Caring for your pet guinea pig

Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, make great pets. They are safe for children to handle and can be lots of fun. They require plenty of attention to be cared for properly.

Purchasing a guinea pig should be a long term decision as they can live up to 7 years.

Legislation

The welfare of all animals, including guinea pigs, is protected by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

Housing for your guinea pig

4 guinea pigs around a metal feeding bowl eating carrots

Guinea pigs require a hutch to live in that is safe from predators such as dogs and cats. It needs an area that protects them from the weather and provides enough space for exercise. A suitable hutch design is waterproof. It includes a dark area for the guinea pigs to rest and hide, which has a bedding of:

  • wood shavings
  • cellulose fibre
  • shredded paper
  • polar fleece.

The other section of the hutch should be light and large enough for a separate exercise and toileting area. The hutch must be well ventilated. It is best to have a hutch made out of wood as metal hutches heat up quicker.

It is important to clean the hutch at least every second day. Remove soiled bedding and make sure guinea pigs have a dry area to sleep in. If guinea pigs do not have clean bedding they can suffer from:

  • respiratory infections
  • skin ailments
  • pest infestation such as fleas and mites.

Guinea pigs are very sensitive to temperature change. They must have a warm place to snuggle in the winter that will not be affected by frost, rain or cold winds.

Heat stress

Guinea pigs can easily suffer from heat stress. Once the temperature exceeds 30ºC you must regularly monitor your guinea pigs. Do not to place the hutch in direct sunlight during warmer months. Keep it in the shade even on warm to cool days. It does not take long for heat to build up in small areas. On hot days it may be necessary to provide a frozen drink bottle or ice brick in the nesting area of the hutch to reduce the temperature.

Feeding your guinea pig

Guinea pigs are herbivores — they only eat plant material. Feed them a constant source of grass hay and  fresh grass each day. A high fibre diet helps to maintain body and teeth health. Guinea pigs' teeth are always growing and need to be worn down by eating.

Fresh green vegetables should be included in their daily diet. You can feed your guinea pig:

  • cabbage
  • lettuce
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • celery.

They also need to eat vitamin C rich foods such as citrus or kiwi fruit  as guinea pigs do not synthesise their own vitamin C.

Don't feed your guinea pig potatoes, onions, rhubarb leaves and oxalis clover as these species are poisonous to them. Too many grain products are not suitable because they are low in fibre and high in sugar.

Fresh, cool water must be provided at all times.

Companionship

Guinea pigs are social species and prefer to live in groups. Always keep at least 2 guinea pigs. To avoid unwanted pregnancies, separate males and females. Males will be less likely to fight each other if introduced at a young age.

Do not house guinea pigs and rabbits together. Rabbits can be aggressive and dominant towards guinea pigs.

Health problems

Guinea pigs can develop dental problems. Their teeth grow at a rate of 2 to 3mm per week, so they need to be constantly chewing on something:

  • grass
  • hay
  • a gnawing block.

Overgrown teeth can lead to:

  • weight loss
  • severe pain
  • discomfort.

Guinea pigs are susceptible to mite infestations. Symptoms include hair loss and itchiness. Thoroughly clean out and disinfect the hutch  in this situation. The guinea pigs should also be treated by a vet or provided with parasite treatment.

Swollen footpads, known as bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis) can be a problem for guinea pigs on hard surfaces. To avoid this problem ensure there is soft material such as hay or grass for them to walk on. Avoid uncovered wire mesh floors.

If you are breeding from your guinea pigs, get a vet to check that they are fit and healthy. Mastitis of the udder is a common problem for lactating guinea pigs. To prevent mastitis do not over breed female guinea pigs. Ensure they have a rest period between litters, at least long enough for them to become fit and healthy again. Seek vet advice if symptoms of mastitis occur, such as a swollen udder, pain or scabbiness in the udder region.

Any health issues that develop require advice from your local veterinarian.

Guinea pig grooming

Depending on the breed of guinea pig, they can have short, rosette (spiky) or long hair. If your guinea pig is long haired then regular grooming is necessary for good coat condition. Long hair can easily become matted. Gently brush out dead hair, tangles or burrs. Use scissors to remove matted hair, if needed.

Handling your guinea pig

Guinea pigs are gentle and can be tamed easily. However, they must be handled appropriately to develop a positive relationship with humans. It is best to pick up guinea pigs with two hands. Hold them close to your chest or on your lap so they can rest their feet and feel secure. Hold them firmly as they can jump from your hands or body and injure themselves.

Page last updated: 11 Jul 2020