Guinea pigs
Small Pets

Guinea pigs

Guinea pig information

The guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) is a rodent native to the Andes in South America. The common guinea pig was domesticated for food roughly 7,000 years ago by people living in the Andean region and the species do not occur naturally in the wild. According a study based on biochemistry and hybridization, its wild ancestor was probably Cavia aperea, C. fulgida, C. tschudii or some other closely related species. From ca. 1200 AD to the 16th century Spanish occupation, selective breeding of the domesticated guinea pig resulted in many different varieties. During the 1500s, the guinea pig was brought to Europe by traders where it soon became a popular pet among the upper classes, including many royal families. Their docile nature, friendliness towards humans, ease of care, and comparatively manageable size have continued to make the guinea pig a popular pet ever since.

The close relatives of the domesticated guinea pig, such as the three species mentioned above, can still be found in the Andes where they roam the grassy plains in small groups consisting of one male, several females and the group’s youngsters. They feed on grass other vegetation and are most active at dusk and dawn. Unlike the common gold hamster, guinea pigs do not store food in cheek pouches or stashes. Wild guinea pigs do not excavate burrows or build nests, but they like to seek shelter in burrows and tunnels made by other animals as well as in hiding spots formed by vegetation. When startled, guinea pigs sometimes utilize a strategy known as “stampeding” where all members of the group run in haphazard directions to confuse the attacker.  

In its native South America, the guinea pig is known as quwi or jaca in Quechua and cuy or cuyo (pl. cuyes, cuyos) in the Spanish spoken in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

Guinea pig taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Mammalia
Order:           Rodentia
Suborder:      Hystricomorpha
Family:          Caviidae
Subfamily:    Caviinae
Genus:           Cavia
Species:         Cavia porcellus

Guinea pig care

An adult guinea pig is usually 20-25 cm (8-10 in) long and weighs from 700 to 1200 g (1.5 to 2.5 lbs). They are normally housed in cages and seem to like the security offered by a cage and nesting box. Even when given opportunity, guinea pigs rarely venture far from their cages unless frightened by something. If they feel safe in a home they can enjoy exploring more territory but sooner or later they will want to go back to their cage (or any other area deemed equally safe, e.g. under the coach). Guinea pigs use urine to mark their home and will usually urinate as soon as they are returned to a newly cleaned cage with new bedding material. Males are also known to urinate to mark their territory when taken out of their cages.

Don’t place the cage where it will be exposed to drafts, excess humidity or temperatures outside the recommended range. Guinea pigs do best when the temperature is 18–24 °C (65–75 °F) and the humidity 30–70%. People sometimes think that guinea pigs are tropical creatures since they come from South America, but these furry animals are native to high altitudes where the climate is temperate, not tropical.

Wild guinea pigs are constantly threatened by predators and this has made them, and their domesticated relatives, easily spooked and weary of virtually all other animals. Housing guinea pigs with more boisterous rodents, such as rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters, is not recommended. There are many reports of cats and dogs learning to tolerate or even like guinea pigs, but you can’t count on it. In many situations, cats and dogs will see the guinea pig as a prey animal or play item. Even a well meaning dog that only wishes to play can scare the living daylight out of a guinea pig so don’t let them interact without keeping a close eye on them. 

If you want your guinea pig to grow fond of being picked up and cuddled, it is best to start at an early age. A trustful guinea pig that has been handled in a gentle fashion since it was young rarely scratches or bites. As your pet learns to recognize you, it may start to whistle as it hears you approaching.

Since the guinea pig is a social creature, it likes to live in groups. If you have enough space is there fore best to get a group of two or more; they will keep each other company when you’re at school or work. Guinea pigs also like to perform social grooming in addition to grooming themselves and this is naturally impossible if you keep a single specimen. You can for instance keep two or several females together or house one, two or several females with a neutered male. Housing males together will require more space, they must have bonded with each other at an early age, and there can be no females present. Males are known to establish a pecking order within the group by chewing each other's hair, biting each other's ears, thrusting their heads, raising their hairs, making aggressive noises, and carry out leaping attacks and non-sexual mounting. 

Unlike their wild relatives that are most active during dusk and dawn when they are less likely to be spotted by predators, domesticated guinea pigs have developed a different biological rhythm consisting of longer periods of activity spread throughout the 24 hours of the day followed by short periods of sleep in between.

Guinea pig feeding

Wild guinea pigs feed chiefly on grass and such a grass-dominated diet is beneficial for domesticated guinea pigs as well. Timothy hay and similar types of fresh hay are known to be appreciated and commercial guinea pig pellets are often based on timothy. High-quality pellets are a good supplement to hay since they contain extra minerals and vitamins.   

Similar to cows, guinea pigs like to feed continuously and should always have access to hay. If left without any thing to chew, a guinea pig can start nervously chewing on its own hair and this is naturally highly undesirable. Another reason for always providing guinea pigs with plenty of things to chew on is the fact that their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives and can become too large for the mouth unless continuously gnawed down.

Like humans, but unlike most other mammals, guinea pigs cannot synthesize their own vitamin C and will develop scurvy if kept on a diet without sufficient amounts of this vitamin. An adult guinea pig normally needs 10 mg of vitamin C per day, but pregnant females needs at least 20 mg/day. It is therefore a good idea to supplement the hay with raw fruits and vegetables, e.g. carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and apples. Guinea pigs are also known to appreciate sprouts, e.g. alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts.

Guinea pigs can be finicky eaters and adult specimens may refuse to eat anything that they don’t recognize. It is therefore good idea to let your young guinea pig try many different types of food, but without exposing it to rapid changes in diet. Just serve what you normally serve but with something new, e.g. water melon or a new type of pellets. It may take several servings before your pet decides to take a bite of the new stuff, but once it does it might very well discover a new favourite. Fasting a guinea pig to force it to try new food rarely ends well.

Grass-eating animals like cows and sheep normally have very long digestive tracts where the low nutrient, fibre rich food can be broken down. The small guinea pig has a long colon compared to most other rodents, but it is still extremely short for a grass eater so the guinea pig has to recycle its own faeces to obtain enough nutrients. They do not eat all their faeces, only a special type of soft pellets called cecotropes which contains B-vitamins, fibre and important bacteria that aids digestion. The cecotropes are normally eaten directly from the anus but pregnant (and obese) guinea pigs can have problems reaching.

Guinea pig breeding

Male guinea pigs attain sexual maturity when they are roughly 3-5 weeks of age, and female can become fertile as early as four weeks. Female are known to give birth before reaching their adult size. If a female does not give birth before she’s six months old, a joint in the pelvic can fuse together making future deliveries highly risky since the birth canal won’t be able to open up much.

Guinea pigs can breed year round, but springs usually bring birth peaks. The female can become pregnant again very shortly after giving birth and produce up to five litters per year, but this is very demanding for her and not recommended. Do not house a new mother with an unneutered male, because she may get pregnant 6-48 hours after the delivery.

The gestation period varies from 59 to 72 days and the newborn pups are comparatively large and well-developed with hair, teeth, claws, and partial eyesight. During the later stages of pregnancy, the female can be so filled with large or many pups that she becomes aubergine shaped and lose much of her normal agility. Newborn guinea pigs are immediately mobile and capable of eating solid food, but they will stay close to the group and combine solid foods with the milk produced by their mother. If several members of the group give birth around the same time, they will help take care of each others young while lactating.

A guinea pig litter normally contains 1-6 pups, but much larger litters are possible and one record female has produced a litter comprised of no less than 17 young.

If your pregnant guinea pig looses her appetite and becomes lethargic, she may be suffering from toxaemia of pregnancy which is a serious complication that requires prompt veterinary attention. Excessive salivation and a sweet, fruity smell coming from the mouth and nose are two other symptoms, and seizures can occur in advanced cases.    

Guinea pig health

Showing any signs of weakness is not a good idea if you’re a small rodent encircled by predators in the Andean mountains, so guinea pigs aren’t very fond of letting anyone know they’re sick. This is naturally a problem in captivity, because when we finally realise that something is wrong the ailment is usually already in an advanced stage. Another problem with treating guinea pigs is that they depend heavily on bacteria living in their intestines and most antibiotics will kill these bacteria. If you’re lucky, your guinea pig will be able to rebuild the bacterial colonies after a period of severe diarrhoea but there are many incidences where an animal, already weakened by disease, have died after receiving antibiotics.  

Common health problems in guinea pigs

  1. Respiratory tract infections, including pneumonia
  2. Torticollis
  3. Diarrhoea
  4. Cecotropes constipation
  5. Hyperthermia
  6. Nutritional deficiencies
  7. Teeth problems
  8. Muscular dystrophy
  9. Foreign bodies (such as hay) lodged in the eyes or neck
  10. Abscesses 
  11. Internal and external parasites, including lice, mange mites, and running lice (Gliricola porcelli)   
  12. Ovarian cysts
  13. Pregnancy and birth complications
  14. Genetic abnormalities (e.g. deafness, eye problems, digestive disorders, or palsy)

Guinea pig facts

Guinea pig facts # 1
Female guinea pigs are known as sows, while males are called boars. Inconsequently, young ones are not referred to as piglets but pups. 

Guinea pig fact # 2
Guinea pigs have poor eye sight, but fine hearing and well-developed senses of smell and touch. They communicate primarily by scent and sounds.

Read more Guinea pig facts

The scientific name of the domesticated guinea pig is Cavia porcellus, “porcellusbeing the Latin word for “small pig”. In addition to English, you will find pig connotations in the common name of this animal in many other languages as well. It is for instance named Meerschweinchen in German, świnka morska in Polish, and морская свинка in Russian – all meaning “small pig of the sea”.   

How these animals came to be thought of as "pigs" is not clear and several viable theories exist. In the Andean highlands, it was – and still is – common for families to raise guinea pigs for food just like the Europeans raised pigs. Just like a true pig, a guinea pig can be raised on (vegetable) household scraps, doesn’t require much space and will readily breed even in captivity. It is also built a bit like a small stocky pig and some of its sounds are very similar to those emitted by pigs.

Until the advent of modern inventions like refrigerators, it was common for sailors to bring live pigs long during long-distance travels to supplement their dry and salted diet with some fresh meat once in a while. Since pigs aren’t native to South America, European explorers heading back over the Atlantic began to stock their onboard pig pens with Cavia porcellus instead. Referring to any animal capable of providing sailors with fresh meat as a “pig” seems to have been quite common in these days; the German name for porpoise is for instance Schweinswal which means pig-whale. Hence, an Andean rodent became a sort of pig in the eyes of the Old World. Some languages dubbed them “pigs of the sea” while others preferred to name them based on their perceived origin; the English called them guinea pig, the Portuguese porquinho da Índia (little Indian pig), and the Chinese荷蘭豬 (Holland pig). There are however languages that do not follow this pattern and Cavia porcellus is for instance known as conejillo de Indias (little rabbit of India / the Indies) in Spanish and Spaanse rat (Spanish rat) in some Dutch dialects.  

Guinea pig lifespan

A guinea pig normally lives for 4-5 years, but individual specimens reaching an age of up to eight years is not that uncommon. According to the 2006 Guinness Book of Records the oldest known guinea pig lived for14 years and 10.5 months.


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