Owning Guinea Pigs

By: Ariana Finkelstein, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX

Published June 2014

Cute and communicative, guinea pigs make great pets. These docile members of the rodent family rarely bite and form close bonds with their owners. Some will even squeak or vocalize when their favorite human enters the room. They can live longer than most other rodents; most have life spans of five to seven years. Consequently, owning a guinea pig means making the commitment to provide the time, care and attention its needs.

A Guinea Pig Home

While guinea pigs are small in size, you should put careful thought into the decision to adopt one. Some people are allergic to them, so before making the decision to adopt one, spend time at a pet store, rescue or an owner’s home playing with and handling one. If you show signs of an allergic reaction (runny eyes, sneezing, hives or irritated/itchy skin) during or after handling one, you should reconsider your choice of pet.

Guinea pigs should be housed in a cage that is as large as possible and fits comfortably in your home. A rule of thumb is to provide a minimum of four square feet of space per guinea pig. The floor should be solid; wire is not recommended. Proper bedding, such as regular hay, straw or shredded newspaper, must be provided. Other odor-controlling bedding, such as CareFresh brand, may be used with caution as they may ingest some of the bedding, possibly causing an intestinal blockage. If you use a litter box, make sure the litter in it is organic. Do not use cedar or aromatic shavings. The cage needs to be cleaned regularly to keep the ammonia levels to a minimum and prevent respiratoryOf, relating to, or affecting the organs or action of breathing. irritation. Boxes, tunnels or hiding places should be provided to allow your guinea pig to feel safe and give him or her something to do. Cages should be kept in an area that does not exceed 80 to 85 degrees at any time as they are extremely sensitive to heat and can get heatstroke.

Since guinea pigs are social creatures, more than one may be safely housed together. In addition, males and females can remain in the same enclosure indefinitely. However, new males may occasionally fight if in the presence of a female, and older, more dominant animals may chew on the ears or hair of subordinate cagemates.

Proofing your home is essential if your plan is to have your guinea pig play outside of his or her cage. This entails taking the necessary precautions to avoid exposing your pet to potential household hazards. Guinea pigs are notorious chewers, so electric cords should be out of reach, and there should be no access to area mats or rugs. Parts of accessible furniture should be covered, and small toys and trinkets should be put away. Other pets in the household may attack or play rough with your guinea pig, so they should be kept in a separate area. Also, children should be supervised when interacting with your guinea pig as they may accidentally injure the pet.

Nutrition & Diet for Your Guinea Pig

The most important part of an adult guinea pig’s diet is good quality grass hay, which should be available all the time. You can use any grass hay, including timothy, orchard grass, botanical, coastal, brome and others. Avoid the use of alfalfa hay in adults, which is not a grass but rather a legume hay and is generally too high in calories and some nutrients such as calcium and protein for the average adult pet guinea pig’s dietary needs. Pellets can be given in limited quantities. Make sure to buy pellets specifically labeled for guinea pigs, as they have added Vitamin C. Also ensure that the pellets are grass hay-based, not alfalfa-based. Generally, an adult cavia with a medium level of exercise should get no more than one-sixth to one-third cup of pellets a day along with unlimited grass hay and a small amount of fresh foods. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. Vitamin C supplementation should be provided in the form of vegetables, fruit or vitamin tablets.

Since they do not naturally make Vitamin C, you will need to make sure they get enough of this essential nutrient. Dark, leafy greens like kale and fruits like oranges and strawberries are great sources of Vitamin C. Other foods that are high in Vitamin C include guava, red peppers, tendergreen, parsley, broccoli and cauliflower.

Like any other pet, guinea pigs also need regular visits to a veterinarian. They should have wellness exams done to ensure their good health. Annual bloodwork is recommended as they get older. A guinea pig does not need any sort of vaccines, but spayingSterilize (a female animal) by removing the ovaries. and neuteringCastrate or spay (a domestic animal) should be considered, especially if more than one are kept together as pets. Health issues in these pets requiring veterinary care include Vitamin C deficiencyA lack or shortage. (scurvy), footpad infections, respiratory disease, external parasites like mites and/or lice, heatstroke, gastrointestinalOf or relating to the stomach and the intestines. issues, eye infections, urinary tract disease, reproductive disease (ovarian cysts, pregnancy complications), bloating, diabetes, fungal skin disease and dental issues. Guinea pigs have teeth that continually erupt so providing your cavia with something to chew on like an untreated stick will help keep his or her teeth from overgrowing.

When to Take Your Guinea Pig to the Veterinarian

There may also be emergencies that require a trip to a veterinary office or emergency room. If your guinea pig is not eating or not producing stool for a period of 12 hours or more, they should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. Also, if at any time your guinea pig becomes extremely lethargicAffected by lethargy; sluggish and apathetic., seems disoriented or is minimally responsive, have it seen by a veterinarian immediately. These signs should be treated as emergency situations and should be addressed right away. If it is after hours and you regular veterinary office is closed, take your guinea pig to a veterinary emergency room. Make sure the emergency room you go to has a veterinarian on staff that will treat your guinea pig.

Due to their docile behavior, ease of handling and clean, quiet nature, they top the list for good family pets. Their easygoing nature does not, however, mean that they require less care than other animals. Make sure you research guinea pigs thoroughly before deciding to bring one into your home. Armed with the right information and equipment, you and your cavia can enjoy years of companionship and entertainment together.

Ariana Finkelstein, DVM currently practices at Mission Pet Emergency in San Antonio, Texas.