Guinea Pigs (also known as cavies) have become very popular pets, as their small size and low space requirements, coupled with their inquisitive personalities and amazing coat varieties make them a natural choice for people seeking to add a small pet to their lives.
Guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) originated in the high mountains of South America. They come in a variety of coat lengths and types, as well as a myriad of colors. Male guinea pigs are known as boars and females as sows. Females will reach sexual maturity at approximately 4 weeks of age (though sometimes earlier!), and males at 3-5 weeks. It is vital that the sex of animals kept in a collection be determined prior to this age, and males and females separated into same sex groupings to avoid unwanted matings. Females intended for breeding should be bred before six months of age, as their pelvis fuses after this age, making the passage of fetuses difficult and may result in the female requiring a Caesarian section to deliver the young.
Guinea pigs can be housed both indoors and outdoors. Wire hutches provide good ventilation and protect the animals from predators. It is important to ensure the wire used for the hutch is smooth and small enough to prevent a limb or the head being caught. A shelter should be provided to provide shade and protection from the elements, as well as privacy for the guinea pig. The flooring of outdoor runs can be smooth mesh to prevent predators from accessing the bottom of the cage, but should be smooth within the shelter to allow the animals to rest their feet. Bedding can be hay, good quality straw, shredded paper, news paper or pet-friendly wood shavings (ie those that have been processed to remove irritating oils and moisture). Bedding should be sufficiently deep to allow the guinea pigs to move it about as they please, as well to absorb wastes, and should be changed regularly.
Many guinea pigs will drink from pet drinking bottles hung from the walls, and these should be regularly cleaned and examined for leaks or faults and replaced as needed. Food and water dishes should be good quality, easy to clean, easy for the animal to access and difficult to overturn. Ceramic or steel dishes often work well for this purpose. Items which the animals can chew, such as cardboard, firm vegetables and commercial wood chews should be readily available for dental exercise. Toys, in the form of wood chews, hard plastic bowls or balls and cardboard boxes can also be used to provide additional mental stimulation for your pet.
Guinea Pigs should NOT be housed with rabbits. Though this is commonly done in pet stores, it poses risks for the guinea pigs, as they have different nutritional requirements, tend to be smaller then rabbits and are at risk of contracting the bacteria Bordatella bronchiseptica from the rabbits - this bacteria is often carried asymptomatically in rabbits, but can cause serious disease in guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs are NOT just small rabbits, and products marketed as 'rabbit and guinea pig diet' may not meet all of their nutritional requirements. Guinea pigs are obligate herbivores, and require a large amount of roughage as the basis of their diet. Long stem hay, such as meadow, oaten or timothy should be provided freely. Fresh vegetables should be provided daily, at the rate of at least one paced cup per kilogram body weight per day. Dark green leafy vegetables, cabbages, males, broccoli and cauliflower are often readily accepted. Capsicum, sweet potato, corn, carrots and fruit also provide variety. Pellets should be provided as a supplement to this diet, but never as the sole source of nutrition, as the fibre content may be insufficient for good dental and digestive health. Muesli-type mixes should be avoided, as they allow animals to pick and choose what they eat, leading to vitamin and fibre deficiencies, and some animals can develop oral infections from the seeds and awns present in these diets. Recently, specialized extruded / kibbled diets gave been developed here in Australia for guinea pigs which more specifically address their nutritional needs. Any changes made to guinea pig's diets should be made slowly to allow their digestive system to adapt to the new diet, as well as allowing the, time to recognize the new item as food, since guinea pigs are not particularly adventurous eaters, and if not exposed to a variety of items when young, will treat new items with suspicion.
Guinea pigs, like humans, have an obligate requirement for vitamin C in their diet, as unlike most animals, they do not manufacture this essential vitamin within their intestinal tract. Without vitamin C, guinea pigs can develop several diseases of their connective tissue similar to 'scurvy' in humans, resulting in loose teeth, mouth infections, sores on their feet, soft bones and fractures, as well as decreased immune system function. To provide vitamin C, guinea pigs must have daily access to dark green leafy vegetables and fresh grazing. Additional vitamin C is also available in fruits, such as capsicum, as well as in commercial guinea pig supplements which are formulated to add to water or be fed as chewable tablets. Vitamin C should be supplemented in cases where deficiency is suspected, animals which are suffering from disease or injury, or animals which are pregnant or lactating. Speak to your veterinarian to determine what supplementation regime would be suitable for our pet.
As pets go, guinea pigs are generally rather low maintenance. Regular inspection of your guinea pig's mouth, eyes, ears, skin and feet should be undertaken to detect any changes. If any problems are noted, a consultation with your veterinarian is recommended.
Many common problems, such as overgrown teeth, overgrown nails, hair loss, itching, respiratory disease, weight loss and bloating can affect guinea pigs just like other pets. Being prey animals by nature, guinea pigs tend to attempt to hide their symptoms to avoid appearing compromised, so problems can go undetected for quit some time. It is important that problems be dealt with as soon as possible, as the earlier we intervene, the more likely we are to achieve a successful outcome.
If your pet shows any changes in his normal routine, eating habits or general demeanor, or if any of the aforementioned symptoms are noted, it is advisable to seek veterinary advice.
Additionally, it is important to achieve a diagnosis if you suspect a disease in your pet, as many diseases in guinea pigs can have similar symptoms but require very different treatment - a veterinarian knowledgable in the care of exotic pets can advise you on the best course of action for your pet.