Guinea pigs are rodents originally from the Andes Mountains of South America. They still live in the wild across South America today. Guinea pigs live in a variety of habitats, ranging from moist savannas to forests and deserts. They can be found from Venezuela to Patagonia, however, they are not found in western Chile or the Amazon River basin.
While some members of the guinea pig family are still found in the wild, they were originally domesticated as house pets and livestock for food and cultural and medicinal rituals. Wild guinea pigs were selectively bred by guinea pig breeders and fanciers to produce the many breeds of domesticated guinea pigs we know today. In the United States, guinea pigs are also a very important lab animal for research.
Guinea Pig Classification
The guinea pig is actually a rodent, not a pig. They are small, stocky mammals with short tails and are generally larger than other rodents. Guinea pigs are extremely social animals and typically display a group hierarchy, which is usually male dominated. They are members of the family Caviidae, which is most closely related to capybara and mara. Guinea pigs are often referred to as “cavies,” which is a term from the South American vernacular. A cavy is any member of the Caviidae family, which includes 14 different species from South America:
- Guinea pigs
- Yellow-toothed cavies
- Mountain cavies
- Rock cavies
Where Did Guinea Pigs Come From?
The first members of the Caviidae family likely evolved sometime between 26 and 7 million years ago. Ancestors were also rodents, likely larger than a ferret. These ancestors traveled to South America from North America, Europe, and Asia. The Caviidae family evolved into the guinea pigs we know today once they reached South America.
Wild Guinea Pigs
Domesticated guinea pigs are no longer found in the wild, but their relatives are still living in forests, savannas, deserts, and grasslands in South America. Most common wild guinea pigs include:
- Brazilian Guinea pig: found in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay
- Moleques do Sul Guinea pig: found on a small island in Santa Catarina, Brazil
- Shiny Guinea pig: found in coastal areas of southeastern Brazil
- Greater Guinea pig: found in Southern Brazil and Uruguay
- Montane Guinea pig: found in Northwestern Argentina to Northern Chile and Peru
Domestication of Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs were domesticated originally by the Incas as early as 5000 BC. The Incas bred guinea pigs as pets, for food, for pelts, as well as for ritual sacrifices. In the 1600s, guinea pigs were brought to Europe by Spanish, English, and Dutch explorers. Since then, breeders and fanciers have bred certain traits, resulting in the 13 breeds of guinea pigs that the American Cavy Breeders Association recognizes today—and more are added all the time. Based on selective breeding, guinea pigs now have a variety of coat colors, patterns, and textures. Queen Elizabeth I even kept a guinea pig as a pet, establishing their role in royal societies as pets and companions.
The name “guinea pig” is a misnomer, as they are not from Guinea and they are rodents, not pigs. It is generally accepted that guinea pigs got their name partially from the squealing and shrieking noises they make, similar to a pig. They may have obtained the “guinea” part of their name from the original cost to obtain a guinea pig, such as 1 guinea. Alternate theories speculate that ships from Guinea may have carried some of the animals to Europe.
Guinea pigs, wild and domesticated are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They do not dig their own dens or burrows; instead, they take over abandoned, established underground homes made from other animals. This is how wild guinea pigs lived when the Incas captured and domesticated the first guinea pigs. Either a now-extinct species or the Montane guinea pig were most likely the original stock for domestic guinea pigs, which are bred to be tame and gentle. Some guinea pigs, especially those with black coats, were thought in the Andean culture to have special powers to diagnose medical conditions like arthritis.
Indigenous Andean people continue to breed guinea pigs as a food source, as well as for cultural ceremonies and folk medicine. Guinea pig meat is known as cuy. A breeding program for larger, more substantive guinea pigs occurred in the 1900s and produced larger breeds known as Cuy mejorados. These giant guinea pigs may make their way into the pet market for their unique size, however they are not as docile as the common domesticated guinea pig.
Guinea Pigs in Research
Since the 1800s, guinea pigs have been integral research subjects and have helped investigate nutrition, toxicology, health products, and many diseases. Because they are biologically similar to humans and easy to care for, they are an ideal research animal.
Guinea pigs may have been involved in more than 23 Nobel prizes in medicine, as well as helped to discover vitamin C and other hormones. Guinea pigs, like humans, cannot synthesize vitamin C, so this commonality makes them model test subjects.
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- San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants. Guinea Pig. 2022.
- ACBA - American Cavy Breeders Association. Recognized Cavy Breeds. 2014.
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