checked over?
What am I going to feed my guinea pigs?
Your guinea pigs are herbivores, which means they only eat plant material.
Grass hay should be the high-fibre cornerstone of every guinea pig’s diet. The fibre in hay helps meet the important dental and digestive health needs of herbivores such as guinea pigs. A daily recommended amount of a uniform, fortified food provides essential vitamins and minerals not found in hay. Fresh greens are also an important component of a guinea pig’s diet, and healthy treats can be beneficial when given in moderation.
So-called ‘muesli mixes’, consisting of lucerne chaff and pellets, grain, and molasses do not meet your guinea pigs’ dietary and health needs, and should never be fed to guinea pigs (or rabbits).
For more information on a healthy diet for your guinea pigs, see this article.
How will I keep my guinea pigs entertained, alert, and interested in their surroundings?
Guinea pigs are, by nature, bright, active, intelligent, and inquisitive – the list just goes on. In the wild, where life is a little more focused on survival, 80% of their day is spent looking for food, but they still spend the other 20% engaged in self-maintenance behaviours (napping, grooming, etc.), and socialising with their herd mates. In captivity, when they no longer have to search for food, they need something to fill in the rest of the day. All too often, they don’t have to opportunity to keep themselves occupied and health and behaviour problems start to develop.
What’s the answer?
Environmental enrichment – providing activities that stimulate an animal’s brain to keep them alert and mentally active – is an essential part of guinea pig husbandry. It’s a lot more than buying some cheap toys, though – you need to sit down and write down an enrichment plan and then implement it each day. This is not as onerous as it sounds – it’s more about writing down some ideas that you can rotate regularly. Have a look at this article for some ideas you can use to keep your guinea pigs entertained, alert, and interested in their surroundings.
How will I keep my guinea pigs safe against household hazards?
Every year hundreds of guinea pigs suffer from health problems caused by their environment. Their human companions are often shocked (and horrified) when they discover that their guinea pig has been exposed to a hazard in their own home, often a hazard they were not aware of. Guinea pigs, in many ways, are like toddlers – capable of finding new ways of hurting themselves as soon as we turn our backs on them for even a moment!
Have a look at this article for more information on household hazards that can hurt (or even kill) your guinea pigs.
General care of guinea pigs
How do I handle my guinea pig?
Their quiet and timid nature and friendly disposition make guinea pigs easy to handle. Most guinea pigs will approach a hand introduced into their cage and can be easily picked up. Guinea pigs not accustomed to being handled may jump and run, but rarely turn aggressive.
Once picked up, the guinea pig can be restrained by one hand. They are likely to struggle when held on their back or manipulated. Be gentle but firm when handling and provide support for their legs – they feel threatened if not on stable ground.
Almost all guinea pigs dislike any form of restraint or minor procedure and will often vocalise loudly with squeals & screams! Remember, there is little discomfort occurring if the guinea pig is handled correctly, even though the squeals suggest otherwise! This article discusses ways that you can handle your guinea pig without hurting or excessively distressing them and with minimal damage to the human-guinea pig bond that is so important to the trust between you.
Many guinea pig owners like to groom their guinea pigs, i.e., trim their nails, brush their coat. This has to be done carefully, as your guinea pigs may be injured if the correct techniques are not used. Often these procedures are best done by a veterinarian experienced with guinea pigs but if this is not possible, this article describes the procedures.
Preventative health care
It is often said that guinea pigs are ‘soft’ – healthy one minute, sick the next. A lot of this is because guinea pigs hide signs of illness as long as possible. But a big part of this problem is that guinea pigs are often considered low maintenance pets. In fact, no pet is low maintenance, especially not guinea pigs. These suggestions may help you to keep your guinea pigs happy and healthy for many years to come.
- Take your guinea pig to your veterinarian immediately after purchase, then once annually for examinations.
- Feed a fresh, high quality, toxin-free diet with lots of hay, vegetables, and a small amount of formulated diet according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
- Provide clean, fresh uncontaminated drinking water and change frequently. Some guinea pigs can be trained to use a water bottle, which prevents faecal contamination so often seen in open bowls.
- Provide stimulating environmental enrichment by offering toys, social interaction, and foraging opportunities.
- Avoid spraying the house (or near their outdoor enclosure) with insecticides and other poisons and keep your guinea pigs safe from other household hazards.
Guinea pigs will, given the opportunity, breed prolifically. This needs to be considered when you are bringing them into your home. Not only can it be difficult to tell the boys from the girls, they also start breeding at a very young age!
They are commonly afflicted with problems such as dystocia (difficulty giving birth), ovarian cysts, and uterine cancer, so consideration needs to be given to desexing your guinea pigs at a young age.
Worming guinea pigs is a subject that is hotly discussed in online forums, with almost as many opinions as there are guinea pig keepers. Thoughts seem to range between worming your guinea pig every six weeks to never doing it at all. In certain circumstances, either of those protocols can be correct.
Getting worming right can avoid your guinea pigs suffering and a lot of heartbreak when a loved companion or a valuable breeder is lost to something as simple as worms. You can save a lot of money by not wasting money on worm medications that are not needed.
So, how do you decide how often to worm your guinea pigs, and what to use? This article discusses these issues.
Lice and mites
Guinea pigs are frequently infested with lice and mites. While these may not be obvious, they can flare up and cause severe irritation, scratching (to the point of breaking the skin), and even seizures. All new guinea pigs should be treated several times before introduction to other guinea pigs and then again if they are noticed to be scratching more than normally. For more information see this article on common health problems.