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Frequently Asked Questions About Pet Guinea Pigs

You know you have questions about your guinea pig, and here are answers to 13 of the most common ones.

Teresa Murphy
Posted: April 16, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

1. Do guinea pigs make good starter pets for children? 

Guinea pigs make great pets for older children and adults. But because of this general perception many adults miss out on the wonderful world of guinea pigs. However, once touched by the sweet spirit of a cavy, a lot of adults become cavy guardians for life.  

2. Should we get one or two?

Definitely two — assuming you are 100 percent certain you are getting a nonbreeding pair. Guinea pigs are social, herd animals and are much happier and healthier when they live with one of their own kind. Also, with two or more guinea pigs, you see behaviors and interactions that you would never have the opportunity to observe if you had only one.

Do not house guinea pigs with other species, such as rabbits, rats, hamsters or mice. Dietary requirements are different, social behavior is different and injuries may occur.  

3. If I get two, won’t they bond with each other instead of me?

Guinea pigs interact with you just as well if they have a guinea pig friend that lives with them. Sometimes, this can make the human/guinea pig interaction even easier because the guinea pig is less stressed in a better social environment.  

4. Won’t males fight?

It is a pervasive myth that males will fight. Many people have bonded adult males in pairs living together. How well two guinea pigs get along depends on the personalities of the guinea pigs and other environmental factors, such as cage size. 

It is also a myth that neutering a male will reduce aggression. Neutering does not change their behavior. The only reason to neuter a male is to pair him up with a female without producing offspring. 

Females aren’t immune to behavior issues. Some females won’t get along with other females, and some won’t get along with males. 

The trick is to pair up a guinea pig with dominant behavior traits with a submissive guinea pig. But there is no guarantee that two young males that get along now will continue to get along in the future. Even littermates could develop issues.
 
As guinea pigs mature through adolescence, whether male or female, a submissive guinea pig may challenge the dominant guinea pig for top position in the social order. Be flexible in your expectations.  

5. How do you tell the males from the females?

Sexing can be done at any age. With babies, confirm the sex at about 2 weeks of age. Press gently just above the genital area. If it’s a male, you should be able to make the penis slowly extrude. Don’t be fooled by appearances. Sometimes, it doesn’t look as if there is a penis there. In heavy, older males, the penis can be tucked away in folds of skin. 

If it is a male, you can usually feel the inner part of the shaft (which is under the skin) in the same area — just above the genitals — by gently pressing and rubbing your finger over that area. That is a telltale sign of a male. Also, a pucker or protrusion of skin at the top of the genital area is a good indication that a penis is tucked away underneath. But, be sure to get it to extrude to confirm it. Young males have a donut shape around their rectum where their testicles are. 

Sows (females) usually have a smooth swelling over their genital area. The skin covering their vagina looks more connected as part of the genital area than it does on the male. Sometimes it can be bumpy-looking, making you think it might be a male. If you gently part the genital opening on a sow, a Y- shaped opening should appear.  

6. Where do we get our guinea pigs, and what do we look for?

Check your local animal shelters or guinea pig rescues across the country. Also, check your local paper and online listing resources like PetFinder for ads from people looking to rehome their guinea pigs. 

Once you’ve exhausted your search for a guinea pig in need of a home, try a breeder or pet store. Please be careful to adopt or buy a same-sex pair so that you don’t inadvertently contribute to the overpopulation problem. Many pet stores do not guarantee the sex of the guinea pigs they sell. 

Be sure of the sexes of the cavies that you are buying or adopting. If there is any doubt, have a vet check them before you commit. 

A healthy animal is a must. Look for a full and healthy coat of hair, clear eyes and nose, no labored breathing or wheezing, no wetness underneath and an alert and active posture. If you come across sick animals for sale or adoption, please contact your local animal control officials and report the conditions. It is better to try to get the situation corrected rather than "rescue” that one animal — making room for more to take its place.
 
7. What kind of cage do guinea pigs need?

As large as possible! The minimum cage size recommended for one or two guinea pigs is 7.5 square feet. The preferred size is 10.5 square feet. Keep in mind these are your family pets that you want to live long and happy lives. A few commercially available cages provide larger-than-normal space. You can also make your own cage. For more information on that, visit Cavy Cages

In addition to ample space, make sure your cage has adequate ventilation. Never use aquariums or high-sided tubs to house guinea pigs. Do not house your guinea pig in a garage or laundry room. For tips about where to locate the cage, click here>>

guinea pig eating cantaloupe
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Cantaloupe is a fresh food item you can offer as an occasional treat, in smaller portions than in this photo.

8. What’s the best kind of bedding, and how often should it be changed?

The bedding solution that will work for you is a matter of trade-offs. Balance your priorities between your resources and your concerns about the health and welfare of your guinea pigs and your family.

Never use cedar chips. Cedar is generally recognized as being harmful to rodents. Do not use pine chips or shavings unless they have been kiln-dried. Kiln drying is the correct process to remove as many harmful oils as possible from the bedding.
 
Paper bedding is one of the best choices from an absorption, weight and safety perspective. But it can be expensive. Some people use towels and change them frequently. A good compromise between weight, price and safety is a layer of kiln-dried pine covered by a layer of paper bedding.

9. What do we do after we get them home?

Have patience! It can take guinea pigs a few weeks to figure out that they are in a new but safe home and environment. For the first few days, let them adjust to your household and feeding routine. 

To help get them used to you, don’t always try to pet them or pick them up when you reach in the cage. Put your hand in the cage and leave it there for a little bit. Let them eventually come up to you to check it out. Pet them sometimes, and pick them up sometimes. 

To start with, just keep them out for short intervals. Try doing 15-minute sessions. That is the average amount of time before they need to potty anyway. Guinea pigs all have their own personalities. Some are friendlier than others. Over time (and it can take quite a bit of time with guinea pigs) they will learn to trust you and recognize your scent and sounds. Just be patient. 

10. Why do I need to quarantine my new guinea pig, and how do I introduce it to existing pets?

When you bring home a new friend for an existing guinea pig or you get two guinea pigs from different sources, you need to keep them apart for two to three weeks before you try putting them together. Make sure that one does not have any medical problems it could pass on to the other. If one is sick or has any parasites or fungal infections, treat it first rather than risk spreading the condition to your other guinea pig.

Quarantine means keeping the guinea pigs in two different rooms, which requires two separate cages. Also, handle the new guinea pig last and wash your hands afterward. Keep a smock in the room with the newcomer. Wearing it over your clothes while in the room reduces the chance of you passing along parasites or diseases on your clothing.

Typical problems to look for with new guinea pigs are URIs (Upper Respiratory Infections), mange mites, fungal infections, scurvy and pregnancy.

Examine your new guinea pig closely and carefully while in quarantine. Watch for signs of mites (scratching and hair loss). Mange mites are not visible to the naked eye. Watch for lice, fleas and fungus (ringworm). Look for eye or nasal discharge, excessive sneezing, wheezing, loud breathing and other abnormalities. If you suspect your new guinea pig is not well, take it to a good vet as soon as possible. Guinea pigs can quickly become critically ill.

After quarantine, do not just plop the new guinea pig into your existing guinea pig’s cage. Guinea pig introductions should be done in a neutral area. Some guinea pigs will get along just great. But most will go through the standard dominance dance of getting to know each other and trying to figure out who is going to be the boss. They must and will decide this themselves. This may happen in one afternoon or it may take months. 

11. What about illness?

If you can hear your guinea pig breathe (wheezing, labored breathing), it most probably has a health problem. If your guinea pig slows down eating or stays facing the wall or corner during feeding time, that can indicate a problem. Crusty eyes, a runny nose, diarrhea, blood in the urine, hair loss and excessive scratching are all signs of problems. 

It is very important to take your guinea pig to a veterinarian who specializes in guinea pigs or small animals as soon as you notice changes in behavior. As prey animals, guinea pigs are good at hiding their symptoms. By the time you notice a problem, a pet has usually been sick for days or weeks. Get to a vet right away. 

Find a vet you can count on before you need one. Get a wellness check for your guinea pig so that you are already a customer and your vet has baseline statistics for your pet. The average cat and dog vet may have little experience with guinea pigs.  

12. What’s the most important item in a guinea pig’s diet?

Hay, hay, hay! Unlimited timothy hay (or a grass hay) is recommended for adult cavies. For young cavies under the age of 4 months, pregnant guinea pigs or lactating mothers, alfalfa hay is also recommended. For those cavies, mix half timothy and alfalfa. Because alfalfa hay is too high in calcium, only give it to adult cavies as an occasional treat. Timothy and alfalfa are types of hays, not brands.  

13. What kind of pellets and fresh food do they eat and when?

Cavies should have plain, high-quality guinea pig pellets (mixes with nuts and seeds are too rich), fortified with vitamin C. Guinea pigs need about 10 to 30 milligrams per kilogram of body weight daily. Give your guinea pigs a quarter of a 100-milligram chewable or plain vitamin C tablet, or administer a small amount of liquid vitamin C drops. 

Feed guinea pigs a variety of fresh greens once or preferably twice a day. Dark leafy greens, high in vitamin C and low in calcium and oxalic acid, are a good choice. One small piece of fruit a day is adequate. Guinea pigs are grazers and do best when they have food to munch on throughout the day. 

A typical cavy diet might include: romaine lettuce, Italian parsley, a piece of carrot and a piece of apple. In addition, add or substitute these foods frequently: dandelion greens (a favorite), red chard, Swiss chard, kale, cilantro, seedless grapes, cantaloupe and cherry tomatoes. 

In addition to those regular foods, the following foods can be substituted or added for variety: escarole, collard greens, spinach (occasionally), green beans, fresh corn on the cob (inner husks and the cob), celery, cucumber, watermelon (especially the rinds), beet greens, orange wedges, strawberries, blueberries and red bell pepper. Although pepper is good for them, many guinea pigs don’t care for it. The red variety has a much higher vitamin C content than the green.

Experiment with foods to find out what your cavy likes. Just because it turns its nose up at something one day, doesn’t mean it won’t find it tasty the next. Keep trying with new foods. Variety is important.

Like this article? Check out:
Gleeful Guinea Pigs, click here>>

See guinea pig health questions and answers, click here>>
See guinea pig behavior questions and answers, click here>>

Posted: April 16, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT


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