Guinea Pig Care: A Beginners Guide

If this is your first time owning a guinea pig or planning on getting one, you will probably have tons of questions.

In this article, I will go through everything in detail about what you need to care for your guinea pigs.

Guinea Pigs Food

Nutrition is a key component in keeping your guinea pigs happy and healthy. With enough care, a guinea pig in captivity can live for as long as 7 years. Unfortunately, many guinea pigs purchased as pets live far less than the 7-year mark because the owners fail to provide at least the minimum care appropriate for the type of animal in captivity.

A cavy’s digestive system

Guinea pigs are not meat-eaters. In fact, guinea pigs in the wild use browse-feeding methods to survive. As the term implies, guinea pigs “browse” through different plants and herbs in search of edible plant material.

As such, their digestive system was designed to deal specifically with starches and cellulose-rich food. That does not mean they do not need protein or other nutrients usually attached to the ingestion of meat products.

Pellets rule

You can go either organic or partially organic when feeding your guinea pigs. Pellet food products for guinea pigs are your best bet for balanced nutrition.

Two essential nutrients should be present in the pellets that you buy for your cavies: vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and folic acid. The guinea pigs (this applies to other mammals as well) cannot manufacture vitamin C and so they require nutritional sources to fill the gap. For every kilogram of guinea pig pellets you buy, you should be getting:

  • 8% protein
  • 16% fiber
  • 1 gm vitamin C

What are the signs that your guinea pig is not getting the right kind of nutrition? The following are symptoms that are usually associated with imbalanced guinea pig diets:

  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Heart problems
  • Liver problems
  • Kidney disease
  • Obesity

Alongside organic, fresh food, pellets can provide the right kind of nutrition for your guinea pig. However, you must be very selective as to what type of pellets you feed your cavies. Learn to look at the composition of the pellets before buying. The following ingredients are not healthy for guinea pigs:

  • Animal products
  • Beef pulp
  • Corn products
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Oils
  • Vegetable fiber
  • Rice bran
  • Rice flour

While it may become harder if you include the additives and preservatives list, it would still be better if you can buy something with the least amount of the following: corn syrup, sucrose, propylene glycol, food coloring, etc.

These are all chemical preservatives and unnecessary additives. There is no need to preserve the food so much because you do not need large bags of pellets. Moreover, large bags of pellets kept over a very long time lose their nutritional value as they sit open but unused.

Feeding and exercising the piggy

Avoid overfeeding your guinea pigs. Unlike humans, who can stay obese for quite a while before something serious happens, guinea pigs usually succumb to being overweight in a very short time. One spoonful of pellets in the morning and another spoonful at night is sufficient for an adult guinea pig. However, if your pet is less than 3 months old, it might be a good idea to keep a small bowl of pellets in the cage.

Guinea Pig Diet

If a word were to describe a guinea pig’s ideal diet, it would be natural. Guinea pigs out in the wild are very dependent on plant materials of various kinds. Apart from eating stalks, leaves, and roots, wild guinea pigs are seen cracking shells (nuts) and opening plant pods.

While it is a good idea to feed your guinea pigs vegetables, you might encounter problems with proper storage. Therefore, the next best thing is mixed-feeding: one portion of pellets (as a staple diet), one portion of fresh food, and a moderate amount of roughage.

Guinea pig pellets

Remember; buy only pellets that are for guinea pigs. Do not make substitutions, as other pellet formulas might contain less of the vital nutrients required by guinea pigs such as folic acid and lots of ascorbic acids. When buying the pellets, do not over-purchase.

You can buy a small pack that would last for 7 days or for 2 weeks. Never buy more than what your guinea pig needs in a whole month. There is a chance that the pellets would become rancid, moist, or overly dried. If you can, store the unused pellets in your freezer to preserve the integrity of the ingredients used in the pellets.

Feeding tips

Avoid pouring new pellets on top of uneaten or stale pellets. More often than not, your cavy would not touch the food container if there were old food present. Instead, take out the dish/container and empty the contents. Wash the container with some soap and lots of water. After drying the container, pour fresh food. The guinea pig would most likely approach and begin feeding.

If you notice that your guinea pig becomes overly fat, you must reduce its food intake and increase the supervised exercise time. Wide space counts for exercise; ramps do not. Ramps actually hinder a guinea pig’s sprinting space.

Making feeding time better

The first step is making sure that the food’s vessel is clean. Simple washing and dousing with warm water are enough to kill the bacteria that normally thrive in such environments. If you can, use stainless steel feeding bowls. They last longer and they are chew-proof. In fulfilling the needs of the animal for natural food, a variety of greens should be fed daily. Guinea pigs are to be fed based on a daily schedule. Ideally, they should only eat twice a day.

The Importance of Hay

If you already own a guinea pig and you have purchased an amply sized cage, you would probably have noticed some hay repositories hanging from either side of the cage. Yes, guinea pigs need hay. Guinea pigs require lots of roughage to keep their digestive tract up and running.

Access to the roughage is as simple as hay. You have two choices: you can go to a pet store and buy pre-packaged hay (alfalfa and Timothy hay are common) or you can go to a local stable and buy hay by the bundle. If you are buying hay by the bundle, make sure that there is no fungal growth and the hay is not damp from the rain.

Guinea Pigs Health

In general, guinea pigs given quality care survive for more than 5 years as pets. Quality care does not merely refer to the expensive food you can buy.

In fact, guinea pigs have thrived for thousands of years without the intervention of commercial food. Commercial food is not the best. It just attempts to come close to the natural food of guinea pigs. In the end, all our efforts exerted are for keeping the little critters alive.

The cavy’s coat

The most prominent and distinguishing characteristic of the guinea pig is, of course, his coat. All guinea pigs have a thicker, tougher outer coat of fur. The second layer of fur is finer and softer.

Apart from natural insulation and protection from the elements, the appearance of the fur is also camouflage in nature. However, since humans have already selectively crossbred distinct lines of guinea pigs, we’re not sure whether colorful guinea pigs are still that camouflaged in the free range.

Only one type of fur coloring and patterning remains very close to the evolutionary traits brought by natural selection: agouti. Agouti allows these small creatures to hide and effectively evade predators in the forests.

Agouti is also very telling of a guinea pig’s nature: nervous.
Since they have remained small and vulnerable to claws and teeth of larger animals, it is their instinct to be suspicious of newcomers and foreign sights. That is why you have to earn their trust as their new owner.

Jaws, teeth, muscles

Before you buy a guinea pig from a pet store, know this: cavies are chewers. These animals tend to chew on just about anything. They do not do it because they are naughty or anything; they do it to keep their teeth from cutting through their gums and lips. You see, all their teeth grow continuously even in adulthood. They have to keep on chewing on things to control the length of the teeth.

As such, you must make your home chew-proof. If you have items at home that might look inviting to a guinea pig on the romp, simply raise them on a top-shelf. Do not underestimate the guinea pig’s teeth: they can grind down shells and even husks. All these are necessary for the survival of the guinea pig in the wild, where they are entirely dependent on plan sources for their sustenance.

Unique digestion

It is interesting to note that guinea pigs thrive on plants alone but can convert eighty percent of all the substrates to energy. If a human can do that, then obesity would probably have been outdated for humans, who tend to store fat rather than use it. Now, here is the most interesting part: how do guinea pigs digest the cellulose in their diet? Well, guinea pigs have an organ similar morphologically to the human appendix, the cecum.

The cecum stores the bacteria that can break down the cellulose to carbohydrates. After the cecum is finished with the cellulose, the plant material has to enter the stomach once again. The guinea pig expels the plant material in the form of small pellets and eats it again to absorb the nutrients.

Taking Care Of Guinea Pigs

Having a pet may be one of the greatest yet simplest pleasures of life. Having a pet around is therapeutic; it lowers blood pressure, eases stress, and prolongs life. Some people go for the usual pets like cats, dogs, and iguanas. Some like ‘exotic’ creatures like snakes and other reptilians. For many homeowners, teenagers, and adolescents, a guinea pig is quite enough to lend a bit of joy to one’s life.

Advantages of taking care of guinea pigs

There are several advantages to taking care of guinea pigs. First, guinea pigs are very neat and they do not require walks at night or in the morning to exercise. In addition, they do not require bathroom breaks unlike dogs and cats, which might pee when left, locked inside a room. While it is true that a large cage would be perfect for them, they still take up a smaller space than say, a large aquarium for a dozen exotic fishes.

It is not true that guinea pigs are not bright creatures. In fact, you can train an adult guinea pig to use the litter box. If you can train your guinea pig, you can let the small critter explore your flat (only if there are no holes in the wall!). As for their level of inquisitiveness, it is boundless.

These creatures also know how to forge trust and a bond with the humans taking care of them. Like dogs and cats, they can also associate body language and sounds with pleasant and unpleasant things. For example, a loud crunching sound might mean that you are finally home and you have brought them something to eat.

Types and Appearances

There are 3 main types of guinea pigs if we were to classify them according to their outward appearance (length of the hair, color, etc). The first type is called the English guinea pig and can be identified with their short hair that usually measures 1 ½ inch long. The hair is very smooth and uniformly formed along with the head and the body region. The English guinea pig is the most adaptable type to live in medical research laboratories.

The second type is the Abyssinian guinea pig. The Abyssinian guinea pig is notable for its tri-color hair combinations and for its white spotting. Among the colors found in many guinea pigs around the world are:

  • Spotted black
  • Spotted red
  • Spotted white
  • Self black
  • Self chocolate
  • Self red
  • Self agouti (a wild color)

Primary considerations before buying

While it is true that guinea pigs are adorable and inquisitive little critters, they still need quality. For example, thorough cleaning of their cages is required at least once every week. This involves manual removal of feces and disinfecting the cage. Guinea pigs can also cause allergic reactions to members of your family. To make sure that none of your family members has adverse reactions to guinea pig dander, simply bring them along to a pet store and see whether any of them develop the sniffles.

Guinea Pigs Cage

Guinea pigs can be a great gift to kids, especially if you want to teach them valuable insight as to how to take care of someone other than himself or herself. Purchasing the little critters is the easy part.

The hard part is deciding where to keep the animals once you get home. There are several approaches to this problem, so you might want to evaluate each of these options before you buy anything.

Room for the cavies

Some pet keepers choose to allot a whole room to their guinea pigs. Building upon the principle that every animal in captivity deserves a wide space to move around, select pet keepers sacrifice a small room in their house to keep the little pigs happy.

However, there are some issues with letting small animals loose in one room. First is the issue of hygiene. The larger the space, the more random the droppings would be. If you have time to clean after your cuddly ones, then this approach is fine.

Of course, the guinea pigs would still require a small, box-type house within the large room. Wood shavings and grass are still the best insulating materials. Ideally, the fresh grass would simply dry and provide a pleasant insulating material for the cavies. Disinfection of the room is also recommended, at least once a week.

Traditional cages

The room approach might be too much for some (or most?) parents. We are aware of this, so we have also prepared something for those who would like to use traditional steel cages for their new guinea pigs.

In essence, every cage is an alien environment for animals because they were not born to live in cages. This is the big argument of some cage manufacturers against manufacturers who produce nearly identical cages for all types of animals.

It is up to you to decide, anyway. We recommend that you buy the largest cage available just to give your new animals some space to explore. Cats, dogs, and guinea pigs all show signs similar to cabin fever when placed in a very cramped environment. The cage should be at least 7 feet long (if your house allows that kind of space).

Pet store cages

Then we have those cages from pet stores. Some cages may be wider but might be more expensive ($100 above) while some are fashioned after fish aquariums (made from plastic). Plastic cages with large grids at the bottom are dangerous for hamsters; apart from poor ventilation, their legs may become damaged from falling through the grids.

We recommend that you house your guinea pigs inside your home to protect them from the following potential dangers:

  • Predators
  • Other pets
  • Temperature fluctuations
  • Weather changes

Unfortunately, since the guinea pigs are away from their natural habitat, they would not be able to use their instincts. This includes thermal regulation, different feeding methods, etc. Even their reproduction would be different since they are in an artificial environment. Nevertheless, once your little cavies are settled and feel secure about their new environment, they are quite a bunch to have around.