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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *

Providing a Home for a Guinea Pig

By Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian) ; Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM, Associate Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University

Before you bring your guinea pig home, make sure you have already purchased and set up the cage and that you have appropriate food available. You should also have a supply of bedding for the cage and a suitable brush.

Housing

Commercial housing for guinea pigs is often undersized. Most cages sold for guinea pigs are designed for a single animal, not for 2 or more. It is recommended that 7 square feet of space be provided for a single guinea pig (for example, a cage 42 by 24 inches [106 by 61 centimeters]). An additional 2 to 4 square feet (0.6 to 1.2 square meters) of floor space should be provided for each additional guinea pig. A cage height of 18 inches (46 centimeters) is desirable. Cages of these sizes provide space for play and other activities that contribute to a healthy life for your guinea pig.

Cages can be constructed of glass, plastic, metal, or wire. Good ventilation is important to keep guinea pigs healthy, so if a cage with solid sides is selected, the top should be wire mesh that allows for plenty of air. Guinea pigs do not jump, so a lid is not required to control guinea pig activity; however, it may be recommended to protect the guinea pig from other pets in the household.

Because the small feet of guinea pigs are often injured by walking over wire mesh and other narrow objects, the cage bottom should be smooth and without rough ramps, mesh shelves, or floor grids. Using an exercise wheel with a wire mesh running surface may also injure guinea pig feet. Instead, select an exercise wheel with a solid running surface of sufficient size for your pet. Providing a small wood or cardboard box inside the cage will provide a sense of protection and a welcome place to sleep.

Place your guinea pig’s home in an area out of direct sunlight and drafts where the temperature is between 65 to 75°F (18 to 23°C). This should be away from areas of heavy moisture (such as laundry rooms or damp basements). Guinea pigs should not be housed in the same cage or close to rabbits, as some infectious diseases can be transmitted between the species.

The bedding in your pet’s home should not be allowed to get wet or accumulate moisture. Wood shavings (do not use cedar or raw pine) or shredded newspapers (printed with soy inks) should be provided and changed at least once a week. Sawdust and cat litter are poor choices because sawdust particles may be inhaled, causing damage to the lungs, and cat litter may be eaten. High quality soft grass is often used above the shavings or shredded newspapers, but good quality grass hay (timothy and orchard grass are popular) is often a better choice, as eating hay will provide more of the abrasion your guinea pig needs for good dental health.

Diet

Guinea pigs are herbivores (plant eaters). A good quality guinea pig diet typically contains commercial pellets, hay, fruits, and vegetables. A small, smooth-surfaced heavy ceramic dish makes a good “dinner plate” because these dishes are hard to tip over and can be easily cleaned.

Most guinea pigs enjoy almost any type of vegetable but tend to be partial to green leafy vegetables such as carrot tops and lettuce. (Use romaine or green leaf lettuce rather than the less nutritious iceberg lettuce.) Small pieces of carrots and other vegetables and fruits are also welcome. Uneaten fresh food should be removed after a few hours. Good quality grass hay should be available at all times.

Guinea pig pellets, which are readily available in pet stores, should make up about two-thirds of your pet’s diet. Before buying pellets, it is a good idea to scan the label. Good quality pellets should be free of animal byproducts and low in corn content. Many guinea pig pellets have a high alfalfa content. These pellets are suitable for young, growing, and pregnant guinea pigs; however, a timothy-based pellet, which provides less calcium, is a better choice for fully grown animals. Consult your veterinarian for advice on pellet content. Adult guinea pigs will eat about one-eighth of a cup of pellets a day assuming they have adequate access to hay and fresh vegetables and fruit. However, you should adjust the quantity of food based on your pet’s consumption.

Guinea pigs, like people, lack the ability to synthesize vitamin C. They must get plenty of this vitamin in their diets to avoid scurvy. You should not substitute pellets formulated for other animals (such as rabbits) for guinea pig pellets, as these will not contain enough vitamin C. Commercially prepared guinea pig pellets should have sufficient vitamin C. However, much of the vitamin C may be lost if the pellets are stored for more than a few months. It is a good idea to supply adequate vitamin C in other ways, such as through fresh vegetables and fruits that contain high levels of this vitamin.

Fresh water should be available at all times to prevent dehydration. A drip bottle attached to the side of the cage at a height easily reached by your pet will keep contamination at a minimum. Clean the drip bottle and change the water daily. Do not add supplements to the water and avoid both distilled water and water with a high mineral content, especially water that has a high calcium content.

Guinea pigs can be picky eaters. They tend to develop preferences for foods at a very young age and they do not like to have their diet changed. It is a good idea, when purchasing or adopting a new guinea pig, to find out from the store or previous owner what foods it is accustomed to eating. If you are purchasing or raising a young guinea pig, you can try small amounts of different pellets, fruits, and vegetables to increase the range of foods the animal will accept.

Exercise

Routine exercise is necessary for the health of your guinea pig. Careful arrangement of your pet’s cage will encourage activity. Placing the sleeping area (a small wooden or cardboard box) in one part of the cage, the water in a second location, and food in another encourages activity. Introducing a second level (accessed by a solid-floored ramp) or a small barrier can further encourage exercise. Placing a few pieces of PVC pipe (5 inches [13 centimeters] in diameter or larger) in the cage can provide a welcome runway for your pet and further encourage needed exercise.

Temperament

Guinea pigs are gentle, friendly, social, often highly vocal animals. They prefer to live in small groups (only 1 male in a mixed group, however). Guinea pigs can make a range of noises, from a “squeak” or “chirp” to a “tooth-chatter” noise that sounds like a purr.

Guinea pigs rarely bite, even when handled improperly. The correct way to pick up a guinea pig is to gently hold the animal near the shoulders in one hand while supporting the back with the other. Guinea pigs that are handled when they are young are often very affectionate and enjoy being held carefully.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *