by Brian Balla
Life before guinea pigs – my fantastic beasts – was a simpler time.
Saturday mornings were usually spent at the local farmer’s market or finding a new favorite hike among Oregon’s many outdoor offerings. Weekdays were spent quietly working on hobbies after work or planning fun weekend get-aways. And the spare bedroom was just that: a quiet room with a small bed and a little nightstand used by infrequent overnight guests.
Life with guinea pigs looks similar, but different in many ways.
On Saturday mornings, you’ll find me in the spare bedroom (now referred to as “the guinea pig room”) among piles or fleece, hay and coroplast, cleaning the large cavy cage and restocking hay and pellets while the guinea pigs play in a large pen on the kitchen floor.
Weeknights are still spent on hobbies. But today’s hobbies include trimming each guinea pigs’ nails one night, cleaning ears and performing guinea pig health checks another night and every night spent setting up and breaking down an hour worth of floor time activity for Feebee, Rosie and Winnie the guinea pigs.
Despite all the work – late nights spent hand-feeding a guinea pig too sick to eat for herself or hunting for poos underneath kitchen cabinets after a particularly raucous floor time – my life is richer for having guinea pigs: my very own fantastic beasts.
How I Found My Fantastic Beasts
I adopted my first guinea pig, Piglet, in December 2009. A beautiful, short-haired cavy with a sleek, shiny coat, Piglet was a strong-willed pig who didn’t seem to care for the cozy trappings of soft fleece and plush play-things. Soon after Piglet arrived, Hammy the guinea pig – a baby cavy who barely fit in the palm of my hand – was soon to join in on my new adventure as a guinea pig care-taker.
While most late twentysomethings decide to adopt a playful pooch or a coy kitty cat, I’m often asked why I decided guinea pigs were the right pet for me. I wish my answer was one of romance or serendipity. But the short-and-sweet is that my partner is allergic to cats, our landlord at the time didn’t allow dogs and we wanted an animal that fit our personalities: shy and curious yet strong-willed and independent. As vegetarians and perennial fans of “under-dogs”, guinea pigs seemed like the perfect pet companions for us. Guinea pigs are herbivores, so we wouldn’t have to purchase meat-based beast feed. And guinea pigs are naturally timid, yet they fancy themselves as wholly independent creatures without the need for constant attention.
The first few years of guinea pig ownership was awkward, to say the least. The first cage we built was a large, towering structure with three levels and connecting ramps. As we quickly found out, the ramps were too steep for 3-year-old Piglet to climb, so she used the bottom ramp as a stretching station to relax and take extended naps, while baby Hammy would run laps up and down the upper ramps. Piglet liked her ramp so much she would barely move. The stretched out position allowed her to poop without having them pile up behind her and soil her fur. So there it was: a large, chubby guinea pig sleeping stretched out on a ramp while a little baby cavy zoomed vertically through the cage tower, literally running over Piglet as she sleep-pooped. We scrambled to re-design the cage and soon enough we settled on today’s configuration: a large cubes and coroplast cage with just one ramp leading to an upper level “kitchen”.
There were so many other learning experiences, too. We were chastised by our vet for not cleaning our guinea pigs’ ears. The admonishment horrified us. Later, we spoke sheepishly of our vet’s advice: “What were we thinking! Of course guinea pigs can’t clean their own ears!” Life with guinea pigs is a constant growing experience.
But we soon learned the ins and outs – what to do and what decidedly not to do. I’d like to think that if we were new guinea pig care-takers today – with access to countless websites dedicated to guinea pig care information – we’d be smarter, but I know that isn’t the case. For every accurate article there are 10 more inaccurate articles on topics like guinea pig health, grooming, medical care and more. It seems that today’s new guinea pig owners need to be even more careful of the online advice they follow. Fortunately, websites like GuineaLynx and forums like GuineaPigCages.com are a great start for any new owner.
Guinea Pigs Taught Me Patience
Patience is probably the most valuable personal lesson I’ve learned from caring for guinea pigs. Guinea pig introductions require patience. Trying to get a guinea pig to bond with you takes months, even years, of patience. Nail trimming requires patience. And guinea pig health emergencies sometimes require more patience – and perseverance – than I ever thought I was capable of having.
Guinea Pigs Taught Me to Be Organized
Our home has two calendars: One for the human stuff – work, weed the garden, water the plants – and one for the guinea pigs – vet check-up reminders, cage cleaning schedules, reminders for when to weigh the cavies and when to do weekly guinea pigs health checks.
The guinea pig room closet is probably the most organized closet in the house: fleece organizers on one side, health supplies in a caddy on the other and storage bins for hay and pellets.
My everyday life isn’t a perfectly curated Pinterest-worthy snapshot of organization, but my guinea pig life sure is.
Guinea Pigs Teach Me How to Be a Better Friend and Partner
Guinea pigs teach us to slow down, make thoughtful decisions and give another creature the time and space it needs to trust you – with the important understanding that you can never betray that trust.
What’s that, moms everywhere? “Trust is hard earned and easily lost.” It’s true! You can spend months getting your guinea pig to trust you – not abruptly sticking your hand in its cage, not harassing it while it tries to nap. But one urge acted on imprudently – like picking up a guinea pig while napping – can take you right back to square one in the trust department.
These tiny fantastic beasts are small and vulnerable. They need our trust and we need theirs.
Guinea Pigs Teach Me the Value of Time
The average life of a guinea pig is 5 to 7 years, but many say goodbye much younger. With short life spans and an even shorter healthy adulthood, guinea pigs have taught me to be kinder, slow down and enjoy the precious few moments we have on this earth to spend with those that we love.
Admittedly, there was a year or two that I wasn’t so great about giving floor time for the guinea pigs each day. I didn’t snuggle with them or cuddle with them as often as I should have. So I’ve learned to lean in to the art of guinea pig care-taking: take the time to sit with them, delight in their company and get to know their little, unique personalities while I still have the chance to build positive, lifelong memories.
Where to Find Them
Where will you find your fantastic beast?
Rescued guinea pigs – cavies that have been abandoned, neglected or surrendered by their owners – are given a second chance at life thanks to the work of guinea pig rescue organizations large and small all across the world. These rescues and shelters are staffed by helpful, knowledgeable volunteers that work tirelessly towards a common goal: caring for the world’s forgotten guinea pigs.
Please consider adopting a guinea pig (or two) to give them a second chance. Because adopted guinea pigs are the best teachers. They are the guinea pigs that love you the strongest, trust you the hardest and need you the most.
Brian Balla is the proud care-taker of three female guinea pigs in Portland, Oregon and the operator of HappyCavy.com: a family-friendly website and blog that discusses the fun and serious moments of guinea pig ownership. The website also features four live streaming webcams that give you an up-close look into the lives of guinea pig “sisters” Winnie, Rosie and Feebee.
Comment below please and tell us about your childhood pets