(Cavia porcellus) Guinea pigs are also called cavies. The cavy is probably the best pet out of all the small furries as they rarely bite. They are wonderfully vocal and normally enjoy the company of their own kind. Guinea pigs are also relatively cheap to feed, especially if you have a garden or allotment and provide their own contribution by way of fertiliser.
Guinea pigs are intelligent and social animals with a need for space company of their own kind as well as a healthy diet and proper housing. One problem you may encounter, however, is an allergy to them. I’m allergic to them myself! It is very important if you are considering getting guinea pigs for the first time, that everyone in the household who will be handling the guinea pigs gets to handle an adult guinea pig so you can test for allergy before you decide. There are two types of allergy, one is to guinea pig urine and the other to the dander in the coat. In addition though, as I know from my own experience, it is also possible to have an allergic reaction to hay or shavings.
Guinea pigs like the company of their own kind. Rabbits are rarely overtly aggressive to guinea pigs but there have been many cases of accidental injury when a rabbit stamps in warning or is over-amorous with a piggy companion. Male guinea pigs are often kept in pairs because larger groups of males can develop territory related aggression issues unless given plenty of space and hiding places. Any number of females will normally live happily together given enough space.
Like humans, guinea pigs cannot produce their own vitamin C and must have a fresh supply in their diet everyday. This can come from fresh vegetables, fresh grass, dried grass or guinea pig food with vitamin C added. They need a constant supply of good hay and a safe hutch, cage or pen. If you are reading this because you are thinking of buying a guinea pig then congratulations on doing your homework! That is the first step towards responsible cavy keeping. Rescues across the country are snowed under with guinea pigs needing good pet homes. Often including babies as pregnant guinea pigs are abandoned by their owners.
Finding Guinea Pigs
Personally, I am against the sale of animals in pet shops unless the pet shop owner is the breeder and prepared to take the animals back if there are any problems (which is rarely the case). My real dislike is reserved for the pet superstores. In my experience of keeping and breeding animals, it is impossible to breed healthy animals, keep them well and sell them to pet superstores at a price where they can make their margin. Something has to give, and sadly it isn’t the profit. Animals weaned too soon, stressed by travel and the store environment, transferred onto a new diet too quickly and probably factory farmed with more concern for profit than health, can rapidly develop fatal diarrhoea and may have other short or long term health problems. Pet superstores cannot even guarantee the sex of the animals they sell and often display disclaimers to that effect! My feeling is that if they don’t know that end of the cavy, one can hardly expect them to know much about the other, let alone what goes on in-between.
Breeders and Rescues
Even if you obtain your guinea pigs from a rescue or a breeder, always ask to see how they keep their animals. Good rescues and breeders are always proud to show you how well their animals are kept. You should be very wary of anyone who will not let you see their main facility. There are obviously times when rescues are suddenly and unexpectedly inundated with animals in poor condition at times when the housing at the rescue cannot accommodate them but the main facility should be clean, well ventilated and with adequate space for the cavies it houses. This is also one reason why it is better to go direct to the breeder rather than buying on impulse at a cavy show. The cavies on sale will be checked for health problems and there will certainly not be a problem with getting the right sex, but other than that it is not possible for clubs to discriminate against ‘bad’ breeders even if they recognise them as such.