Caring for you Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are wonderful pets and they deserve the best we can give them

Guinea pigs are adorable, sociable, 'chatty' rodents. There are different breeds and varieties of guinea pigs, with a wide variety of colour and coat lengths. Typically guinea pigs live for 5-6 years, but some may live up to 8.

Guinea pigs are traditionally thought of as good first pets for children, but this is a common misconception that results in guinea pigs being one of the most at risk animals of neglect. While having a guinea pig in the house is a great way to teach children responsibility it should always be an adult that actually takes responsibility for the animal to ensure they are properly handled and cared for. 

The most important aspect of guinea pig care is to have two! They are very social animals and need companionship of there own kind. In the wild they live in groups of between 5 and 10, though several groups may live in close proximity to each other to form a colony. A collection of guinea pigs is called a group- although many pet owners prefer the term herd. Groups tend to comprise of an alpha male with 3-4 females. This is also the best practice when keeping them as pets. Although 2 males can also live harmoniously together when given enough space.

It is very important to get your male snipped before introducing him to his potential girlfriend(s). After castration a period of 4 weeks is recommended before allowing him to mingle. Expect to supervise your guinea pig around the clock post surgery to ensure they're eating well, and to recognise any sudden decline in health. Your guinea pig may also become tired and sensitive, which isn't unusual, but they should not be in any critical pain or be discouraged from eating. 

Your veterinarian may ask you to syringe feed your guinea pig at home to keep their digestive system on track, however, fluids given following the surgery should carry hydration fine until the next day. It is overall very rare for complications to arise from castrations. (Please note that I am not a veterinarian and I highly recommend finding a vet that is well versed in guinea pig welfare.)

 

Introducing guinea pigs must be done under supervision and somewhere new to both animals. Guinea pigs introduced as babies, or babies introduced to a bigger herd usually get on fine, but adult males introduced for the first time may fight. 

Guinea pigs kept together will naturally form an ‘order’ with some animals being more dominant than others. If there are not enough places in the accommodation for guinea pigs to hide or spend time away from each other, they can become stressed and may start to bully lower ranking guinea pigs.

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Environment

Guinea pigs require a lot more space than many prospective pet owners realise. There are very few store brought cages that are large enough for our furry friends, it is highly recommended to fashion your own diy cage. Or extend a store brought cage with a puppy pen. Using C and C grids as an indoor home is a very popular and reasonably priced option. 

  • The cage must be secure and between 7 and 10 square feet for a pair of guinea pigs, it must be high enough for them to stand up fully on their back legs, around 30-40cm.  

  • It must consist of a large exercise area, ideally with unrestricted access; with tubes, shelters and other toys to encourage exercising, foraging, and social behaviour. Juvenile piggies are especially playful and need lots of space.

  • It should also have hiding spots to rest and feel safe in. As prey animals they are generally a bit nervous of new sights, sounds and smells. Their immediate response to a perceived threat is either to freeze (remain still and alert) or run to a hidey. Guinea pigs feel vulnerable in unprotected open spaces and like to stay in contact with solid surfaces, cardboard boxes or houses are used to provide a refuge for resting in, hiding and sleeping . Refuges can also help to relieve stress and anxiety and reduce any aggression in groups. It is best that houses have 2 points of exist to avoid one guinea pig getting trapped. Similarly when using tubing, make sure it is not too long - if more than two animals can enter, then the one in the middle may become panicked.

  • Ensure all areas are well ventilated, dry and draught-free. Living in draughty, damp, poorly ventilated or dirty environments can cause suffering and illness. They have particularly sensitive respiratory systems and the ammonia from urine can make them very ill. Keeping their cage clean is very important. It is a well known fact that guinea pigs poop alot! So be prepared for daily poop scooping.

  • They're also sensitive to temperature changes. Temperatures above 26°C can cause heat stroke; below 15°C can cause them to become chilled. If keeping them in outdoor accommodation make sure it is sheltered from direct sun/prevailing wind direction. And be prepared to house them indoors if the temperature ranges outside of the ideal zone. Indoor accommodation is preferable, away from direct heat sources such as radiators or sunny windows, and draughts. Room temperatures of 17-20°C are ideal. 

  • Keep them in a quiet, calm, safe areas away from dogs, cats and other pets they may see as threats. Guinea pigs are particularly susceptible to stress when startled and it is good practice to minimise disturbance, for example by maintaining a quiet environment and ensuring that there are plenty of refuges to run to.

  • Enough warm bedding that should also be safe to eat, e.g. dust-free hay. Don't use softwood products like pine as these can cause illness due to their sensitive respiratory systems. Don't give guinea pigs nesting materials that separate into thin strands, e.g. cotton wool or similar 'fluffy' bedding products. They pose a serious risk to their health and welfare, due to the possibility of entanglement or ingestion. Fleece beds are another safe option. 

  • Untreated wooden toys to chew, e.g. fruit tree/willow sticks. Avoid plastic toys as they may harm them if swallowed. As rodents there teeth are in a constant state of growth so it is important to give them gnawing options.

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Diet

Guinea pigs have a delicate digestive system. That must be always moving in order to function. Guinea pigs who stop eating for whatever reason risk GI stasis and death. That is why it is so important to monitor your pigs eating habits. They require a high fiber diet rich in vitamin C while being conscious of foods that are high in calcium.

  • Having a constant supply of fresh good quality dry hay is essential and should constitute the majority of their diet. Timothy hay is best. Alfalfa has a large amount of calcium in and should be avoided. Do not give a guinea pig grass cuttings. 

  • Fresh potion of grass based high quality pellet food should be fed according to manufactures instructions, allowing excessive access to pellet food will result in overweight guinea pigs. Complete food is better then muesli as it stops the pigs picking and choosing the tastiest but not usually healthiest bits out. I suggest splitting the recommended portion into 2, to be given morning and night. This gives the pigs more to look forward to.

  • Fresh clean drinking water continuously, checked twice daily. Ensure water doesn't freeze in winter. Without water guinea pigs become seriously ill.  

  • Pigs can be given a handful of vegetables a day. Recommended vegetables have high vitamin C and low calcium these include: Green and yellow bell peppers, cilantro, and Brussels sprouts. You can also regularly give sliced cucumber and romaine lettuce. Veggies that are high calcium such as kale and broccoli must be given more sparingly. Although these foods have high vitamin C,  high calcium can lead to bladder stones- which guinea pigs are very prone to. If using fleece liner it is easier to keep an eye on your pigs pee, it is normal for pee to have some chalk-ish calcium deposit particularly in babies, but if it becomes thick and sludgy- stop all high calcium vegetables. 

  • Root vegetables like carrots, or fruit e.g. apples, must only be given in very small amounts as treats, They don't naturally eat root vegetables or fruit. Incorrect diets can cause serious dental disease, and high sugar foods can make them gain weight. It also is not recommended to give your pet citrus fruits.

  • Food is fun! Using food as an enrichment tool is a great idea for guinea pigs, such as forage mix scattered in their cage, hiding veggies in their beds and hanging up wood chew sticks will help occupy and entertain your pets.

  • Avoid sudden changes in diet and introduce new foods slowly; keep an eye on your pigs weight. Weekly weigh-ins are recommended. A sudden change in weight is often the first sign of illness but this also allows for feeding quantities to be adjusted preventing them becoming underweight/overweight. Quantities guinea pigs need depend on their, age, lifestyle and general health. 

  • Always try your best to monitor the amount they eat and drink. If these habits change, droppings get less or stop consult your vet immediately as they could be seriously ill. 

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Wellbeing

Be sure to check for illness or injury daily. Guinea pigs are very good at hiding their illnesses and often wont show any outward signs of discomfort, so it is very important to be observant. Get to know what normal is for your guinea pig, some pigs are naturally more outgoing than others. While some are especially lazy. Getting to know them is not only a fun and reward part of pet ownership it is also important so you can spot changes in normal behaviour. Changes in behaviour can be an early sign of illness. For example if they're not eating, are quieter or hiding more than usual. Seek veterinary advice immediately if you suspect they're in pain, ill or injured

  • In warm weather check fur/skin around their rear end twice daily. Urine staining or droppings stuck attract flies, causing fly-strike, which can be fatal.  

  • Their front teeth and nails should be checked at weekly - these grow quickly. Only vets should correct overgrown or misaligned teeth. But nails can be clipped at home. Be sure to be careful to not trim too short as they have blood vessels at the base of their nails called the quick- this is easily visible on pink nails but more difficult to see on black nails.

  • Grooming your guinea pig’s coat regularly can allow you to check their coat and overall body condition, long-haired varieties will need daily grooming and the occasional trim.

Taming

 

The guinea pig should quickly become accustomed to gentle but firm handling (although they may still squeal when handled). Many of their natural predators are birds, so they are easily alarmed when approached from above. They should always be approached from the front, and at a low level, to avoid frightening them. They should be handled with one hand supporting the hindquarters and the other grasping around the shoulders (for young animals) or chest. Guinea pigs are likely to be nervous when you first take them home so you shouldn’t handle them initially. During the first few days simply talk quietly to them. Encourage them to approach you by offering healthy treats. You can then start to gently stroke them and when they become more comfortable and confident with this, you can gradually get them used to being picked up. Using both hands, place one hand under your guinea pig’s chest so their front legs are either side of your fingers and use your other hand to support their back and rear. Once they get to know you they’ll enjoy spending time with you, but not all guinea pigs like being picked up and held. If your guinea pigs are frightened or are not relaxed and happy, interactions are better and safer at ground level.

 

A few tips and trick to help your piggies become your best friends.

  • Constantly talk to your pets, whenever you are in the room with them – tell them about your day, your dreams and aspirations. The more you talk to your pigs the more they will become comfortable with you and your voice. This is especially important when first entering the room. As piggies have poor eyesight they rely on sound and smell to identify you. So knowing it’s someone they trust entering the room will stop them from having a piggy freak-outs.

 

  • Respecting the wishes of your pet is important, messing with your piggies when they are not in the mood, will only make them try to avoid you more in future. This means greet your piggy first before petting or handling them. Putting your hand in front of their nose and say “hello” first. If your piggy doesn’t allow you to stroke them in the cage, this is normal for many guinea pigs and by respecting that they are more likely to let you pet them when they do eventually come around to the idea of cage petting. Obviously certain things like nail clipping are unavoidable- so should be appropriately rewarded with their favourite veggie!

  • It’s a good idea when portioning your guinea pigs veggies for the day, instead of putting it in their cage in one big heap, use them as rewards for behavior you want to encourage throughout the day (otherwise known as bribery). Like letting you pet them, squeaking, and pop corning. Things like cleaning their cage out or using the vacuum near them should also be rewarded.

  • Using a snuggle sack or other bed is a good way to cuddle your pig without making them feel too upset. Carrying your pig around isn’t something they like. Sitting on the sofa with a snuggle sack and some veggies in order to show some love to your pet is the idea. It’s also pretty cozy for them!

  • Most importantly give lots of time to your pet, and take your time when you are interacting with them. Be patient and you and your guinea pig will be buddies before you know it!