Guinea Pig 101: How to Keep Your Cavy Happy

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text and photos by Michele D’Amour McDanel

 

Since having Rosie  and now Hamish, I have learned a lot about guinea pig care, and would like to share what I’ve learned for those who have guinea pigs or might be thinking about adopting one.

Housing

Guinea pigs need a minimum of eight square feet of floor space in their habitat – per cavy. In general, they are very social and will be happier when housed with another cavy; however, this will double the amount of space needed. In Hamish’s case, he is OK being on his own after his brother passed away (prior to our adopting him). Cavies need a cage with solid flooring, not a wire-bottomed cage.

Cavies like to have a hiding place in their cage.  A plastic tube or a box of some sort works well. If you use a cardboard box, you’ll need to replace it frequently, as cavies love to chew. The advantage is that the chewing will help keep their teeth worn down to a good length. If you prefer to provide a plastic tube or pigloo, simply give your cavy small pieces of untreated wood and raw, unshelled peanuts to keep their teeth from getting overgrown.

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Bedding

Paper or pine bedding should be several inches thick. Cedar shavings contain phenols, which can be harmful to cavies, so should not be used. Clean the cage daily by removing any soiled bedding, droppings, and stale food. Clean the cage once a week by removing old bedding, rinsing out the cage with warm, soapy water, drying the cage thoroughly, and then replacing the bedding.

A great alternative to paper or pine bedding, and one that’s more environmentally friendly, is to use a bath towel in the bottom of the cage. Have a few old towels set aside for this purpose and replace the towel daily. The towels can be washed and dried after any droppings, hay, etc. are shaken out.

Location

A lot of people are fond of keeping a guinea pig in a child’s room, but in my opinion this will isolate the animal too much. We kept Rosie’s cage, and now Hamish’s, in a corner of our kitchen. It’s much easier to feed them that way; and Rosie in particular thrived being in the middle of family activity and interactions.

Guinea pigs are susceptible to both heat and cold, so make sure that they’re in a place where they won’t get overheated or chilled. In general, if you are comfortable, they are probably at a good temperature.

If you need take your guinea pig out in cold weather, cover the carrier with a blanket or towel, and you might want to pre-warm the car if you’re taking a car ride. On hot days, the car should be pre-cooled for them. Never leave a guinea pig or any other animal unattended in a car even for just a few minutes, especially if it is a hot or cold day.

 

Diet

You’ll want to feed your guinea pig twice a day, in the morning and evening. Cavies are definitely creatures of habit; Rosie used to squeak for us if we were a little later feeding her than usual!

Guinea pig pellets should be made available; Oxbow is a good brand that contains supplemental Vitamin C. Unlike other animals, guinea pigs can’t manufacture Vitamin C, so they need their diet to contain it daily.

You’ll be supplementing the food pellets with fresh fruits and vegetables every day, so if you include a quarter of an orange, some strawberries, kale, or dandelion greens, that will work as well. Your pet food store may have a list of foods containing high amounts of Vitamin C for your reference.

Other foods to try are apples, a small piece of banana, cilantro, parsley, or lettuces (but no iceberg lettuce). Half a handful of veggies and a slice of fresh fruit per pig is plenty. Clean up any leftover fresh food before it spoils. You’ll also need to make grass hay available at all times. Hay is great for a cavy’s digestion and satisfies their need to gnaw.

Fresh, clean water should always be available.. Use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube, and change the water daily.

Grooming

Guinea pigs do groom themselves somewhat, but they aren’t as agile as cats, and need a little help. Hamish gets a bath twice a month, and here’s how I do it: I put a folded kitchen towel at the bottom of the kitchen sink and fill the sink with two inches of warm water. I also have a pitcher of warm water close by. The towel helps keep him from slipping around in the sink. I have several towels ready to go right next to the sink, as well.

I put Hamish in the sink, pour a little water on him, and then suds him up with a small animal shampoo. I use the water from the pitcher to rinse him off and then move him to the towels next to the sink for drying. A word of caution: cavies are great jumpers! If your guinea pig isn’t used to being bathed, they may try to jump out, so be sure to stay close by and keep your hands on them.

After the bath is a great time to trim toenails, if necessary. I usually have someone else hold Hamish while I clip the nails, using a regular nail clipper for humans. You can also check the ears and clean inside them gently with a Q-tip, if needed.

I hope these tips have helped guinea pig owners with some ideas, and perhaps shown other people that guinea pigs are great pets that are pretty easy to care for.