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Guinea Pig Care

Last Updated: 3/9/10

General Information
Male or female and how many?
Cages
Bedding and Litter
Feeding
Health
Grooming
Breeding


General Information

Guinea pigs are more correctly also called cavies. Guinea pigs are not from Guinea or New Guinea but South America (Chile, etc.). Nor are they related to pigs. However, they do squeal like pigs, very loudly in fact. It sort of sounds like "weeeeeep, weeeeeep." Recent genetic research indicates that guinea pigs are not rodents. [Here are two links on that: Guinea Pigs Not Rodents? and Family Feud.] A healthy guinea pig will live 5 to 8 years. I will refer to guinea pigs/cavies as just pigs for short. In the privacy of my own home, I called them my "piggies." I missed my piggies but then got two more when my mother bought one without my knowledge.

Most information that one needs to know about cavies is found in books and from talking to people. There are a few things; however, that I would like to stress. ALL pet guinea pigs need to see the vet as soon as possible after you get them. Firstly, they all need to be checked for their general health and sex. I cannot tell you how many times a male became a female or a female became a male! Guinea pigs need to be checked for guinea pig mites (only found on guinea pigs), malformed teeth, and general health; they can be neutered/spayed as well. This vet visit is also a good time to learn about your pet's care.

The next item I would like to stress is that an animal's home can NEVER be too big. If your choice is between a tiny cage and a large one, ALWAYS opt for the larger one. The animal will be happier, and you will not have to clean it as often.

Finally, keep any cages, litter pans, etc. as clean as possible. Most cages should be cleaned well at least once a week. There is NO such thing as "an easy to care for" pet. All require your time and love!


Male or Female and How Many?

Guinea pigs in the wild live in groups of females (sows) and young with one dominant male (boar). Boars are larger and when full grown, their testes are obvious. Sexing young cavies is best left to the experienced but testes are obvious from a month of age. A quick way to sex is to look at the shape of the openings with the female have a v-shape and the male having a circle. If gently pressed, a male's circle will reveal his penis. A female just has a tiny point from which she pees. Females will all get along fine in most cases (but not all, my girls did not at first!). Boars will usually get alone if they are brothers that were never separated. I had two brothers who never fought. Unrelated boars may attack each other. Each guinea pig is truly individual, and there can be aggressive sows or boars as well as really sweet ones that love all others. A male with one of more females will be very happy but after a few months, there will be babies and then more babies. If you are breeding, then that is your goal. If you want a happy colony with no babies, get the male neutered. Excited males (and dominant females too I have found) wiggle their rears and make a sound like "guck, guck, guck." They may squeal too to get females' (or your) attentions. Young females can also be spayed. This will prevent pregnancy, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer. Since pigs like the company of each other, the more the merrier. A solitary pig may waste away. For beginners, I would suggest getting two siblings of the same sex at the same time (if not at the same time, they may fight).


Cages

My guinea pigs stayed in a number of cages ranging from plastic storage boxes to wooden hutch to plastic rabbit cage. The best home I had found was Beau's last, the Hagen plastic rabbit cage. It is 23" x 14" by 15" high. Fritz stayed in a cage like that initially until I found the Hagen Zoo Zone 2 cage which is 20" x 39.25" x 14.5" high. Fritz and Kylie lived in that until they passed on. For more information, see Fritz's Home.

If you find any commercial cages that keep in litter and have solid bottoms that are larger than the Hagen Zoo Zone 2 (not including the modular cage site mentioned below), please let me know!

Guinea pigs need room to run and play. Anything smaller than the 23" x 14" cage for a pig or two, is too small. The floor should never be made of wire since they can get their toes stuck in the rungs.

If you want to build a nice big cage for your guinea pig, check out Cavy Cages.


Bedding and Litter

Never use untreated pine or cedar shavings as all can cause respiratory problems. They also are not as good as the product that I use. CareFresh is made from unused wood pulp. It is better because it is safe to eat, provides a soft place to sleep, does not have much smell or dust (I hated the dust from cedar shavings!), absorbs liquids and odors well, is very light, and is environmental friendly. There are other similar products. Corncobs, kiln-dried white pine shavings, aspen shavings, hay, and other environmental beddings are possible choices. Visit a FAQ on bedding to learn about why shavings are bad and other products are better. They list ways to contact these companies too to obtain CareFresh which is now widely sold.


Feeding

Two things should always be present before your guinea pig: fresh water and grass (timothy) hay (alfalfa hay is more of a treat). The basis of most guinea pig diets is a good guinea pig pellet. Rabbit pellets will not do as they do not contain the necessary Vitamin C. Next comes hay. I get five kinds of hay from Oxbow Hay Company for which the pigs go crazy. Hay is the glue that holds a pig's meals together and gives nice piggy poo. Note that guinea pig pellets contain hay as well. Most pellets are made from alfalfa but this can fatten up a pig. Oxbow sells guinea pig pellets made from timothy hay. You can also buy the pellets from Pet Food Direct

or the links below to Drs. Foster and Smith to the two kinds of guinea pig pellets. Note, the links no longer work because they deleted their affiliate program but you may able to see the photos.


Finally, comes fruits and vegetables. There are too many to list. Do not feed iceburg lettuce or large amounts of other lettuces. Favorite cavy foods include oranges, carrot, broccoli, apple, pear, cucumber, orange, squash, zucchini, kale, grapes, cauliflower, green pepper, collard greens, spinach, parsley, and other fruits and vegetables. As treats, I occasionally gave them cantaloupe, honeydew melon, strawberries, wine berries, black berries, etc. The key is to give lots of variety and not too much of one thing (especially fruits and leafy vegetables). I gave small amounts of half a dozen plants every day. I usually fed the same things so their diet was pretty consistent. When you try something new, only give a tiny amount in case it does not agree with the cavy's digestion. Only try one new thing at a time. Avoid giving too much pear, cucumber, tomatoes, and cabbage-related plants as these can cause diarrhea and other problems. Also, avoid too many diet changes. In rural areas that are free of grass treatments, grass, dandelion greens, clover, and many other lawn plants cannot be beat. Again, only give these in small amounts and avoid a few poisonous plants. Also, avoid giving too many greens to young pigs as their systems do not yet have enough beneficial bacteria, etc. in them.

Then, there are grains that you can give in addition to pellets. I gave my guinea pigs about a teaspoon a day of Quaker Multigrain cereal. Oats, barley, alfalfa, etc. can be given. Whole wheat bread and other breads are also good foods, especially to add variety for a young cavy who should not have too many "wet" foods. My pigs liked it toasted and warm in winter. Salt or mineral licks are optional since guinea pig pellets contain enough of these. You can provide mineral wheels for your pigs but they do not seem to use them. There are also treats like seed and nut bars, yogurt drops, etc. These should be given sparingly. One last note about feeding guinea pigs: They must receive Vitamin C from their pellets or fruits like oranges, or they can develop scurvy. Oxbow also sells a Vitamin C pill for guinea pigs. The following fruits and vegetables are also high in Vitamin C: broccoli, kale, tangerines, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, kiwi, cauliflower, parsley, basil, peas, turnip greens, and dandelion greens. My pigs loved dandelions and chickweed.

Drs. Foster and Smith (in addition to Oxbow and Pet Food Direct) now sells the guinea pig Vitamin C pills from Oxbow:

In 2001, I found an excellent source of high quality guinea pig pellets (alfalfa and timothy for adults) and five kinds of fresh, organic hay at the Oxbow Hay. Check it out! I now order their products from Pet Food Direct because the shipping is less.

PetFoodDirect Logo 88x31

By March, 2007, now Drs. Foster and Smith sells the Oxbow pellets and Vitamin C (not the hay yet). This link no longer works but you can see the photo.
Save on Small Pet Supplies at Drs. Foster  & Smith


Health

Did you know that guinea pigs can harbor a mite that is only found on guinea pigs? I did not but that is what my Beau had when he was scratching like crazy. The treatment is a series of two ivermectin injections. Most guinea pigs get these mites from their parents so be sure to have the vet check for them at the pig's first visit. They are very small and white, like dandruff. More commonly guinea pigs have guinea pig lice as Kylie did. These critters are also treated with ivermectin but also baths in 0.05% pyrethrin shampoo.

Guinea pigs can also have maloccluded teeth which may require filing. Diarrhea is a common problem associated with diet. Usually, more hay is needed. Aside from these problems, guinea pigs rarely are ill. They usually just up and die at the end of their lives or due to some fast-hitting disease. Cavies are prone to tumors (both fatty and cancerous) and congestive heart failure (which killed Kylie and probably Fritz). Guinea pigs generally live 5 to 8 years.


Grooming

All long haired guinea pigs should be brushed weekly and others when needed. A slicker brush for rabbits, cats, or poodles works well. All cavies shed regularly. Brushing out the loose hair not only removes potential knots but also prevents the pig from digesting them.

All guinea pigs' nails should be trimmed every month or so. Be sure to cut beyond (when you are facing the pig's rear; beyond meaning further out on the nail, further away from their body) the quick which is where the blood is. If you do not trim the nails, they can get caught on something, get torn off, and/or grow into the foot. Even so, a missing nail and some blood are common and no cause for alarm. Use flour or blood clotting agents if bleeding occurs.

The pigs' ears should also be cleaned with a kleenex or something soft every few months to remove wax and debris. Also, check for ear mites.

Pigs do not require bathing unless they are severely soiled, or if they need a bath in pyrethrin shampoo to control lice, mites, or fleas. At this web site, the cavy owner suggests bathing a few times a year and describes it in more depth. I only did it when one had diarrhea.


Breeding

One should only breed guinea pigs if the potential babies already have homes. This would be the case for a respected, selective breeder or an owner who would be willing to keep any and all babies if, for some reason, homes could not be found.

Guinea pig reproduction is quite different than rabbits and most rodents. Sows (females) can become pregnant as early as one month of age. Boars (males) usually are not capable of breeding until they are a 2-3 months old. The ideal breeding age is about 3-4 months for sows and 6-12 months for boars. Although boars can breed at any age after puberty, virginal sows should never be breed after the age of 9-12 months. This is because at this time, their pelvic bone fuses so that vaginal birth is not possible. If a sow becomes pregnant for the first time at or after a year of age, the babies will most likely have to be delivered by Caesarean section.

Males will court females by wiggling their rears and making a lot of noise. If the sow is ready to breed, the mating itself is quick. A boar can be kept with his sow for up to two months at which time he should be removed so that he is not present at the time of birth when he will try to mate with the sow and could trample the newborns.

Pregnancy lasts on average 68 days but babies can be safely born anywhere from 65 to 75 days after mating. This is a very long pregnancy for such a small animal! Babies born premature or late most likely will have problems. Premature babies are often small and undeveloped. Overdue babies are often too large and may suffocate in the birth canal. Sows have on average four babies but may have from one to eight young. A sow only has two teats so the young have to take turns. Unlike most rodents, guinea pigs are born with open eyes, open ears, fully furred, and can even eat solid food that very day! Babies nurse for about two weeks but should stay with the sow until four weeks when the young males and females must be separated to prevent additional breeding. Also, sows can become pregnant for only a short period of time about once a month when they may be a bit more aggressive or active than usual. A sow is also able to become pregnant immediately following birth so at that time, she should not be with any intact boars.


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