The Patagonian cavy is one of the more docile exotic pets. These large rodents are distantly related to guinea pigs and can be similarly kept in indoor cages, albeit much bigger, when not under supervision. Cavies are not noisy animals, they don't mind being petted, and they can be quite affectionate with their owners. Despite their large teeth, they are not known as biters. Plus, they are diurnal animals, so it's easier to keep them on a typical human schedule than nocturnal exotic pets. Some owners can even train their cavies to use a litter box and walk on a leash. If you can't walk your cavy regularly, it is important to have a spacious and secure outdoor enclosure where your cavy can play.
Common Names: Patagonia cavy, mara, and dillaby
Scientific Name: Dolichotis patagonum
Adult Size: 18 inches; up to 35 pounds
Lifespan: 14 years in captivity
Can You Own a Pet Patagonian Cavy?
Many localities consider Patagonian cavies as rodents like hamsters and gerbils that can be privately owned as pets. Each state is different, though, and some may require a game breeder's license if you own more than one. As of 2020, only the state of Connecticut lists a "Patagonian mara" by name as being legal to own in the state. Other states where they are legal without requiring a permit include Oregon, Alabama, Washington, and Texas. States that ban them or require permits include California, Georgia, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Hawaii. Laws do change frequently, so check with your state and local municipality to find out if it is legal to own a Patagonian cavy.
Because cavies are generally legal to own and adapt well to life as domestic pets, it is considered ethical to own one as long as you provide adequate space, exercise, and a proper diet for your pet.
Things to Consider
As with any pet, cavies require attentive care from their owners. They also have their own unique needs that must be met to maintain a healthy, happy pet. Because cavies have a relatively long lifespan, similar to a domestic cat, you must be prepared to make a long-term commitment to owning one.
Patagonian Cavy Behavior and Temperament
In the wild, Patagonian cavies are typically active during the day, which makes them a better pet than a nocturnal animal.
Though naturally skittish, a cavy can become socialized and affectionate if raised from a young age with lots of attention and human contact. They are not prone to biting, and a well-socialized cavy might even enjoy regular snuggles and belly rubs.
Male cavies may scent mark their territory, which can include your house, with urine and anal gland secretions. Females are less likely to engage in scent marking, so they probably make the better pets for most households. Cavies prefer to live in male-female bonded pairs in the wild, but if your cavy gets plenty of attention from you, it will probably be quite content.
In the wild, Patagonian cavies are social animals that live in communities similar to prairie dog towns, which consist of many burrows. Usually, one pair of cavies inhabits each burrow. Because of their instinctive urge to burrow, they will also try to dig holes through flooring or furniture in your house. This behavior, as well as the fact they love to chew things, means that cavies should not be left unsupervised in a human home.
To house your cavy while you're not tending it, you'll need a secure enclosure that is large enough to comfortably contain your pet. If you don't have enough indoor space to accommodate a huge cage, then it's fine to build one outdoors as long as you provide an insulated "den" with heat lamps during cold weather.
The outdoor enclosure should be at least a 10-foot square with access to grass for grazing and a small dog house in which your pet can escape the elements. If the enclosure has no roof, then the perimeter fencing should be at least 7 feet high. Patagonian cavies have powerful hind legs; they can jump horizontally up to 6 feet high and run up to 25 miles an hour.
Specific Substrate Needs
Since Patagonian cavies are expert diggers, they will be inclined to dig into the ground or flooring of their enclosure, which requires extra measures to prevent their subterranean escape. Some people keep cavies in concrete-floor pens, but that prevents the animals from having access to grass. Another method is to bury a chain-link fence "floor" a few feet below the ground so that your cavy can graze and even dig without escaping.
What Do Patagonian Cavies Eat and Drink?
Cavies are herbivores. Like guinea pigs, Patagonian cavies need 24-hour access to hay such as timothy hay, alfalfa, meadow hay, bluegrass, or oat hay. Hay helps them file down their back molars (a necessity for these rodents). In captivity, supplement the hay diet with commercially prepared rodent or guinea pig food. Dark, leafy greens (collards, dandelion leaves, parsley, kale) and fresh grass should make up the bulk of their diet. You can also occasionally offer sweet potatoes, apples, and squash as treats.
Additionally, like guinea pigs, they need supplemental vitamin C. You can sprinkle powdered vitamin C (the same used by humans) onto their food or purchase vitamin C-based treats for rodents at a pet store.
If you have more than one Patagonian cavy, provide multiple food stations to avoid aggression at feeding time. Use metal troughs or trays for feeding and watering because they are chew-proof.
Common Health Problems
Bone fractures are common injuries among captive cavies that are allowed to roam too freely, climbing onto furniture, porches, or decks. They are also prone to dental issues like overbites and mouth deformities due to overgrown teeth.
Cavies are susceptible to heart and gastrointestinal troubles. To check for any issues, make sure your animal has an annual health check by an exotic pet vet, including a fecal screening to look for intestinal parasites.
Cavies are accustomed to occasional sprinting and leaping in the wild, in addition to roaming and grazing each day. This means that they need space to move in captivity, including running and jumping. Even large enclosures might not fulfill these animals' need for exercise, so acclimate your cavy to wearing a properly fitted harness and leash early in life so that you can take your pet walking or hiking with you.
Cavies are good at grooming themselves with their tongues, much like cats, so there is no need to bathe or brush your pet.
Cavies grow to be about the size of a small dog, such as a Welsh corgi.
Cavies are not as well-behaved or as easily trainable as dogs, but some owners report success with clicker training used for dogs and acclimating their cavies to walking on a leash. Like cats, you might be able to train your cavy to use a litter box—just make sure it's a metal box because your cavy will chew it.
Pros and Cons of Keeping a Patagonian Cavy as a Pet
If you can provide appropriate care and housing for a Patagonian cavy, then you may find it to be a fun and rewarding pet to own. Despite their instinctive drive to dig, they can be cuddly and even learn to walk on a leash. Cavies do require a great deal of attention, though, and a very secure enclosure where they can be left when you're not supervising them.
Purchasing Your Patagonian Cavy
Patagonian cavies cost $200 to $300. Purchase your cavy from a certified breeder. If you need help locating one, speak to an exotics vet who might know someone in their network. Most cavies are sold as babies and will need to be bottle-raised from the start. Reputable breeders should be able to provide you with documentation, information on the animal's parents, and thorough care instructions.
Similar Pets to the Patagonian Cavy
If you are interested in pet cavies, check out:
Will a cavy tolerate petting?
If you raise a cavy from a baby—or adopt a well-socialized adult—it's likely that your pet will enjoy being touched and snuggled. Some cavies even love having their furry bellies rubbed.
Do cavies get along with other pets?
Cavies that are raised with gentle cats and dogs can become friends with these domestic pets, but they should never be left unattended with other animals since they can be skittish and may attract predatory behavior from dogs (or even cats) with their quick movements.
Can you feed fruit to a Patagonian cavy?
You can occasionally give small amounts of fruit to a cavy, but since fruit is not a natural part of their diet, their digestion can be upset by too much of this sweet food.