How to Choose and Care for Your Guinea-Pig (Cavy)
History of the Guinea-Pig (Cavy)
The Guinea-Pig, Latin name Cavia porcellus (usually abbreviated Cavy), was first domesticated by the Inca tribes as an additional food source around 4000 BC. In Peru, Guinea-Pigs are still used as a food source and are considered a delicacy. This is a fact we may find hard to understand having only ever known them as popular pets or for their use in laboratory experiments.
Early traders brought Guinea-Pigs back to Europe where they soon became popular as exotic and unusual pets. Somewhere along the way, they picked up the name Guinea-Pig, although they aren't closely related to pigs. The proper term used by most professional breeders is Cavy, but the average pet owner often doesn't realise this and continues to call them by the commonly used name of Guinea-Pig.
Why a Guinea-Pig?
Guinea-Pigs (Cavies), make perfect pets for children and adults alike. They are sociable little creatures that enjoy being handled and rarely bite. Their enthusiasm for feeding time or time for them to have a cuddle is usually very vocal, with a range of squeaks, whistles, purrs and grunting. Owners soon learn to recognise what the different sounds represent and find it highly amusing to hear their pet talking to them.
The average life span of a Guinea-Pig is between 5 and 7 years, although they have been known to live a lot longer. Indeed one of my own Cavies lived to be 13 years old, another one lived to 11 years, so it is not uncommon for them to surprise you by outliving your expectations.
A Guinea-Pig is inexpensive to feed, and so long as you are willing to provide it with a nice warm outdoor hutch (ideally with a run attached), or an indoor cage of a suitable size, there are few other expenses to worry about. If you are considering taking on a Guinea-Pig as a pet you may want to think about adopting two of them, preferably of the same sex to avoid unwanted babies. They do like to have company of their own kind, and I do not recommend keeping them in a hutch with a rabbit, as the Guinea-Pig will tend to be bullied by the larger rabbit and often end up with torn ears or other injuries.
A Few Breeds to ConsiderClick thumbnail to view full-size
Feeding Your Guinea-Pig
Feeding your Guinea-Pig the correct diet is very important. There are specific dry foods available for Guinea-Pigs, but even though these state they contain vitamin C, they don't tend to explain that this will not remain in the dry food mix for long and quickly degrades. As Guinea-Pigs are unable to synthesise Vitamin C in their bodies, (the same way humans can't), it is essential to ensure they frequently have fresh vegetables, fruit and grass. In the winter months it is worth putting a normal human vitamin C tablet into their water bottles each time you refill them, as these will dissolve into the water and ensure your pet is getting enough Vitamin C in it's diet. Do not worry that you may overdose your pet by using a human Vitamin C tablet, as vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin and the body will expel any it doesn't need.
Safe fruits and vegetables to feed your Guinea-Pig include carrots, parsnips, cabbages, sprout leaves, lettuce (not too much though as it can act as a laxative), celery, apples, oranges, pears etc. Do not feed them potatoes under any circumstances. They will also enjoy dandelions (both leaves and flowers) from your garden, (again, not too many due to the laxative effect, no more than 2 or 3 a day), and fresh grass. Always make sure that any grass or leaves you take from your garden have not been growing in an area where they may have been urinated on by other pets, or an area which may have come into contact with pesticides or car exhaust fumes.
A Guinea-Pig should always have fresh water available, ideally from a bottle rather than a dish. Dishes tend to get knocked over and wet your pet's bedding, the other obvious problem is the dish is harder for a Guinea-Pig to access due to the fact they have very short necks.
Hay is another must, as this provides important roughage in their diet and aids digestion. Fresh hay also contains a certain amount of vitamin C, so always try to buy the best quality hay you can find.
The general care of a Guinea-Pig (Cavy) is fairly easy. They will need a suitable pet bedding that you can buy from most pet stores. If kept outdoors hay or straw tend to make the best bedding's. In the house a wood shaving floor covering with a sleeping box full of hay or a pet store bedding will be ideal. Shredded paper is also good because it provides a lot of warmth. It is important to clean your pet out at least once a week and give him fresh bedding. You may need to do this more often depending on the size of cage/hutch he is in and how many Guinea-Pigs are housed together.
Guinea-Pigs nails need cutting every couple of months or so. This is not difficult to do yourself if you use small animal nail clippers, but can be harder in darker coloured Cavies as the nails will also be dark and you will not be able to see where the nerve ends. With light nailed varieties of Guinea-Pig check for where the pink nerve can be seen within the nail and clip just in front of it to avoid bleeding or hurting your pet. With the darker varieties only cut off the very tips of the nail. The easiest way to clip their nails is to gently cradle the Guinea-pig on it's back in the crook of your left arm whilst clipping the claw with your right hand, (reverse this if you are left handed). If you are not comfortable doing this yourself most vets will perform the clip very cheaply for you. Usually you will find the front feet nails do not grow too long, and mainly it will be the back feet nails that need to be clipped.
Keep an eye on your Guinea-Pigs teeth and always make sure they have a nice piece of untreated wood to gnaw on, as well as plenty of fresh crispy veg such as carrots. Their teeth can easily overgrow making it hard for them to eat, so if your pet goes off it's food check it's mouth carefully or take him to your vet so he can do so.
If your Guinea-Pig is seen to losing hair or scratching a lot he may have picked up mites from his hay or other pets. Your vet will be able to provide you with either a special medicated shampoo to kill these mites, or injections of a drug called Ivermectin . After treatment your pet should soon return to normal. Scratching and hair loss can also be a sign of Scurvy, which would indicate your pet is not getting enough Vitamin C in his diet.
In later life your male Guinea-Pig may develop a condition that results in an Impacted Rectum. This results in him no longer being able to expel faeces easily, so you may need to get into a daily routine of turning your Guinea-Pig gently on to his back and parting the entrance to the rectal sack with your fingers. Introducing an oil such as mineral oil will help to soften the build up so you can carefully removed it with cotton wool, cotton buds or tissue. Your vet can demonstrate the technique if you are concerned about performing it the first time.
Breeding Your Guinea-Pig (cavy)
If you do decide to go ahead and breed your own Guinea-Pigs it is important to make sure you do have good homes available for the babies. You may have decided you want to begin showing your Guinea-Pigs and intend to only keep the likely champions, or you may simply want the experience of seeing your very own baby cavies, either way the ones you don't wish to keep will need to be re-homed somewhere where they will be well looked after.
Whatever the reason you decide to breed your pets there are certain useful facts you should know.
1) Guinea-Pigs can be quite reluctant to breed, so don't be surprised if it takes a while before your female (Sow) gets pregnant.
2) The male Guinea-Pig (Boar), should be unrelated to the Sow to avoid problems with inbred stock.
3) The Boar will show great enthusiasm when you put him in with a Sow and will follow her round the hutch making purring and chattering noises, this is nothing to be concerned about.
4) A Sow will come into season approximately every 14 days with each cycle lasting 24-48 hours. The best way to ensure she gets pregnant is to leave the boar in with her until you see signs of her getting a fat and firm belly, a sure sign she is pregnant. If in doubt you can gently palpate her sides, and you will probably be able to feel small marble sized babies within her. Once you know she is pregnant the boar should be separated as he may trample and kill the babies if he is left in with the sow when she has given birth.
5) It is vitally important that your sow is not mated too young or too old. Around 6 -8 months old is ideal, as any older there is a risk that her pelvic bones may have already fused together and she will most likely have great difficulty, or will die giving birth.
6) The gestation period of a Guinea-Pig is 68- 72 days which is a long time for small mammals. As a result of this the babies are born fully formed, with hair and their eyes open. They will drink milk from the sow, but are also capable of eating solid food at birth.
7) The babies should be sexed as soon as possible after birth, although it can be tricky for a novice breeder to determine the sex until the babies are a few weeks old. Once they reach around four weeks of age any male babies should be weaned and removed from the sow's hutch to avoid them impregnating her. The female babies can either be left with the sow or separated into hutches of their own. They will be ready to go to new homes around the age of 6 weeks.
8) A sow will usually give birth to an average of three babies, although she may give birth to as few as one or even as many as four.
9) If your sow seems to be struggling to give birth you can try lubricating your little finger with some mineral oil and gently inserting it into her birth canal. If you can feel a baby stuck in the canal attempt to hook your little fingernail under it's top teeth and very gently ease it out. If you cannot achieve this take your pet to a vet as soon as possible.
Sexing Males and FemalesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Long-Haired BreedsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Further Breeds of Guinea-Pigs (Cavies)Click thumbnail to view full-size
There are many breeds of Guinea-Pigs (Cavies) to choose from, especially if you are choosing a specific breed to concentrate on for showing purposes. I shall try to cover the main ones in this section, but there are other varieties out there, some more work than others. If you only require a normal pet Guinea-Pig then your local rescue centre is always a good place to start, or ask around to see if any local breeders have a surplus of non champion Cavies that they need homes for. As a last resort you can buy them in pet shops, but this is a route I discourage as it only ensures the pet shop buy in more Guinea-Pigs to sell, often with no thought as to whether they are going to a good home or not.
The Long Haired Varieties
There is no doubt that these varieties are beautiful, but unless you are willing to groom them every single day with a soft brush you will quickly find you have a matted mess as a pet, often with skin problems caused by the mats pulling at the skin and moisture building up underneath. The easiest way to keep their hair clean and tidy is to make a wrapper either out of cloth, or out of brown paper folded over itself to make a three sectioned single strip. The top of the central section should then have a small piece of cardboard about 0.5" long by 1.5" wide taped to it as a support. Once the wrapper is then folded into a single strip again the resulting strip should be folded up in alternative directions, (much like a concertina), to form a small package. The idea is that when you have groomed your Guinea-Pig you lay the hair down the middle section of the opened wrapper with the cardboard strip nearest to the guinea-pig's body. You then fold the side sections over the hair, and using the concertina of folds, package the hair back into the small parcel shape. The resulting parcel can then be secured with an elastic band. Depending on how long your cavies hair is determines the size of the wrapper required. Bear in mind the long haired varieties can easily end up with hair over eighteen inches long and may require several wrappers to secure all of it. Be very careful not to put the wrappers in so tightly that the Guinea-Pig finds it is pulling at the roots of his hair. If this happens they will quickly begin chewing the wrapper off and will ultimately permanently ruin their showing chances as the hair never grows back the same once chewed. Judges will notice chewed hair and mark you down for it. If your cavy does develop any small mats do not cut them out with scissors as this too will ruin them for showing. It is far better to grasp the small mat firmly between your fingers and pluck it out quickly, as this will leave no blunt ends and will grow back from the roots.
Long-haired cavies should be kept alone, or in adjacent hutches to each other, as if you put them together in the same hutch they will tend to chew each other's coats and ruin themselves for the purpose of showing. This will not be an issue for a pet Guinea-Pig though as you can keep their hair short.
If you are showing your long haired Guinea-Pig you will need a small stand to display them on. I used to use ones around 12" square made of wood and covered in hessian cloth for grip, but anything similar will do, and size may need to be varied according to how long your cavies coat has grown. Two small strips of wood screwed underneath the board will act as legs to raise it up an inch or so. Most people make these themselves at home, and I have never seen them for sale ready made.
It is important to teach your long haired Guinea-Pig to stand still at an early age if you intend to show him.The best way to do this is to introduce him to the show board as young as possible and begin to groom his hair. Every time he goes to move off the board keep gently picking him up and returning him to the centre of the board. By the time he reaches showing age he should happily allow you to groom his full coat out for judging and will hold his position until you wrap his hair up again and return him to the show pen.
It will also be essential to bathe your pet a couple of weeks before the show, (no later or the natural oils will not have returned to the coat and you will lose marks). Only use a shampoo designed for small animals, or if absolutely necessary use a mild baby shampoo. Gently wrap your Guinea-Pig in a towel for 15 minutes after his bath, and then blow dry him on a low heat using a conventional hairdryer and following the direction of the coat to ensure the cuticles of the hair lay flat and his coat maintains a healthy glossy sheen. Do not return him to any outdoor pen until he is thoroughly dried off or you will risk him catching a chill.
If you do intend to make showing and breeding a hobby then you will be faced with a difficult decision when it comes to breeding your longhairs. The problem is they will need to have their hair cut short to facilitate breeding, which means you will be unable to show them again and can only keep them as breeding stock. This is a hard choice to make when you know you have a potentially prize winning Guinea-Pig, but you also know that you need to mate her before she reaches a year old to avoid any complications of the pelvic bones having set. The boar is also a problem, as to facilitate mating you will need to clip him and keep him purely as breeding stock. Ultimately you will need to decide either to hold out for one show winning cavy, or to hope they reproduce their good characteristics in multiple babies so you get more chances to produce further champions.
Finally, if you are determined you want a long-haired Guinea-Pig as a pet then it is probably best to keep the hair clipped short as a matter of course. This will still mean they look cute and long-haired, but they won't be trailing it around after themselves, urinating on it and getting it matted. They will still need regular grooming, but without the need for wrappers.
Self breeds are essentially Guinea-Pigs of all one colour. There are a range of colours such as Self Blacks, Self Whites, Self Reds, Self Golden's etc. These are smooth coated Guinea-Pigs, the most popular of which is the Self Black. In preparation for showing they will need the longer guard hairs grooming out of their coats to ensure a glossy appearance. This is easily done by dampening your finger and thumb and gently working your way through the Guinea-Pig's coat using the ball of your thumb to rub the body hair against the ball of your forefinger. This will leave the short glossy hairs behind and take out the dull guard hairs, try to do this every few days to avoid a build up.
A good bath two weeks before the show will also benefit shine, and a polish with a piece of real silk adds to the reflective quality of the coat.
The judges will be looking for a blunt nose on your Cavy and therefore it is a good idea to make a habit of training your Self Cavy to not only stand still, but also keep gently pressing his nose back towards his body until he learns to sit like this naturally when being judged. They will also be checking for tears in the ears, evidence of mites, bright eyes and general health being good.
Abyssinians come in a variety of colours which don't seem to matter for the purposes of showing. What is important is the layout of the various rosettes of hair on the body, which should be evenly matched, with a rosette on each shoulder, four around the middle, one on each hip and two on the rump. The rosettes should be well formed and have a small pinpoint centre. The coat of an Abyssinian should be harsh, and not silky as in most other breeds.
AgoutisClick thumbnail to view full-size
Himalayans are much like a Siamese Cat. They are born totally white, and then over the next few weeks their full dark coloured points come through around their ears, nose and feet. It is said that hot weather or shocks can fade their points which is not a good thing if you intend to show them. The Himalayan has bright pink eyes. If you are breeding them for showing you will have to be patient and wait for their points to appear before you will be able to tell you have any potential prize winners.
Agoutis come in a number of colours, mainly gold and silver, although they can be found in chocolate, cinnamon, cream and lemon. The markings of the coat closely resemble the wild cavies of South America and have what is described as a ticked appearance. Each individual hair is made up of two colours which depend on which type of Agouti you choose. Like the Self coloured Guinea-Pigs they have a smooth coat that also need the guard hairs grooming out.
Dutch Cavies are a notoriously difficult to breed to a show standard. They look much like a Dutch rabbit and come in a wide variety of colours. Their markings need to be symmetrical with a good white saddle on them and evenly matching cheek patches and foot stops as well as a decent sized central blaze of white on the face.
American Crested come in a variety of colours. Each is a smooth coated Guinea-Pig with a solid body colour and a contrasting white rosette situated in the middle of the forehead. It is important when breeding these for showing that the crest is well rounded with a central pinpoint and the colour of the crest fills the rosette perfectly without bleeding into the areas outside the rosette.
Tortoiseshell or Tortoiseshell and White
Tortoiseshell or Tortoiseshell and White are again a hard to breed to a show standard. The patches of colour on the body need to be as equal and symmetrical as possible without the colours bleeding into each other. Many of these end up simply being pets due to bad markings. Ideally they should have around six to ten alternate coloured patches throughout the body.
Rex and Teddies
Rex and Teddies
Rex and Teddies are not dissimilar so I have categorised them together. The main feature of these unusual breeds are the fact their hair grows upright rather than backwards or in rosettes as in other breeds. The hair on a Teddy is straight and thick, but on Rex it is more coarse and slightly wavy. These breeds are both very cute and cuddly to look at. They come in a number of different colours.
Dalmatians as their name implies look much like a Dalmatian dog, white with black spots, (although they can come with a variety of different coloured spots). The spots for showing should be very distinctive and evenly spread throughout the body. The feet should be totally the same colour as the spots and not white. Dalmatians have red eyes.
Dalmatians should never be bred together due a gene they possess that can cause the resulting babies to be stillborn or without eyes. If you do intend to breed them you should try to breed a Dalmatian with a Self coloured Cavy that has been bred from a Dalmatian parent. Ensure the Self coloured Cavy is the same colour as the spots on the Dalmatian you are using as the mate.
I hope this article has been helpful in advising you of caring for your Guinea-Pig / Cavy, and that if you do decide to take up breeding and showing one of the above types of Cavy you will have years of enjoyment and pleasure. Even if you only keep them as pets most shows do have a pet section that can be fun to enter. Obviously I am unable to cover the vast range of breeds here, but there others you might want to consider if none of the above appeal to you.
One thing is for sure, whatever the reason you decide on these cute little pets you won't regret it. They will give you hours of entertainment and love, and once you have one you will want more.
You might also enjoy my article called Can I keep my guinea pig outdoors?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.