Guinea pig Q&A

Are guinea pigs good pets for children? How long do guinea pigs live? What do guinea pigs like to do? What should you feed guinea pigs? How can you tell if your guinea pigs are happy? We’ve all the answers to these questions and more, which will help explain why these chatty little rodents deserve their status as one of
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4th November 2021

Are guinea pigs good pets for children? How long do guinea pigs live? What do guinea pigs like to do? What should you feed guinea pigs? How can you tell if your guinea pigs are happy? We’ve all the answers to these questions and more, which will help explain why these chatty little rodents deserve their status as one of the most popular pets.

Here’s what’s covered in our comprehensive guinea pig Q&A:

  • Where do guinea pigs come from?
  • Are guinea pigs awake during the day?
  • Are guinea pigs good pets for children?
  • What do guinea pigs eat?
  • Where should pet guinea pigs live?
  • Do guinea pigs need much grooming?
  • Are guinea pigs social and do they need company?
  • What do guinea pigs like to do?
  • How long does a guinea pig live?
  • How do guinea pigs communicate and how do you know if your guinea pigs like you?
  • How do you make friends with a guinea pig?

Where do guinea pigs come from?

Guinea pigs originate from the Andes region of South America. 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.

Are guinea pigs awake during the day?

Although crepuscular creatures, who are most active during dusk and dawn, guinea pigs are awake for up to 20 hours of the day. This means they need constant access to food, water, companion guinea pigs, safe hiding places and toys to keep them occupied, as well as an exercise area with tubes to tunnel along, shelters to hide in and deep areas of hay to forage in and nibble on.

Are guinea pigs good pets for children?

Traditionally thought of as an ideal pet for children, small animals such as guinea pigs are classed as exotic pets and, as such, are more complex to feed and care for than a cat or dog. Guinea pigs require more looking after than a child can offer and responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults.

Show your pets the love: Learn the five animal welfare needs and understand the importance of enabling pet animals to exhibit their natural behaviours >>

What do guinea pigs eat?

Good quality feeding hay should be the main part of a guinea pig’s diet. As mini grazers, not only does this help their digestive system to work properly, gnawing on hay keeps their constantly growing teeth the right length.

Just like humans, guinea pigs are not able to make or store Vitamin C. Feeding good quality, grass-based guinea pig nuggets, which are high in fibre and Vitamin C and rich in nutrients, will ensure they’re getting everything they need, along with a small handful of leafy greens, such as a few dandelion leaves or little bunch of parsley daily. Avoid ‘muesli’-style food as these have been shown to cause digestive problems and dental disease.

5 steps to feeding your guinea pigs a healthy diet

The best way to ensure your guinea pigs are getting the correct diet is to stick to to the 5-step Excel Feeding Plan, which was developed in conjunction with one of the world’s leading small animal vets, and will provide your piggies with the perfect daily balance of fibre and nutrition.

  • Step 1: Burgess Excel Feeding Hay 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.
  • Step 2: Burgess Excel Nuggets with Blackcurrant & Oregano or Mint 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. For indoor guineas, who roam the lounge rather than the great outdoors, why not try Burgess Excel Indoor Guinea Pig Nuggets, which provide all the nutrients that they would find grazing in the wild.
  • Step 3: Burgess Excel Nature Snacks These delicious, natural and healthy snacks such as Herby Hearts and Meadow Munchies, prevent boredom and promote emotional health.
  • Step 4: Fresh greens Guinea pigs can be fed fresh greens to give additional nutrients and to provide some variety. Each day, you could alternate a small bunch of parsley, a couple of dandelion leaves, 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, clean 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.

Find out what fresh foods are safe for our small furries to eat – and what foods are harmful and should be avoided at all costs >>

Where should pet guinea pigs live?

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. Animal charities Wood Green and PDSA have useful tips.

You’ll also need to set out lots of tunnels to hide in and toys to keep them occupied, along with different sleeping spots so they can choose to snuggle up together or enjoy some ‘me’ time alone.

Guinea pigs don’t do well in cold weather, so in winter, move their accommodation somewhere warmer, such as into a shed, porch or utility room.

10 ways to keep your small pets snug and warm this winter >>

Accommodation essentials

Blue Cross says: “Guinea pigs are vulnerable to all extremes of weather (both very cold and very hot climates can be dangerous).” They will need:

  • A large, predator-proof wooden hutch, Wendy house or shed no less than 5ft x2ft (10 square feet).
  • A separate sleeping area where they can retreat out of sight to get some peace and quiet, as well as somewhere to keep warm.
  • Plenty of enrichment to keep them entertained.
  • To be housed out of direct sunlight in weatherproof and draught-proof accommodation.

The charity also advises: “Guinea pigs have short legs, and most are not great climbers, so they may struggle in a hutch with more than one level. If you do have a ramp, it's safer if it has sides which will prevent your guinea pigs from slipping off and injuring themselves.”

Keep everything clean, dry and hygienic

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 (keeping a little back to add in with the fresh so it still smells like home to your piggies). 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.

Dogs with coughs, cats with flu, bunnies with snuffles, guinea pigs with weepy eyes, chinchillas with chills, gerbils and hamsters with the sneezes, ferrets with stuffy noses... wise up to winter colds and flu in our pets >>

Do guinea pigs need much grooming?

Grooming is a vital part of the routine care of guinea pigs. Long-haired varieties need daily grooming as their coats can quickly become matted and uncomfortable. Shorthaired varieties require a weekly onceover.

Regular grooming is also a great way to bond with your small pets, so they learn to relax and enjoy your gentle attention – and it gives you the opportunity to check their overall health and spot if something isn’t right. Find out more with our guinea pig health checklist >>

Guineas are susceptible to a number of skin complaints, which is why owners of these chatty cavies need to be vigilant and keep a close eye on their pets. Constant scratching is a warning sign and it’s vital to check for dry or flaky skin around ears, nose or mouth, spots or lesions, or fur coming out in clumps. These symptoms signal that an immediate trip to the vet is required. Find out more about caring for your guinea pigs' sensitive skin >>

Are guinea pigs social and do they need company?

While they enjoy human affection, guinea pigs need to be with others of their own kind and should always be kept in pairs or small groups, ideally from the same litter, or a neutered male with a female. Never consider a bunny as a pal – these two different species can’t communicate very well, and rabbits are likely to bully guinea pigs and give them serious diseases. Find out why introducing one guinea pig to another has to be done very carefully >>

What do guinea pigs like to do?

Guinea pigs are 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 much 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 Feeding Hay with Hedgerow Herbs with some Blackcurrant and Oregano Nuggets and stuffing this enticing mixture inside a cardboard toilet roll for plenty of munching fun.

Unlike other social animals, guinea pigs tend not to engage in rough and tumble play –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 known as ‘pop-corning’ and you may see it when your piggies are really excited about something.

How long do guinea pigs live?

With the right nutrition, suitable accommodation, company, care and kindness, guinea pigs can live for up to 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 pigs like you?

Guinea pigs are very vocal and like to chat away to each other. They communicate using several noises, including the well-known ‘wheek-wheek’ call – a sign of excitement or to find a friend – and a low ‘purring’ sound, which they make when they are feeling content and chilled out – 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. 

Getting to know what the various piggy sounds means will help you understand your pets better. Find out more about guinea pig speak >>

How do you make friends with a guinea pig?

The best way to form a bond between yourself and your guinea pigs is to take things slowly and build up trust over time. When your guinea pigs come forward in their enclosure, don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat – such as some yummy Burgess Excel Winter Berry Bakes ­– so your pets learn to come to your hand. Once your guinea pigs are confidently taking treats and allowing you to stroke them, you can try gently handling them.

Offer your hand to sniff, then carefully place your hand across your guinea pig’s shoulder, with the thumb tucked between the front legs on one side. You should then be able to slowly lift your guinea 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.

Our top tips for building your bond with your guinea pigs:

  • When your guinea pigs pluck up the courage to come forward in their enclosure, don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat so they don’t associate you with being caught.
  • 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 tasty nuggets so they learn to associate your approach with something good happening. If your guineas 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 Timid piggies 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.

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.

CARE MORE Find more great advice on all aspects of guinea pig care from the pet experts >>

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