photos and text by Liz Pilla
The general public knowledge of guinea pigs is filled with misses: mostly misunderstanding, misconceptions and misinformation. As a life long dog lover and owner I found myself living the apartment life with certain pet restrictions that limited my size options on dog ownership. I missed having a companion animal and so I began my search for a small pet that I felt suited my lifestyle. I wanted something that was interactive but fairly easy to care for. I got my first Guinea Pig almost 3 years ago and my second about 1 year later, both were rescues and came to me as babies. This article will hopefully turn those misses into hits and maybe even turn some of you into piggie slaves like myself.
Let’s start at the beginning shall we? What are guinea pigs? Well first of all, they are not pigs nor are they even related other than they are both mammals. They’re also not from Guinea, not even close. The Cavia porcellus, or Cavy, once roamed the Andes of South America and their larger relatives, the Cuy, can still be found roaming the forests throughout that region. Guinea pigs are in the rodent family, have been domesticated since around 5000 BC, and they are no longer found in the wild. They were a major food source for the peoples of that region and farmed as livestock. Today, people living in the Andes region still eat the wild version of our modern day piggies called Cuy. The Cuy is a larger relative and not the domesticated version. The first record of Guinea pigs being kept as pets comes from the 1500’s when English and Spanish traders brought them home and the little fuzzbutts were enjoyed by the rich and elite.
Guinea Pigs have been used in medical research since the 1700’s and the term “guinea pig” when used as a metaphor came from this usage. Tho still used in research today, they have been mostly replaced by rats and mice. Guinea pigs have also been to space, twice, once by USSR in 1961 and by China in 1990 both were successful flights.
The guinea pigs closest relative is the Capybara. The capybara is the world’s largest rodent and is found in the same regions of South America as the guinea pig. While the Capybara, with its webbed feet is quite comfortable in the water, the Guinea Pig, on the other hand, should never be made to swim. With the exception of a very shallow bath or foot soak if needed, there is no need to subject a guinea pig to water of any depth. Of course they will swim if they have to as it’s preferred to drowning but it’s neither enjoyable nor fun for the guinea pig. If you can imagine having a pet rodent the size of Labrador Retriever who loves the water just as much if not more, that is what a Capybara is. Just thought I’d throw this tidbit in here because the Capybara is such a cool dude!! Three cheers for the Capybara!!
Guinea Pigs come in many colors and coat types including a unique breed known as the “skinny pig”. The skinny pig is a mostly hairless pig save for a few bits of fur on the nose, brow and feet. They have a genetic anomaly and other than the lack of fur are identical to their furry counterpart. Guinea Pigs average in weight from around 900 to about 1400 grams. Their general size and shape is that of a large potato and many owners refer to their pigs as furry potatoes. Their life span is 5-7 years tho occasionally can live longer with proper care and nutrition. Because of their domestication, guinea pigs do not do well outdoors and are best kept indoors where the temperature does not fluctuate with the seasons and they are not exposed to the elements. Guinea pigs are herd animals that do best in groups of 2 or more.
Females thrive in groups but as with most species, boys will fight for dominance, so a herd of females with one NEUTERED male will work well. While pairs of unrelated boys are possible, it’s more difficult than females and introductions of boys can be a tricky situation best done by experienced owners as the possibility of a fight is far greater than with females. The guinea pig gestation period or length of pregnancy is on average 2-2.5 months. Here is where you will find the first reference to Tribbles: baby pigs are called pups and are born ready to go! With hair, teeth, claws and sight, they are up and ready to face the world almost immediately after birth. The mother is fertile again about 1 hour after giving birth and the pups are sexually mature in 3-5 weeks. At this rate, you can see how 2 pigs can become many in a VERY short time.
Many people come home from pet stores with females who are already pregnant or with a pair of what they thought were same sex pigs only to wind up with more than they bargained for. It’s critical for responsible owners to properly sex and separate the pups to avoid situations like what happened in California in October, 2017 when over 1,000 guinea pigs were rescued from a hoarding situation. Trouble with Tribbles indeed!! Special thanks to L.A. Guinea Pig Rescue who, at great cost, took in ALL 700 females, to stop the breeding in this group. Those 700 females wound up being over 1,000 after the already impregnated females were done giving birth. To this day, almost a year later, LAGPR still has over 200 of the NorCal pigs as they became known. It’s very important, if you are thinking of bringing a guinea pig into your life to acquire one from a reputable rescue who can properly sex your new baby. Rescues will often have babies available for the exact reasons mentioned above, oops!
In part 2 we discuss proper care and health.