By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut
Guinea pigs can make wonderful pets – they are cheeky and inquisitive and very talkative! However, they can live for 5-6 years, are a long-term commitment and do still have a number of specific requirements which must be met in order to have them as a furry family member.
The average hutch is not big enough for guinea pigs, they are active animals and need a large space to explore with plenty of hiding places. They require both a dark sleeping area and a light area with plenty of space to adventure, both well ventilated. The minimum size for a pair of guinea pigs is 120cm x 60cm x 45cm but the bigger the better. They should be able to access their whole environment at all times. Being ‘prey’ animals means they can be easily frightened by sudden noises, movements and possible predators – this includes dogs, cats, foxes and large birds. Where their enclosure is housed should bear this in mind – either outdoor or indoor with other pets around. If they live inside, they should be away from the television, other pets and loud noises. Indoor enclosures can be open at the top, as long as no other animal is able to get in and they cannot climb out. All outside housing, hutches and runs, should be fully enclosed and secure so they cannot escape as well as being predator proof.
Bedding can include newspaper lining, paper-based litter for toileting areas and plenty of good quality, dust free hay. For indoor enclosures, fleece bedding can be used to cover flooring, but it should be expected to be toileted on and chewed so will need washing daily and replacing regularly. It is advised that soft wood products (such as pine sawdust) are not used as they can be implicated in some respiratory and other health issues and straw should be avoided where possible as, although good for providing warmth, it can cause eye injuries.
Toileting areas must be cleaned out daily and the whole enclosure cleaned out at least once a week. Toys and enrichment for guinea pigs come in many forms and can really make your guinea pigs happier. Hiding spots around the environment can help them to settle and give them somewhere to hide if they get scared. Hiding places can include tunnels, boxes and plastic ‘caves’. Generally, toys and hiding spots can be found in a range of materials from cardboard to plastic, wood to fabric and will all have the potential to be chewed so should be seen as disposable! Wood chew toys can be of benefit to help wear down teeth but a good quality hay-based diet should help avoid the need for this. Metal toys and toys with head sized holes in such as hay balls should be used with care – there are reports of guinea pigs becoming stuck between the bars of these when young.
Guinea pigs cannot cope with extreme temperatures – the ideal temperature for them is around 17-20°C. It’s advised they are kept indoors when the temperature outside is under 15°C – if this is not possible, make sure they have plenty of bedding to keep them warm. Microwavable heat pads can be used but must be removed if they begin to chew them. They must also be able to move away from any heat to regulate their own temperature. If the temperature is too high, they can overheat. This also applies in summer. They should not be in direct sunlight at any time. Non-toxic cool packs wrapped in towels can be provided in summer (again under supervision and removed with any chewing). Ensuring the enclosure is easily accessed will be important for cleaning, but also helps with picking up and handling your pet. Guinea pigs have a reputation for being good pets, if handled from a young age in the correct manner, they can be handled (under strict supervision) by children and rarely bite. Guinea pigs have a fairly delicate spine and can suffer severe injuries if handled incorrectly. Adults should catch and pick them up and for the child to sit on the floor to handle them, reducing the risk of injury if they are accidentally dropped.
Happy guinea pigs often do little hops and skips in their runs while adventuring – this is known as ‘popcorning’ and can be done at very high speed! Companionship is vital to a happy guinea pig home. They are highly social animals and live in communal groups in the wild. As pets, they need to be kept in pairs (or small groups) with two females being the easiest pairing. Two boars (boys) can be kept together but can be more difficult and it is best to introduce younger boars. Groups can consist of a neutered male and females or larger female groups. Traditionally, guinea pigs have been kept with rabbits, but this is not recommended. A small group of guinea pigs will provide a far happier environment. Guinea pigs can breed at a very early age and so boys and girls need to be kept separate from around three weeks of age. Unless they are neutered you may find you have the pattering of tiny paws – while this sounds very cute, there are significant health issues involved with pregnancy in very young guinea pigs.
Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).