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Have you ever owned a guinea pig as a pet? These small animals make a perfect family pet and enjoy spending quality time with their owners. Snuggling, eating, and playing are all things that guinea pigs generally love doing. With some knowledge of guinea pigs and how to care for them, owning a pet guinea pig can be a very enjoyable experience for both you and your pet.
Diagnose: to determine the identity of a disease or illness by a medical examination
Gastrointestinal tract: the stomach and intestine as a functional unit
Homeostasis: the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus tending to disturb its normal condition or function.
Husbandry: the science of breeding, rearing, and caring for animals.
Neuter: having no organs of reproduction; without sex; asexual.
Just like any other domestic pet that we see today, guinea pigs have a long history of domestication. Guinea pigs are a member of the rodent species, but have their own unique physical and behavioral characteristics that set them apart from other rodents. There are a lot of special needs that guinea pigs share to maintain a happy and healthy life. Good husbandry is the best way of assuring that a pet will live to its full potential. Understanding guinea pigs is a great start to a long fulfilling relationship between an owner and their special little pet.
HISTORY OF THE GUINEA PIG
Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, originated from the Peru region of the Andes Mountains where it is referred to as cuy (Forstadt, n.d., para.7; para. 9). It is here that the familiar rodent can be found roaming freely in the wild just like our everyday squirrel. The wild guinea pig prefers a variety of habitats including rocky, swampy, and woody areas. Being most active at night, they prefer to rest in their burrows during the day (Forstadt, n.d., para. 6). They live in colonies usually with one male and six to seven females. In a wild guinea pig colony, the presence of more than one male usually leads to the males fighting to the death (Hirst, n.d., para. 4).
Figure1; Wild cavy.
Why They Were Domesticated
Domestication of the guinea pig is thought to have begun around 5000 years B.C.; however, some parts of their history are a little blurry. Physical records have been found showing evidence of guinea pig domestication as early as 900 B.C. (Forstadt, n.d., para. 7). In their native land, guinea pigs are used for many different purposes, but seldom kept as pets. The people of the Andes Mountains rely on breeding guinea pigs for meat. In most cases, a mating pair of guinea pigs will be gifted to a newlywed couple and then cared for mostly by the women and children of the family(Forstadt, n.d., para. 11; para. 12). By raising them personally, an Andes Mountain family can usually produce approximately twelve pounds of meat per month (Hirst, n.d., para. 5).
Though meat is their main purpose to the Andes Mountain people, guinea pigs are also used in religious and other cultural ceremonies. They are also used in medicine, both to diagnose and treat those considered to be ill or weak. Though they are bred mainly for food, guinea pigs are crucial to, and respected in, the Andes Mountain culture (Forstadt, n.d., para. 14).
How They Became Pets
After domestication in its native land, the guinea pig was later introduced in Europe where it became popular as a household pet. The cause of its popularity is said to be Queen Elizabeth I keeping one as a pet. From this point on, domestication of the guinea pig continued turning the small rodent species into a very popular choice of pet in many parts of the world (Forstadt, n.d., para. 8).
Figure 2; Queen Elizabeth I.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GUINEA PIG
From personal experience I can inform you that guinea pigs make excellent pets. Unlike other domestic rodents, guinea pigs are naturally timid and love companionship. In the wild, guinea pigs are very social animals and they require the same companionship when they are kept as pets (Social life, n.d., para. 2). There are many distinct behavioral characteristics that guinea pigs share that set them apart from other rodent species. Their unique vocalizations, humorous actions, and cuddly nature are sure to amuse any pocket pet lover.
Guinea pigs seem to have their own unique language. There are many different sounds that can be heard when in the presence of these small rodents and all of these sounds have different meanings. Knowing what these sounds mean will help the owner to better understand their pet and assist in building a stronger relationship between them (McLeod, n.d., para. 1).
One of the most common vocalizations of the guinea pig is called wheeking, this habitually corresponds with excitement for food or attention (McLeod, n.d., para. 3). Another sound that is frequently heard from a content guinea pig is called purring, this sound signifies
that the animal is having a pleasurable experience, usually when being petted or while cuddling (McLeod, n.d., para. 4). If you ever hear teeth chattering it usually means that the animal is annoyed or angry and this is sometimes followed by showing of the teeth or a bite. Though it is uncommon for a guinea pig to display this type of aggressive behavior toward a person, it sometimes occurs when introducing two males. If this behavior occurs during an introduction, then the two males should be separated before one gets a chance to attack (McLeod, n.d., para.6). When guinea pigs are extremely frightened or hurt they will project a sound called shrieking. This is a very loud, high pitched, repetitive sound and if it is ever heard then the guinea pig should be thoroughly examined for any signs of injury (McLeod, n.d., para. 9). There are many other sounds that a guinea pig can produce, but they are heard less frequently or, in some cases, not at all.
Figure 3; Curious guinea pig.
Guinea pigs also communicate by using body language that sometimes goes hand in hand with the distinct sounds they produce. Some gestures signify playfulness, whereas others may be a warning. Whatever the gesture may be, knowing what these actions mean will also help an owner to understand their pet. One gesture frequently observed is called popcorning. With a well deserved name, the animal will pop itself up into the air, often repeatedly, while tossing their head upward and kicking their hind legs back. This gesture is most frequently seen in
younger guinea pigs and it signifies a very happy and playful animal (McLeod, n.d., para. 13). Among many other playful gestures that may be observed, there are also some behaviors that are intended to warn when a guinea pig is upset. When agitated, a guinea pig may stiffen its legs and head while rising its body up higher than usual, this is usually a good time to back off and let the animal have some space. Any number of aggressive behaviors may be combined depending on the severity of annoyance. Some of these behaviors include, but are not limited to, hissing, fluffing of the fur, and showing of the teeth (McLeod, n.d., para. 17). Once an owner has an understanding of their guinea pigs personality, both parties will share a very healthy and happy relationship.
Guinea pigs usually grow to lengths of approximately ten inches long and weigh one to two pounds (Hirst, n.d., para. 2). They have stout bodies with a large and elongated head that is equivalent to approximately one third of their entire body length. Guinea pigs do not have tails and their ears are large and rounded (Pavia, 2005, p. 18). They have short stubby legs and small padded feet. Though guinea pigs may have little variance in shape and size, their coats come in a variety of colors, texture, and length. The wild cavy is usually only found in shades of gray or brown and generally have short to medium length fur. Through years of domestication, an outburst of different colors and coat types has been created (Forstadt, n.d., para. 6).
There are many different breeds of guinea pigs but only 13 are recognized in the United States (Nash, n.d., para. 1). Each having their own unique physical characteristics, some breeds are Skinny, American, Coronet, and Texel. Ranging from almost hairless to very long hair, these breeds all have similar body types but look very different. The Skinny guinea pig is almost
completely hairless but may have some patches of fur (Guinea pigs, 2008, para. 16). The American guinea pig is shorthaired and has a very smooth looking coat (Guinea pigs, 2008, para.8). Coronet guinea pigs have an extremely long coat that has a smooth appearance and requires special grooming, and the Texel guinea pig has a long coat that is very crimpy and wavy (Guinea pigs, 2008, para.4; para. 5). Seeing all of the different breeds that have been genetically mastered through intricate breeding portrays the passion that people have for these small pocket pets.
Figure 4; Skinny.
Figure 5; Coronet.
GUINEA PIG HUSBANDRY
Providing an adequate clean space, a fresh wholesome diet, and meeting grooming needs are all essential for keeping a happy and healthy guinea pig. Guinea pigs are social animals,
having a cage mate can do a lot for their health. It is recommended that males are not kept with other males; however, if they are litter mates they may get along nicely. Females and males get along great, as do females with other females. Guinea pigs can reproduce rather quickly, unless neutering is an option, it is not recommended to house a male and female together (Guinea pig care, n.d., para. 4).
Figure 6; Social guinea pigs.
A minimum of four square feet should be kept for each guinea pig in the cage. They need room to exercise and get away from each other if they need too (Guinea pig care, n.d., para. 5). Guinea pigs sleep the best if they have their own covering to crawl in, providing some sort of cubby or dome for each animal in the cage is essential for good health. Besides providing a cage mate, hiding spaces and toys appropriate for guinea pigs in their habitat may help keep them from getting too bored (Guinea pig care, n.d., para. 8). It is essential to keep their environment as clean as possible with good ventilation. The bottom of a guinea pig cage should be solid with no wire or mesh lining; these types of surfaces are good for sanitation but can injure the animal's feet. Glass aquariums do not provide enough ventilation, a solid plastic or metal base with a wired top is a great guinea pig environment (Guinea pig care, n.d., para. 5).
The bedding used in a guinea pig cage should not be cedar or pine. Both of these woods contain oils that are bad for the animal's health. Other types of wood shavings, hay, or grass may be appropriate (Guinea pig care, n.d., para. 7). Personally, I use an all natural paper bedding which, in my opinion, is the most safe and comfortable. It is thick and cotton ball-like and it produces little to no dust. Supplying everything in the guinea pigs cage to keep them comfortable and entertained is crucial.
Figure 7; Guinea pig eating romaine.
Guinea pigs love to eat and they have some special needs when it comes to their diet. They have sensitive gastrointestinal tracts and providing an unlimited amount of timothy hay or orchard grass aids in their digestion (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 4). Commercial pellets should be fed everyday; however, only one eighth of one cup should be provided (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 2). Approximately one cup of a fresh leafy green mixture should be served daily as well as small amounts of fresh fruit and other fresh vegetables (Guinea pig feeding, 2009, para. 4). Some leafy green vegetables that should be offered on a daily basis are kale, mustard greens, spinach, romaine, and parsley (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 14). Vegetables that are good to feed, but less
frequently, are carrots, celery, and sweet potatoes (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 15). Fruits should not be offered in large quantities because they contain excess amounts of sugar. Fruits are usually served as a treat and may include apples, pears, blueberries, kiwi, and strawberries (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 17). Not all fruits and vegetables are healthy to a guinea pig. Some foods that are not good for a guinea pigs health are iceberg lettuce, seeds, nuts, collard greens, bok choy, and beans (Vital vittles, 2009, para.16; para. 20). Guinea pigs need a lot of vitamin C to support their immune system, adding a supplement to their water and supplying vitamin C to their everyday diet is crucial for maintaining homeostasis (Vital vittles, 2009, para. 5).
Figure 8; Guinea pig getting groomed.
Grooming branches off into different things that prevent certain conditions that could potentially affect the animal's health. Having continually growing teeth, the guinea pig lays at risk of a very painful condition. If proper materials to help wear down their teeth are not provided, their teeth can become over grown and possibly grow into other areas of their mouth. This condition could also prevent the animal from eating, resulting in starvation (Guinea pig pet care, n.d., para. 6). Personally, I provide things such as untreated wood blocks, toilet paper rolls, and a daily supply of hay to help keep the teeth a healthy length. In some cases, providing these
items for the guinea pig may not work well enough and manual filing may be required. Just like the teeth, toenails can also become overgrown and uncomfortable. Toenails may be worn down naturally if a hard surface is provided in the cage, but sometimes they have to be trimmed manually (Guinea pig pet care, n.d. para. 5).
Figure 9; Overgrown teeth.
Having a hairless or short haired guinea pig is less demanding then having a long haired guinea pig. They are generally clean animals and bathing is not required often; however, longhaired guinea pigs require frequent brushing to prevent knots from forming in their fur (Guinea pig pet care, n.d. para. 9).
Despite their original purpose in their native land, guinea pigs make excellent family pets. Their wacky gestures, unique sounds, and stout appearance are sure to make anyone crack a smile. Guinea pigs are the happiest when paired with another guinea pig. Providing good husbandry will reduce the risk of disease in any animal. While caring for a guinea pig does have some special demands, it is worth it.