Category: owning a guinea pig

Housing your guinea pig

Proper housing plays a major role in the maintenance of healthy guinea pigs. The well-being of the animals must be a primary consideration.

Guinea pigs can be housed within several different designed enclosures, the most suitable being:

  • Wooden hutch with a wire front and/or sides with or without a connected run.
  • An indoor plastic cage.
  • A custom made house made from a plastic base and metal sides – many guinea pig enthusiasts have these now (see pic above).

Wire mesh floored cages are not suitable to use of guinea pigs due to their delicate feet and can cause bumble foot and injuries to their legs.

The minimum space required for two guinea pigs as advised by the RSPCA is 120 x 60 cm (4 x 2 ft), but more space is ideal. The enclosure can be open at the top, provided the sides are at least 7-8 inches high to prevent escape, but care should be taken to provide safety from other household pets such as cats and dogs. Enclosures that provide solid flooring and an adequate supply of a preferred bedding are best for guinea pigs. They should be easy to clean, well-lit and adequately ventilated. Plastic topped cages are not ideal as they do not provide adequate ventilation and can cause ammonia build up within the enclosure, leading to respiratory problems.

Guinea pigs seem most comfortable when they are spared exposure to excessive noise, needless excitement and other stresses. Sudden movement should also be prevented. Guinea pigs have 2 types of reactions when startled by a loud noise or sudden movement or when placed in a strange environment, they may “freeze” completely motionless (for up to 20 minutes), or they may panic; panic involves erratic running and leaping, often accompanied by shrill squealing. Groups of guinea pigs may stampede in a circle, often trampling the younger residents within the enclosure.

Guinea pigs should never be housed with rabbits, mainly because they both have different dietary requirements, rabbits may injure a guinea pig unintentionally by kicking, a rabbit might bully a guinea pig, and both species communicate in different ways so they won’t necessarily ‘understand’ each other!

If, however, you already have a guinea pig and rabbit living together quite happily, it is best not to separate them as this could cause them both unnecessary stress and cause more problems than if they’re kept together.

The ideal environmental temperature range for a guinea pig is 18-24°C/65-75°F; this must be considered when choosing where to house your guinea pig.

If your guinea pig is going to be housed outdoors, they should be brought inside during the winter months or at the very least moved into a heated shout or outhouse as they do not withstand drops in temperature. Outside hutches should be sheltered from the rain and not in constant direct sunlight to prevent overheating.

Bedding must be clean, non-toxic, absorbent, relatively dust-free and easy to replace.

Wood shavings made from pine or cedar should be avoided as they have been linked to respiratory irritation and skin irritation in some rodent species.

Hay, straw and paper based bedding can be used. Some owners prefer to use vetbed or fleece and/or towels as bedding, but these should be washed on a regular basis.

Guinea pigs are prey species and should always be provided with somewhere safe to hide away if they feel threatened; ensure they have hides such as igloos, tunnels or log bridges. Guinea pigs also like their creature comforts, and will appreciated either an area of deep hay to sleep on, or fabric beds to curl up in.

Hay can be offered in many ways, but by offering it in a rack this reduces the amount the guinea pig urinates and defecates on it.

Water can be offered in either a bottle dripper or a bowl, or both! Pelleted food can also be offered in a bowl or scattered on the floor.

The frequency with which the enclosure is cleaned depends on its design, the materials out of which it is made, and the number of guinea pigs that reside within in.

As a general rule of thumb, the enclosure and all cage “furniture” should be cleaned and disinfected once a week. Food and water containers should be cleaned and disinfected once a day. More than one set of containers should be maintained, and the soiled set should be washed in a dishwasher, if possible.

Vigorous scrubbing of the enclosure and “furniture” with hot water and soap and a thorough rinse should be followed by use of a disinfectant. Vinegar is often required to remove the scale deposited by the crystalline urine of guinea pigs.

Handling your guinea pig

Guinea pigs rarely violently struggle when they are being picked up but they sometimes make a “squeal of protest”, which sounds pig-like to many people. Nevertheless, great care should be taken not to injure them when picking them up. Due to the size of their rotund belly, their spines and hindquarters should always be supported when handling.

To pick up your guinea pig, you should approach it with two hands. Use one hand to stop the guinea pig running forwards, and the other to stop them backing up. Place one hand under the guinea pig’s chest and abdomen, and the other supports its hindquarters and weight. Many guinea pigs like to be propped up against your chest for security and comfort.

Very young children should not be allowed to pick up or carry a guinea pig; they may squeeze them too tightly or accidentally drop them with upsetting consequences.

One of the most desirable features of guinea pigs as pets is that they rarely bite when being handled or restrained. One reference indicates that only 1 in 400 will bite under these circumstances.

When placing your guinea pig back on the ground or in its cage, make sure you have a secure hold of it; hold it close to the floor firmly and securely before letting go to ensure it doesn’t jump or fall from a height.

Guinea pigs that aren’t used to being handled can be wriggly and have a tendency to jump away from you if they are nervous.

The best way of handling a wriggler is to maintain a firm and secure hold of them (without squeezing them too tight) until they stop wriggling. Some guinea pigs will enjoy being wrapped lightly into a towel or blanket and this will calm them down and make them feel secure to stop wriggling.

When it stops wriggling, place the guinea pig on the floor (or in its cage) without letting go; generally the guinea pig will feel much more secure when it feels something under its feet. When the guinea pig feels relaxed, gently let it go. Your guinea pig should soon get used to being handled if you handle them regularly and hopefully won’t be so wriggly!

Ideally pregnant guinea pigs should not be handled unless necessary.

If you need to take your guinea pig to the vet, try using a pet carrier or box that you can encourage your guinea pig to walk into by itself. Placing some of its favourite food in the carrier usually does the trick.

To hold a guinea pig for injections gently encircle their forelimbs and neck with one hand and use your other hand to support the hindlimbs from moving backwards. Your vet will then be able to give your guinea pig an injection in the midsection. Many guinea pigs don’t like injections and will protest vocally!

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

Breeding from your guinea pig

The single most important breeding consideration is that female guinea pigs should be first bred before 7 months of age. If the first breeding is delayed beyond this time, serious (sometimes life-threatening) problems with delivery are encountered. Females should be first bred between 3 and 7 months of age, and males should be 34 months old at their first breeding.

The guinea pig’s heat cycle lasts 16 days. The period during which the female is receptive to the male and will allow breeding lasts about 8 hours. Female guinea pigs can come back into heat 15 hours after giving birth. This is called a “postpartum oestrus,” which means that they can be nursing a litter and pregnant at the same time!

Pregnancy lasts an average of 63 days. The larger the litter, the shorter the term of pregnancy and vice versa. The duration of pregnancy for guinea pigs is unusually long when compared with that of other rodents.

Pregnant sows (females) exhibit a grossly enlarged abdomen during the latter stages of pregnancy. It is not uncommon for their body weight to double during pregnancy.

The time of delivery may be difficult to determine because of the relatively long gestation period and because pregnant sows do not build nests. However, the week before a sow is about to deliver a litter, a slowly widening separation of the pelvis develops just in front of the external genitalia. This separation reaches slightly more than 1 inch in the hours just before delivery.

This separation of the pelvis does not develop in females that are bred for the first time after 7 months of age, creating an impossible and tragic situation. Delivery of the young is not possible and a caesarean section must usually be performed to save the life of the sow and her babies. An uncomplicated delivery usually requires about 1/2 hour, with an average of 5 minutes between delivery of each baby.

Litter sizes range from 1-6 young, with an average of 3. Abortions and stillbirths are common with guinea pigs throughout their breeding lives.

The young are born mature. They are unusually large and fully furred, and can walk about. They also have teeth and open eyes at this time. Even though newborn guinea pigs can eat solid food and drink water from a container, they should be allowed to nurse their mother for at least 2 weeks, at the 3 week mark males should be separated off.

Female guinea pigs intended for breeding must be first bred before 7 months of age. If the first breeding is delayed beyond this time, serious (sometimes life-threatening) problems with delivery are encountered. A portion of the pregnant sow’s pelvis must widen for successful delivery of her young.

This separation fails to develop in females bred for the first time after 7 months of age, usually necessitating a caesarean section to deliver the young and save the sow’s life. Signs of dystocia include straining and uterine bleeding. You should seek veterinary help immediately if you notice any of these signs.

Your vet will evaluate the pregnant sow by direct exam and by taking x-rays. If a vaginal delivery of the young is not possible, a caesarean section will be necessary.

Pregnancy toxaemia is a serious condition that usually occurs in overweight sows in their first or second pregnancy. Signs are most likely to be noted over 1-5 days during the last 2 weeks of pregnancy or the first week following birth. These include poor appetite, depression, weakness, reluctance to move, incoordination, difficulty breathing, coma and death. Some afflicted sows may show no signs, and then suddenly die.

There is no single cause for this condition, but stress and obesity are major predisposing factors. Others include advancing age, lack of exercise, fasting just before the onset of signs, and a large number of developing fetuses. The fundamental underlying problem appears to be inadequate blood flow to the pregnant uterus. Sows showing any of these signs must be seen immediately by your vet. Because treatment is often unsuccessful, prevention of pregnancy toxaemia is of paramount importance. Pregnant sows should not be allowed to become obese. Fasting and stress must be avoided, especially in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Pregnant sows must also be supplied with fresh water at all times and fed a nutritious diet.

It is important to follow the following guidelines:

  • Males should be removed well before birth happens to avoid back to back pregnancies.
  • House pregnant sows indoors or at least in a sheltered shed or outhouse, especially in winter months.
  • Pregnant sows should be supplemented with calcium and vitamin C for their growing pups.
  • Pelleted/muesli diets should not be overfed, as this can cause large babies which they may struggle to pass, although do not attempt to diet overweight guinea pigs at this time as this can lead to a fatal condition called pregnancy toxaemia.
  • Alfalfa hay should be supplemented throughout pregnancy, along with unlimited amounts of normal hay and they should always be fed a selection of fruit/veg daily.