Guinea pigs, or cavies, are small mammals native to South America. They first came to Europe about 400 years ago, and have been cherished as pets ever since. Guinea pigs are often calm and docile, but still make lively pets. They are vocal when excited and will make a variety of sounds when they see their favorite people or when the fridge door is opened (they love treats!). Guinea pigs weigh about 1.5 to 2.5 pounds, and males are typically larger than the females. Guinea pigs rarely bite and are good pets for children who are old enough to handle them carefully and treat them with respect. The three most common breeds of guinea pig are the Smooth-Coated, with short, glossy fur; the Abyssinian, whose hair grows in fluffy tufts all over the body, and the Peruvian, with long, silky hair that flows to the ground.
Guinea pigs need a minimum of eight square feet of floor space in their cages. They are very social and will be happier if housed with another guinea pig, but this doubles the amount of space that they will need in their cages. Guinea pigs have sensitive paw pads and need solid flooring. They cannot be housed in a wire-bottomed cage.
When guinea pigs are frightened, they either freeze in place or run away, and they prefer to have a hiding place in their cage. Plastic tubes and wooden or woven hay boxes are available in pet supply stores. A good, free alternative is using a cardboard box with the bottom cut out of it. Many guinea pigs love to chew on cardboard boxes and, while you may need to replace it regularly, this chewing will help keep their teeth worn down to a good length. Small pieces of untreated wood can also be provided to help satisfy your guinea pig’s need to chew and keep their teeth from getting overgrown as well.
Paper or pine bedding should be several inches thick and should be changed twice weekly. Cedar shavings should not be used as bedding, as they contain phenols, which can be harmful to guinea pigs. Remove soiled bedding, droppings and stale food from the cage daily. Clean the cage completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing the bottom of the cage with warm water. Be sure everything’s dry before adding fresh bedding.
Make sure that your guinea pig doesn’t get overheated or chilled, as they are susceptible to both. In general, if you are comfortable, they are probably at a safe and comfortable temperature. If you need to venture out with your guinea pig in cold weather, make sure to cover the carrier with a warm blanket. On hot days, the car should be pre-cooled for them. Remember to never, ever leave your guinea pig unattended in a car for any reason even for just a few minutes, especially if it is a hot or cold day.
Commercial guinea pig pellets should make up the bulk of your pet’s diet. Nutritionally complete, they’re available at pet supply stores, and are made from plants, seeds and veggies. Feed your guinea pigs twice daily, in the morning and in the evening.
The ASPCA recommends offering small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables to your guinea pigs every day. Try grapes, cucumbers, corn, peas, carrots and pears. Half a handful of veggies and a slice of fresh fruit per pig is plenty. Always make sure to clean up any leftover fresh food before it spoils. You’ll also need to make grass hay available to your pets at all times. It’s great for the digestive system, and will also satisfy your pet’s need to gnaw.
Unlike other animals, guinea pigs cannot manufacture Vitamin C, so you’ll need to ensure that your pets get enough of this essential nutrient every day. A quarter of an orange will do, but you can also include some fruits and veggies that are high in C to their daily ration of fresh foods, such as kale, dandelion greens and strawberries.
Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. Use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube, and change the water daily.
Guinea pigs can be very picky eaters. They will often decide which foods they like early in life, and it is often difficult to change their diets. It’s a good idea to expose young guinea pigs to a wide variety of foods, so that they will be more accepting of changes in diet when they’re older.
Adult guinea pigs should have access to good quality grass hay at all times. Alfalfa hay is generally not recommended, as it can lead to obesity. Pellets are typically limited to help prevent obesity as well. Pet parents can offer fresh, clean greens to their guinea pigs daily diet. Fruit can be offered in small amounts as treats, but shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your guinea pig’s diet. Growing, pregnant or nursing guinea pigs have higher calorie requirements and can be offered more fruit, pellets and alfalfa hay.
Guinea pigs will also need a bottle with fresh, clean water to drink. The water should be changed daily, and the bottle should be thoroughly cleaned with hot, soapy water once a week to prevent algae formation.
Your guinea pig will need a source of Vitamin C. Vitamin C in guinea pig pellets breaks down quickly, even if it is sitting unopened in the store. Therefore, a very important part of your guinea pig’s diet is fresh food—especially vegetables—that is high in Vitamin C. A few options include parsley, bell peppers, kiwi and orange slices. Alternatively, you can add Vitamin C to your guinea pig’s water.
It’s crucial that you get your pets used to you—and used to being handled. Start by feeding them small treats. When they’re comfortable with that, you can carefully pick up one pig at a time, one hand supporting the bottom, the other over the back.
Once you have hand-tamed your piggies, you should let them run around in a small room or enclosed area to get some additional exercise every day. You will need to carefully check the room for any openings from which the guinea pigs can escape, get lost and possibly end up hurt. These animals must be supervised when they are loose because they will chew on anything in their paths—including electrical wires.
Most guinea pigs require very little grooming. They can be brushed with a soft bristled baby brush every other week. There are a few breeds that have very long hair and can require intensive grooming and setting their hair. Occasionally, a guinea pig will need a bath. You can bathe them with a mild pet shampoo and rinse with lots of warm water. Ask your vet to identify shampoo options that are safe for guinea pigs. Prevent chilling after the bath by keeping your guinea pig in warm towels until his fur is completely dry.
Guinea pigs that are on bedding will also need to have their nails trimmed. Typically trimming 1-2 times a month with a small cat nail trimmer will keep the nails at a good length.
Guinea pigs should see their veterinarian once a year. Your vet is there not only to heal your guinea pig when they are ill, but also to help keep them healthy and strong! Your vet can spay or neuter your guinea pig, help ensure that your guinea pig’s teeth are wearing evenly, that his or her weight is appropriate, and that they are not showing any signs of disease or nutritional deficiencies.
Guinea Pig Supplies and Annual Care Costs
While there are many “extras” that you can buy to spoil your guinea pig, the costs of yearly essentials are outlined below. :
- Guinea Pig pellet—A 5-pound bag usually costs around $15. The guinea pig will typically go through 2-3 each year. Total: $30-45
- Guinea Pig Hay—A 40oz-bag of good quality timothy hay is $12 and will typically last 30 days. Total for the year is $144
- Guinea Pig Cage—Though you probably won’t need to get one every year, an appropriately sized cage (8 ft2) will cost about $50
- Water Bottle— It will cost around $10 and should last about a year.
- Vitamin C for water—Vitamin C drops or powder cost about $8 and should last six months each. Total: $16.
- Bedding—This can be an expensive part of owning a guinea pig. Paper bedding will typically cost about $18 for a large bag (60L) and will last about three weekly bedding changes. Total for the year: $310.
- Veterinary Care—Yearly check-ups will vary depending on your area, but may cost around $50 per year.
- Vegetables and fruit snacks—While you can buy special veggies for your favorite friend, they can also share with you. Many guinea pigs love celery leaves, strawberry hulls and carrot peels. Just check with your vet for a list of safe veggies and fruits. Cost ranges from free to $20 per month.
Total Cost of Guinea Pig Ownership per year: $550-$800.