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Guinea pigs as pets

By: Michelle Ferrera, DVM

I thought it would be fun to talk about a species other than dogs and cats, as well as share anecdotes from my personal experience with guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs can make great pets for those with only a small living space. My guinea pig “Ratatouille” lives in a cage that is about three feet long by two feet wide. He has a layer of clean newspaper overlaid by recycled paper bedding that is changed weekly. This is probably the most labor intensive aspect of his care. Pine and cedar shavings are extremely irritating to the respiratory system and should not be used. However, aspen bedding is not aromatic and is safe for use. Guinea pigs do not “smell” unless their cage is not being cleaned properly or frequently enough. Cage furniture includes a hide house, a hay rack, a water bottle and bowls for pellets and fresh greens.

Guinea pigs can live for five to seven years, which is much longer than other pet rodent species like mice, rats, hamsters, and gerbils. They also come in a variety of colors and coat textures making them seem less “rodent“-like.

They have a tremendous amount of personality, and will respond when called by name. They can leap for joy (“popcorn”) for a favored person, and whistle for let you know that they are hungry. “Ratatouille” knows the sound of the refrigerator crisper drawer, and will whistle in hope of getting a cluster of fresh parsley or a baby carrot.

A guinea pig’s regular diet should consist of timothy hay, as well as timothy hay based guinea pig pellets, which have vitamin C. Guinea pigs will develop “scurvy” if served stale guinea pig pellets or rabbit pellets. Some pet owners provide Vitamin C supplementation, or a small slice of orange daily to ensure this need is met. Fresh water is also a must. Guinea pigs also enjoy fresh greens as part of their diet. Pellets containing grains, yogurt drops, and excessive amounts of fruit are not recommended.

A pet guinea pig should have an annual exam by a veterinarian, but will need its’ nails trimmed every few months. A properly fed pet in a clean environment will be less likely to need veterinary care, but guinea pigs can still develop health problems. Respiratory, intestinal, dental, and skin issues are the most common health concerns that I see at our animal hospital.

Guinea pigs are certainly not a low maintenance pet due to their special dietary needs, but they pack a tremendous amount of personality in a tiny package. The fact that they can comfortably live in a relatively small amount of space can make them an ideal pet for those with space constraints, or those who aren’t allowed to keep dogs in their apartments.