This is part 1 of a multi-part series.
I was walking through a pet store this week and overheard a conversation between a son and his parents as they were trying to decide what type of pet to buy him. They approached the guinea pig cages and made a comment about them being “the perfect and easy first pet” for kids. Convinced they were unaware of how untrue this statement was, I offered some advice about the cute critters.
Guinea pigs are fun and social pets sometimes confused with hamsters and gerbils. They are slightly bigger, can have more fur and have a rich history originating from South America. Guinea pigs are often referred to as “cavies,” or the singular “cavy,” because of their predecessor Cavia porcellus.
They were in existence thousands of years ago serving many purposes. Guinea pigs lived in tall grasses for cover from predators and were used by humans for food, rituals and medicinal remedies. Years later they were domesticated and started appearing in multiple countries with a variety of new characteristics from breeding, such as fur variations and a wide array of colors.
Present-day breeding purposes include food, pets and laboratory animals. Their average life span is five to seven years but can be longer. Guinea pigs are also inquisitive and vocal creatures with an extensive range of interesting sounds and behaviors.
The most common misconception about guinea pigs is that they are easy to care for or make a great starter pet for kids, but their specific diet and other factors require much more care and concern than people realize.
Importance of a Proper Diet
These small, furry creatures have a magnitude of differences that distinguish them from other domesticated animals. They have specific dietary needs and can change their dietary habits as an indicator of health issues. Starting with the proper food and paying attention to eating habits can ensure you provide the necessary care and diet for your guinea pig.
Many food types can be used as food for your guinea pig, but never provide pet food designed for any other animal. These foods were created and designed for specific animals that may not have the same dietary needs as your guinea pig. In some cases, certain feed or treats can cause serious illness or death.
What to Feed Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs are herbivores that love to graze and can eat during the day and night. Certain items are essential requirements to their healthy diet, and some additions, such as vegetables, can offer additional nutrition, provide some variety and help keep their teeth from becoming too long. Most guinea pigs are good at regulating their dietary needs. Monitor their intake and weight regularly to know if and when to adjust the amount of food you provide.
Fresh water is essential. Water bottles with metal spouts are the preferred delivery system (some guinea pigs will chew plastic spouts). Some may drink more or less than others, but this is normal. Keep the water full and avoid adding anything to the bottle or water.
Vitamin C is especially important to a guinea pig’s dietary needs. This vitamin is required for health, but the animal cannot produce it on its own. Replacements include certain diet additives and/or tablets to keep the animal healthy and prevent scurvy.
Some vitamin C may be obtained in guinea pig pellets, a dry food offered daily as a diet staple. The source type of pellets can vary, so make sure you choose the one appropriate for your pet based on its age (alfalfa for those younger than 1 year old, and timothy for older pets). Old food can lose the potency of any added vitamin C, so check the expiration date before hitting the checkout counter or online shopping cart. Guinea pigs being herbivores, feeding them meat and dairy should be avoided.
Vegetables are welcome sources of vitamin C and can be foraging fun for your pet! Veggies are usually given once or twice a day and vary from carrots and broccoli to corn husks and peppers. Avoid premixed variety foods and treats (additives or unlisted ingredients could be hazardous) and avoid poisonous plants and foods. Make sure all veggies added to your pet’s diet are thoroughly cleaned, fresh and not wilted. Remove uneaten items regularly to avoid the food spoiling in your pet’s habitat or play areas. Hay does not spoil and should be available at all times. Since some guinea pigs have a tendency to urinate on things, soiled hay should be removed along with regular cage cleanings.
What the Hay?
Hay isn’t just for horses! It is another essential component of the guinea pig diet. Hay helps keep their digestive system active and effective, keeps their teeth shorter and should always be available in a clean location or container (wire racks are common). Common types of hay recommended are timothy and orchard grass. Hay can be used for food and as an additional bedding, so keeping a surplus on hand or buying in bulk is ideal for you and your furry friends.
The Pooper Troopers
If you have a sensitive stomach, please skip this paragraph! In addition to urine, guinea pigs excrete two types of waste: hard pellets and soft pellets. Guinea pigs typically eat the soft pellets as they come out of their rear. This is actually essential to their diet!
If you think this habit is gross, imagine when it comes to sharing these soft pellets because of illness. Erin of Ohio, a longtime cavy owner, refers to this as “poop soup.” As disgusting as it sounds, I had to giggle upon hearing her nickname for this gross yet beneficial guinea pig habit.
When a guinea pig is sick and cannot eat its own soft excrement, the soft pellets can be taken from a healthy cavy, mixed with water and syringe-fed to the sick animal (watery excrement is not normal). This way, the sick animal still gets the nutritional value it needs. I’ve heard sharing is caring, but I’m hoping this trend sticks with the guinea pigs.
- Offspring are born with full fur and open eyes, and they start eating the same food as adult guinea pigs within two days of birth.
- An unborn guinea pig develops permanent teeth while still in the womb.
- Guinea pigs eat some of their own waste as an essential part of their diet.
- Females are not normally neutered because the operation is more complex than altering a male.
Continue on to Part 2
Next, we discuss habitats — indoor and outdoor — in part 2 of our series on guinea pig care.
Photo: WOAW (top), wishymom/Flickr