Guinea pigs are a species of rodent that enjoys great popularity as an exotic pet. There are several varieties of guinea pigs with different coat types and color patterns. The most common are the American (short, smooth coat), Abyssinian (short coat with swirls called rosettes), and Peruvian (long coat). There also are hairless varieties called skinny pigs. As pets, guinea pigs are typically friendly and docile. Their care is moderately time-consuming but straightforward. Their housing is fairly easy to set up and maintain, and their diets are readily available at most pet stores.
Common Names: Guinea pig, cavy, domestic cavy
Scientific Name: Cavia porcellus
Adult Size: Approximately 8 to 19 inches long, weighing 2 to 3 pounds
Lifespan: 6 to 8 years; some live up to 10 years
Guinea Pig Behavior and Temperament
Guinea pigs are social animals, so it's recommended to keep them in same-sex pairs or small groups to prevent loneliness and boredom. A pair of females is the better option, as two males will sometimes fight, especially if they're not neutered. It's best not to let your guinea pig interact with other pets in the household—especially any predatory animals such as dogs, cats, and ferrets—as they can be easily injured.
As pets, guinea pigs might be nervous at first, but they rarely bite. With frequent handling, they generally become tame and comfortable being picked up and carried around. Guinea pigs will bond with the people who take care of them most, and many enjoy cuddling with their owners. Some also will squeal out of excitement when they see their favorite people. Guinea pigs have a range of personalities, from shy to outgoing. But overall they are gentle and affable pets.
Moreover, while they're usually quiet animals, guinea pigs can make some fairly loud vocalizations, especially when they're squealing for excitement about a meal. They also sometimes make a deep purring sound when they're relaxed. They're typically active during the day, though they occasionally wake up and move around at night. So you might not want to keep their enclosure in your bedroom if you're a light sleeper.
Guinea pigs can be a greater time commitment than some people might expect from such a small animal. Plan to spend at least a few hours per day giving your pet attention out of its enclosure, allowing it to exercise and explore. And in addition to daily feedings, expect to spend time cleaning the enclosure at least once a week.
Click Play to Learn More About the Cuddly Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs stretch between 8 and 19 inches long on average. And they weigh around 2 to 3 pounds. They grow rapidly during their first four months and then fully fill out at around a year old.
Guinea pigs need as large of a cage as you can fit and afford. Many pet shop cages marketed for guinea pigs are actually too small. Remember their cage is their primary space for exercise unless you're able to take your pet out and monitor it for most of the day. One of the best options is a cage with a plastic base and wire top, which allows for good airflow.
One guinea pig should have a cage that is at least 30 inches by 36 inches. For two guinea pigs, get a cage that's at least 30 inches by 50 inches. A height of around 18 inches is fine. The floor space is more important than the height, as guinea pigs generally don’t climb.
In the cage, add a small animal hideout or nest, which you can find at most pet stores, where your guinea pig can go to feel secure and rest. And add some guinea pig toys for chewing and play, which also are available at most pet stores.
Place the cage in a fairly quiet part of your home. Loud noises and sudden movements can easily stress a guinea pig. Also, make sure the cage is out of direct sunlight and away from drafts.
Specific Substrate Needs
Always use a cage with a solid bottom and not a wire grate, as this can damage the feet of a guinea pig. Add a 2-inch layer of paper bedding at the bottom. Avoid cedar and pine bedding, which can irritate a guinea pig’s respiratory system.
What Do Guinea Pigs Eat & Drink?
Guinea pigs are herbivores, meaning they eat plants. Offer your guinea pig an unlimited amount of timothy hay every day. You can simply lay this in the enclosure or use a special feeder known as a hayrack. Just make sure some is always available. This aids digestion and helps to wear down their teeth, which grow continuously.
Also, select a commercial pelleted food formulated for guinea pigs to feed each day. The pellets should be fortified with vitamin C, as guinea pigs cannot produce this vitamin on their own. Follow the package instructions for how much to feed. Many owners put a day’s worth of pellets in a small bowl in their guinea pig’s enclosure in the morning and dispose of any uneaten pellets before the next day’s feeding. Opt for a ceramic bowl over a plastic or stainless steel one, so your guinea pig won't be able to tip it over.
To supplement the hay and pellets, offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables each day in another small bowl separate from the pellets. You can feed these at any point during the day, but they should not exceed 10 percent of the total daily diet. Some good options include romaine lettuce, kale, and cilantro, as well as carrots, zucchini, kiwi, and blueberries. Keep the sugary fruits to a minimum as a treat just a few times a week. And always consult your veterinarian to make sure you're feeding the appropriate quantity and variety of foods.
Finally, guinea pigs always need access to clean water. Aim to get your guinea pig using a water bottle that attaches to the side of the enclosure as soon as possible. Water bottles won't spill or become contaminated like a water dish can. But don't remove the water dish until you're sure your animal is consistently drinking from the bottle.
Common Health Problems
Guinea pigs are generally hardy animals, but they are subject to a few common health problems.
Guinea pigs might develop diarrhea and other digestive issues from bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Antibiotics also can affect a guinea pig’s digestive system.
There are some health issues that specifically affect a guinea pig’s eyes. Sometimes, a guinea pig will scratch its eye on something in its environment. Or it might develop an eye infection, often from unsanitary living conditions. The eye might become watery, crusty, and red.
Furthermore, if your guinea pig's diet doesn't have enough vitamin C, it can develop scurvy. A guinea pig with scurvy might lose its appetite, appear to be in pain, and have bleeding gums. Scurvy can be fatal, so consult your vet immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.
A diet that doesn’t have enough hay can cause a guinea pig’s teeth to become overgrown. This can result in them not being able to bite down properly and chew their food. So if you notice a lack of appetite or weight loss in your guinea pig, have your vet check its teeth. The vet can trim the teeth if necessary and then suggest diet adjustments.
Some guinea pigs can be trained to use a litter box. Select a small litter box with short walls, and fill it with a different bedding from what you use in the rest of the cage. Also, it can be helpful to add some soiled bedding. Place the litter box in a spot where your guinea pig tends to relieve itself, and treat it when it jumps in and explores the box. Then, treat it every time you see it relieving itself in the box. If it starts relieving itself in a new spot instead, move the litter box there (or get a second box if you can fit it). Eventually your guinea pig might start to see the box as its toilet.
Regular exercise is essential for guinea pigs to help prevent obesity and other health issues. Playing with your guinea pig in a secure area outside of the enclosure for a few hours per day will help it get both physical activity and mental stimulation. Plus, within the enclosure it can be helpful to place the sleeping area on one side and the food on another, so your guinea pig has to get up and move around. Selecting an enclosure with a second level accessible via a ramp (with a solid floor, not wires) also can encourage physical activity.
As part of their care, guinea pigs need regular grooming at least weekly (or more often for longhaired guinea pigs). Brush out any mats and loose fur with a small, stiff brush or comb. Also, aim to clip your guinea pig's nails once every two weeks, or they can become overgrown and affect the animal's ability to walk. Your vet can show you how to do a nail trim if necessary.
On a monthly basis, your main costs for a guinea pig will be its food and bedding. Plan to spend around $40 on average, depending on the varieties you choose, how many guinea pigs you have, and the size of the enclosure. Also, you’ll periodically have to replace nests and toys, which can run around $10 to $20. And be sure to budget for an annual veterinary checkup as well as emergency medical care.
Pros & Cons of Keeping a Guinea Pig as a Pet
Guinea pigs are mostly quiet pets that don’t take up a lot of space. They’re also quite entertaining, and some can be very friendly and cuddly. However, they are social animals, and it’s ideal to keep more than one at a time, which adds to both their cost and upkeep. Plus, they are prone to some health problems and require a vet who specializes in guinea pigs.
Similar Exotic Pets to the Guinea Pig
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Otherwise, check out these other exotic animals that can be your new pet.
Purchasing or Adopting Your Guinea Pig
Pet stores are a common source for pet guinea pigs. However, you're better off going to a reputable breeder or rescue organization, which typically will be able to give you more detailed information on the animal's origin, health, and temperament. Plus, good breeders and rescues tend to handle their guinea pigs regularly, which helps to keep them tame. Make sure any seller houses male and female guinea pigs separately, or there could be a chance you'll take home a pregnant female. Expect to pay around $10 to $40 on average, though this can vary depending on factors such as age and coloring.
Local exotic veterinarians might be able to point you in the direction of a good guinea pig breeder or rescue. The main benefit of a breeder is it will typically have a wider selection of animals or a particular variety you’re looking for. Look for a guinea pig that is active, alert, and in good body condition. If the seller says it's tame, then ask to handle it. The guinea pig should relax fairly quickly when you hold it.
To avoid accidentally becoming a breeder yourself, keep multiple guinea pigs in same-sex groups. Some vets also will spay and neuter guinea pigs.
Does a guinea pig make a good pet for kids?
Guinea pigs can make good pets for older children who are able to handle them gently.
Are guinea pigs hard to take care of?
Guinea pigs require fairly straightforward care and at least a few hours of socialization per day.
Do guinea pigs like to be held?
Many guinea pigs can learn to be comfortable with handling, and some even become quite cuddly.
Owning Guinea Pigs. VCA Hospitals.
Providing a Home for a Guinea Pig. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Disorders and Diseases of Guinea Pigs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Disorders and Diseases of Guinea Pigs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Grooming Guinea Pigs. USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Cooperative Extension.