The secret to healthy, happy guinea pigs
Guinea pigs have long enjoyed the status of being one of the most popular pets – which is something they undeniably deserve. However, in order to help them live their best guinea pig lives, it helps to see things from their perspective.
Being a very 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. That’s why, to be a five-star guinea pig guardian, it’s essential to see things from their point of view. This way, you’ll unlock the secrets to providing your piggies with the correct care, nutrition and a safe, enriching environment that provides them with everything they need lead their healthiest, happiest lives.
Here are 14 things your guinea pigs want you to know...
I’m a prey animal
In the wilds of South America, guinea pigs are constantly at risk of being a hot lunch for various mammals, birds of prey and reptiles such as anacondas and caimans. Unsurprisingly, it’s in their nature to be constantly on the alert, looking out for danger, and are easily startled. What’s required is cosy, predator-proof accommodation, with places to hide and lots of high-quality hay to tunnel in to help them feel safe.
I’m highly social
Wild guinea pigs live in close family groups of five to 10 individuals, though several groups may live in close proximity, forming a colony. Pet guineas can only be truly happy if they have another cavy to chat to, as one of a pair or as part of a small group. The best mixes are ideally littermates – two females or a neutered male with one or more females.If introducing new guinea pigs to each other, this has to be done very carefully. 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.
I’m very observant
According to animal rehoming charity Wood Green, once you have piggies in your life “your home will never be quiet again and opening the fridge door or rustling a bag will achieve as much excitement from your guinea pigs as saying ‘walkies’ to a dog!”. As prey animals, constantly on the alert for danger, they’ll also become highly attuned to when good things are happening – such as when dinnertime is imminent!
I have plenty to say
These small animals 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.
I need a safe and suitable place to live
A good quality hutch should be draught-free, predator proof and, along with plenty of fresh 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. 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.
I don’t like it too hot or too cold
Guinea pigs are vulnerable to all extremes of weather and very cold or very hot temperatures are dangerous for them. During the warmer months of the year, your guineas will be happy housed outdoors in a large, good quality hutch, Wendy house or shed (no less than 5ft x 2ft/10 square feet). In winter, it may be best to move their accommodation into a shed, porch or utility room.
I need a specialised 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. They can get this from eating good quality feeding hay, which also keeps their continually growing teeth in checks. Like humans, they also need a daily dose of Vitamin C. Feeding good quality guinea pig nuggets, which are high in fibre and Vitamin C and rich in nutrients, along with a small handful of leafy greens, will ensure they’re getting everything they need.
Avoid ‘muesli’-style food as these have been shown to cause digestive problems and dental disease. The best way to feed your guinea pigs is to stick 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. Your guinea pigs ’diet should consist of 85-90% high quality, dust extracted feeding hay, supplemented with a small portion of grass-based Excel nuggets, the occasional Excel nature treat, a small handful of fresh greens (such as a small bunch of parsley or a couple of dandelion leaves) and plenty of fresh water.
I love to forage for food
This behaviour is second nature to piggies, and you can encourage this by scattering a portion of guinea pig nuggets in different places around their accommodation, hiding it in cardboard egg cups, or mixing it with feeding hay. This will keep them happily busy, which is really important, as not having enough to do is not good for their health and wellbeing.
I like to take short naps
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 when they’re awake with lots of safe hiding places – such as pipes, tunnels and guinea pig nest boxes with some cosy bedding material inside – where they can escape if they feel afraid. Deep piles of hay will allow for natural tunnelling behaviour and a chance to snuggle right in for some piggy shut eye.
I require careful 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. Guinea pigs have very sensitive skin and are susceptible to a number of skin complaints. 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.
I need regular health checks
Eyes, ears and noses need to be 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.
I require kind and gentle handling
Remember that piggies are naturally timid, so always be quiet and gentle around them. 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.
I need to gain your trust
The best way to form a bond between yourself and your guinea pigs is to take things slowly and build up trust over time. These wary rodents 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. When your guinea pigs come forward in their enclosure, don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat – such as some yummy Fruity Feasts with Banana and Blueberry – 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.
I need the care of 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.
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CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your guinea pigs from Burgess, the pet experts.
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