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Guinea Pigs

By Craig Sernotti

Guinea pigs (or cavies, as they are also known) are gentle, cuddly pets who enjoy human companionship. They benefit greatly from daily interactions with their owners. With a little training, you can even teach your guinea pig to do simple tricks.

Depending on which one of the 13 recognized species of guinea pig you select, your pet may have smooth, short hair, or he may have a kinked, cow-licked, or curly coat. His hair may also flow freely in long locks. The coat will fall into one of 23 color and pattern varieties. Guinea pigs weigh about 1 to 3 pounds (1/2 to 1 kg). Their teeth and nails always grow—you must provide chew toys and trim their nails so that both will not become a health concern. Guinea pigs are social creatures who fare better in pairs. Keep males with males and females with females unless you want babies or have your guinea pigs neutered.

Natural History

Guinea pigs are originally from South America. They were first domesticated between 2500 and 5000 B.C.E. Explorers brought them from the region to Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England was among the first European guinea pig owners.

How the guinea pig got his common name is somewhat of a mystery. “Pig” seems to come from the squealing noise the animal makes from time to time, but the “guinea” part is a bit more difficult to pin down. At one time, these animals were sold for a guinea in Great Britain. Some may have come from the South American country Guyana, which can easily be mispronounced as “guinea.”

Enclosure and Setup

Your guinea pig’s cage will need to be big enough to accommodate him (or pigs, if you decide to keep more than one), his food bowl, water bottle, some toys, and a box or “house” for sleep and security. It should be made of wire, with a solid bottom. A solid floor will keep your guinea pig from injuring his feet or legs.
There are several types of bedding available. Purchase commercially bagged products, like aspen shavings. Other safe choices include timothy hay, recycled paper products, hemp fibers, wheat litter, or cellulose.

Diet

Feed your guinea pig dry pellets, which are commonly available at pet stores—steer clear of diets that contain seeds or nuts because they may pose a choking hazard. You must supplement the pellets with hay and vitamin C. Hay provides fiber so that your guinea pig can digest his food properly, and vitamin C must be given because he cannot produce it on his own. Vitamin C is present in dark green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, oranges, peas, and other fruits and vegetables.

Although guinea pigs always appear ravenous, they do not eat to the point of gluttony; they feast only until they are full.

Grooming

Brushing should be an important part of your guinea pig’s daily routine. Start by brushing him at the back of his head, and work down his back, brushing in the direction his hair grows. For short-haired guinea pigs, use a soft-bristled brush. For long-haired pets, use a metal comb.

Unlike some other small animals, guinea pigs can be given a bath if one is required. Use only a shampoo formulated for guinea pigs or small animals. Use warm water and a small amount of shampoo. Keep soap out of your pet’s eyes and ears. Hold him firmly but gently, and be sure to rinse off all the shampoo. Pat him with a towel to absorb excess water, and then wrap him in another dry towel. Your guinea pig must be completely dry before he is returned to his cage.

You must trim your guinea pig’s nails when they grow too long—about once every 8 to 12 weeks. If you’re unsure how to do so, a veterinarian can show you how to do it properly. When cutting a guinea pig’s nail, be careful not to cut the nail down too far, as this will rupture the quick, a blood vessel at the base of each nail. You should have styptic powder on hand to stop the bleeding in case you cut the quick.

Health and Illness

By spending time with your guinea pig, you will learn his normal behaviors and be able to recognize any changes in routine or appearance, which usually mean that something is wrong.

Guinea pigs are prone to a variety of illnesses, injuries, disorders, and infections. If you suspect that something is wrong with your pet, contact a veterinarian immediately.
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