Guinea Pig: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Two guinea pigs

Lianne McLeod / The Spruce

Guinea pigs are a species of rodent that enjoys great popularity as an exotic pet. Contrary to their name, these animals are not native to Guinea and they’re not closely related to pigs. Instead, they’re likely the domesticated descendants of a related wild species that originated in the Andes region of South America. But the guinea pigs we know as pets don’t naturally exist in the wild. 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.

Females are called sows, males are called boars, babies are called pups, and the species as a whole is sometimes referred to as the cavy. 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. 

Species Overview

Common Name: Guinea pig, cavy, domestic cavy

Scientific Name: Cavia porcellus

Adult Size: Approximately 10 inches long, weighing 2 to 3 pounds

Life Expectancy: Five to seven 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 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 like 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 very tame and comfortable being picked up and carried around. While they're usually quiet pets, 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. Moreover, while they're typically active during the day, 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 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. 

Still, 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. 

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Housing the Guinea Pig

Guinea pigs need as large of a cage as you can fit and afford, and 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 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.

Always use a cage with a solid bottom and not a wire grate, as this can damage the feet of a guinea pig. One of the best options is a cage with a plastic base and wire top, which allows for good airflow. 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. Also, 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.

Food and Water

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% 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.

illustration of guinea pigs as pets care sheet
Nusha Ashjaee / The Spruce

Common Health Problems

Guinea pigs are generally hardy animals, but they are subject to a few common health problems. An improper diet, stress, or infection will often cause diarrhea in guinea pigs. They are also prone to respiratory infections, which can cause excess mucus around the eyes, nose, or mouth. These are typically very treatable conditions if you get your animal to the vet promptly.

There are some health issues that specifically affect a guinea pig’s eyes. Sometimes, a guinea pig will scratch its eye—often on something in its enclsoure, such as a piece of hay—and develop a corneal ulcer. If this occurs, you might notice its eye looks red or cloudy. Your guinea pig also might be frequently pawing at its eye. Your vet can check the eye for scratches and will typically prescribe an eye ointment. Moreover, sometimes guinea pigs develop eye infections, often from unsanitary living conditions. The eye might be red, swollen, and have discharge or crustiness around it. Have a vet check this as soon as possible. 

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.

Furthermore, 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. Also, aim to clip your guinea pig's nails at least monthly, 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.

Purchasing 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. And while guinea pigs are legal in most areas, ensure that you don't have any local housing restrictions (such as rental policies) that might prevent you from keeping them.

Look for a guinea pig that is active and alert. If the seller says it's tame, then ask to handle it. The guinea pig should relax fairly quickly when you hold it. However, you should avoid a guinea pig that seems excessively quiet, as it might be sick. Choose a guinea pig with a round, firm body (not obviously underweight or overweight). Its nose, eyes, ears, and rear end should be clean and free of any discharge that could indicate infection. And its coat should appear clean and full without any missing patches of fur. Also, part the coat and check the skin for any flakes or redness, which could be a sign of parasites like lice.

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