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Guinea Pig Basics for Owners

Do’s and Don’ts for a happy, healthy guinea pig

By Lauren Cavagnolo

Whether you bring them into your home or the classroom, guinea pigs—also known as cavies—

can make great pets. But for first-time owners, there are some do’s and don’ts to be aware of before making a commitment.

Guinea pigs were brought to Europe 500 years ago from South America. They are a species of rodent and can weigh between 1 and 3 pounds and measure anywhere from 8 to 11 inches in length.

Today, there are 22 breeds and, you can expect a lifespan of five to six years, according to Dr. Kimberly Weiss of Healing Hands Veterinary Wellness Center in Oklahoma City.

To purchase, guinea pigs will cost anywhere from $10 to $40 per animal.

Susi Eastin, of Collinsville, used to breed guinea pigs to show around the country. She shared why she loves them so much.  

“They are very social, and they are very sweet animals,” she said. Though she no longer enters shows, she still keeps guinea pigs as pets. Eastin along with two area veterinarians and a rescue volunteer offer expert advice for first-time owners.

Get more than one, just not two of the same sex

“They are a social animal for sure. And they definitely almost always do better at least two together,” Eastin enthused. “You want to be careful and either get two boys or two girls because if you get a boy and a girl, you are going to end up with babies.”

“While they are very cute, and everybody needs to experience baby guinea pigs sometime, you end up with extra animals you can’t find a home for. And that’s just not fair to them,” Eastin said. “Plus, there’s the risk for the mother.”

Weiss further explained why breeding is extremely risky to the female and advised that females should not be bred after 6 months of age.

“A female reaches sexual maturity at 8 weeks of age,” Weiss said. “And a female guinea pig’s pelvis fuses at 6 months old, so they can’t give natural birth. If they are bred after 6 months, they could die without a cesarean.”

Eastin said another risk in pregnancy is toxemia. They must have a proper diet with enough Vitamin C, or there is a big risk, usually late in pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. The first symptom can look like paralysis in the back legs.

Provide a safe environment

Guinea pigs need about a 2-by-3- or 2-by-4-foot space for one or two guinea pigs, and they should be housed indoors.

“If there are more, you need to increase that,” Eastin said. Within the enclosure, they will also need something they can get under or behind.

“That helps them feel safe,” Eastin explained. “Some people argue they don’t like to do that because they will stay in there all the time—and they won’t get to see them. They will eventually come out. They are not going to just live in there all the time.”

The cages start at about $60 for a smaller wire enclosure and can cost as much as $200 for more elaborate structures. Hidey houses and accessories range from $5 to $15 at pet stores, or boxes can be repurposed. Also needed are a food dish and water bottle, about $5 to $10 each.

Once you have a structure set up, bedding will also need to be provided, either some sort of shaving or fabric. Bags of bedding start at $10 for 20 liters, which can last for a couple weeks depending on the size of the cage and how frequently it gets changed.

“There are a variety of things you can use for their bedding, like pine shavings are good but not cedar. Cedar is more aromatic, and that has a bad effect on them,” Eastin said. “If you think about how they are built, their nose is just right down there all the time. It is going to affect their respiratory system.”

“A lot of people like the fleece. That is a real popular trend,” Eastin continued. “Most people I know who do that have three sets—one in the wash, one in the cage and an extra.”

If fabric is used for bedding, plenty of hay will still need to be provided, Eastin added.

Don’t think you can clean the cage just once a week

Dr. Paul Welch, of Forest Trails Animal Hospital in Tulsa, says guinea pigs are wonderful but probably the messiest of the pocket pets. He recommends cages be cleaned out two to three times per week to prevent any related issues.

“Walking in dirty, urine-soaked bedding causes foot problems, such as sore hock, as well as being a respiratory irritant,” Welch said.

Be sure you aren’t allergic

It seems obvious but Jessica Schwab, small animal coordinator with All Paws Rescue in Oklahoma City, says someone in the household being allergic to the animal is one of the top reasons guinea pigs are placed into their rescue. Other reasons are that the pet is more expensive or harder to take care of than people expected.

“I always encourage people to come to one of our rescue events, pet the guinea pigs, hold them and try to determine if they are allergic,” Schwab said. Sometimes it isn’t the animal, but the hay that is causing the allergy.

She said All Paws usually has a waiting list of about 80 guinea pigs waiting to be placed into their rescue.

Share (some of) your veggies, but don’t skimp on the hay

“Although there is a common misconception that guinea pigs should eat guinea pig pellets, hay should be the bulk of their diet,” Dr. Welch said. “They need the rough fiber that the hay provides.”

Welch suggests a small amount of pellets (about an 1/8 of a cup), a small amount of veggies and all the hay they want.

“The hay helps keep them from developing constipation problems and also helps wear down the molars in the back of their mouth,” Welch explained. “There are many hays available now, and whatever the guinea pig likes is fine. Often, the guinea pig pellets in the stores contain seeds and dried fruit, which, although they like and will eat, isn’t good for them. Stick to the regular, boring-looking pellets.” 

Welch said it is important to note that guinea pig pellets differ from rabbit pellets in that they have vitamin C added, an essential component for guinea pig health.

Regarding vitamin C requirements, Weiss said owners need to consider that, just like humans and primates, guinea pigs lack the ability to synthesize vitamin C.

“They need 10 mg/kg of vitamin C daily in their diet,” Weiss said. “When you buy guinea pig food, it will be enhanced with vitamin C, but vitamin C breaks down really fast and is only good for three months. So, when you buy a package that already sat on the shelf for two months, it only has one beneficial month left.”

Welch suggests offering veggies which are high in Vitamin C, [such as] a small amount of cabbage or bell pepper. However, some produce, such as iceberg lettuce, is not appropriate, so make sure to verify what you share with your pet is safe.

Don’t worry about bath time

Guinea pigs are similar to cats in that they will clean themselves. However, nails and teeth are a different story.

It will depend on the animal as to how often they will need their nails trimmed. “Some nails grow faster than others,” Eastin said. “Maybe every couple of months. Most people do it themselves, but there is certainly not anything wrong with taking them and letting the vet do it.

“Once in a while you’ve got one, just like kids, that’s especially messy and will need the occasional bath. For the most part, I don’t bathe mine. They bathe themselves like cats do. And then they will clean each other, too, in being social.”

Guinea pigs can also develop overgrown molar teeth, Welch added. “This is usually due to not feeding hay. The answer: feed hay to help wear the back teeth down.”

Choose a veterinarian with guinea pig experience

“More and more veterinarians are developing an interest in pets other than dogs and cats, but you want to call the clinic and see what their interest level is,” Welch suggested. “Some veterinarians have extensive experience and often it pays off with quicker diagnoses and more successful treatments.” 

It is best to choose a veterinarian early on because guinea pigs do not show outward signs until they are very ill, according to Eastin.

“When you get used to how they always behave and then you see something little bit different, that’s when you need to watch really closely,” Eastin recommended. “Any time there is something off, that is the time to call the vet.”

Parents must oversee care, even if it is the child’s pet

All of the experts stressed that, ultimately, adults need to be responsible for pets in the household.

“Often I hear, ‘It’s my son or daughter’s guinea pig, and I let them take care of it.’ Health of any pet needs to be overseen by the parents. If they aren’t willing to supervise, it would be best to wait until the child is older and more responsible,” Welch advised.

Eastin added that guinea pigs are best for older kids who are able to handle them more carefully, without crushing them.

Know they can be noisy

“There are always some that are more vocal than others. The old standby is that they hear the refrigerator door or a plastic bag rattling that sets them off like an alarm,” Eastin said with a chuckle.

“There are a variety of noises they make. The only indication you have they are upset is the teeth chattering,” Eastin said.

Enjoy your pet!

“It is so rewarding,” Eastin said. They are such sweet and forgiving and loving and accepting little animals.”

ONLINE

To learn more about guinea pigs, visit the American Cavy Breeders Association at www.acvaonline.com. You can also follow the Oklahoma Guinea Pig Club on Facebook.

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