Guinea pig care

Guinea pigs can make great pets but are also, like any animal, a great commitment and have various needs which need to be met in order to ensure their health and happiness.  This information is intended to help you provide the best possible life for your guinea pigs as well as ensuring you also have the best possible experience as a piggie owner.  So many guinea pigs end up in rescues and we hope this information may help to remedy this.

How to make a piggie happy

A guinea pig, like any animal, has basic needs such as food, water and shelter, but they also have many other needs, which although may not be necessary for basic survival, enrich their life and makes them, and in turn you, happy.

Company

The best gift you can give your guinea pig is the gift of company of its own kind. Guinea pigs are herd animals and live in large social groups in the wild. As prey animals they get much comfort from being part of a herd where members of the herd watch out for each other as well as providing social interaction. The vocal range of guinea pigs is legendary and is often the reason people choose them as pets. The noises they make are cute and entertaining but they serve a much larger purpose to the animals theirselves. Without their almost constant chatter and interaction, lone pigs are very isolated and live in an unnatural state. Just because guinea pigs have been domesticated does not mean that they no longer require the social contact that has been essential to their lives throughout their existence.

Neutered Dillon and his two girlfriends

Neutered Dillon and his two girlfriends

There are many options for piggy companionship. Two sows or a group of sows live happily together though they will sometimes have the odd bicker when feeling hormonal. A neutered male with a sow or group of sows is also fantastic. In a herd situation the male is often the glue that binds the group together and helps calm squabbles. Obviously a group situation requires a generous amount of space (see housing below). Too many people think that boars have to live alone and this is simply not the case. Neutering is a great option and the risks have been greatly minimised due to recent developments in aneathesia. However, it is not the only option. Two unneutered boars can live happily together if their personalities are complimentary and the bonding is done carefully and correctly. Boar dating is complex and should only be attempted by someone highly experienced. Many rescues offer boar dating services and this takes a great deal of pressure off owners.

Bowser, a white rex neutered male, with his sow herd in an excellent converted stable setup

If one of your piggies pass away, please seek a new companion for it as it will be grieving and lonely. If you are not prepared to take on another pig, consider speaking to your local rescue centre who may be preapred to offer you a loan pig for the duration of the life of your remaining pig or may offer to rehome your lone piggie for you.

Guinea pigs are NOT suitable companions for rabbits

In the past many people kept rabbits and guinea pigs together, often as an easier and cheaper solution to obtaining company for the rabbit/pig without neutering. However, as pet ownership has developed and much research has been undertaken, a multitude of reasons why they should not be kept together have been discovered:

  1. Rabbits are much larger than pigs, with powerful hind legs and can accidentally kick guinea pigs resulting in severe injury or death.

  2. Unneutered males or even hormonal female buns can frequently hump, sexually harass or ‘rape’ the guinea pig, again resulting in severe physical and mental trauma.

  3. Guinea pigs require a higher protein diet than rabbits and also cannot synethisise their own vitamin C so require a supplemented diet (see below) which rabbits do not require. Feeding the incorrect diet to either animal will lead to health problems including scurvy and obesity.

  4. Rabbits can carry a bacteria (Bordetella) which is harmless to the rabbit but causes respiratory illness in guinea pigs, often resulting in death.

Finally, it is important to remember that rabbits and guinea pigs are completely different species and do not share the same range of behaviours or methods of communication that an animal of their own species would. As a result, they are quite ineffective company for each other. Both rabbits and guinea pigs will far more appreciate company of their own kind.

Food

Most of a guinea pig’s diet (around 80%) should consist of good quality hay in order to keep their teeth wearing correctly and for their digestive health. The best type of commercial food is a nugget or pellet (they should not be fed a museli based diet as they pick out the tastiest bits and leave the bits that are the best for their health and teeth). The instructions must be followed on the back of the packet as to how much is required for each guinea pig. Once you have the right amount measured you can use a marked measuring cup to ensure the correct amount is given each day. It is important not to over feed your guinea pigs in order to prevent obesity and to ensure they eat enough hay each day. They also should absolutely not be fed rabbit food, as previously mentioned it is damaging to their health and does not supply them with the vitamin C they require every day.

Adopted Jack enjoying his veg alongside his wifepigs

Adopted Jack enjoying his veg alongside his wifepigs

Although vitamin C is supplemented in guinea pig nuggets, they also require a generous selection of fresh fruit and veg every day for their health. Some favourites are: carrot, celery, green beans, parsley, spinach (only a few leaves occassionally as can lead to kidney stones), brocoli, apple, dandelions (not too many and ensure clean of pesticides etc), romaine lettuce (they should not be given ordinary lettuce), strawberry tops, tomatoes and peppers. A selection of 4-5 of these a day gives plenty of vitamin C and variety in their diet. Their absolute favourite thing to eat is fresh grass when out in the run but they should not be given mown grass as this quickly ferments.

Housing and general care

An indoor setup with homemade second level

Many guinea pigs are kept in a traditional hutch but its fair to say that this is inadequate in the winter months. Guinea pigs cannot tolerate damp or any kind of draft so its important to protect them from this at all times. The ideal temperature for a guinea pig is around 18 degrees so they will appreciated being brought inside for the winter if possible.  Another option is to put their hutch in a sheltered shed or outbuilding to protect them from cold and drafts. Other housing options include an insulated playhouse or shed, which will mean that your guinea pigs can stay outside all year, as long as it is insulated well enough. They will also appreciate extra bedding hay and some heat pads which you can buy at a pet shop and microwave to provide warmth during cold nights.

An example C&C setup, the grids enable the cage to be made as large as you like!

An example C&C setup, the grids enable the cage to be made as large as you like!

Having your guinea pigs inside will provide you with great entertainment and you will have much more opportunity to enjoy their company. There are many indoor cages commercially available but many are too small as two guinea pigs require a 4ft x 2ft space as a minimum. There are fantastic C&C grid kits available that allow you to create an indoor space to your exact requirements.  The grids can be bought from Amazon, Screwfix Direct and B&Q, with the Corex available from any signmaker.  Alternatively, there are sites like https://www.facebook.com/JustAddPets or http://www.candcguineapigcages.co.uk/which sell the complete kits.

This C&C setup shows how it can also be made to be made into any shape.  This one fits nicely in a corner!

This C&C setup shows how it can also be made to be made into any shape. This one fits nicely in a corner!

If you put your guinea pigs back outside in the spring make sure it is warm enough as going from extremes of temperature can cause them to become unwell.

Guinea pigs love to go out in a run on the grass and grass is excellent for their health and wellbeing, but they must not go out on damp or wet grass. Most guinea pigs enjoy their runs from about April – September though if you have a south facing garden and the weather is mild (or you are willing to dry the grass for them with a towel!) it may be possible to elongate the period. Access to a shelter and water is also essential when out in the run. In their hutch/cage environment and out in the run, your guinea pigs will love to have plenty of tunnels and hidey holes to run into as this replicates their natural environment. Guinea pigs feel safest when they know that they have a range of hidey holes to run into if they feel the need. These can range from shop bought plastic tunnels and ‘pigloos’ or large cardboard tubes and boxes with cutout holes. They will also appreciate a hay rack that is kept topped up with good quality feeding hay.

A herd consisting of sows and a neutered male enjoying the grass

There are various options for substrate for your guinea pigs. Many people opt for the traditional wood chippings but these are not that absorbant and can be quite dusty, leading to respiratory problems. Other options include Megazorb (a paper pulp based horse bedding) or carefresh which are more absorbant and kinder to piggy lungs. They can often work out cheaper too if bought by the sack and can be found in equine stores or ordered online. Pet bed or fleece is another option and is generally loved by piggies but can be quite hard on your washing machine.

You will need to regularly health check your guinea pigs to ensure that they are well. As prey animals they tend to conceal illness so well that it can sometimes be too late to help them before you notice that something is wrong. One of the easiest ways to monitor their health is to weigh them regularly. Take their base measurement when you first take them home using a bowl placed on kitchen scales. All guinea pigs vary but an average adult guinea pig should weigh between 900-1100 grams. Once you know their usual healthy weight you will be able to tell easily if they suddenly drop weight (or indeed if they are getting too fat!). The other thing is to generally check them over as you hold them. Gently feel all over for lumps and bumps (guinea pigs often develop cysts). Look for patches of hair loss or dandruff like skurf that could indicate mites or ringworm (this usually presents on the face and ears and is transferable to humans so must be treated immediately).

Hair loss resulting from parasitic infestation

Hair loss resulting from parasitic infestation

Are their eyes bright and their ears clear of discharge?  Check the length of their nails – are any getting long or beginning to curl under? In a guinea pig with light coloured nails you should be able to see the vein inside the nail for trimming but if you are nervous of trimming or the nails are black, then a vet will trim them for you which will also enable them to carry out a general health check for you.  It is best to trim them little & often.

Overgrown claws can cause many problems and in extreme cases can cause toes to break

You also need to make sure that their rear ends are clean and that their poo is firm and regular shaped, not runny.  Guinea pigs have grease glands that also need to be kept clean.  Male’s are usually more active but sow’s can also have quite an active gland.  Click here for more information on how to find it and keep it clean: http://www.calicavycollective.com/2013/09/cleaning-your-guinea-pigs-grease-gland.html

If you have a male check that no hair or hay has become trapped in the opening to his penis (this must be gently removed if there is).  Males also have an anal sack which tends to accumulate detritus such as hair, hay or substrate which, if not kept clear, can cause impaction over time.  There is a very useful video on You Tube on how to do this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-M0XOddxPI

Guinea pigs can live to be around 8 years old but the average is probably closer to 5 years. They have fantastic characters and will often popcorn (a funny little twisting jump off the ground) when they are truly happy. This information is intended only as a guide and there are many other resources available in books or online for all aspects of guinea pig care. The Guinea Pig Forum is an excellent online community for guinea owners full of information and support and fun too! http://www.theguineapigforum.co.uk/.  Guinea Pig Lynx is also a very valuable resource: http://www.guinealynx.info/