Guinea Pigs – All you need to know

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DIY and how-to

History

Very little is known about the domestic origins of the Guinea pig, otherwise known as the Cavy (Cavia porcellus). A rodent native to South America, where they still exist in the wild today, cavy domestication is reported by Peruvian archaeologists to have occurred from at least 900 BC.

Around the late 15th century, Spanish traders began regular expeditions to the Americas and are likely to have returned to Europe with the first cavies. Breeders state that these curious-looking, brick-like animals soon became very popular as household pets.

The origins of the name ‘Guinea pig’ are unclear. Common theories suggest Guinea may be a corruption of Guiana, a region in South America. Or it may refer to Guinea in West Africa, where the cavy may have passed through on its way to Europe. Another theory claims that the name refers to the gold coin known as a guinea, which one may have paid for each of these small animals.

Appearance

Cavies come in a multitude of colours and patterns but may be divided into four main coat types:

  • Short hair: Covering a range of colours, markings and crests
  • Coarse-coats: The coat stands away from the body
  • Long hairs: A long coat which can grow about one inch per month
  • Satin: The coat has a shiny appearance due to hollow hair follicles

Cavies come in 10 main colours: White, black, red, gold, buff (a pale gold), cream, lilac, slate, chocolate and saffron.

Temperament

Cavies can be tamed quickly if handled often and gently. They are social animals and appreciate attention from their owners. Both males (called boars) and females (sows) are easily handled. However, males may be inclined to fight if kept together. It is important not to keep cavies and rabbits together. Although they socialise well, their individual diets and differences in size make them incompatible housemates.

Feeding

Cavies are herbivores and require fresh, clean vegetables and grasses daily. All cavies, particularly pregnant sows, require high levels of vitamin C, which is best obtained from clean grasses. This should make up the bulk of their daily diet, supplemented by those parts of vegetables, which we humans are inclined not to eat, such as carrot tops and peelings, corn husks, broccoli stalks and celery tops.

Specialised cavy pellets are available from pet stores. Beetroot and rhubarb leaves, potatoes and their peelings should not be fed to cavies as these vegetables are toxic. Likewise nor should animal products, cakes, white bread or sweets. Excess lettuce may cause diarrhoea. Clean fresh water should also be provided daily.

Health and lifespan

Cavies are susceptible to extremes of heat and cold. They should be sheltered from temperatures above 30°C, sudden cold snaps and draughts. If housed outside, cavies may also suffer occasional hair loss. This may be due to a fungal infection resulting from damp conditions. Check the coat regularly, especially around the eyes as grass seeds trapped in the hair can cause irritation. Cavies will average four to five years of age, but have been known to live as long as 11.

Space and exercise

Commercial cavy hutches are available from pet shops. Standard rabbit hutches will also suffice as long as there is a covered area for the cavies to rest in. Don’t overcrowd the hutch; allow a minimum of about 70x70cm for each cavy. Treated wood hutches are not suitable as the wood is toxic if chewed. Bedding should be softwood shavings or straw. As cavies are social animals, females can be kept together or with a single male.

Males should be kept apart or introduced together at an early age. Cavies are equally happy if housed alone. A suitably sized hutch is generally sufficient for exercise, and if handled often, cavies will lie quietly with their owner and sleep.

Maintenance

Pet cavies should be bathed every three to four months with a normal anti-dandruff shampoo. The hutch should be cleaned regularly of waste and food scraps. Cavies don’t like living in dirty conditions. If kept clean, cavies will produce little body odour.

Recommended for older children

Cavies are easy to keep in most domestic situations. It is best not to introduce them to children under the age of five, as they do not appreciate rough handling or being dropped. However, they are a great animal for introducing children to responsible pet ownership.

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