Did you know that the average lifespan of a guinea pig is 5 years? Some live up to 10. (The 2006 Guinness World Records says 14 years, 10.5 months!) They make such beloved pets that we've relocated a few in our time. But we're not the first transporters of guinea pigs; oh no, they've racked up a lot of voyager miles, travelling across continents from as early as 1547 when the Spanish, Dutch, and English traders ferried them from South America to Europe. Once in Europe their rise to pet-fame was meteoric, becoming popular as exotic pets among the upper classes and royalty.
What's In A Name?
No one is terribly sure why guinea pigs are called, well, "guinea pigs" - not being from Guinea nor from the pig family. Their Latin name, Caviaporcellus, gives this little "pig" a bit more stature, making it sound like the royal pet it once was. In other circles they're called "cavy", being a species of rodent belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia. Good to know for your next dinner party, eh? And speaking of dinner (avert your eyes sensitive viewers), although the guinea pig is respected in South America (where they originate), they're also on the menu there. But, moving swiftly along (you'd never look at your precious Caviaporcelluswith hungry eyes would you?), here's how to make your cavy your best-most-beloved pet (along with all the others of course).
Guinea Pig Penthouse
No, not really a penthouse, but bigger is better and the larger the cage the easier it is to clean and the happier your cavy - we love a win/win. So a minimum of 0.7 square meters of cage space for one guinea pig and just under one meter squared for two. The cage needs a solid, not wire, bottom (guinea pigs have small, delicate feet) and if the sides are high enough (about 35cm), then not to worry about a cover. Newspaper or a washable cloth or towel are good for the floor of the cage (a smooth towel though; remember those little feet).
Location, Location, Location
Indoors is best as guinea pigs are sensitive little souls. But they do need some sunlight, so find a spot outside in gentle sun for them to bask in a bit, if you can. Emphasis on "gentle" sun here; guinea pigs don't take well to hot and humid. Ask your vet for advice if you're unsure - it's kinda climate dependant.
Your cute little cuddly cavy is a sociable chap, so position him somewhere in the home that will have people-traffic - the lounge or living room? And while saying they're sociable, they also nevertheless like a bit of me-time and a place to hide when they're feeling a bit frightened, so put a small hiding box in their cage. Using a cardboard box for their getaway spot can double as their chewing object and chewing helps their teeth stay clean (win/win/win!).
Wining and Dining
No, not really wining and dining, but we're feeding a royal pet here, so only the best herbivore diet please.
Water: Guinea pigs need a constant supply of clean, daily fresh, room-temperature, plain water (not distilled or with any vitamins added).The best plan is to mount a drip-bottle in the cage so there can be no old food or bacteria build-up in the water, and clean the bottle at least once a week.
Grazing: Guinea pigs are little eating machines. For their constant grazing they need plentiful supplies of grass hay (as opposed to legume hay - who knew, hey?). The quality of hay is important; it should smell fresh and be greenish in colour (so not straw).
Also on the menu are lots of green leafy vegetables. Did we mention your cavy is quite delicate? Some veges are fine daily and others should only be fed weekly. On the daily list are cucumber, lettuce (not iceberg) and carrots. Weekly include cauliflower, kale and celery. Interesting and important fact: Guinea pigs can't manufacture vitamin C, so a small piece of orange every now and then is recommended. Check out this deliciously detailed list (including fruits) on The Guinea Pig Manual. Vegetables need to be fresh and varied, and removed from the cage daily if they're not eaten (remember, keep it fresh!).
Guinea pig pellets (plain, dye free, with added vitamin C) are the other staple; about a quarter of a cup a day served in a heavy bowl that can't be knocked over. Keep your little pig's pellets potent by storing in a cool, dark place and check the expiry date. Don't feed your cavy with rabbit (or any other type) of pellets - different species, different diet.
Health and Hygiene
Guinea pig bathing? Not recommended more than once or twice a year! The perfect little pet, right? However... long-hair guinea pigs do need a little bit of extra TLC (because they're worth it) - grooming them is good for their hair and skin (and bonding) but just make sure you're using the correct brush.
Other hygiene areas to watch out for? Keep a check on the genitals (yep, it's true... sorry ) of the male guinea pig as that area can become clogged and should be carefully cleaned with cotton wool. Their nails tend to grow long, so a nail clip once or twice a month is needed to keep them in check. Also cast a beady eye over your cavy's hind quarters to make sure they're poop-free. (The perfect pet!)
Health-wise, he's a creature who doesn't like to complain or show you when he's sick, which can be a bit tricky, right? Be on the lookout for any small changes and do a weekly weigh-in on your digital kitchen scale. Fluctuation of more than 55 grams is a sign of ill-health. It's not pleasant to dwell on, but if your best-beloved is ill, he can deteriorate very quickly, so off to the vet if you have any qualms. Also, if you have one sick guinea pig, make sure you have all of them examined. Which brings us to...
The More The Merrier
Guinea pigs love company as they come from a herd environment, so they crave other guinea pig interaction and they can get quite attached to each other (they even sleep cuddled together, aaaaw). If you decided to have more than one, that's awesome; just remember that this brings spaying or neutering into the equation. It's best to know 100% sure the sex of your guinea pigs before putting them in a cage together.
All They Need is Love
Well, not all they need, but they do need it. You probably won't need any encouragement to play with your guinea pig; they're kinda made for cuddles. Get tactile with your cavy while he's still very young - they need to be socialised early or you'll have a shy guinea pig hiding from you. Touch 'em and talk to them lots and also let them loose to have a play in a safe, enclosed area.
Guinea pigs are curious bundles of fun, and so full of energy, but quite regal too - don't forget that! In fact, if you ever need reminding, check out this first known portrait of one, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Love... and other stuff too