Guinea Pigs as Pets

Guinea Pigs
Lianne McLeod

If you are considering getting a guinea pig, you will need to know the basic facts about them. Beyond choosing based on appearance, learn how to select a healthy animal and the basic requirements they need to thrive as a pet.

There are a variety of breeds with different coat types and color patterns. The most commonly found breeds are the American (short smooth hair coat), Abyssinian (short coat with "swirls" called rosettes), and Peruvian (long-haired). A wide variety of colors are seen among these different breeds. Hairless varieties are called skinny pigs. Females are called sows, males are called boars, babies are called pups, and the breed as a whole is sometimes referred to as cavies (or a cavy). They have a rounded, stout body with no visible tail, although a few tail vertebrae can be felt under the skin.

  • Scientific Name: Cavia porcellus
  • Lifespan: 5 to 7 years, with some living up to 10
  • Size: Approximately 10 inches long; weigh 2 to 3 pounds
  • Difficulty of Care: Medium

Guinea Pig Behavior and Temperament

Guinea pigs are social animals and you should consider keeping a same-sex pair so they have someone to socialize with. A pair of females is your best choice, as a pair of males may be prone to fighting (especially if they are not neutered). Guinea pigs may be nervous at first but rarely bite and generally become very tame with frequent handling. While usually quiet, guinea pigs can call out pretty loudly and be active both day and night. They usually make good family pets, but make sure children handle them gently.

Housing the Guinea Pig

They need a large cage, but fortunately, it is easy to meet their needs with a ​homemade cage. Their cages should be at minimum two feet wide by three feet long. It's important that they have plenty of floor space. Unlike other small rodents that climb and use vertical space, guinea pigs tend to stay on the ground. Never use a wire bottom cage since it can damage their feet. Keep the cage away from windows to avoid overheating or drafts. The cage should be kept clean and the guinea pig will need a small home or other enclosure to sleep and hide in. They can have play time outside of their cage but will need to be supervised when out of their cage.

Food and Water

Guinea pigs are herbivores, so you should focus on a fresh diet. They can eat fresh hay and fresh, leafy vegetables, which can make up the bulk of their diet. Their food also needs to focus on tooth wear and vitamin C supplementation. Because their teeth constantly grow, they need to wear down their teeth by chewing on leafy greens and fibrous foods. Guinea pigs cannot produce vitamin C so they need supplementation. Speak with your veterinarian about the best way to achieve the right levels of vitamin C for your pet. In addition to fibrous greens, the diet should include a small number of high-quality pellets. Guinea pigs need constant access to clean, fresh water. A water bottle is better than a water bowl since a bowl can spill or easily become contaminated.

illustration of guinea pigs as pets—care sheet.
Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee. © The Spruce, 2018

Common Health Problems

Guinea pigs are generally hardy animals but are subject to a few common health problems. The most frequently seen issues with pet guinea pigs are respiratory infections, diarrhea, scurvy (from a vitamin C deficiency), tumors, abscesses due to infection, urinary problems, and infestations by lice, mites, or fungus. Speak with your veterinarian if you suspect any of these issues.

Purchasing Your Guinea Pig

Pet stores are a common source for pet guinea pigs, but they should only be purchased from a store if the store and staff are knowledgeable about guinea pigs, keep them in clean housing with a good diet, and handle the guinea pigs regularly. Look for stores that house males and females separately to avoid a surprise litter.

Breeders are your best option if looking for a show-quality pig, a specific breed, and even pet-quality pigs. A good breeder will make sure the babies are socialized well and handled from an early age.

Shelters have guinea pigs more often than you might think. This is a great way to give a guinea pig a second chance at life. Guinea pigs from shelters might be a little more skittish at first if they were not handled much while they were young, but most will settle down in their new homes once a routine is established.

Whatever the source, make sure the guinea pig you choose is healthy, well-socialized, easy to handle. Find the right pet for your family with these guidelines:

  • The guinea pig should be alert and active.
  • Avoid a guinea pig this panicky when handled, especially if it does not relax quickly.
  • Avoid a guinea pig that is overly quiet and calm (it may be ill).
  • Avoid a guinea pig that is either overly skinny or grossly overweight. The body should be firm and rounded.
  • The nose, eyes, ears, and rear end should be clean and free of any discharge.
  • The coat (fur) should be full and soft.
  • Check the skin for flakes or redness and be on the lookout for any signs of parasites such as lice (they are often noticeable behind the ears in the bald area).

Similar Pets to the Guinea Pig

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Otherwise, check out other small animals that can be your new pet!