While these cute little fur babies may seem ideal for a child’s first pet, guinea pig enthusiasts admit they may require more time and effort than youngsters are able to deliver. As with any pet, they are totally dependent on us for their welfare, so before falling in love with a pocket-sized pig, find out what it takes to be a good pet parent.
Choosing a compatible companion
“Guinea pigs have personalities just like we do,” says Sami Wyatt, who manages the small animal department at the Grange Co-op in Central Point. “Some are reserved and shy and prefer minimal interactions, while others are cuddly and social. They are happiest with a companion, preferably in same gendered pairs unless at least one of the pair has been altered.”
Look for a guinea pig that is young and seems friendly with others, advises Dr. Glen Winters, a local veterinarian who treats a variety of exotic pets in his practice at Phoenix Animal Hospital in Medford. “An adult guinea pig that has been in a caged environment too long might not be well socialized. One that isolates itself could be sick or unsocialized and may not make a great pet. You want one with a nice coat, bright eyes, no nasal or ocular discharge, and moves freely about its enclosure.”
Expect to pay between $38 and $45 if you purchase your cavy at a pet store. At the Grange Co-op, Wyatt says, “We purchase from reputable local breeders. We also have many 4-H and FFA members who raise guinea pigs, and Jackson County Animal Shelter will occasionally have guinea pigs for adoption.”
Providing a happy habitat
The minimum space for one or two cavies is 8 square feet, but Wyatt says bigger is always better. Cages should have a flat, solid bottom with no wire, which can harm their feet. Paper bedding works well for absorption and odor control and is healthier for their respiratory tracts than some wood shavings, which, if used, must be pet-safe. Never use cedar shavings of any kind, says Wyatt.
Within the cage, guinea pigs also need one or two places to hide, because as prey animals, it can be stressful for them to be out in the open all the time. Pet parents must keep cages clean and dry every day, Wyatt says.
Hydration is very important for cavies, she adds. “It’s always a great idea to offer a 24- to 36-ounce water bottle and a water dish, as some animals will drink up to 20% more water when offered both.”
As a general guide for a healthy diet, Wyatt suggests 70% grass hay, 20% fortified pellets, 8% leafy greens and 2% treats. Grass hay, which is important for digestive health and for keeping teeth at the proper length, should be available to guinea pigs at all times. And since guinea pigs cannot produce their own vitamin C, she advises feeding fresh vegetables and a guinea pig-specific vitamin C supplement in order to prevent scurvy.
Winters recommends trying to mimic a guinea pig’s natural environment for length of natural daylight, humidity and temperature. “That is what their bodies were designed for,” he says.
Keeping cavies safe and healthy
The most common health issues, Winters states, are urinary bladder stones, respiratory disease, dental disease, scurvy and trauma caused by being stepped on, dropped or attacked by other animals in the house.
Be observant, Winters says, and watch for any changes from daily routine. “Not eating or drinking, hiding, not producing the same amount of feces and urine or a change in consistency of feces and urine, grinding teeth, which can mean stress or illness, and lethargy. Once an animal shows these signs, it has been sick longer than the owner believes and should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.”
Be aware that not all small animal vets will see “exotic” animals, especially in emergency situations.
Cavies require periodic nail trims, since kept as pets, they are unable to wear them down naturally, says Winters. They also need their teeth checked, because rodent teeth grow continuously and can become overgrown and cause eating problems and if not fed the correct diet.
“A guinea pig’s longevity is directly related to how well it is taken care of,” Winters says. “They can live as long as 7-10 years old on average, but because of inadequate care, often I see them sick and dying by 5 or 6 years of age.”
Mindful care of cavies
As pets for youngsters, Wyatt feels guinea pigs are generally a safer option than a rabbit or other small animals. “The appropriate age depends on the maturity of the child and how involved the parents are in the care of the animal,” she says. In her view, 8 years old or older is a good age for guinea pig ownership.
“The more a person can read and educate themselves on the care of guinea pigs, the better they will do,” advises Winters. “Guinea pigs do require some special care, and if met, they make great pets.”
Sawyer Grieve, 7, and her pet guinea pig, Ruby. Photo by Denise Baratta.
(Update from 9/10/2020 – Phoenix Animal Hospital was one of the casualties of the Alameda fire. Dr. Winters reports his staff and animals are safe, and says that they intend to rebuild. “We will be back stronger than ever.”