Pet Guinea Pigs: 17 things you need to know before you get one

Guinea pigs are classic pets that are loving and cute. But before you fall in love with the idea of buying a guinea pig, it is crucial that you have an idea of what they are all about. I am a previous owner of a guinea pig, and I know first-hand how painful it is to fall in love with these guys, and not succeed in the end. In addition to my personal experience, I have done some intensive research that I would like to share with you before you take in a guinea pig.

So, what do you need to know before buying a guinea pig?

  1. They are an investment and a commitment.
  2. Save before you buy.
  3. Compatible with other pets?
  4. They can cause an allergic overload.
  5. Not the best pet for young children.
  6. They require a lot of space and care.
  7. There are gender differences.
  8. There are different breeds.
  9. They are very intelligent.
  10. They are very social.
  11. They are easy to tame.
  12. They can be loud.
  13. What exercise do they need?
  14. What is their diet like?
  15. What does their hygiene entail?
  16. What materials are needed for a pet like this?
  17. What is their cage and bedding?

Investment and commitment

First of all, we must be honest. Pets are obligations. It is our responsibility to love, care for and cherish them as soon as they come into our homes. Each species requires a different amount of investment.

When it comes to our dear friend, the guinea pig, the investment and dedication is quite large. To keep a guinea pig healthy and happy, there are a few things that cost money, such as bedding, hay, food, vegetables, vet, chew toys, etc.. This, along with the time it takes to keep their habitat tidy.

Although they do not live as long as dogs and cats, they require just as much, if not more, attention and time. Their average life span is 4-8 years.

You also need someone to pet them while you are away. They are not like cats, and cannot be left alone for a few days to fend for themselves. They need daily cleaning, need to be fed and need exercise. This requires that when you travel or go out of town, there is someone who can look after them.

Rescue before you buy

This is valid advice for all animals, but especially for guinea pigs. There are so many abandoned guinea pigs in animal shelters. When people think of animal shelters, they often think simply of dogs and cats. But there are often many other animals there. And guinea pigs are one of the most popular ones to adopt from shelters and - unfortunately - to place in them.

This not only helps abandoned guinea pigs to find their perfect home, but it also helps you to find a good match for you and your family. Every guinea pig has its own individual personality, just like all animals. My guinea pig's name was Rikki and my roommate's was Misha. Although they were brothers, they looked nothing alike. Misha was incredibly skittish and quiet, while Rikki was extroverted and brave.

During the rescue, you can often get to know the guinea pig before making a final decision and see if you are a good match. Pet shops often try to speed up the process. It is all about big sales and maximum profit. They often send people and pets on their way before you are sure it is a good fit. This leads to many abandoned, unhappy guinea pigs.

One important thing is to try to get them in a PAAR as this will be very beneficial for their mental health.

Compatibility with other pets

Guinea pigs are at the very bottom of the food chain. They are prey to every predator. This makes them very skittish, fearful animals. Not only does this make them afraid of everything, but it also means that they have many predators.

This is important because many people have other pets. They have dogs, cats, birds, etc. Although cats (we all know they make their own rules) leave guinea pigs alone, there are some breeds of dog that can have problems with guinea pigs. These are usually breeds that were originally bred to hunt. That instinct to kill smaller volatile animals may still be present in them. There may also be problems with snakes and certain types of birds.

Although it is in the genes of these animals, steps can be taken to familiarize them with each other. If at all possible, allow the animal to roam around the house and get acquainted a few times before fully integrating the guinea pigs.

When Rikki and Misha first met my dog Ziggy, tensions were high. Ziggy is a Beagleso he was a real hunter. It was in his genes to want to attack the guinea pigs. But I took precautions to ensure the safety of all the animals involved.

I made an outdoor pen for the guinea pigs so they can play outside and enjoy the grass without any problems. So when they met Ziggy, I had them in their cage. First I gave them time to get comfortable in their environment. Then I brought Ziggy outside, but kept him close to me and under my control.

I thought Rikki and Misha (especially Misha) would immediately run to the other side of the pen. But they were all very curious about each other. Ziggy stuck his nose against the chicken wire and then Misha stuck his nose against Ziggy. Even when Ziggy started licking Misha's nose, she stayed there. While I thought they were frozen with fear, they were not. Eventually Misha walked away and Rikki came to look at Ziggy.

Once in a while Ziggy would jump on the chicken wire (because this is what he does when he is excited), and they seemed to get a bit scared, but then I would get him under control again and everything was fine.

Please note that this will not happen with all animals and all guinea pigs. It is very important to supervise very closely the introduction and familiarisation process. Also at this point the guinea pigs were about six months old, so they knew me and trusted me. In the first few months a guinea pig can be frightened around you, let alone other animals.

Allergy overload

Allergies are definitely something that should be considered and investigated before bringing guinea pigs into your home.

Many people are allergic to guinea pigs. But many of those who think they are allergic to the animals are actually only allergic to the pollen in the hay.

With my roommate and I: While I was only allergic to the hay, she was allergic to both the hay and the guinea pigs. This was not something we realised before bringing the guinea pigs home, but we made it work. I fed the guinea pigs their hay and just washed my hands thoroughly before and after. This eliminated the allergic reactions for me.

But with my roommate, it was not so easy. Every time she held or hugged Misha, her skin would break out in a terrible itchy red rash. Although she dealt with this because of her intense love for animals, there are some people for whom this would be a problem.

It is a good idea to get tested for guinea pig allergies, or just find some guinea pigs you can play with and test if you are allergic that way.

Humans are not the only ones who suffer! Guinea pigs can be allergic to things too! And although their sneezing fits are insanely cute, when exaggerated they can be a serious cause for concern.

After about a month with Rikki at home, I noticed that he sneezed a lot more than his brother, Misha. I began to research intensively what could be making my baby sneeze so much. Although his loud, cute sneezes would make me laugh every time, I knew something was wrong.

My examination gave me no comfort. Either it was simple allergies, or it was an URI (upper respiratory infection) which is much more serious. (We'll discuss that later in the Health Problems / Dangers section). I decided I had to play it safe. So I took him to the vet.

Turns out he was allergic to something in the house. So after some trial and error, I discovered it was the soap I used to wash their bedding. (I used fleece bedding and potty trained them, rather than buying bedding for their whole cage. I will explain that later). So I stopped using that soap and the problem was solved.

Contrary to popular belief, not good pets for young children

Guinea pigs are actually very fragile and skittish. They can easily be damaged or hurt if not lifted and cared for properly. Many people think they make good starting pets for children, but they are much more complicated than hamsters.

Children can definitely help to care for these furry little friends, but children under the age of 6-8 (depending on the maturity level) should not be the sole caretakers of these pets. Guinea pigs need adult supervision and care.

An important reason for this is that guinea pigs have very small bones, and therefore one must be extremely careful and calm when handling them. Especially while the guinea pigs are not yet tamed and comfortable with the family. During this time, they will take anything to run when someone tries to pick them up.

How to pick up a Guinea Pig: To pick up a Guinea Pig, approach it calmly. Then take its hand (usually the one that can reach it easiest) and wrap it around its stomach and chest. DO NOT KNOCK! Be very gentle. Then take your other hand and slide it under their butt. Gently bring them close to your body and keep them there until they lie down on the floor, sofa or bed.

Lots of space and care required

It is a fact that guinea pigs need much more space than many people think. The idea is that they are much more like rabbits than any other rodent. They are very active, so a lot of space is needed for them to do this.

More information on rabbits as pets can be found here:

The cliché "more is better" applies here quite literally. The more space a Guinea Pig has, the better they will feel. But it's not very realistic to give them their very own room. The Humane Society of the United States provides some guidelines on how much space your Guinea Pig really needs.

One guinea pig: 0.7 m² cage (minimum)
Two guinea pigs: 0.7 (Minimum), 1 m² preferably
Three guinea pigs: 1m² (minimum), preferably 1.3m²
Four guinea pigs: 1.m² (Minimum)

Also, while guinea pigs are the cleanest rodents, they still make a mess. Their cage probably needs cleaning every day or so. This can be as simple as wiping it down. Food, hay and pellets often end up on the floor by the end of the day. A simple wipe down of the cage will help keep the guinea pigs healthy and the smell down.

Amazon has many great pet care tools, and one of them is the Behone 2-in-1 hand wipe set. Use a small brush like this to remove all the mess from the hard-to-reach places and corners of the cage. Although it sounds tiring to have to clean every day, it is a simple sweep. Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the cage and cage equipment only needs to be done about once every fortnight, depending on the Guinea Pig and how many you have.

Gender differences

While male and female guinea pigs make great pets, each gender has its own peculiarities. Males are called bears, while females are called sows.

Although groups of sows are the most popular, a group of bears is also quite common. In both groups, there is bound to be some conflict over the hierarchy when they are first set up. But a female group of guinea pigs is supposed to be the most civilised of all the animals to establish itself in the hierarchy.

Some people think that males have more dominance problems and cannot live together peacefully, but this is simply not true. All animals need to create a hierarchy. Once this is decided, they can live together just fine.

Both boars and sows need the same amount of cleaning, feeding, attention, etc. They are not all different. They are not all different. Although many people think that bears are aggressive and less friendly, it is simply not true.

One thing is that boars tend to smell a bit more than sows. This is because they tend to scour their cage floors with their undercarriage and mark their territory (something dogs often do). However, this can be easily remedied.

Guinea pigs all have a fat gland at the end of their spine which produces oil that marks their territory. Bears generally have more active fat glands, which means that fat is often accumulated on their tails. Not to mention that when they rub it around the cage, they are likely to get food, hay and poop on their bottoms. However, it can be easily cleaned. Just beware of build-up and other unhygienic things.

Guinea pigs do best in pairs. They are very social animals and thrive on a similar connection. With regard to sex, this is very important. If you get two guinea pigs (which is highly recommended), make sure you get them of the same sex. This eliminates the need to spay or neuter them. Even the simplest of operations can be extremely stressful for these little guys. It is much healthier for them not to live with the opposite sex.

Although guinea pigs can sometimes be a challenge to look after, given the amount of cleaning that needs to be done, they really do make it worthwhile.

Difference between guinea pigs

There are many species of guinea pigs. There are differences in appearance, coat length, coat structure and even some personality differences.

Here is a list of the different breeds of guinea pig, and a little bit about each of them:

  • AmericanThe most common guinea pig, available in nineteen colour combinations. Sweet and docile personality,
  • White-Crested: Like American, but they have a comb of white hair on their heads and no other white on the rest of their bodies,
  • Satin versionsSatin guinea pigs have hollow hair, which is actually a medical condition called osteodystrophy. An incurable and potentially painful metabolic bone disease. In some countries, guinea pig associations have stopped breeding these guinea pigs because of the damage they cause.
  • Silk gooseHas long, smooth hair that goes back over his body. Never grows to or over the face. Always back.
  • TexelOriginally from Texas. Its curly, bushy hair has grown thicker over the years to survive in other climates. They are often known to be a little overweight.
  • PeruvianThe Peruvian looks a lot like Satin, but he also has hair growing across his face.
  • Coronet: Looks a lot like Satin with long, smooth hair growing down his back, except that they have a crest on their heads.
  • AbyssinianThey are covered in rosettes, (also known as cowlicks) all over their body, giving their fur a raised and lively appearance. Experts say that the Abyssinian is a great pet to have, but you may not want to keep guinea pigs for the first time as, like their hair, Abyssinian guinea pigs are irritable.
  • TeddyTeddy's too, like their name. Their fur is short and dense, making them feel much like an old teddy bear. Their fur is soft and resilient, making them the perfect cuddle buddies.

Highly intelligent

Guinea pigs have a very active mind, so they like their routine to be changed from time to time. One way to do this is to hide lettuce and other vegetables in different places. Something I have done is weave a piece of lettuce through different parts of the cage. This way Rikki had to figure out how to get to the lettuce. Not only does this keep them stimulated, but it's also very entertaining to watch them try to figure it out.

They are also incredibly smart. They can even learn simple tricks, like cats and dogs. However, unlike dogs, it is better to train them around 9 or 10 months of age, as their minds are then most open to learning new things.

With their keen sense of smell and hearing, they will quickly learn who you are if you are consistent and good to them. They will learn who their owner is and get excited when they see you. Every time I got home from work, as soon as I walked in and started talking to my roommate, Rikki would start squealing excitedly and run to the edge of his cage.

Speaking of incredible hearing, they don't always do this just for people's votes. Rikki's favourite food of all time was carrots. So much so that he could tell a wrinkled carrot bag from any other wrinkle. In the beginning, when a bag wrinkled, he got excited because he thought it was carrots. But as time went by, he recognised the wrinkle from the carrot bag and every time he heard it, he started squealing and squealing like crazy.

Talking about popcorning, I should probably explain what it is. Popcorning is a dance they do when they get excited. It's hard to explain, so if you're interested, watch this video. But it looks a lot like corn being popped (hence the name) or a bucking bull. One thing is for sure, and that is that it is one of the most adorable things of all time.

Very social

One very important thing to know is that it is better for guinea pigs to be housed in pairs. They are very social, so it is important to have another Guinea Pig to bond with and get along with at all times.

As well as this need to live with another Guinea Pig, they also love socialising and bonding with their human. They need affection and tenderness, and they will show it to you. Although they need attention and affection from humans, they also need a break from you as it can often stress them out, especially if they are not used to you yet. They will have their way of telling you when they are ready.

Easily tamed

Guinea pigs are very easy to tame compared to other animals. They are skittish and nervous at first, but with love and patience, they will open up to you and love you very much.

It is important that you give them some space when they come home. This allows them to feel at ease in their new home before they have to deal with any other stress. You should also make sure that their surroundings are quiet and calm.

After this initial period of space (usually a day or two), talk to your guinea pigs often and at length. Talk to them lightly and frantically, as you would to a dog or a baby. In addition, put your hand in the cage so your Guinea Pig gets used to your presence and, more importantly, your scent. Getting your Guinea Pig used to your voice and smell is an important part of taming a Guinea Pig.

Eventually you will be able to pick up your Guinea Pig. Of course, you'll also need to provide fun activities and plenty of food when you're spending time with your Guinea Pig. This will make them feel at home straight away.

Can be loud

Screaming is the very cute sound they use to communicate with people. It is surprisingly loud for such tiny creatures. And while you certainly won't get any complaints from neighbours about it, it can sometimes disturb a family. If this unpredictable sound is something you don't think you can handle, a guinea pig might not be right for you.

Exercise

It is very important that guinea pigs do the right exercises. And they are quite active at that. This is where a larger cage comes in handy. The more space they have to exercise in their cage, the less time you have to spend supervising them outside the cage.

They need about an hour of exercise a day, and more is always good. On other levels, however, it is beneficial for them that, no matter how big their cage is, they can get out, communicate with you and explore new and exciting areas.

When I practised them outside, my roommate and I would either sit on the floor with our legs out and our feet touching so that they could run around in it, or we would block off part of the room. However, it is important to supervise them while they are playing.

If they are in the cage, they will find a way to exercise. However, it is certainly more beneficial for them to have more space to do so. Misha's favourite time to exercise was in the middle of the night, because he thought we couldn't possibly see him in the dark. (Cute little shy Misha.) But he had made his own track through the cage and would use that time and time again.

The most important thing to realise is that guinea pigs need exercise and this requires some effort on the part of the owner.

Diet

Guinea pigs need a daily intake of vitamin C because, like humans, they cannot produce their own. This can be done through vitamin C drops or supplements.

If you give them water, give it to them via a water bottle attached to the side of the cage rather than a bowl. A bowl makes the water dirty and spill.

Timothy hay is the most important part of the guinea pig's diet. They need it in both pellet and actual hay form.

Along with vitamin C and timothy hay, they need a steady intake of certain vegetables, including dark green ones.

Another thing to note is that every guinea pig will have its own tastes, likes and dislikes. When trying out vegetables, make sure you make a list of what your Guinea Pig will eat.

Food pyramid for guinea pigs (actually for rabbits but very similar)

The most important thing to remember is to find out which fruit and vegetables are best or worst for your guinea pig!

Guinea pig hygiene

Guinea pigs are the cleanest of all rodents. They are very critical about their hygiene. They actually bathe themselves like cats! They are also very careful with their pee. The last thing they want is to pee on you or your things. They make a corner in their cage and that's their toilet. If you hang around with a guinea pig, it will try and tell you it has to pee before they actually do it. You just have to learn to read their language.

They have teeth with open roots, which means they never stop growing. This means they need chew toys to keep the teeth at a reasonable length. Nail clippers are also a must. Guinea pig nails grow quite quickly, so you will need to learn how to trim them properly. Baby wipes are also very useful. While they bathe themselves, they sometimes get dirtier than they can clean themselves. Especially when it comes to their fat glands. Unscented baby wipes help do the job thoroughly and painlessly.

Required materials

All links go to the products on bol.com

Cage and bedding

Although you can buy a cage from a pet shop, it is often not big enough and much more expensive than necessary. A great alternative is to make one yourself. It is very easy and incredibly cheaper than buying one.

Some rules to follow when setting up their cage are that there should be some sort of barrier from the ground to about 25cm. Although guinea pigs are not escape artists, their hay, bedding and pellets are! This barrier helps keep things more hygienic and secure.

Like many animals, guinea pigs can be housebroken with patience and attention.

Pet Inside also offers a great resource to learn how to build a homemade guinea pig cage.

Make sure that the cage has racks, blankets, holes and hiding places. Because guinea pigs are prey animals, it is important that they have somewhere to hide when they are stressed. They also like to hide in these places to take their naps.

Related Questions:

Guinea pigs smell badt? Guinea pigs are the best-smelling rodents around. Although they can become smelly if not cared for and cleaned properly, they rarely smell themselves. It is usually the smell of hay and farm animals that is associated with guinea pigs.

Do guinea pigs recognise their owners? Guinea pigs can indeed recognise their owners. They have fantastic senses of smell and hearing, and after a while they will learn how to smell and sound. When a Guinea Pig recognises their owner, they will often squeal with delight that they are home (and for food, of course).

Can you cuddle a guinea pig? Guinea pigs love a good cuddle. While they enjoy freedom and running around as much as anyone, they love to snuggle up to their owner and relax. They love to be stroked and scratched in all the right places.

When do guinea pigs sleep? Because guinea pigs are so low on the food chain, they never actually sleep fully. Instead, they take many short naps throughout the day and night. They often even sleep with their eyes open because they need to be alert at all times.

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