A Beginner's Guide to Guinea Pigs
TWELVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE BECOMING A PIGGY PARENT
Hi guys, it’s Helen and Rik here, from award-winning small animal accessories brand, HayPigs!® Here's our beginner’s guide to guinea pigs, twelve things we think you should know before becoming a piggy parent!
You can watch the video below (by clicking on the play button) or read the guide that follows, it's totally up to you!
NUMBER 1: DO YOUR RESEARCH!
You are about to become piggy parents - Do your research! Guinea pigs should not be an impulse buy! In order to get the most out of your pet guinea pigs and also to do your best for them, it’s very important to find out how to care for them properly. This guide is a great start but we’re not the only source of information out there!
There are many wonderful websites, forums and blogs for you to visit. For example, The Guinea Pig Forum has been running since 2006 and is a fountain of knowledge. You’ll also find social media a very useful place for videos and tips, just choose your sources carefully and try and cross-reference them with other care and welfare advisors.
NUMBER 2: KNOW THE BASICS.
Guinea pigs are really sociable animals. They love each other’s company so must have at least one other guinea pig in their lives to interact with. The best groupings of guinea pigs are either two males together or a group of two or more females. With a herd of females, you can also add one neutered male; that way the male keeps the peace amongst the girls but you don’t get any accidental baby guinea pigs! While more than two males can live together harmoniously, you are taking a big a risk, as they are more likely to fight and you could find yourself having to make the heart-breaking decision to separate them. Male guinea pigs are called boars, females are sows and baby guinea pigs are called pups.
While guinea pigs can be bought at pet shops and from breeders, we strongly recommend finding your local rescue and adopting. All of our piggies here at HayPigs!® were adopted from our local rescue in the UK, Blackberry Patch. As well as the obvious rewarding feeling of giving a guinea pig a new forever home, rescues are also a great source of information and help you get the best start with your new family members.
NUMBER 3: WHAT TO FEED YOUR GUINEA PIGS.
Guinea pigs love hay. You should provide them with unlimited hay every day. A good quality feeding hay is really important for their digestion and general health, so look for hay that is green, dry and sweet smelling (not yellow, brown or damp or mouldy). Replenish their feeding hay several times a day as, if it’s good stuff, they’ll get through it! Water is of course also vital and they should be provided with clean, fresh water daily.
As well as at least 80% hay in their daily diet, guinea pigs need fresh vegetables to provide the vitamin C they need. Leafy green vegetables and bell peppers are just a couple of examples, but you can check out our website for a more comprehensive list (just click here). Fruits, while welcomed by the piggies, are a treat and should be given just once a week. There are some fresh foods that guinea pigs cannot eat, so it’s important to do your research and check what is safe for them first. Again, please feel free to check our website.
Dry pellets can be fed in small quantities, but if you are feeding a good diet of hay and fresh veg, they won’t need many. Guinea pigs love fresh grass and can eat lots of it! Just be careful if they have not had it before that you introduce them to it gradually and don’t let them eat too much all at once, as their digestive system will need to get used to it.
NUMBER 4: WHERE TO HOUSE YOUR GUINEA PIGS.
Guinea pigs need lots of space. Probably way more than you think. It’s really important they have lots of room to encourage them to run around, exercise and interact. Be wary of store-bought cages and hutches, in truth very few of them are fit for purpose beyond the infant stage for a guinea pig. Guinea pigs will grow and their homes needs to grow with them!
There are various options out there for cage systems, such as C & C caging – a modular grid system that you can customise to the size you want - and the more classic hutch accommodation. You can even build you own! Whatever you choose, bigger is better and again, do your research BEFORE you commit to taking piggies on.
We would say here in the UK that a 6 or 7ft hutch (approximately 2 metres) would be OK for two guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs can live indoors or out, but it really is dependent on the climate you live in. Piggies do not like damp and draughts and are susceptible to extreme temperatures. If you’re keeping them outdoors, please place their hutch within an outhouse or shed during the colder, wetter months and in the shade during summer. Ideally, they can spend much of warmer times of the year outside, but they must have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water as well as a secure run. Just be mindful not to switch your guinea pigs in and out of the house a lot. Sudden jumps in temperature are not good for them as they struggle to regulate their own body temperatures.
Then comes the choice of bedding. Guinea pigs wee and poo A LOT! So, whatever bedding you chose, you will need to clean them out regularly and keep it dry. Our preferred bedding choices are a layer of newspaper with lots of hay on top, or a fleece cage liner (which you would need to change and wash regularly). Ideally, provide both. Some people use woodshavings but we’re not big fans of this as it can lead to respiratory problems for the piggies and foot sores.
NUMBER 5: GUINEA PIGS NEED EXERCISE AND ENRICHMENT TOO!
It’s so important that guinea pigs, just like humans, have space to exercise and activities to keep their minds busy. Just think how you would feel if you were in a square room with just a chair and a table; you probably wouldn’t like it very much.
Guinea pigs love tunnels, archways and hidey houses (see our Cage Accessories section). This is no surprise, as in the wild they are a prey animal. For them, the biggest threat is from above, so they always like to know they’ve got cover nearby should they need to rush and hide.
When guinea pigs feel safe in their enclosure they will love exploring, foraging for food and treats (which you can discreetly hide around their den), running and following each other around and finding safe places to take a nap.
Even with a good-sized cage for your guinea pigs, they will still need an opportunity to run around in a bigger space, either outside on the grass in a secure run (weather permitting) or in your house if they live indoors. During this ‘floor time’ also make their space interesting with multiple tunnels and crevices to explore. If they have two or three options at every turn, it will be all the more stimulating. And don’t forget, you can change the way you arrange things each day - they will love you for it!
As a top tip - try and avoid bottle necks, in other words, areas where a guinea pig may feel trapped or threatened. When laying out a cage or run, make sure your guinea pigs have enough space to get out of each other’s way! Don’t overfill their home and try and provide multiple safe areas for them to settle down in – guinea pigs are not generally great at sharing!
For added stimulation and well-being, you can also purchase enrichment toys for your guinea pigs. Here at HayPigs!® we have a tried and tested range of original toys and feeders for your piggies to enjoy. These are designed to faithfully re-create some of that natural foraging behaviour that guinea pigs thrive on. They’re also a lot of fun for the humans too, encouraging piggy parents to spend more time with their pet.
NUMBER 6: GUINEA PIG GROOMING.
Guinea pigs are generally very clean animals and will groom themselves. They will rarely need a ‘bath’ and most guinea pigs hate being washed, so avoid it unless there is a real necessity or health issue that requires them to be bathed. You can brush them and long-haired guinea pigs will need regular brushing. Some breeds will also need their fur trimming to keep it clean and stop it growing too long. Their nails constantly grow so they will need trimming. You can do this yourself at home if you educate yourself how to do it and get a specialist pair of nail trimmers, or, a vet can do this for you.
NUMBER 7: HEALTH CHECK YOUR GUINEA PIGS AT HOME.
It’s important to get to know your guinea pigs so you can try and spot if something is wrong. As they are prey animals they are very good at hiding any illness. This would serve them well in the wild, but makes it difficult for us to see when our pet guinea pigs have a problem. If you handle your guinea pigs daily and do regular checks on the basics, then hopefully you would spot if something is not right. Here are some ways to check the health of your guinea pigs:
Weigh them regularly. Weight loss is a common sign of illness, so weigh them regularly and make a note of the weight. If you notice weight loss, please visit your vet as soon as you can.
Look at their eyes, nose and mouth. Weeping eyes, runny nose, dribbling from the mouth are all bad signs and need a vet’s attention. Eyes should be bright and clear, nose should be dry, mouth should be clean and teeth evenly worn and not too long. Guinea pigs have constantly growing teeth, so this is another reason they should eat lots of hay, to keep their teeth worn down.
If your guinea pig is hiding away more than usual, not coming out for food or sitting with a hunched posture these could also be signs they are unwell and need a vet. Get to know the personalities of your piggies so you can tell if their behaviour has changed in any way.
If your guinea pig stops eating all together, this is a really bad sign and they can go downhill very quickly. In this case, don’t delay in seeking professional advice from a vet, hours can count and you must act straight away!
NUMBER 8: THINK ABOUT YOUR FINANCES!
Guinea pigs can be expensive pets to keep. Yes, they are wonderful little creatures with great personalities and having them as part of your family is so rewarding. But, you must be prepared for the costs involved too! As well as the caging, accessories and food they require, trips to the vet can be costly. They might be small animals but that doesn’t mean they are cheap or easy to treat. In fact, it can often be quite the opposite. So, you must prepare for how you will cover the cost of trips to the vet, should they arise. Also, guinea pigs can live for approximately 5 to 8 years. That’s a lot of hay and vegetables to buy! Another thing to consider, is that even with just a pair of guinea pigs, they are unlikely to live for exactly the same number of years…and they shouldn’t be kept alone…so the cycle can become rather endless as you pair them with another guinea pig, etc etc. If you do reach a point where you can no longer accommodate guinea pigs in your life, then do give consideration to what your plans will be for a remaining piggy. For example, find a rescue centre or animal shelter that could help, or a friend who has other guinea pigs to bond yours with.
NUMBER 9: A GOOD VET IS SO IMPORTANT!
As mentioned earlier, trips to the vet can and most probably will happen at some point during the lifetime of your guinea pigs. Finding a vet that has specialist knowledge of guinea pigs as a species could make all the difference. In the UK they are known as exotic vets. So, do your research and don’t be averse to looking a little further afield for a vet you have confidence and trust in, as ultimately it could save you time and money in the long run.
NUMBER 10: BONDING WITH YOUR GUINEA PIGS.
Not only is it important for your guinea pigs to get along well with each other, it’s also great for you to build a strong human bond with your piggies. Some guinea pigs will naturally be bold and outgoing, whereas others will be shy and prefer to hide away. The more time you spend with them the more you will understand their characters. You can earn their trust and with time and patience, even tame the most nervous of guinea pigs. Guinea pigs love food.Find a really tasty treat and feed this to them whilst they are having a cuddle on your lap. If they are nervous, keep cuddle time short, but do it regularly and their trust in you (and the tasty food you always have!) will grow. Speak to them in a quiet and gentle manner and use their names – you may find they start to learn what their names are! Above all, persevere, handle your guinea pigs regularly, show them lots of love and affection and they will start to love you back!
NUMBER 11: GUINEA PIGS TAKE UP TIME!
There is plenty of time spent on keeping guinea pigs. They are a good choice of pet if you work away from home during the day, for example. But you do have to ensure that you have the time every day to feed them, clean up after them, give them their daily ‘floor time’ exercise and have some cuddles with them! As mentioned earlier, you also need to make the time to do things like ‘at home’ grooming and also potential vet trips too.
NUMBER 12: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU GO ON HOLIDAY?
No one is expected to stay at home 24/7 if they have a pet, but do take a moment to consider what you would do with your guinea pigs when you go away on holiday. Who will look after them? If a friend or family member can care for them while you are away, then you will need to ensure they have all the necessary instructions from you, so they can look after them properly –especially if they are not familiar with guinea pigs. Some rescue centres will also take in guinea pigs while you go on holiday, as will dedicated pet sitters or people offering small animal boarding. Bear in mind that there will be a charge for these services, so add this fact to our previous point about finances! (And your holiday budget!)
We hope this guide has been useful, it’s by no means exhaustive, but just some really useful tips that we’ve learnt along the way. Guinea pigs really do make wonderful additions to your family and as long as you are prepared to put the time in and keep learning, we’re sure you’ll make great piggy parents! Enjoy!
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