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Keeping Guinea Pigs

There comes a time in almost every parent’s life when they hear their child say, “Can we get a guinea pig?”  And there’s a very good reason for that.  Guinea pigs are warm, furry creatures that have a gentle nature but are loaded with personality.   They are a great start to teaching children the responsibilities of pet ownership.

Guinea pigs, or cavies, originally came from South America and were brought to Europe where they became an exotic pet of the upper classes and royalty.  They live from 4 to 7 years and weigh around 1 to 2kg so are a perfect size for a child to handle.  The most common breeds are the Smooth Coated, the Abyssinian which have fluffy fur that looks like they just woke up, and the Peruvian with long, silky hair that most women would long for.

Guinea pigs are social animals and should always be kept in pairs or small groups.  Two or more females will soon become friends but if two males are to be kept, it is best to choose them from the same litter.  New guinea pigs can be introduced to a group but fights may occur as the hierarchy changes.

Children should be taught how to hold a guinea pig as they have quite fragile bones and internal organs.  They should never be squeezed though do need to be held firmly whilst supporting them from underneath.  Kids should always be encouraged to be sitting on the ground when holding their little friends just in case they drop them.

So that the guinea pigs get used to little humans and form a bond with them, children can feed them small treats from their hand and sit in an enclosed space on the floor to play.  Make sure there are no electrical wires around though as the guinea pigs will try to chew through them.

Believe it or not, guinea pigs have a language all their own which an attentive owner may learn to interpret.  The long, squeaking sound that they make called ‘wheeking’ is a sign that they are hungry and usually happens when they see their owner or when they hear the food container being opened. They also make a purring noise which shows their enjoyment at being patted or stroked.

Deciding on whether to keep guinea pigs indoors or outdoors depends very much on the housing provided, the position that they will be in and the protection that is available.  Guinea pigs are very prone to heatstroke and also don’t like drafts and cold evenings.

The benefit of keeping guinea pigs indoors is that, being very social animals, they get the chance to become a part of the family but they can also be kept in a climate controlled environment which they prefer.  There are terrific cages with plastic bases that are easy to keep clean and stop any spillage in the house.

Outdoor cages should be very secure with a covered, enclosed area for the guinea pigs to hide away from the elements in as well as a ‘run’ covered with wire that allows them to get outside but still be safe from predators.  The floor should be solid as wire floors can damage their feet.  The cage should be able to be moved to suit the seasons and they should never be exposed to drafts, so a canvas cover will help to keep them warm at night.  In summer, ice packs or frozen water bottles covered with an old sock and put into their cage will give them somewhere to cool down.

Although they might be quite a small animal, guinea pigs actually require quite a large space.  Allow at least 70cm x 70cm for each one with males needing even more than that.  This will make sure that there are no fights, gives them plenty of room for exercise and is easier to keep clean.

The bedding used in a guinea pig cage should be absorbent and free from dust.  Commercially prepared wood shavings or pellet litter are a good choice as they don’t contain any toxic chemicals and are highly absorbent.  Newspaper, hay or shredded paper isn’t absorbent enough to be effective but can be mixed with other materials to solve this problem.  The bedding should be replaced every week and the bottom of the cage cleaned and disinfected.

Guinea pigs love to hide so really enjoy cardboard tubes or small boxes.  Put plastic pipes and caves into their cage and change them every few weeks so that they don’t get bored.

Guinea pigs are herbivores and must have a diet very high in fibre which they get from a continuous source of fresh or grass hay; this also helps them to keep their teeth trimmed as they eat.  Guinea pigs can eat an unlimited amount of fresh hay without becoming overweight and it should be placed into a hay rack in their cage to make sure that it doesn’t get soiled.

Commercially prepared guinea pig food is designed specifically to ensure that these little animals get all of their dietary requirements and in particular vitamin C which helps to prevent disorders such as scurvy.  This can be fed every day along with fresh fruit and vegetables.

For each guinea pig, offer one cup of vegetables each day to be fed half in the morning and half at night.  Leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, kale and spinach are good for their digestion and they also enjoy capsicum, parsley, beans, cherry tomatoes and cucumber.  They also love fruit such as apples and oranges but these should be provided just once or twice each week.

Be very careful in giving guinea pigs plants from the garden as some may be poisonous to them or could have been sprayed with garden chemicals.  It’s best to stick to fresh vegetables and fruit that the family will eat although they do enjoy dandelions and grass.  Avoid high fat food such as sunflower seeds as the oil can cause skin and digestive problems.

Guinea pigs must always have fresh water available and whilst some prefer bowls, small animal water bottles that attach to the cage are cleaner and don’t spill so easily.  These have a sipper tube with a ball bearing in it which allows the guinea pig to lick at it to release the water without it dripping all over the floor. Don’t use detergents to wash these bottles, instead add a tablespoon of dry rice and some water and shake them well then rinse.

Although they aren’t related to pigs, these little creatures do eat like pigs and will knock over their food bowls and spread the food around.  Feed them in heavy based bowls that are easy to wash and clean up any spilled food from the bottom of the cage.

Guinea pigs rarely need bathing as they groom themselves several times every day although long haired guinea pigs may require daily brushing with a soft brush as well as bathing every 3 to 4 months to prevent matting.

If a bath is necessary, choose a shampoo that is specifically designed for small animals and which are available at Better Pets and Gardens.  Fill a sink or tub with just a few centimetres of luke warm water and use a jug to pour some of the water over its body, add a little shampoo and massage gently. Avoid wetting the head, nose, eyes and ears.  Rinse the shampoo off and use a fluffy towel to dry the fur. A hair dryer can be used on a low heat and from a distance of about 30cm to make sure that the fur is completely dry before the guinea pig goes back

Two guinea pigs that fight or don’t get on may bond better if they have a ‘buddy bath’.  Taking them out of their comfort zone and giving them a shared experience seems to cause them to cuddle up together for support when they are put back into their cage.  Their new smell also helps to take away any feelings of dominance.

Most health issues with guinea pigs come down to poor housing or an unbalanced diet. Diarrhoea is one of the more common issues and usually due to not providing enough fibre or feeding foods with high oil content.  Skin problems caused by fungal infections or mites can also occur if the cage is not kept clean or the bedding not replaced weekly.

Both the nails and the teeth of guinea pigs grow continuously and will need occasional trimming.  The teeth should be done by a veterinarian and they will also do the nails although these can be done at home as well.  If the nails aren’t trimmed they may grow so long that they curl back into the foot causing infection.

As with most animals, there are always signs to look out for that show that a guinea pig is unwell.  Hair loss, lethargy or loss of appetite are clear signs of illness as are discharge from the nose and eyes, peeling skin, inflammation or changes to the faeces or urine.  Any animal that is unwell should immediately be removed from the other animals and kept warm until veterinary advice can be sought.

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