Exotic Pets: A Spotlight on Guinea Pigs
By Sarah Liu
The health benefits of sharing your life with a pet are widely documented. From lowering blood pressure and anxiety to increasing exercise and self-esteem, animal companions enhance the lives of their humans in ways too various to name.
But what about animal lovers who don’t have the space, or aren’t ready to commit to the responsibilities of caring for a cat or a dog? For these individuals, guinea pigs can offer a similar level of affection and a unique set of interesting behaviors. Best of all, they are widely available in rescue shelters and come with adoption fees less than cats or dogs.
So what do we know about guinea pigs? Also known as cavies, they are a variety of medium sized South American rodent, native to countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Guinea pigs have been domesticated by humans for thousands of years and are still served as a delicacy in certain South American and Latin cuisine.
What do they look like? Typically 1.5 to 2.5 pounds, guinea pigs are sleek, plump, and irresistibly cute. They are available in a variety of colors, and with long or short hair. When choosing a guinea pig companion, consider the time you have for grooming. Shorter hair can be brushed once per week, but longer hair may need daily attention. In general though, guinea pigs are efficient self-groomers and have a preference for good hygiene. The United States Humane Society advises bathing can be done if necessary, but not too often as water and shampoos can dry out natural oils.
How do they behave? Guinea pigs are naturally social animals, living in groups of up to ten individuals in the wild. For this reason, many sources recommend pairing your guinea pig with a cage mate. Adding a second guinea pig will benefit you and your pet, providing additional opportunities for play, communication, comfort, grooming, and healthy stimulation. As with other pets, though, proper introduction techniques are critical. The Guinea Pig Manual, http://www.guineapigmanual.com/introducing-new-guinea-pigs/, provides a comprehensive guide to choosing a cage mate and facilitating a friendly relationship.
So what kind of pets do guinea pigs make? Good ones! Their temperament is generally described as docile, meek, sweet, and gentle. They are quieter than other rodents such as hamsters or chinchillas, but will often respond with quiet squeaks or purrs to your appearance or attention. Guinea pigs can be as responsive to attention as other small mammals like rabbits or ferrets, and in some cases as friendly as cats or dogs. They can learn tricks and be potty-trained.
What about exercise? While a guinea pig will spend most of his day in a special enclosure, it’s important to let him out to stretch his legs, explore new environments, and share your lap for bonding and cuddles. In fact, while many people assume guinea pigs are not as interactive as a cat or dog, daily attention is critical to well-being and will serve to strengthen your special relationship. Notably, while exercise wheels are available for guinea pigs, the Animal Humane Society discourages their use as these may sometimes cause spinal injuries.
What do they eat? Guinea pigs are vegetarians, and it’s important to provide them with a proper combination of vegetables, fruits, pellet food, and timothy hay to aid in digestion. Endearingly, individual guinea pigs enjoy different vegetables, and some will indulge in a small amount of fruit as an occasional treat. While commercial treats are available, the Animal Humane Society discourages their use, as they are calorie heavy and filled with artificial sweeteners.
Where should they live? Guinea pigs are one of the largest pet rodents and require a larger enclosure to maintain optimum mental and physical health. The United States Humane Society cautions that most commercial enclosures are actually too small and instructs that guinea pigs require sufficient space to roam, nest, toilet, and eat/drink. The Humane Society’s website provides a detailed list of measurements for enclosures based on number of occupants: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/guinea_pigs/tips/guinea_pig_housing.html?credit=web_id81806465. For example, the enclosure for a single guinea pig should measure, at minimum, 7.5 square feet. An added benefit to you and your guinea pig though, is the option for an open top enclosure. Since guinea pigs are less likely to climb or escape, an open top can allow for easier interaction and attention.
What about allergies? Unfortunately, humans can be susceptible to allergies caused by proteins in the guinea pigs saliva or urine, or the hay or wood shavings present in their habitat. For the safety and comfort of you and your potential guinea pig, it’s best to visit the home of someone who owns a guinea pig first.
So how much does a guinea pig cost? While adoption fees are typically small, your guinea pig will require an enclosure, a shelter box, a food dish, water bottle, high-quality pellets, timothy hay, and toys. These will be available at your local pet store, or sometimes offered along with an animal adoption at a local sanctuary or shelter. Additionally, your guinea pig should be spayed or neutered, which varies by region, but typically costs less than $50.00. Guinea pigs from rescue shelters and humane societies will often be previously spayed or neutered, which is an added incentive for adoption.
Finally, it’s important to consider veterinary care. While guinea pigs are generally hardy pets, they can be prone to dental issues or urinary problems. Moreover, you’ll need to locate a veterinary practice that serves exotic pets, rather than just cats and dogs. Your local animal shelter or rescue organization can be a good resource for area practitioners.
In sum, adopting a guinea pig can be just as rewarding as caring for a cat or dog, but somewhat less rigorous in terms of maintenance and expense. Guinea pigs are sweet and endearing creatures with individual personalities and interesting behaviors, and might warrant consideration if a dog or cat is not the right fit. If it’s something you’re thinking about, I recommend looking into the sights below and reaching out to your local rescue organizations for more comprehensive information and advice.
Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue – http://mgpr.org/
Alexandria Animal Welfare League – http://alexandriaanimals.org/
Arlington Animal Welfare League – https://www.awla.org/adopt/adopt-a-small-companion-animal/
United States Humane Society – http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/guinea_pigs/