Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, make fantastic pets. They are very safe for children to handle and can be lots of fun. It's important to know, however, that they require plenty of attention to be cared for properly. Guinea pigs should be considered a long term decision as they can live up to seven years.
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Housing for guinea pigs
Guinea pigs require a hutch that keeps them safe from predators (eg. dogs, foxes and cats), has an area that protects them from the weather and provides enough room for exercise. A suitable hutch includes a dark area for the guinea pigs to rest and hide, which has bedding of something like wood shavings, cellulose fibre, shredded paper or polar fleece - and is needs to be protected from water/rain. The other section of the hutch should be light and large enough to allow for a separate exercise and toileting area. The hutch must also have good ventilation. It is best to have a hutch made out of wood as metal hutches can tend to get very hot.
It is important to clean the hutch at least every second day by removing soiled bedding and making sure the guinea pigs have a dry place to sleep. Guinea pigs that don't have access to clean bedding can suffer from respiratory infections, skin problems and fleas and mites.
Guinea pigs are very sensitive to changes in temperature and need a warm place to snuggle in the winter that will not be affected by frost, rain or cold winds.
Guinea pigs can suffer from heat stress. Once the temperature is higher than 30ºC it is necessary to regularly check on your guinea pigs. It is important not to put the hutch in direct sunlight during the warmer months. Keep it in the shade even on warm to cool days. It doesn't take long for heat to build up in small areas. On hot days it can help to provide a frozen drink bottle or ice brick in the nesting area of the hutch to keep the area cool.
Guinea pigs are herbivores, so they only eat plant material. They should have a constant source of grass hay and some fresh grass every day. A high fibre diet helps to make sure they are healthy and is good for their teeth. Guinea pigs' teeth are constantly growing and need to be continually worn down by eating.
Fresh vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, carrots, broccoli and celery should be included in their daily diet. Foods high in Vitamin C such as citrus or kiwi fruit are a necessary supplement as, like humans, guinea pigs do not make their own vitamin C.
Avoid feeding guinea pigs potatoes, onions, rhubarb leaves and oxalis clover as these species are poisonous to guinea pigs. Too many grain products are not good for guinea pigs as they are low in fibre and high in sugar. Fresh, cool water must be available at all times.
Guinea pigs are social species and prefer to live in groups. If you have guinea pigs for pets, you should always have at least two. To avoid unwanted pregnancies you can separate males and females. Males will be less likely to fight if introduced to each other at a young age. It is advisable not to house guinea pigs and rabbits together as rabbits can be aggressive and dominant towards guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs can sometimes develop dental problems. It's important that they are constantly chewing on something; either grass, hay or a gnawing block as their teeth grow at a rate of 2-3mm per week. Overgrown teeth can lead to weight loss and severe pain.
Guinea pigs are also susceptible to mite infestations. Symptoms can include hair loss and itchiness. A thorough clean out and disinfection of the hutch is required if there is a mite problem. The guinea pigs should also be treated by a vet or provided with appropriate parasite treatment.
Swollen footpads, known as bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis) can be a problem for guinea pigs on hard surfaces. To avoid this problem make sure there is soft material like hay or grass for them to walk on. Avoid uncovered wire mesh floors.
If you are breeding your guinea pigs ensure they have been vet checked and are healthy. Mastitis of the udder is a common problem for lactating guinea pigs. To prevent mastitis do not over breed females - make sure they have a rest period between litters that is at least long enough for them to return to a fit and healthy condition. If symptoms of mastitis occur, such as a swollen udder, pain or scabbiness in the udder region, seek veterinary advice. Any health issues that develop require advice from your local vet.
Depending on the breed, guinea pigs can have short, rosette (spiky) or long hair. If your guinea pig is long haired then regular grooming is necessary for good coat condition as long hair can easily become matted. Gently brush out dead hair, tangles or burrs and if necessary use scissors to remove mattered hair.
Guinea pigs make great pets for children as they are gentle and can be tamed easily. They must be handled carefully and appropriately so they can develop a positive relationship with humans. It is best to pick guinea pigs up with two hands and to hold them close to the chest or on your lap so they can rest their feet and feel safe and secure. Make sure that you hold them firmly as sometimes they can jump from your hands or body and injure themselves.