Talkative, social and rather cute, guinea pigs are great as a child's first pet or as a lifelong hobby. They are members of the Cavy family (Caviidae) of rodents native to South America. Dr. Kenneth Welle, an exotic pet veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, has advice on housing and feeding your guinea pig.
A guinea pig cage should have a solid floor covered in bedding rather than a wire-bottom cage, which can cause problems if the guinea pig catches its toes on the wire. If you use a cage with a wire floor, be sure to provide another surface where the guinea pig can relieve its feet.
"Good bedding for guinea pigs will be absorbent, soft, and non-aromatic," says Dr. Welle. "Wood shaving bedding should be avoided. The aromatics in the wood can cause irritation to the guinea pig's very sensitive sense of smell."
A fluffy bedding, such as the commercially available recycled paper bedding, used in a thick layer is ideal.
Cleanliness is very important for good guinea pig health. Dr. Welle recommends that areas that are soiled frequently should be cleaned once every day or two. The whole tray of bedding should be completely changed weekly or every other week, depending on the number of guinea pigs you have and the size of the cage.
A plentiful supply of clean water is very important as well. Avoid using a dish for water; guinea pigs may push bedding into it or spill it. Damp bedding can lead to foot problems, so it's best to use a hanging water bottle.
"Guinea pig's water will need to be changed daily," says Dr. Welle. "Guinea pigs are funny, and they like to spit food up the tube of their water bottle. Daily cleaning limits the chance that bacteria will grow in the water. You should also make sure that the drinking tube is not clogged by food."
The mainstay of a guinea pig's diet should be grass hay, such as timothy or fescue. Note that alfalfa and clover are legume hays, which are higher in calcium, protein, and calories. Legume hays may be appropriate for growing guinea pigs or pregnant ones, but not for adult guinea pigs.
Pelleted diets marketed for guinea pigs may be used in moderation. Dr. Welle recommended limiting pellets by weight: 1 tablespoon pellets per pound of guinea pig. That means the average adult guinea pig can have roughly 2 tablespoons of pellets a day. Young, growing guinea pigs can have unlimited access to pelleted guinea pig food.
"Pellets need to be fresh," warns Dr. Welle. "The vitamin C in the food will degrade three months after manufacturing. Unlike most other domestic species, which produce their own vitamin C, guinea pigs—like people—must get all their required vitamin C from the food they eat."
Dr. Welle says that salt licks are not necessary for guinea pigs unless they are somehow eating mineral-deficient hay. The hays sold for pet foods should not have this problem. If you do want to get your guinea pig a salt lick, the colored salt-and-mineral ones are better than the plain white ones, which have no added minerals. Salt licks can also help with getting your guinea pig to drink more water, if that is a concern.
As tempting as they are, the pretty diet mixes containing grains and seeds are disastrous, according to Dr. Welle. Guinea pig digestive systems are designed for grass diets, which are high in fiber and low in carbohydrates. The sugars and starches in some diets can cause a change in the digestive bacteria, intestinal obstructions, and obesity. If your guinea pig has been on such a diet, switch to a plain pellet and hay diet gradually.
So what can you give your guinea pig for a treat? Think dark, leafy green vegetables, such as collard greens, parsley, and dandelion. Make sure not to feed them the same thing every day, in order to avoid potential problems from consuming too much of a vegetable that is high in certain minerals.
These veggies are good treats for your cavy, something new and exciting that also provides extra moisture and vitamin C to their diet. If your yard has grass untreated with pesticides, guinea pigs can have outside time to graze as well. Just be sure to watch out for neighborhood cats and hungry hawks!
Guinea pigs make wonderful pets who love to talk to you. For a happy and healthy guinea pig, follow these tips and consult your own veterinarian with further questions.
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine 217/333-2907