By Terri Perrin
Even though their Latin name, Cavia Porcellus, means “little pig”, guinea pigs or cavies are rodents. Perhaps they are called guinea pigs because of their body style, with their relatively big heads, short legs and stout bodies, which makes them similar in appearance to pigs. Or maybe it’s because their distinctive squeals and messy eating habits can be very “pig-like.” Call them what you may, guinea pigs are cute!
There are 13 breeds of guinea pigs recognized by the American Cavy Breeders Association. The three most common breeds are:
- the American, which has short, straight, fine hair;
- the Abyssinian with rough, wiry hair in rosettes or whorls; and
- the Peruvian, with long, straight, silky hair.
For a more exotic and unusual look, there is the curly-coated Texel or the smooth-coated White Crested, which come in a variety of colours, but always have a distinctive white rosette on their forehead. There is even the rare “Skinny Pig”, which has a soft downy, almost hairless coat. Cross breeding has resulted in a wide range of coat colours and patterns for all breeds.
Cavies make good pets because they are non-aggressive and rarely bite or scratch. They are also popular because of their small size and minimal exercise requirements.
Dr. Leticia Materi, from Calgary Avian and Exotic Pet Clinic, specializes in small mammals such as cavies. She fondly remembers one particular little “piggy” patient named Princess. “Whenever the family brought Princess into the clinic, she would always arrive perched upon a satin pillow with her name embroidered on it,” recalls Dr. Materi. “She always looked like a little crown or jewel being presented. I loved that the owners adored her that much.
“Guinea pigs are great pets for kids,” adds Dr. Materi. “But children have to be taught how to handle them. As a prey animal, their first instinct is to run. Fast movements scare them. They can be hard to catch if they are loose in the house or even in their enclosure.”
Dr. Materi suggests that to avoid accidentally dropping their pet, children should be instructed to sit on the floor and have an adult hand them the guinea pig to hold. If dropped, they can be badly injured and break their front teeth when they land. And be aware that guinea pigs don’t like to be held on their backs.
Guinea pigs require fairly simple housing, but they can be messy because they like to burrow and dig around in their bedding. To allow for good ventilation and solid footing, a wire cage with a plastic insert is best. Never house a guinea pig in an aquarium or on a wire floor. The cage should be as large as you can accommodate in your home and no smaller than about 0.5 square metres (5 sq. ft.). To provide some enrichment and mental stimulation, you can let them run around in guinea pig balls for short periods, with proper supervision and access to stairways blocked, of course.
“Contrary to popular belief, cedar and pine shavings are not suitable bedding for cavies as it may cause respiratory problems,” adds Dr. Materi. “And standing on hard plastic can make your Guinea pig’s feet sore, so line the bottom of the cage with a towel or layers of newspaper, and then add shredded paper.”
Guinea pigs also have special dietary needs and, like humans, if they don’t get enough Vitamin C they can develop a medical condition called scurvy. Dr. Materi says that even if you feed lots of Vitamin C enriched fresh veggies, it is not enough. Daily supplementation of a Vitamin C wafer or tablet, not drops in their water, is recommended.
Guinea pig teeth grow constantly, so it is imperative that they have lots of rough hay to chew. Be sure to provide a variety of types. Hay is also important for their digestion. Guinea pigs love vegetables (see sidebar) but be careful to avoid feeding anything from the onion family, as this can cause red blood cells to burst. And, be careful with fruit, because too much sugar can cause diarrhea. And speaking of poop, cavies do that a lot! Daily cleaning of their cage is vital to their health.
Signs that your guinea pig is ill and may need veterinary attention include: listlessness, lack of appetite, runny nose/eyes/stool, weight loss, no droppings in the pen (constipation), hunched appearance, and drooling. Also, be sure to pick up your little piggy and examine his or her feet on a regular basis to ensure that they are not sore and to check if its toenails need trimming.
Guinea pigs are very social animals and often do well if you house two together. But, we urge you to be a responsible pet guardian and choose two of the same sex. Accidentally get a breeding pair and, before you know it, you will have more guinea pigs than you bargained for.