Guinea pigs: a history

Guinea pigs are hystricomorph rodents (related to chinchillas and porcupines) that originated from the Andes Mountains region of South America. Traditionally, guinea pigs were used for ceremonial meals by indigenous people in the Andean highlands, and it continues to be a major part of the diet in Peru.

Guinea pigs were probably first domesticated by the Indians of Peru, who used them for food and as sacrificial offerings to their gods. In the 16th century Dutch explorers introduced guinea pigs to Europe, and selective breeding and captive rearing began in earnest; they were popular among the wealthy.

Guinea pigs are very popular pets because of their availability, docile temperaments, tendency not to bite or scratch when handled, and relatively clean habits.

In their natural habitat, guinea pigs live in open, grassy areas. They seek shelter in naturally protected areas or burrows deserted by other animals. Guinea pigs are sociable animals and tend to live in groups, called herds, of around 10-15.

They are strictly herbivorous (plant-eating) and do most of their foraging for grasses, roots, fruits and seeds in the late afternoon and early evening.

For many years guinea pigs have been used in biomedical research laboratories.

Yes! Guinea pigs are a species of rodent belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia. They are not in the pig family (Suidae):

  • Class: Mammalia.
  • Order: Rodentia.
  • Family: Caviidae.
  • Subfamily: Caviinae.
  • Genus: Cavia.
  • Species: porcellus.
  • Scientific name: Cavia porcellus.
  • Life span: 6-7 years.
  • Average bodyweight:
    • Male: 1-1.3 kg.
    • Female: 0.8-1.1 kg.
  • Ideal environmental temperature range: 18-24°C/65-75°F.
  • Ideal relative humidity range: 40-70% (50% is considered ideal).
  • Recommended age at 1st breeding:
    • Male: 3-4 months.
    • Female: <3-7 months (not after 7 months).
  • Length of oestrous: (heat cycle) 16 days.
  • Length of oestrus (period which female is receptive to male for copulation): 8 hours.
  • Gestation (pregnancy period): average 63-72 days.
  • Average litter size: 3-4 pups (ranges 1-6).
  • Age at weaning: 3 weeks.
  • Through selective breeding efforts, guinea pigs are found in an array of colours and coat types from which to choose. The main varieties of hair type which are commonly encountered in the pet and breeding industry which all come in different colours are:
    • Shorthaired (smooth coated) – short, smooth coated across their bodies
    • Crested – shorthairs but have a single crest on the top of the head
    • Abyssinians – these have rosettes (or whorls) of hair across the body
    • Ridgeback – these have a single ridge of crested fur running along their backs
    • Peruvian – like longhaired Abyssinians
    • Sheltie (also known as Silky) – longhair smooth coated
    • Coronet – longhaired crested coats
    • Rex – rough coarse and dense coat with curly whiskers
    • Teddy – rough coarse and dense coat with straight whiskers
    • Texel – longhaired rex breed
    • Merino – longhaired rex with a crested head
    • Lunkarya – longhaired cross between a Rex and Peruvian
    • Skinny – completely hairless