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Get to know guinea pigs! What are they? Where do they come from? And How do you care for them as pets?

*Yes we've done this topic before, 4 years ago. The old one needed some clarifications (I didn't even mention I was feeding a Patagonian cavy so the diet wasn't correct for a guinea pig). So, we redid it with updated information, including an ocean voyage!

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Guinea pigs are a very common pet in America and Europe and kept in other countries around the world.  I find that when an animal becomes such a commonly kept pet, people often never even think to learn about their natural origins, and knowing an animal's origins in the wild is the best way to make sure you're able to offer them a good home in captivity where they can truly thrive, so let's learn what a guinea pig is, where they came from, and how to give them the best care.


This is Toast.  She's a baby guinea pig and she's going to help teach what a guinea pig is using taxonomy.  Guinea pigs are in the class mammalia, order rodentia, and family caviidae.  Mammals in the simplest terms are characterized by having some hair on their body at some point in their life.  They give birth to live young and the mother nurses their young with milk.  Order rodentia, or rodents, are characterized by having two ever-growing incisors on the top and bottom.  Family caviidae, or cavies, are rodents that have four toes on their front teeth and three toes on their back.

So now that we know the basics of what they are, let's talk about where they come from, delve into more detail, and talk about how they ended up as pets in houses across the world.  

Figuring out exactly where the domestic guinea pig originated from is challenging because they belong to a special group of rodents that originated in South America about 40 million years ago.  Their ancestors came from Africa in a very interesting way.  Scientists currently agree that the most likely way the African ancestors came to South America is by boat, and by boat, I don't mean a fancy passenger ship.  I'm talking about large chunks of floating debris on the ocean, and 40 million years ago, scientists think that there were lots of little islands between Africa and South America.

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So between floating on the debris and island hopping, these ancestral rodents were able to make their way from Africa to South America.  Once in South America, the group of rodents belonging to (?~2:13) began to drastically diversify to fill niches in various environments and regions.    This is called adaptive radiation and it's how our little guinea pig friends evolved into a genus of their very own called cavia. 

Scientists are still disputing how many species are in the genus cavia, but most agree that there are at least five species besides our domesticated friends.  This group of small rodents live in the grasslands and forests of (?~2:39) region in South America and that brings us to cavia porcellus, our adorable domesticated guinea pig friends, but how did they become domesticated?

The most widely accepted theory is that our friendly species came from the Peruvian cavy.  These small animals were referred to by the native tribes as "cuy",  which is still in use today, but those wild cuy weren't what we see in our guinea pigs of today.  They were a smaller, thinner animal with more neutrally colored fur so they could blend into their environment. 

They roamed in small herds, comprising of one male called a boar and multiple females called sows.  A typical herd was about eight strong and since they were small with short legs, they spent most of their time munching on grasses and undergrowth, staying out of sight of predators like hawks and falcons.  

If a predator was spotted by a watchful eye, the cuy would send out a clear warning call, causing the rest of their herd to quickly scurry into hiding.  The move from wild animal to domesticated animal still isn't clear, but it's thought to have happened around 5000 BCE when cuys weren't just hunted.  They were being intentionally kept and bred by the native tribes.  

But what were cuys to this ancient culture?   Well, they were mostly food used in meals for celebrations, but they were also woven into their culture in other ways as well.  

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It was common for a boy coming of age to be gifted with their own cuy, and newlyweds were often given a pair so they could start breeding a herd for their new family.  Some households liked having the cuy inside and they would keep them inside by putting little walls along the entrance and exitways of their house, and since guinea pigs aren't very good climbers, only a small wall was needed.

The keeping and captive breeding of these guys specifically for food led to artificial selection for a fatter, larger cuy, just like cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys.  So how did they go from dinner plate to being a pet?  I can imagine that there were quite a few times where a child took a liking to an adorable baby and begged their parents to be able to keep them as a pet.  Now, there's no documentation of the first time a guinea pig was kept specifically as a pet, but I'm comfortable imagining that scene play out. 

So what are guinea pigs to us today?  Well, they're mostly bred and kept to be companions for humans, though cuy is still on the menu in parts of South America.  They have been bred in captivity for some 7,000 years and since humans are naturally curious, they started experimenting with their coat texture, colors, and patterns.  Today, we have 10 breeds of domestic guinea pigs: abyssinian, american, himalayan, peruvian, rex, silky, skinny pigs, teddy, textile, and white spot, and there are many mixes among these recognized breeds.

So now that you know what they are and where they came from, let's talk about how to provide them the best care.  Each breed requires different coat care.  Basically, the longer the hair, the more grooming and attention to providing a clean environment is needed to keep them healthy.  If you already have a guinea pig or want one as a pet, how do you give this inquisitive but wary rodent a great life?  

The first thing to consider is where you're going to get your new pet.  You can find them for sale at many pet stores or private breeders, but there are so many wonderful guinea pigs that end up in rescues from people who didn't know what they were getting into or they had unexpected life changes. 

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I highly recommend adopting a guinea pig from a shelter or from someone looking to rehome them.  The next most important piece of advice I can give you is to never house a guinea pig alone.  They need socialization from their own species, so plan on getting two or three.  Make sure you get all females for the easiest herd harmony.  You can also have all males, but if they don't grow up together, they can be very territorial if introduced to another adult male they'd never met before.

Neutering helps with this behavior, but introductions should be slow to ensure everyone gets along.  Neutered males are also usually an easy addition to a herd of established females, so if you have a pair of ladies and there's a lone male that needs a home, after he's neutered, he'll most likely fit into your home nicely.

This brings us to what kind of space you need to provide guinea pigs.  We currently have six and a large cousin of their is called the Patagonian cavy named Chili Pepper, and this is the space we provide for them.  Plus, a 20 x 14 foot dirt floored enclosure for Chili Pepper.  This indoor space is 8 foot x 5 foot, and it's just right for a herd this size.

The typical 1 x 2 foot cage you can buy at a pet store is too small for a pair of guinea pigs and should only be purchased for temporary housing.  I recommend a space of 15 sq ft for two or three guinea pigs.  This is challenging for some households to accomodate, but I encourage you to get as close to this as possible.  

One way to make this work is to have a smaller cage that can be opened up into a yard where they came run around and play during the day, and then they're put away to sleep at night.  They really do utilize the entire space you give them and they're quite active running around from hiding place to hiding place.  

Remember when I told you about their natural history of living in an environment where they needed to be cautious of predators seeing them.  Guinea pigs naturally run and hide at any perceived threat.  That could be loud noises, quick movements, or weird smells.

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Make sure you offer them several places where they can run to and feel comfortable so they don't get stressed out being out in the open.  And now, let's talk about their nutrition.  Always have a fresh source of water available.  A sturdy bowl is best, just make sure it's not too tall for them to reach in.  They have really, really short little legs, and when you're refilling their water, don't just top the water off.  Dump the water out every morning, scrub the bowl with soap, and then refill to the top with fresh water.  If you offer a water bottle, change it out when it gets half full.  Again, dump it out and refill it completely.

Next up is their diet.  Guinea pigs are herbivores, which means they eat a variety of plants.  The most important of these is hay.  Munching on the stalks keeps their teeth in good shape and helps maintain a properly functioning digestive system.  Timothy, meadow, orchard, or bluegrass hay should be their staple food.  (?~8:55) hay should be offered freely all day.  Avoid alfalfa hay for non-breeding adult guinea pigs because it contains high levels of calcium, which will cause bladder stones to form.  

The second part of their diet should be a good quality Timothy-based pellet, 1/8 cup per guinea pig.   Pellets don't replace the hay, but they provide an additional source of fiber and all their essential nutrients in a bite-sized package.  Do not give them rabbit pellets.  Even though they look the same, they don't have the same nutrients in them and they can make guinea pigs sick.

Next, offering fresh greens is a great way to make your guinea pigs happy.  Kale, chard, mustard, parsley, turnip greens, and romaine lettuce are good options.  Fresh vegetables are also recommended, though you need to make sure you're offering safe options in the proper amounts.  Zucchini, squash, pumpkin, turnips, parnsip, bell peppers, and tomatoes are great options.  Yam, carrot, snow peas, cucumbers, and cauliflower should be offered only occasionally and in small amounts.  Avoid anything that can cause bloating, like beans, broccoli, collard greens, and cabbage. 

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You can also offer fruit like apples, pears, and bananas, but they should only be offered occasionally and in small amounts as a treat.  Always include a good source of Vitamin C, 50mg per guinea pig is recommended, however offering a bit more than that is safe since they'll pee out any of the excess.  I recommend offering a little biscuit or flavored tablet, but if they don't take these regularly, simply crush a tablet into powder and sprinkle over their fresh produce.  This is what a diet looks like for two guinea pigs, but we're not making a diet just for two.  We're making it for an entire herd with a Patagonian cavy, so this is what ours looks like.

As you can see, they love their food, and now, let's talk about bedding.  Proper substrate is important to keep them clean and healthy.  Avoid cedar and pine shavings, because the oils in the wood can irritate their respiratory systems.  I prefer paper-based bedding like shredded paper or carefresh.  We're currently using shredded cardboard for the edges and corners where they like to pee in the most.  I also like to use fleece blankets because they're reusable.  I can shake them out, sweep up the mess and pop them in the washing machine for a deep clean.  Using blankets allows me to offer a large space without having to fill it up entirely with bedding, which would be expensive.

Smalller enclosures need to be cleaned at least once a week.  You can spot clean throughout the week.  We have a really large herd, so we clean every day.  So now you know how to keep their environment clean, but grooming the guinea pig themselves is necessary as well.  If you have a long-haired breed like Pumpkin here, you'll need to do some extra grooming to avoid gnats.  We brush her daily and trim the hair around her bottom so she stays cleaner.

Shorter haired breeds like Cheddar the Abyssinian don't need much hair maintenance, just a quick weekly brush will do.  The same grooming routine goes for our little mixes, Teddy and Graham.  You should also have a pair of nail clippers on hand for when their nails get a bit too long.  If left to grow, guinea pig nails will grow so long that they curl under their pads and cause injury, so keep an eye on them and trim them just before they get long enough to touch the ground.

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Lastly, offer them lots of fun toys to chew on.  They're rodents, so they have evergrowing teeth.  Their first instinct when exploring something new is to nibble at it, so give them this opportunity daily.  I love offering grass huts and wooden blocks and other toys like this to chew on.  It's also alright to give them a simple cardboard box as long as there's no stickers or glue on them.

Once you provide your guinea pigs with all the things they need for a comfortable life, you can sit back and enjoy their happy antics.  Guinea pigs are very social and they're a really fun species to observe because they do so much of their communication verbally, not just using body language.  They purr when they're content, they rumble when they're scared or asserting dominance, they (?~12:55) when they're excited or contacting members of their group, they scream when they're in pain, and they'll chatter their teeth when they're trying to scare something away, so pay attention and know these communications so you know what your guinea pigs are trying to tell each other and you.

So now you know what a guinea pig is, where they come from, and how to give them a good life in captivity.  The only thing left is to make them a promise that if you take them into your home, you will take care of them to the best of your ability for the rest of their life, and enjoy them for their unique personalities and all the little adventures you'll go on together.

Thanks for joining us.  I hope this helps you appreciate guinea pigs more and inspires you to better understand all the pets in your life.  If you would like to help us continue to educate about animals and support us in caring for all of rescues, visit and join our community of animal enthusiasts.  Thanks so much and we'll see you next week.


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