Guinea pig care
Where do guinea pigs come from?
Guinea pigs – or cavies – originate from South America. There are eight species, but only one – the domestic cavy – is kept as a pet.
Is a guinea pig right for you?
Guinea pigs can make great pets for families but will need a lot of time and care. So, if you're getting a guinea pig for the family, it's important that a responsible adult also shares an interest in them and makes sure they get the care they need.
Here are some things to take into consideration when rehoming or buying guinea pigs.
How long do guinea pigs live?
Guinea pigs live for around four to eight years, sometimes even longer, so their care is a long-term commitment.
Do guinea pigs need company?
Guinea pigs are very social, so it’s important that they have a friend of their own kind.
It's a common myth that rabbits and guinea pigs make good hutch buddies. You should not keep them together, as there is a risk the guinea pig will be bullied and seriously injured by the rabbit.
Here are a few ways you can make sure your guinea pig gets the company they need:
- Females tend to get on very well together in pairs or groups
- A pair of male guinea pigs can get on well if they are siblings, or if introduced when young
- A mixed pairing works very well, but it’s important to neuter the male to prevent the female getting pregnant. A neutered male can also live harmoniously with a group of females.
If you're introducing a new guinea pig into the group, be sure to take things slowly.
What if my guinea pigs fight?
Guinea pigs rarely fight, but it’s important to ensure there is enough space, food and hiding areas for everyone – this will help avoid any squabbling between them.
When do guinea pigs sleep?
Guinea pigs are quite unusual - they only sleep for around four to six hours a day and do so by napping. This can make them a bit unpredictable in their sleeping patterns.
Where to get guinea pigs
Blue Cross have guinea pigs that need good homes and often have lone guinea pigs looking for company – it's never too late to get your guinea pig another friend.
Breeders and pet shops
If you are planning on contacting a breeder, here are some things to bear in mind:
- If you’re looking for babies, they should be at least six weeks old before you bring them home
- They should be health checked by a vet and accurately sexed before taking them home
- If you buy from a pet shop, make sure the animals have been kept in same sex groups and that the staff can show you the difference between males and females
- It's also really important that they are living in a hutch that is big enough
How much are guinea pigs?
If you rehome from us, you will pay a fee of £35 for a guinea pig (or £60 for a pair). This includes the cost of:
- having them looked over by a vet
- neutering where appropriate
- a behaviour check by a member of our team
However, we appreciate we may not always have guinea pigs available for rehoming. So, if you choose to go to a breeder or pet shop, you will pay, on average, anywhere between £20 to £50.
What do I need to buy for my guinea pigs?
Guinea pigs need:
- a suitable living area
- hay for bedding and food
- earthenware or stainless steel bowls for food
- water bottle
- exercise run
- guinea pig brush for grooming - if you have a long-haired piggy you will need a double sided comb and a slicker brush. For short hair you can just use a soft brush.
- toys to keep them entertained
- carry case for trips to the vet and to collect your new pet
As well as the above, your guinea pigs need a constant supply of water. You may also want to consider getting pet insurance.
Guinea pig cages
Guinea pigs can be kept either indoors or outside. Both options will need some thought to ensure your guinea pigs are happy and set up in a safe, quiet area.
Can guinea pigs live outside?
Yes. Though if you make the decision to house them outdoors you'll need to put lots of thought into making sure they're safe. Guinea pigs are vulnerable to all extremes of weather (both very cold and very hot climates can be dangerous).
They will need:
- a large predator-proof wooden hutch, Wendy house or shed no less than 5ft x2ft (10 square feet)
- a separate sleeping area where they can retreat out of sight to get some peace and quiet, as well as somewhere to keep warm
- plenty of enrichment to keep them entertained
- their housing to be out of direct sunlight, weatherproof and draught-proof
Guinea pigs have short legs and most are not great climbers, so they may struggle in a hutch with more than one level.
If you do have a ramp, it's safer if it has sides which will prevent your guinea pigs from slipping off and injuring themselves.
How to keep outdoor guinea pigs warm in winter
Extra shelter and guinea pig bedding
Guinea pigs are very sensitive to the cold and damp, so housing must be warm and dry enough to protect them during the winter months – you will need to give extra shelter and bedding during this time.
Pet safe heat mats
You can also use pet safe heat mats such as a SnuggleSafe – these last several hours and will help to keep them warm. Make sure it has the cover on it and be sure to bury it under some bedding so that the heat isn't directly on their skin.
Bringing them inside
If the temperature drops significantly, you may have to consider bringing them inside.
Guinea pigs do not cope well with big changes in temperature, so if you do decide to bring your guinea pigs inside for the winter, make sure you wait for the right temperature to reintroduce them to the outside again (usually April to May is a good time depending on the weather).
Do not keep guinea pigs or any other animals in a garage used to keep vehicles – the fumes can kill them.
Indoor guinea pig cage
If your guinea pigs have been living outside then, after a settling in period to adjust to being indoors, most guinea pigs will happily live inside your home as part of the family.
There are a number of different options for indoor housing. The best options are those that are flexible enough to build your own area depending on what type of space you have.
'Modular housing' is a type of housing that gives you lots of different sections to piece together in whichever way you like. This means you can control the length, depth and width.
The most popular of these for guinea pigs are:
- C and C grids - wireframes you can click together
- puppy play pens
You can then furnish the area with tunnels and shelters for your guinea pig to hide and play in.
As with housing outside, their main living area should be no less than 5ft long by 2ft wide or 10 square feet in total.
Whether your guinea pigs are housed inside or outside, they need the opportunity to run around and explore.
Outdoor guinea pig run
If they live outside, your guinea pigs need access to a run that is no less then 6ft x 4ft (or 24 square feet).
If your guinea pigs live inside and you have a garden, then they can still go outside in a run on warm days. Guinea pigs need to graze regularly and access to grass will allow them to do this.
If the run isn’t connected to their housing, make sure they have a shelter they can access easily. Guinea pigs are low to the ground so will become damp and cold on grass that is wet.
Indoor guinea pig run
If your indoor guinea pigs won’t be able to access outside space, then they will need access to a space no less then 6ft x 4ft (or 24 square feet) for exercise.
They can be allowed to run free indoors under supervision. Make sure all doors are closed, there are no escape holes and that cats and dogs are kept out of the room.
How often do I need to clean my guinea pig's cage?
A daily spot clean will be needed. This is to remove any soiled bedding and mess.
A full clean of your guinea pig's cage should be carried out once a week on average. Though you may need to do this more depending on how many guinea pigs you have and the size of their cage or hutch.
How to clean a guinea pig's cage
- Remove guinea pigs from their living area and place them in their exercise run or a pet carrier with some of their bedding
- Grab the underlying newspaper – on the base of their home – and roll it up with the hay in it
- Once this is done, use a dustpan and brush and completely sweep the remaining bits out – sweeping all corners, the sides and the door
- Using a pet-safe disinfectant, which you can buy in a pet shop, spray everywhere in their home including the bars and wipe down
- Leave to dry
You're now ready to set it back up.
- Start by lining the bottom of their hutch with newspaper
- Add lots of hay on top – you can mix your hay so that your guinea pig has lots of different hay types to nibble on and smell
- Pop in different types of enrichment eg houses and tunnels
Guinea pig bedding
Hay is the best bedding you can offer your guinea pig. It's nice and soft and makes up the largest part of their food. Guinea pigs like to burrow underneath bedding, so pop plenty in their cage to allow for this.
If you use wood shavings as well as hay it must be dust-free, and avoid cedar shavings as they can cause health problems.
Bedding to avoid
Never use fluffy/teddy bear stuffing type bedding because it can get wrapped around limbs and injure a guinea pig – it also doesn’t dissolve if eaten.
Avoid using straw as bedding as it is too coarse and could injure their delicate eyes.
Guinea pig toys
Guinea pigs enjoy exploring cardboard boxes and running through tubes or pipes – some may even push around little plastic cat balls. You could also try hiding small amounts of food around the cage to help keep your guinea pigs alert and active.
Using pegs to hold veggies for them to reach up and eat will help keep them busy.
What do guinea pigs eat?
As guinea pigs are naturally grazing animals, it’s important that they always have good quality non-dusty hay available to keep their digestive systems working, along with a small amount of guinea pig pellets.
Fruit and vegetables
Guinea pigs also need some fruit and vegetables to give them a source of vitamin C because they lack the enzyme to produce this themselves.
Good sources of vitamin C are:
Leafy greens such as kale and spinach should be fed in moderation as the high calcium content can cause health issues.
Never give your guinea pig iceberg lettuce as it can cause diarrhoea, but gem and romaine lettuce are safe to eat.
There are lots of commercial treats available for guinea pigs but these are often high in sugar and are not necessary for their diet.
However, your guinea pig will enjoy the occasional sugary fruit instead such as:
These will need to be kept to a minimum and only fed as a very occasional treat.
It's best to avoid muesli style food as it encourages fussy eating – this means they may miss out on important nutrients; complete guinea pig pellets are better as they can’t pick out their favourite bits!
How much should I feed my guinea pig?
Always check the feeding amounts on the bag as guinea pigs can become overweight if they are fed too much.
How to feed my guinea pig
It is a good idea to provide them with low hanging hay racks to keep their feeding hay fresh from the floor.
Bowls and water bottles
Put food in earthenware bowls (which are hard to tip over), or stainless-steel bowls that clip on to the front of the hutch.
Clean, fresh water from a gravity bottle must always be available and changed every day. It's also worth checking this twice daily, as it can get blocked.
How to keep guinea pigs healthy
A healthy guinea pig is alert, with bright eyes and a good coat.
One of the most common problems in guinea pigs is bumblefoot, where the foot becomes swollen due to a bacterial infection, often caused by dirty bedding. They are also prone to eye problems, so it is important to use dust-free bedding and soft hay.
Other conditions to watch out for include:
- mange (itchy skin)
- dental problems caused by an incorrect diet – like other rodents, a guinea pig’s teeth grow continuously, so it’s important that they are given free access to hay which helps wear their teeth down
- skin problems which are also common in guinea pigs
- heat stroke – guinea pigs are extremely sensitive to hot weather
If you have any concerns about your guinea pig’s health, speak to your vet.
Grooming is a vital part of the routine care of guinea pigs.
Long-haired varieties need daily grooming as their coats can quickly become matted and uncomfortable.
Most guinea pigs will also need regular nail trimming (ask your vet to show you how to do this).
Will my guinea pig need a bath?
It's not recommended to bathe guinea pigs often, but they may need a bath or two a year especially if they have longer fur to ensure they are nice and clean.
Should I allow my guinea pigs to mate?
Do not be tempted to allow your guinea pigs to breed, as there are risks associated with pregnancy and birth.
Female guinea pigs reach sexual maturity at four to five weeks old and males from as early as three weeks, so they will need to be kept apart from females at this time.
We never recommend breeding your guinea pigs. There's a health reason for this. By the time they reach six to eight months in age they are physically unable to give birth if they have not yet had babies. The pelvic bones fuse which means they can't give birth naturally.
Remember if you’re planning to keep a male and female/s together, it’s essential that the male is neutered to avoid unwanted babies.
Your vet will advise you on the best age to do this, but it’s important to remember that it takes around six weeks for a male to become sterile after being neutered.
Handling your guinea pigs
Guinea pigs are sensitive creatures, so will need to be handled very gently.
How to handle your guinea pigs
- When picking them up, always use both hands
- Place one hand across their shoulders with your thumb tucked behind the shoulder and fingers wrapped around the ribs
- Hold tightly enough to be secure without squeezing and put your other hand underneath the hindquarters for support
- Hold your guinea pig close to your body, sit down and put them on your lap so they feel secure
It’s a good idea to get your guinea pig used to being handled so you can check them over regularly. Most guinea pigs will like a gentle stroke and some really enjoy relaxing on a warm lap!
Give them something tasty to eat once you’ve done this, so they associate being handled with something pleasant.