Our 7-point guide to being a gold-star guinea pig owner
Small, sociable and chatty, guinea pigs or ‘cavies’ originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. In the wild, they live in close family groups of 5 to 10 individuals, though several groups may live in close proximity, forming a colony. When keeping them as pets, the challenge is to care for them in such a way that meets all their needs and enables them to exhibit their full range of natural behaviours.
1. A safe and suitable place to live
A good quality hutch should be draught-free, predator proof and, along with plenty of bedding hay, provide a cosy place to sleep. However, traditional small hutches do not provide the space guinea pigs need to behave normally. A hutch should just be viewed as your guinea pigs’ ‘bedroom’ and be permanently attached to a much larger run. These little rodents are active for up to 20 hours a day and sleep only for short periods, so they need plenty of space to exercise. If a ramp connects the hutch to a run, check it is 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 – where they can escape if they feel afraid. Deep piles of hay will allow for natural tunnelling behaviour.
Guinea pigs don’t like cold weather, so in winter, move their accommodation somewhere warmer, such as into a shed, porch or utility room. Find out more about keeping small pets cosy in winter here
2. The company of their own kind
Due to their highly social nature, GPs can only be truly happy as one of a pair or as part of a small group of the same sex – litter mates make the best companions. If you’re planning to keep a male and female together, it’s essential that the male is neutered to avoid the unwanted patter of tiny guinea pig feet. 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.
3. The right diet
To keep 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, such as Burgess Excel Timothy Hay, which will also help to keep their teeth healthy.
Your guinea pigs’ diet also needs to be supplemented with plenty of vitamin C, as they lack the enzyme needed to synthesise it and can only store vitamin C for short periods. Sticking to the 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. Find out more about guinea pigs and vitamin C here
DID YOU KNOW?
Around the end of the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought guinea pigs from South America to Europe, where they became popular exotic pets among Elizabethan society.
4. Things to do
If guinea pigs don’t have enough to do, their health and wellbeing will suffer. Cavies are natural foragers, so encourage this behaviour by scattering a portion of guinea pig nuggets in different places around their accommodation, hiding it in cardboard egg cups, or mixing it with some Feeding Hay with Dandelion and Marigold and some Apple Snacks and stuffing this enticing mixture inside a cardboard toilet roll.
Guinea pigs also like to gnaw and some tasty Gnaw Sticks will keep them occupied as well as promoting good dental health.
5. The correct grooming
While 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.
6. Kind and gentle handling
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.
7. A responsible adult
While it’s lovely for children to enjoy the company of guinea pigs, the responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults. Small animals are often more complex to feed and care for than a cat or dog and require more looking after than a child can offer.
Find out more about caring for your guinea pigs here