GUINEA PIG CARE GUIDE: HUSBANDRY AND HEALTH
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
The Guinea Pig (or Cavy) belongs to the rodent family of mammals. The Latin name is Cavia porcellus, or pig-like cavy. They originate from South America where they are kept as a food source and are used in both religious and healing ceremonies in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The pet Guinea Pig we know today was selectively bred by the Inca (1200-1532 AD) to produce a multitude of hair types and coloring. Guinea Pigs were imported to Europe in the 16th Century, where the breeding and selecting process has continued to this day.
The wild cousin of the domestic Guinea Pig lives in many different habitats, from grasslands high in the Andes, to forest edges and even swampy areas where they are known to swim.
Guinea Pigs make excellent pets for people of all ages. They are crepuscular by nature (mostly active at dawn and dusk), usually sleeping on and off during the midday hours, and sleeping through the night. They are very entertaining small herbivores who will beg for treats and attention. They live in large herds in the wild, and so are highly social mammals. Keeping a Guinea Pig is a commitment of time and energy on your part. They require copious amounts of love and companionship on a daily basis by their human friends if they are to be kept alone, Guinea Pigs require a "partner" be it piggy or human.
Guinea Pigs have a large vocabulary of hoots, wheeks and purrs, and use body language to communicate with each other and their human companions. They enjoy hiding in tunnels, boxes or large piles of hay. When a piggy is truly happy he shows you by jigging for joy or "pop-corning" when he literally throws himself into the air often shouting "yip" or "roots" at the same time! When your pig purrs for you, it is true love indeed. Boy pigs will purr and walk with a stiff-legged gait called rumble strutting which they reserve for a pretty girl pig, or their favorite human!!
As an essential part of their digestive health, Guinea Pigs practice Coprophagy. This is the ingestion of special fecal pellets, sometimes referred to as night droppings, which enable Guinea Pigs to fully extract B vitamins from their diet. This practice also re-introduces essential gram positive bacteria into the gut, which aids in the digestion of fiber. To give a sick piggy a boost back to health, droppings from a healthy Guinea Pig can be ground up and fed to the convalescing animal.
Guinea Pig teeth are all open rooted which means they continually grow throughout their life. As such their teeth need to be constantly challenged to help ensure overgrowth does not occur. It is essential for their over-all health that the diet consists of hard fibrous items which will provide constant wear for teeth and plenty of bulk for the health of their GI tract. Hay and pellet food are therefore essential. Check your pigs incisors (front teeth) weekly, they should be straight, if a slant is present they probably have pre-molar and/or molar malocclusion, and will require regular tooth filings.
As a general rule a Guinea Pig's diet should consist of approximately 75% Hay, 20% dry pellet food, and 5% fresh veggies.
HAY: Hay provides exceptional fiber content, and should be the basis of a Guinea Pigs diet. Oxbow Hay Company has several different types of grass hay, including Orchard Grass, Oat Hay, Botanical Hay and Timothy. Offering a variety of types helps prevent boredom; Guinea Pigs naturally would spend much of their time foraging for food. Young Guinea Pigs less than 1 year of age can have Alfalfa hay, which is rich in calcium for healthy growth, but Guinea Pigs older than 1 year should be switched to Grass hays.
PELLETS: There should never be any peanuts, sunflower seeds, or millet etc. in your Guinea Pigs food. They need a high fiber content and very low fat content in their food to remain healthy, and nut or seed products are not part of their natural diet. As with the hay types, young pigs should be fed an alfalfa based pellet, and those over 1 year should be fed exclusively on a timothy based pellet. Always buy the smallest bag of dry food so the pellets are as fresh as possible. It is also important to mix together some of the old bag with the new, to avoid a GI upset, especially when switching brands of food.
FRESH FOOD: To provide your Guinea Pig a balanced diet, fresh veggies must be included with daily feedings. Appropriate foods can be divided into 3 basic groups; Greens, Roots and Fruits.
Greens: Grass, parsley, Dill, Romaine Lettuce, Bib Lettuce, Kale, Cilantro, Celery, Cucumber, Dandelion, Cabbage, Broccoli, and Cauliflower leaves and stalks.
Roots: Carrot, Parsnip, Beets, Turnip and Fennel.
Fruits: Apple, Pear, Grapes, Melon, Banana, Strawberries, Blueberries and Orange.
Dark green leafy veggies are by far the healthiest for your Guinea Pig, but no pigs' diet is really complete without a carrot or small piece of fruit as a treat! The older a pig gets typically the more conservative they are in what they will eat, so offering a wide variety of fresh foods from an early age helps to prevent "picky pig" syndrome.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an essential supplement, just like us, Guinea Pigs must ingest it to survive. Use a pinch of pure vitamin C powder or crystals (ascorbic acid) on their fresh food once daily to ensure a good daily dose. Overdosing with plain vitamin C is not possible as any excess is excreted by the kidneys. Vitamin C has a very short shelf life, so even pellet foods enriched with vitamin C will have very little left 3 months post manufacture. If you use a multi-vitamin from the pet store this must be very carefully measured as too much calcium can be absorbed with excess vitamin D supplementation, and this may result in bladder stones.
Each individual Guinea Pig requires approximately 4 square feet of living space, and needs daily exercise time out of his enclosure. Place his cage in a high traffic area in your home, so he gets plenty of attention and interaction with family members. Choose a cage with a solid floor made of a non-porous material (i.e. not wood!) so urine cannot soak in. Cages with wire mesh floors are not recommended as this can cause major foot problems later in life.
Never use wood shavings of any kind as a substrate, the aromatic oils and dusty nature of these products are detrimental to both skin and lungs. The best type of bedding is a recycled paper product called Carefresh, this comes in many colors and is highly absorbent. Guinea Pigs are clean loving animals and should have a complete change of bedding at least once a week, with a daily clean up of soiled areas. Ammonia may build up from improper cage cleaning and can be highly detrimental to your pigs' health.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
Guinea Pigs are prey animals and will naturally hide any weakness or illness. It is crucial therefore, that at the first sense of something being not quite right, pig owners pay close attention to the small signs of sickness their pig may show. This makes medical diagnosis quite difficult, as by the time most owners recognize there may be a problem; more than one issue may already exist. Keeping a record of your animals usual behavior, and a once weekly weight check can alert you to a problem early.
Guinea Pigs can get ringworm, fleas and Bordetella (kennel cough) from other companion animals. Avoid handling your pig if you have a nasty cold or flu, and always wash your hands before feeding him. Evidence exists of disease transfer to your Guinea Pig if you are suffering from one of these viral infections.
Guinea pigs cannot vomit. Anything a pig ingests must therefore come out of his back end. As a consequence ingesting foods which are of poor quality or eating large quantities of fresh food can cause a potentially fatal condition called Bloat. This is an extremely painful condition which can occur quite quickly, and can result in torsion of the GI tract which is always fatal. If your pig is suddenly withdrawn, hunched and utterly miserable looking with a taught and tense abdomen particularly enlarged on the left side, urgent veterinary care is required. To test your home diagnosis, flick the left side of the abdomen, if the resulting sound is hollow like a drum, then you have a bloat situation. This condition cannot wait until morning, by then it will be too late.
An excellent book on Guinea Pig health is called "Piggie Potions" by Peter Gurney, in it he gives lots of great advice and includes home health remedies where appropriate. Importantly Guinea Pigs cannot tolerate many commonly used veterinary medications. This includes Penicillin derived antibiotics, as these kill off their essential gut flora, and their use always proves fatal. However, there are other medications that are safe, including Baytril and Sulpha drugs. It is extremely important, therefore, to find Veterinary help from experienced Guinea Pig practitioners!
There is good, bad and indifferent advice available on the Internet. I highly recommend that Guinea Pig lovers join the Cambridge Cavy Trust in the U.K., they offer telephone health advice to members unable to visit them in Cambridge, England and your annual membership fee enables Vedra Stanley-Spatcher to continue her lifelong commitment to Guinea Pig health. Some other good web sites include: www.guinealynx.com and www.oxbowhay.com.
The Guinea Pig Rules in a Nutshell!
Never give a Guinea Pig a wheel or a ball to exercise in, their spines just do not flex enough, and serious injury will result.
Never use any type of wood shavings or sawdust as a cage substrate; these are usually dusty and/or oily which irritate both lungs and skin.
Never feed any green-stuff which is old, wilted, frosted or yellowing. If you would not eat it, then neither should your piggy!
Never feed any plant grown from a bulb (e.g. onion, garlic) as all are poisonous.
Never feed any raw potato or raw peelings.
Never feed your pig chocolate or coffee, these are both deadly poisonous.
If you collect wild plants to use as fresh forage, feed these quickly after picking as they can over-heat and cause bloat. Always make sure you collect plants from areas free of pesticides, herbicides, animal waste and pollution.
Always allow refrigerated food to come up to room temperature before feeding to avoid causing bloat.
Never leave your piggy outside unattended, predators are everywhere!
Beware of heat-stroke; Guinea Pigs are unable to dissipate heat quickly as they cannot sweat or pant. Place their cage away from direct sunlight. Temperatures exceeding 80 F may be fatal. As a consequence Georgia is unsuitable for housing pigs outside.
Beware of cold draughts; pigs can catch a cold/chill quite easily.
Care must be taken when you have a cold or flu as Guinea Pigs can catch our viruses. Always wash your hands before touching or feeding, and do not cough or sneeze on your pig!
Do check your pigs' weight weekly and keep a record of it, large variations may be an indicator of a problem.
Provided by Wieuca Animal Clinic