Get to know your guinea pigs better
These chatty cavies make super pets but, just like us, there are all sorts of guinea pig types and each have their own likes and dislikes and distinct personalities. Finding out more about what makes these loveable little animals tick will help you understand them better so you can provide them with all the things they need to live their best guinea pig lives.
Where do guinea pigs come from?
Guinea pigs originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. In the wild, they live in close family groups of five to 10 individuals, though several groups may live in close proximity, forming a colony. Being a small animal, guinea pigs face all sorts of challenges and have many natural predators, which is why they avoid open areas without shelter and are on constant alert against potential dangers – even when they are well-loved pets.
The ‘guinea’ in their name is a bit of a mystery. One theory is that they were first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500s via Guinea in Africa, so people thought they came from there, or that it could be a corruption of ‘Guiana’, an area in South America.
The ‘pig’ part of their name is also an oddity as they’re not related to pigs at all. Even though male guinea pigs are called boars and females are called sows, they are rodents. Their scientific name is ‘Cavia porcellus’, which is why they are sometimes referred to as ‘cavies’. The word ‘porcellus’ is Latin for ‘little pig’. This name may have come about because of the piggy-like squeaking noises they make.
When did guinea pigs first become pets?
Spanish, Dutch and English traders brought guinea pigs from South America to Europe in the 1500s, where they quickly became popular as exotic pets among the upper classes and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I, who was obviously an early adopter of the latest in pet trends. A recently discovered Tudor portrait (on display at the National Portrait Gallery) features three wealthy Elizabethan children with their pet guinea pig. The National Cavy Club (NCC) was established in 1889 and these chatty little animals continue to go from strength to strength in the pet popularity stakes
How long do guinea pigs live?
With the right nutrition, suitable accommodation, company, care and kindness, guinea pigs can live between four and eight years. However, the oldest recorded guinea pig, called Snowball, lived to the ripe old age of 14 years, 10 months, earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records!
How do guinea pigs communicate and how do you know if your guinea pig likes you?
Guinea pigs are sociable, chatty creatures who generally have plenty to say, using around 11 different noises to communicate how they’re feeling. In fact, guinea pigs use sounds as a primary means of communication and, since they are herd animals, sounds are also their means of maintaining social rank. Of course, if you’re another guinea pig, you’ll get the gist of the conversation pretty quickly. For cavy guardians, however, learning to understand guinea pig takes a little more effort – but it’s something that’d really worth doing.
Getting to know what the various piggy sounds means will help you understand your pets better – and can also help you identify when they’re happy and excited or fearful and unwell. From the well-known ‘wheek-wheek’ call – a sign of excitement or to find a friend – to a low ‘purring’ sound, which they make when they’re feeling content – if you hear this when you’re petting your piggies, you can be pretty certain that they like you! They also emit a series of short ‘putt-putt’ noises when they’re happily exploring stuff and a disgruntled ‘chutt’ sound when they’re annoyed about something. Find out more about guinea pig speak >>
What do guinea pigs eat?
Wild guinea pigs naturally eat a diet of grasses, plants, vegetables and crops. To stay healthy, guinea pigs need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre (called digestible and indigestible fibre) moving through the gut at all times. Guinea pigs get this fibre mainly from good quality feeding hay, which will also help to keep their teeth healthy.
Just like us, guinea pigs don’t have the ability to make their own vitamin C and need a daily dose or they become vulnerable to scurvy. This nasty disease – the scourge of sailors of old – interferes with the body’s ability to manufacture collagen, which is important for bone and tissue formation, and can lead to problems in your guinea pigs’ joints and skin. It’s entirely preventable by feeding high quality guinea pig nuggets and a few vitamin C-rich dandelion leaves or small bunch of parsley daily.
Sticking to the 5-step Excel Feeding Plan, which was developed in conjunction with one of the world’s leading small animal vets, provides your piggies with the perfect daily balance of fibre and nutrition.
- Step 1: Burgess Excel Feeding Hay High quality feeding hay varieties such as Dandelion & Marigold should form most of your guinea pigs’ diet. Hay is also good for dental health as the gnawing action required to eat it helps to wear down their continually growing teeth. Overgrown teeth can be the cause of potentially fatal problems in guinea pigs
- Step 2: Burgess Excel Nuggets Excel nuggets with Blackcurrant & Oregano are tasty bites, packed with nutrition. High in ‘beneficial fibre’ to promote digestive health, they also contain vitamins, minerals and prebiotics to help with healthy eyes, skin and coat. Importantly, they also prevent selective feeding – unlike muesli-type foods where small animals just pick out the high starch/sugar components, leading to all kinds of health issues
- Step 3: Burgess Excel Nature Snacks These delicious, natural and healthy snacks such as Apple Snacks, Country Garden Herbs and Meadow Munchies prevent boredom and promote emotional health. They can also be used to encourage bonding and interaction between you and your pets – feeding by hand can help your guinea pigs become comfortable with human attention
- Step 4: Fresh greens Guinea pigs can be fed fresh greens to give additional nutrients and to provide some variety. You need to be careful which greens you feed and how much. Each day, you could alternate a small bunch of parsley, a couple of dandelion leaves (ensure they have not been sprayed with pesticides or are from an area where wild rabbits graze, as they could carry disease), half a curly kale leaf, one small floret of broccoli or 1/8th of a green bell pepper
- Step 5: Fresh water Piggies should have constant access to fresh water
NEVER feed your guinea pigs with human food – chocolate and dairy products are particularly dangerous and citrus fruit can upset their sensitive tummies. Also avoid potato, nuts, onion and related vegetables, rhubarb, tomato leaves, buttercups, daffodils, poppies and tulips.
DID YOU KNOW?
Around a quarter (24%) of guinea pigs are put in a good mood by social interaction, while 68% are put in a good mood by being given food and treats...
Where should guinea pigs live – indoors or outdoors?
During the warmer months of the year, your guineas will be happy in a good quality hutch that’s draught-free, predator proof and provides a cosy place to sleep. However, traditional small hutches do not provide the space guinea pigs need to behave normally. Instead, a hutch should just be viewed as your guinea pigs’ ‘bedroom’ and be permanently attached to a much larger run. If a ramp connects the hutch to a run, check it’s wide enough and not too steep or your piggies may be too scared to use it.
As guineas are a prey species, it’s essential to provide lots of safe hiding places in their exercise area – such as pipes, tunnels and guinea pig nest boxes – along with deep piles of hay to allow for natural tunnelling behaviour.
Always provide the right bedding. NEVER use wood shavings or sawdust as these not only absorbs the natural oils that guinea pigs have which they need to keep their coats and skin in good condition, they also create dust, which can lead to potentially fatal respiratory problems.
Keeping your piggies’ accommodation dry is essential throughout the year as they can be susceptible to a number of skin complaints. Damp and dirty bedding creates the ideal environment for bacteria, fungi and other harmful things to thrive in, which ups the chances of your pets developing a nasty skin condition.
The best bedding option is soft and fragrant meadow hay (also good to munch on), with a thick layer of newspaper placed underneath, which you should change daily. Growing in popularity for small pets is vet bedding, which as well as being cosy, is non-allergic and washable, thereby helping to keep your pets’ environment hygienic. This specially designed bedding sucks moisture away so your guineas stay nice and dry, particularly if you place a thick layer of newspaper under it and change it regularly.
Guinea pigs don’t like cold weather, so in winter, move their accommodation somewhere warmer, such as into a shed, porch or utility room.
Do guinea pigs need company?
A solo guinea pig is not likely to be a very happy guinea pig. These little rodents really need at least one other piggy for company to allow them to express their natural behaviours and chat to. However, introducing one guinea pig to another has to be done very carefully. Put yourself in their paws – how would you feel about living with someone you don’t know?
- Before you start looking at potential partners, make sure you know the sex of your guinea pig (ask your vet to check if you’re not sure)
- If you have a male, it’s best to get a neutered female to be his roommate. In the wild, guinea pigs would have just one mature male in a group and putting two boys together who are not from the same litter will likely result in a fight
- If you have a female guinea pig, a neutered male may be better than another female – girls can be just as territorial with each other as boys. In fact, the animal charity PDSA advises that sometimes, if you have two or more females who aren’t getting along, introducing a male piggy can help the situation
Rescue centres are a good place to find a new friend such as Blue Cross, RSPCA and Wood Green as the staff will be able to tell you a bit about different guinea pigs’ personalities and check they are in good health. If your piggy is a confident sort, they may prefer a quieter friend, and vice versa. Find out more about introducing a new guinea pig friend >>
NEVER keep guineas with rabbits or chinchillas as they all have different housing and nutrition requirements. Bullying between species can occur and rabbits can give guinea pigs serious diseases. Find out more about caring for your guinea pigs >>
DID YOU KNOW?
In Switzerland, an animal rights law was introduced in 2008 making it illegal to own just one guinea pig at a time as it was considered an act of cruelty to deny these animals the chance to have a companion of their own species.
Are guinea pigs awake during the day?
Although crepuscular creatures, who are at their liveliest during dusk and dawn, these little rodents only sleep for short periods and are awake for up to 20 hours a day.
Do guinea pigs need much grooming?
Long-haired guinea pigs require a daily brush to keep their coats tangle and matt-free. Shorthaired varieties only need a weekly onceover as part of their regular grooming routine.
All guinea pigs need their eyes, ears and noses checked regularly to make sure there isn’t any unusual discharge. Watch out for any scratching or rubbing of ears or head shaking, as this could mean ear mites.
Guinea pigs’ teeth grow very quickly and should be checked every week to ensure they are not overgrown, broken or loose.
Feet should be checked for signs of sores or red patches and nails need to be carefully clipped regularly or they will start to curl. If you notice anything unusual during grooming, always speak to your vet. Find out more with our guinea pig health checklist >>
Are guinea pigs good pets for children?
Traditionally thought of as an ideal pet for children, small animals such as guinea pigs are often more complex to feed and care for than a cat or dog and require more looking after than a child can offer. Therefore, responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults.
DID YOU KNOW?
The words most used by owners to describe their piggies are playful (32%), cuddly (17%) and boisterous (17%)
What do guinea pigs like to do?
Guinea pigs are endlessly curious explorers who also enjoy keeping an eye on what’s going on from a safe space. In addition to spacious, indoor accommodation, they’ll relish spending time in a secure, outdoor run where they can graze and keep watch – make sure you provide them with places to hide in case they become alarmed about something. Supplying a range of willow tubes and cardboard boxes to dart into will be appreciated.
Most piggies aren’t really fussed about toys, but, as natural foragers, hiding some of their favourite food for them to discover on one of their explorations will keep them busy and happy. Try mixing Dandelion & Marigold feeding hay with some Apple Snacks and stuffing this enticing mixture inside a cardboard toilet roll. Guinea pigs also like to gnaw and some wholesome, tasty Gnaw Sticks will keep them occupied as well as promoting good dental health.
DID YOU KNOW?
Guinea pigs are very social and need to interact with other friendly guinea pigs as well as people. Unlike other social animals, guinea pigs tend not to engage in rough and tumble play but instead their play is based around movement. Guinea pigs will leap, run and chase each other and you may also spot them suddenly jumping in the air, with all four feet off the ground, often turning 90° in mid-air. This is ‘pop-corning’ and will be seen when your piggies are excited.
How do you make friends with a guinea pig?
Always be quiet and gentle around guinea pigs. When approaching them, crouch down and talk softly and let your pets come to you. Offer your hand to sniff then gently place your hand across their shoulder, with the thumb tucked between the front legs on one side. You should then be able to slowly lift your guineas and support their weight by putting your other hand under the bottom. Hold your pets on your lap or, if you’re standing, close to your chest.
Guinea pigs are prey animals, which means loud noises, sharp movements and touch can make them a little jumpy to start with. Unsurprisingly, it will take a little time before they are happy to be handled or feel confident enough to accept treats from you. Here’s how to help them along:
- Am I in danger? Guinea pigs think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might), but crouch down to meet them at their level.
- What’s happening? Keep your approach slow and steady – small pets can be easily startled and will simply run for cover. Speak to them in a soft, happy voice as you gradually get closer.
- That looks like it could be tasty! Offer some food or a tasty treat, so they learn to associate your approach with something good happening. If your guinea pigs won’t come close enough to take food from your hand, lightly toss the food to them whenever they come in your direction. Wait until they come a little closer each time before offering food again, while continuing to talk to them in a soothing voice.
- I think I’ll risk it... If your pet does take the food, sit beside them and continue chatting to them. Then, offer them another treat. If your pet looks comfortable and doesn’t back off, you could try giving them a gentle stroke. Do this every day and your pet will begin to approach you, creating some magical animal moments.
- On my own terms Guarded guinea pigs may take a while to gain confidence, but every pet is an individual and it’s essential that they choose to interact with you on their own terms – and it’s that which makes it so rewarding. When your small pet decides that he or she trusts you enough to want to engage in some hand-feeding time with you it’s a great result!
Are your guinea pigs Burgess guinea pigs? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.
Did you sign up for the UK’s first ever Guinea Pig Awareness Week? Look out on social media for @guineapigawarenessweek on Facebook and Instagram. And why not join the Excel Squeak Squad on Facebook? This is a safe community for guinea pig owners that are looking for advice and friendly discussions from likeminded owners. You can also join Berry & Bramble, our special G-force guinea pigs, on weekly missions and fun competitions.
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