Guinea Pig Care: A Beginner's Guide on Caring for a Guinea Pig
Guinea Pig Care: Guinea Pigs Make the Best Pets!
Guinea pigs are hands down the best pets for children, and it's easy to learn cavy care. They are cuddly, cute, easy to keep and breed and live for approximately 4–7 years. They smell nice, and their minuscule droppings mean that caring and cleaning are kept to a minimum.
If you’re a parent looking for a suitable pet for children aged 5–12, guinea pigs are ideal for children to learn about pet care—keeping one is not expensive, and they like to interact constantly with their keepers, making sweet noises and responding with delight to food treats and petting. This article will help you learn how to take care of your guinea pig, from selecting the right animal to housing and feeding it.
Choosing a Guinea Pig
Guinea pigs come in many varieties from different parts of the world. Some have smooth, short hair, like the English or Bolivian breeds and some have really long hair, like Peruvian guinea pigs. Rough haired breeds can be quite cute and are easy to care for. Children like the fluffy bits on the rough-haired cavies.
Tortoiseshell guinea pigs have black, brown and white coloured hair on their bodies, while Golden and Cinnamon Agoutis are a warm pepper grey, reminiscent of their wild cavy cousins. One-coloured cavies are called Selfs, as in Self Blacks, Self Whites and Self Chocolates.
It doesn’t matter which colour you choose as they are all adorable, but what does matter is how long the hair is. Long-haired Peruvian guinea pigs require more care than short-haired or rough-haired cavies as the hair needs more maintenance and attention to keep it pest and knot free.
A beginner’s guinea pig would ideally be smooth or rough haired, but with relatively shorter hairs (eg, less than 1.5cm long). This will ensure that combing and washing is kept to a minimum, hair loss is not messy and that any treatments for lice and fleas will work much better if needed.
Beginners are also recommended to choose certain sexes if having more than one cavy, due to fighting and breeding problems that occur from combining sexes. One male or one female is happy on its own, but if more than one is desired, consider buying females, as they live together in the same cages in harmony, whereas the males fight and hurt each other. Males need to be kept in separate cages unless they are being used for breeding with the females.
When you buy a guinea pig, check it appears healthy. Eyes should be bright and clean, noses, ears and anus should be clean and lacking crusty sores or signs of scratching or bleeding. Fold back some hairs on the guinea pig’s back, neck and stomach to check there are no skin flakes, redness, sores, lice or fleas.
Do not buy any cavies with sores as they often have ongoing problems. Initial fleas can be removed with flea powders and other treatments, but avoid any sporting sores due to scratching.
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Well-Trained Guinea Pigs
Feeding Guinea Pigs: What Do Guinea Pigs Eat?
By nature, cavies are grazing animals and in the wild they live on leaves, stems and seeds of grasses and their associated plants. In captivity, cavies like to eat fresh green grass, hay, fresh fruit and vegetables and grain for their staple diet.
For the most basic diet, consider using a grazing hutch to allow your guinea pig to eat as much grass as it can. When your cavy is taken indoors, provide a small bowl of one of the following: honeyed oats, crushed oats, guinea pig pellets (but not rabbit pellets), cavy grain mixture, wholemeal bread or bran (mixed in a mash with milk or water). You can buy any of these at a local feed store or pet shop. Honeyed oats are the best of these for encouraging a healthy appetite. Guinea pig pellets tend to be used as a last resort.
The kinds of fruits and vegetables cavies like to eat include apples, carrots, lettuce, corn on the cob, celery leaves, spinach, silverbeat, cabbage, orange rinds, grapefruit rinds and tomatoes. Guinea pigs are individual animals regarding diet and some will like tomatoes and some will turn up their nose at them! For this reason, to ensure they get a good amount of Vitamin C, fussy eaters might like occasional orange or tomato juice mixed into their water. Serve crunchy fruits and vegetables that you would eat yourself—no slimy brown edges or any rotten foods.
Guinea pigs require water at all times, in both outdoor and indoor cages. Pet shops sell water dispensers or you can make your own out of a small, empty soft drink bottle, a piece of wire, a rubber cork and a metal tube with a round ball wedged in it. Attach the dispenser to a cage by allowing the metal tube into the cage while keeping the bottle outside it (propped up with wire). The cavy licks the metal ball and moves it around in the metal tube, allowing water to flow out in small amounts. Check water dispensers daily to make sure they have enough to drink.
Guinea Pig Cages
Weather permitting, cavies like to be housed indoors and outdoors. Typically, they will graze in an outdoor cage most of the day and prefer an indoor cage when weather is cold or stormy and also every night.
Indoor Guinea Pig Cages
These come in a variety of styles. The main features to look for include:
- Being able to add a water dispenser
- Adequate air ventilation
- Having enough room for each guinea pig
- Convenience in being able to clean out the floor of the cage
Lots of people use large plastic storage containers with a homemade or shop-bought grill on top (or a wooden frame lid with wire in the centre) so that they can breathe. Drill a hole for the water dispenser tube in the side and attach the water bottle on the outside of the cage with wire. Put sawdust, sand or newspaper on the floor of the cage to absorb urine and droppings. Then, place food containers into the cage and a handful of hay for a bed.
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Outdoor Guinea Pig Cages
These are often known as “outdoor runs”, “outdoor hutches” and “outdoor guinea pig cages”. Usually, these cages have four walls and a roof but no floor—allowing cavies to eat the grass underfoot and fertilise the lawn with their droppings. A water dispenser should be attached, but no food containers are needed with the outdoor cage.
A lifting lid that allows you to handle the guinea pig into the cage without it running away is a good idea.
Since predators such as birds, cats, foxes and dogs might look at the cage, make sure it is a heavy cage or is attached to the ground with tent pegs. Somewhere for the cavy to hide is essential—you can have a homemade box with a door, or cut a doorway into an upside-down flowerpot for each guinea pig. Allowing them to hide from predators is very important as they can die of fright if not protected. For this purpose, some cages have solid sides as well—not all walls of the cage have to be mesh or chicken wire.
Clean the indoor guinea pig cage at least once a week, or even more often. Simply remove the cavy, scrape the mess off the bottom of the cage into a bin and replace the sawdust, newspaper or sand. When the cage has had a few weeks of cleaning, it might get a bit smelly from urine. Simply hose out the cage and let dry when cleaning to get rid of this. Outdoor cages shouldn’t need cleaning, except if you have a hutch or shelter with a floor.
Guinea Pig Care
Guinea pigs don’t need lots of bathing, but in hot weather, a cool bath can make your cavy feel a lot more comfortable. Bathe them in a shallow container as, while they can swim, they are panicked and frightened when doing so. Be prepared to hold onto the guinea pig while it kicks and splashes in the water—they don’t like baths! Then wrap the wet cavy in a warm towel to dry off its fur.
You can apply medical shampoos when your guinea pig has a bath, but it is better to apply the smallest amount possible and to avoid shampooing them with chemicals just to make it smell nice.
Trim guinea pig toenails every month using a pair of toenail clippers. If you have a long-haired cavy, brush the hair using a brush or comb regularly, to prevent knots and burrs. Trim any matted patches if they cannot be brushed out.
Pregnancy and Breeding
Every child learns that if you put a male and female guinea pig together, you get lots of excitement and noises happening on a regular basis. However, females are notoriously fertile and can get pregnant at just 12 weeks of age, producing 5 litters a year for an average of 2 years. Each litter can have 1–4 babies.
If you’re set up for large families, by all means, go ahead and trial a breeding program. It’s lots of fun to see what varieties and mixed colours can produce— anything from albinos to patchy tortoiseshells will surprise!
However, if you want to keep your cavy herd down to a personal pet flock, consider keeping males and females constantly separated in both indoor and outdoor cages. And don’t trust your children not to put males and females together when you’re not there—they’ll do it because the males make interesting sounds at the females and they’ll want to see what happens next.
Guinea Pig Food Recipe
Mix the following to create a delicious guinea pig food that can be used every day for a healthy diet (alongside fruit, vegetables and grass):
- Brown & Green Hay
- Layer Pellets
- Cracked Oat Seeds
- Cracked Barley
- Golden Syrup or Molasses
Common Diseases and Treatments
Hair loss or pneumonia in cavies can be caused by a lack of Vitamin C in the diet. Pneumonia in particular can be treated by keeping them in a dry, warm environment out of the weather. Hair loss combined with sores may indicate fleas or lice and can be treated with medicated shampoos, lotions and powders from your pet shop or vet.
If your guinea pig is eating a diet too rich in sugar, fruit, starches and carbohydrates, it will have intestinal problems and diarrhoea. Make sure your cavy is getting lots of grass. Diarrhoea can also occur if they eat too many dark green, leafy vegetables such as silverbeet. Constipation occurs if the diet is too dry and lacking in roughage—more water and fruit will help.
Guinea pigs which hold their head to one side and may veer in circles may have a middle ear infection, and veterinary advice should be sought.
Pasturellosis, which causes respiratory and eye infections, can be treated with antibiotics, as can streptococcal infections. Pseudotuberculosis (an infectious disease) produces enlarged neck glands and can be fatal if professional help is not forthcoming. A rapidly deteriorating condition is Salmonellosis, which occurs through carriers of the disease in colonies.
Wounds may be caused by putting two male guinea pigs together or having an overcrowding problem in the cages. Bathe wounds in a mild antiseptic and keep the fighting cavies separated permanently. Wounds will heal quite well if the fighting does not occur again.
Some illnesses, such as old age, cannot be cured but must be endured. Keeping your cavy as comfortable as possible and with a healthy diet helps retain good health, rewarding you with a happy pet!
Thank you for reading my article about guinea pig care for kids. If this information was useful to you, please comment below!
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.
© 2011 Suzanne Day