Guinea Pigs are one of the world's most popular household pets and are domesticated all around the world. Their sweet, docile nature and highly affectionate and sociable personalities make them a firm favourite animal particularly amongst children, who are able to care for these little creatures with relative ease (providing they have the constant supervision of a responsible adult). Originally from the Central Andes Mountains of South America where they were first domesticated by local people, they were introduced to the rest of the world by the Spanish after their South American "discovery" in the 1500s.
Guinea Pigs (also known as Cavies) are herbivorous and highly sociable animals that spend many hours grazing on grasses, leaves and other plant materials such as seeds, flowers and bark. Although naturally diurnal, they are most active during the twilight hours of dusk and dawn when there is less of a threat from potential predators, who find it difficult to hunt in the drastically changing light. They have sharp eye-sight and an exceptional sense of smell and hearing ensuring that they can pick up on approaching danger effectively.
Looking after Guinea Pigs at home can be a highly rewarding experience but it is always essential that it is a task you are fully committing too, as it is the owners legal responsibility to ensure that any animal in their care is well-treated and that their basic welfare needs are met - the most important things being:
- having a suitable and safe environment to live in;
- a healthy, appropriate and well balanced diet;
- the ability to express their normal behaviours;
- appropriate companionship;
- protection from pain and suffering, injury and disease.
Guinea Pigs are very active animals and need space to run around. In the wild, they reside in burrows or crevices in the rocks to keep them both safe from predators and warm during the cold nights. Ensuring that your Guinea Pigs have the right sized hutch is essential to their wellbeing. Guinea Pigs can either be kept in a secure wooden hutch outdoors that is raised from the ground to prevent it from getting damp, or in a hutch indoors ensuring that there is somewhere for them to hide and sleep. They need space in which to exercise so whether that's a run in the garden or a play pen in the house it is important that they are able to have a wander around. They may also be left to roam indoors in a room but it is essential in this case that there are no small gaps for them to get stuck in or wires that they can chew.
Guinea Pigs are herbivores and only eat plant materials. Their natural diet that includes a range of grasses, leaves and flowers is naturally very high in vitamin C which is essential in maintaining a healthy immune system to protect them parasites and disease. Domestic Guinea Pigs need to have constant access to a good supply of grass and hay (they not only eat it but also use it to nest in to keep warm or hide in to feel safe). Dark leafy greens should be provided on a daily basis with kale, broccoli, herbs and dandelion leaves being among their favourites. They can have a wide variety of vegetables such as green beans, carrots, pepper and cauliflower leaves but it is always advisable to double check with your vet or in a Guinea Pig care guide before feeding them something you are not sure of. Fruits such as apples, pears and grapes are loved by Guinea Pigs but should only be given as occasional treats due to their high sugar content. It is always recommended to supplement their diet with specialist Guinea Pig food on a daily basis. Along with ensuring that your Guinea Pigs have access to plenty of both fresh and dried food, it is essential that they have clean water at all times.
Guinea Pigs are natural grazers and have four long incisors at the front of their mouths that grow constantly. The backs of their teeth are made up of a softer material than the hard enamel on the front and wears down with gnawing to ensure that their teeth remain sharp. In order to ensure that their teeth remain sharp and healthy, it is essential that they have plenty of things to gnaw on including wooden toys and willow balls. Providing lots of little toys and hiding food around their hutch will also stop them from getting bored when you are not around. Guinea Pigs use a wide variety of vocalisations in which to communicate with each other including chirping, squeaking and burbling. When they are really excited (particularly when they are young) they are prone to "popcorning" - they jump in the air in between running and quickly changing direction to jump again to display their excitement. Guinea Pigs are known to freeze when they become scared and then often run away. It is important to understand that this is a normal behavioural trait for them but with enough handling they often calm. If they become very scared and therefore angry they make a noise that sounds like them grinding their teeth together. This is a warning from them telling you they are annoyed and it is best to let them calm down and relax and not pester them further.
Guinea Pigs are highly sociable animals that reside together in the wild in small groups of up to 10 individuals. In most instances, domestic Guinea Pigs are most happy when kept in pairs or small groups. The most usual combinations are two females (known as sows), or a group of females or a neutered male (boar) with a single female. They can often be heard chatting away to each other and enjoy cuddling up and feeding together. However, they are also incredibly sociable and affectionate towards people and may start to squeak or purr when they see their owners. They love being cuddled and held which is something that should be done on an at least daily basis.
As their owner, it is your responsibility to ensure that they are safe in their environment and lead a healthy lifestyle. Guinea Pigs can suffer easily from upset tummies so it essential to introduce new foods slowly to prevent them from getting poorly. Sodden and soiled sawdust and bedding should be removed on a daily basis with a full clean of the hutch using an animal-safe disinfectant happening once a week. It is important to check their nails and teeth regularly, with annual health checks at the vets being highly recommended for all owners to ensure that they are healthy and thriving.