How to Care for Your Guinea Pig

Lauren Jones, VMD
Written by:
Published: May 20, 2022
How to Care for Your Guinea Pig

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Guinea pigs, commonly referred to as cavies, can make excellent, fun, and loving pets if given appropriate care and veterinary treatment. They are docile and friendly members of the rodent family. Guinea pigs typically do not bite, although young, poorly socialized, or startled guinea pigs may nip out of fear. The average domesticated guinea pig's lifespan is 4-5 years.

While the American Cavy Breeder Association officially recognizes 13 breeds, three types of guinea pigs are commonly identified:

  • American: short, smooth hair
  • Peruvian: long, silky hair
  • Abyssinian: whorls of unruly, rough hair

Guinea pigs are herd animals with complex communication and vocalizations. They are not typically happy as solitary creatures and enjoy living in groups of two or more. Humans are not replacement companions for cavies. While it is best to raise guinea pigs together when they are young, many adults can be successfully introduced. Males, or boars, may thrive with multiple females, or sows. However, care must be taken not to allow them to breed if that is not the intention.

Guinea Pig Housing

Cage Size

Bigger is always better when it comes to guinea pig houses! If they spend a lot of time in the cage, it must be even larger. Most store-bought cages are far too small for guinea pigs, especially with multiples. At a minimum, the cage should be 50“ x 24”. For each additional guinea pig, the available square footage should be increased by 20%.

Cages should be well ventilated to help prevent respiratory disease, as guinea pigs have sensitive respiratory tracts. The flooring should be sturdy and solid (not a grate or wire) to avoid damage to the feet. Height is not as big of a factor, but some guinea pigs may enjoy small, safe ramps and multiple levels.

Bedding

Carefresh, Yesterday's News, paper towels, and washable fleece are preferred bedding materials. Spot-clean dirty areas daily, and fully change the bedding every 3-4 days. Do not use cedar chips and avoid wood shavings in general as these can cause respiratory irritation. Guinea pigs are typically messy and may even relieve themselves in food dishes, so proper hygiene is essential.

Room temperature

Guinea pigs have little tolerance for heat and humidity. Never allow them to be in over 80 degree temperatures, and keep the relative humidity between 40% and 70%. Guinea pigs can suffer from heatstroke if they get too warm.

Multi-species households

Guinea pigs should never be housed near, or with, rabbits or other species. Clinically normal rabbits may carry certain diseases, such as Bordetella, that can be fatal to guinea pigs. Guinea pigs should only be housed with other cavies. While some guinea pigs do learn to enjoy the company of dogs or cats, it is essential to remember that, as a prey species, these interactions can be very stressful—and even possibly dangerous—to guinea pigs.

Toy enrichment

Guinea pigs love a regular rotation of toys to prevent boredom! Exercise and toys can provide necessary enrichment to keep your guinea pig happy and healthy. Many guinea pigs can even learn a few simple commands or cues. Cavies have particular needs for chewing, exploring, and hiding. Some common favorite enrichment items include:

  • Paper bags
  • Cardboard boxes with holes cut out
  • Hideaways
  • Hay stuffed in toys
  • Paper towel rolls
  • Tunnels
  • Other commercially available guinea pig toys

Guinea pigs do not take readily to exercise wheels and may hurt themselves if a wheel is placed in their cage. It is best to not use exercise wheels or balls. Instead, make sure to include at least one hideaway per guinea pig. Cavies may sleep in their hideaway and seek refuge when they are scared. As prey species, places to hide make them feel secure and safe, so all cages must have proper areas for this natural behavior.

Foods for Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs have a relatively high metabolic rate and require nearly continuous eating. They are strict herbivores and should never be offered animal protein.

Hay

Hay should be offered in unlimited amounts to all cavies. This is the most important part of your guinea pig’s diet, accounting for approximately 75% of their intake. A guinea pig’s natural diet is grass—hay is the next best alternative. Timothy is one of the most common hays. Avoid alfalfa in adults, as it leads to obesity and excessive calcium. Young or pregnant guinea pigs may have alfalfa or clover, but once mature they should only have grass hay. Oxbow is a preferred brand of hay, as it is high quality and veterinarian recommended. Guinea pigs can suffer from many ailments—dental and gastrointestinal—if they aren’t fed hay in unlimited quantities.

Vegetables

Guinea pigs should eat approximately a cup of vegetables every day. Introduce any new food item slowly, so your cavy doesn’t get diarrhea. Once your guinea pig is adjusted to multiple types of vegetables, you may offer different varieties—shoot for two or three different types each day. This will help ensure they get important vitamins and minerals. Some common guinea pig favorite vegetables include:

  • Parsley
  • Romaine
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Clover
  • Dandelion greens

Vitamin C, Vitamin C, Vitamin C

Unlike most mammals, guinea pigs lack the enzyme to synthesize their own vitamin C and must get it from their diet. Hypovitaminosis C (or decreased vitamin C) can lead to scurvy and other conditions. Oxbow Vitamin C tablets can be given as a supplement in conjunction with appropriate foods such as guava, red peppers, kale, or parsley.

Vitamin C drops can be added to water, but use caution. The water additive must be changed and mixed daily, as it degrades quickly and won’t be effective. In addition, the additive may have a strange flavor that the cavy may not like. If the cavy doesn’t like the taste of the water, they may drink less and become dehydrated. Therefore, most veterinarians don’t recommend the addition of vitamin C to guinea pig water bottles.

The average adult guinea pig needs around 10-30 milligrams of vitamin C every day. Check with your veterinarian about your own cavy’s individual needs.

Pellets

Most guinea pig veterinarians recommend very small quantities of high-quality Timothy hay pellets: 1-2 tablespoons per day per guinea pig. Pellets should be a supplement to the diet and not the main staple. Do not use pellets with dried fruits, vegetables, or seeds, which can lead to obesity and gastrointestinal issues. The most veterinarian recommended brand of high-quality pellets is Oxbow.

Some pellets may also have vitamin C; however, they should not be relied upon because vitamin C degrades with time and exposure. By the time your pet eats the pellets, the vitamin C may have minimal potency, leaving your guinea pig at risk for illness.

Fruits and treats

In general, avoid fruits and treats, or offer them to your guinea pig in very limited quantities. Too many simple carbohydrates can cause diarrhea and intestinal issues. Guinea pigs do enjoy the occasional cantaloupe, apple, carrot tops, or alfalfa cubes as treats. Treats should always be less than 5% of their diet.

Water

Water should be provided at all times. Most guinea pigs do best with a sipper bottle attached to the side of the cage. However, inspect it frequently because many guinea pigs like to play with and chew the bottles.

Guinea Pig Medical Needs

Guinea pigs are a prey species. Because of this, they tend to freeze when they are scared and hide their symptoms. When guinea pigs finally show signs of illness, it may be advanced. Therefore, when examining a guinea pig for signs of illness, make sure they are in a stress-free environment, free of loud noises or unfamiliar animals.

Healthy cavies are vocal, inquisitive, active, and hungry! They should almost never refuse a treat or greens when offered, although they may be wary of new foods. Be sure to offer a familiar item when assessing appetite and energy levels. Failure to eat is a warning sign that your guinea pig is sick.

Your guinea pig’s eyes should be open and clear. Breathing should be easy and quiet. There should be no obvious areas of hair loss and your pet should move around on all four legs easily without lameness or pain. Their teeth should have normal alignment with no swellings or sores around the mouth.

Guinea pigs do not receive vaccinations. However, they do require trips to the veterinarian at least every 6-12 months to monitor their weight, listen to their heart and lungs, examine their teeth, and check for other abnormalities. You can also weigh your cavy weekly as part of monitoring their overall health. Once guinea pigs are over 3 years old, they are considered seniors and should also have bloodwork at regular vet visits.

Common signs of illness include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Eye or nose discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing, or sneezing
  • Fecal or urinary staining
  • Skin masses, lesions, or hair loss (ringworm)
  • Change in fecal output or consistency (diarrhea)
  • Drooling
  • Bloody urine
  • Difficulty walking
  • Overgrown teeth

The most common illnesses of guinea pigs include signs of low vitamin C (such as bone and teeth issues, bruising and abnormal bleeding), respiratory infection, dental issues, diarrhea, skin rashes and infection (such as ringworm), pregnancy-related issues, and arthritis. If you think your guinea pig is showing signs of illness or isn’t acting normal, contact an exotic veterinarian immediately.

Guinea Pig Wellness and Maintenance

Guinea pigs are relatively low maintenance, but they do have some grooming requirements. Guinea pig nails grow continuously, so most veterinarians recommend clipping their nails weekly. As guinea pigs get older, their nails can easily overgrow and become brittle. If you notice any changes in your guinea pig’s nails, make sure to call your veterinarian. The nails should be straight, short, and not cause the guinea pig to walk abnormally.

Guinea pigs require their coats to be brushed regularly, especially long-hair breeds that are prone to matting. They typically do not require bathing, as they groom themselves frequently. Do not give your guinea pig a bath without discussing it with your veterinarian first.

If you notice your guinea pig’s hair is missing, call your veterinarian right away. Guinea pigs in stressful situations may pluck, or barb, their own hair or cage-mate’s hair. This could be a sign of overcrowding, stress, or boredom. Your veterinarian will want to make sure the hair loss is not a disease process by performing some simple diagnostic tests.

Food and water dishes should be changed and cleaned daily, while the entire cage should be cleaned twice weekly. Cleaning procedures increase in frequency with extra messy cavies or those households with many cavies. Make sure to thoroughly dry and air out any areas where cleaning agents are used, as it may be irritating to a guinea pig’s lungs.

Guinea Pig Handling

Most guinea pigs are easy to handle, especially if they are properly socialized. However, some young guinea pigs, or those that are new, may not be accustomed to handling. Make sure to use a calm voice and gentle, slow movements whenever handling your guinea pig. Do not chase the guinea pig around their enclosure, as it may induce even more fear. Guinea pigs have a variety of sounds—from happy to scared. Learning these noises will help you better understand and connect with your guinea pig and their needs.

To pick up a guinea pig, use one hand to support under their rib cage near their front legs while using the other hand to scoop the rear end. You can hold them firmly against your body, providing stability for the guinea pig. Towels may help during this process, especially at first. Guinea pigs can be very vocal and may squeal with this interaction but should settle down eventually. If your guinea pig does not settle down, make sure you are not holding any part too tight or there is nothing else causing them discomfort.

Guinea pigs are known to urinate and/or defecate during the handling process from stress and movement. This can be useful as part of a health exam, by visually inspecting the urine or bowel movements for signs of illness. Look for signs of blood in the urine or loose bowel movements, in addition to any other abnormalities.

The more time your guinea pig spends out of their habitat, the more socialized and happier they will become. As long as guinea pigs have adequate food, water, and safety, they may spend as much time with their human as possible. Some enjoy napping and cuddling with their owners, as well as exploring outside their cage. For your cavy’s safety, never let them wander the house alone. Watch for any low cords that could be an electrocution risk. Check the house for areas your cavy could get stuck or hide, as well. Ideally, each guinea pig should spend at least an hour outside of its cage per day.

References

  1. Johnson-Delaney, DVM, Dipl ABVP. Veterinary Information Network, Inc. Guinea Pig or Cavie (Cavia Porcellus) Pet Care. January 2021.
  2. Guinea Lynx.  Raising a Healthy Guinea Pig. 2022.
  3. Pollock DVM, DABVP, Christal. Parmentier DVM, Sylvia. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Guinea Pig. October 2018.
  4. ‌‌Horton DVM, Susan. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital. Guinea Pig Care.
  5. ‌San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants. Guinea Pig. 2022.

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