Guinea pigs make wonderful pets but it is vital they get proper care to ensure they are happy and healthy. Below is a comprehensive guide with lots of tips on how to take care of your guinea pigs for beginners as well as for more experienced piggy owners.
A Good Diet
Guinea pigs must have the correct diet in order to be healthy. They should always have fresh water (changed daily), a clean supply of grass hay, fresh vegetables and a quality supply of pellet food designed for guinea pigs.
An unclean environment will encourage all kinds of nasties from parasites to bacteria. These can seriously damage your guinea pigs health. Their housing needs daily cleaning to ensure they avoid these problems.
Enough Space to Play
Guinea pigs love to run and play so it is essential their housing is at least the minimum recommended size. They will also need a run where they can exercise more freely.
An Interesting Environment
Your guinea pig’s mental health is just as important as his physical wellbeing. This means that it is important he is living in an environment that isn’t boring. If he does become bored, he will show signs of stress.
Change the environment regularly with interesting things to smell out, play with and chew
Remember that guinea pig's love companionship and should always be housed in a pair (if male and female are together then the male should be neutered as they breed very quickly).
Guinea pigs are sociable creatures, though some breeds can initially seem very shy, they do like having regular interaction with their humans. Playtime and grooming are a great way to bond but also provide essential stimulation
If you adopt a guinea pig who seems to dislike being stroked or held, it could be because they were mishandled or treated roughly by a previous owner. Don’t give up. Hold them for 5 minutes at a time and be gentle with them. They will gradually get used to being loved and you may be surprised at the improvement in their temperament after a few weeks.
Grooming your guinea pig is an essential part of the regular care routine and gives you both an opportunity to bond. Handling your guinea pig whilst grooming keeps them used to human contact and has the benefit of making health checks and trips to the vet much easier.
A well-kept coat will help keep your pet’s fur free from debris, tangling and excessive staining from droppings and urine. Grooming time is a great way to perform your routine health checks whilst enjoying some quality time with your guinea pig.
Weighing Your Guinea Pig
It is a good idea to weigh your guinea pig weekly and record their weight so you can monitor weight gain or loss. Significant weight loss or gain can mean they are sick and need to be checked over by a vet.
If your guinea pig is overweight you may need to adapt their diet or give them more exercise.
Checking Your Guinea Pig's Health
If you handle your guinea pigs on a regular basis, you will get to know what is normal behaviour. This means that if they do become ill you are more likely to notice that something is wrong and hopefully get them to the vet before it gets too serious.
It is a good idea to perform a health check on your cavy each week. This isn’t difficult once you have done it a few times. In fact, it is something you can do when you take them out for a cuddle. The more you do it, the more your piggy will become used to it.
Here are the things you need to check:
Check the colour of the teeth. They should range from white to yellowish, so if they are brown they may be deficient in a particular nutrient.
Check the length. They should be around 1 to 1.5cm long and should be straight, meeting naturally. Also check the the teeth are not chipped
Back teeth are more difficult to examine but changes in eating may alert you to problems with these.
Mouth & Lips
Check the inside of the mouth and lips are a healthy pink and that they are free from any sores ulcers or infections. If you notice any soreness you should take your guinea pig to the vet. Too many acidic foods can be a cause of mouth sores (eg too much fruit).
Because your guinea pig’s nails, like ours, are continuously growing they need a regular trim. It is best to do this every couple of weeks rather than waiting until they are too long. Nails that become long often curl making them very tricky to trim.
To clip your piggy’s nails, you should use a special pair of scissors or nail clippers. Because each nail has a blood supply, called the ‘quick’, trimming too close to the feet can cause the nails to bleed.
If the nails are very long, then trimming a little each week will encourage the ‘quick’ to recede and you can get them back under control. Lastly, if you do clip too short and the nail bleeds a little then don’t panic, you can simply apply a styptic pencil to the cut. You can buy these from a pharmacy in the men’s shaving section.
Feet should be cleaned with a soft cotton pad and should be free of lumps, scabs and crusts.
Check your guinea pig’s nose is clean and free from any discharge. A snotty nose can be a sign of bacterial or fungal infection. Signs that the nose is swollen may actually indicate an inflammation of the lips such as cheilitis.
Make sure the eyes are clear and free from any crusty build-up. It is normal to sometimes see white secretions around the eyes as this helps keep their faces clean; however, this should be milky and not forming any build-up.
Eyes that are bulging, sunken or cloudy can all be signs or illness in your guinea pig and should be investigated with your vet.
Ears should be relatively clean, free from any debris and crust.
Parasite infections can grow rapidly in the ears so a regular inspection is essential to prevent this happening.
As part of your grooming routine you should look inside the ears and, if necessary, wipe with a damp ball of cotton wool to remove grime.
Depending on the breed of your guinea pig their coat (hair) should be silky with a small amount of shedding being normal.
With regular grooming you will soon become familiar with how their coat should feel. Changes to this can indicate signs of poor health, dietary problems or other general health issues.
Check for parasites such as mites. If you think your guinea pig has mites you should take them to the vet to obtain a prescription if necessary.
Look out for any signs of excess hair shedding and dandruff.
Examine the coat at their rear to make sure that it is clean and free of debris. Excess staining of urine or droppings can attract flies and cause ‘flystrike’, which is potentially very serious. They should be relatively dry underneath and incontinence or being overly damp may be a sign of poor health.
Checking the cage for signs of bad health
As well as checking your guinea pig for any health issues, you should also check the cage during the daily clean for any health problems with your cavy.
Are they eating normally?
When you have had your guinea pig for a while you will become used to how much they eat on a daily basis. If you find they aren’t eating the food you are putting out for them, this could be an indication that your guinea pig is sick.
Are their droppings healthy?
Droppings should be uniformly oval and firm with a dark brown colour.
Some of their droppings may be dark green in colour and these are perfectly normal. Called caecal pellets, your guinea pig may eat these as they are high in essential nutrients
Guinea pigs can receive accidental injuries whether it’s from a fall (eg being dropped whilst being handled) or by fighting with their fellow guinea pig mates.
These can range in severity from a simple sprain, scald or bite to a broken limb or, more seriously, internal injuries.
If you are aware of an injury from a fall or fight, then you need to be very alert to the signs of possible danger. Check your guinea pig more frequently and be very gentle when looking for signs of injury. If you are in any doubt whatsoever, you should visit your vet for more advice.
Occasionally they will get their ears nibbled by other guinea pigs in the same housing. Little nips are nothing to worry about but if it looks any more serious, you should get professional advice from you vet.
When to Go to the Vet
Vets can get expensive but if you are concerned about the health of your guinea pig it is essential they are seen by a professional.
If your cavy experiences any of the following symptoms, you should contact your vet:
- Not eating or drinking
- Difficulty breathing
- Crusty discharge around the eyes
- Limping or other signs of lameness
- Blood in urine
- Excessive hair loss
If you know your pet well then the signs of poor health will be fairly obvious. Be observant and never be too cautious when it comes to getting your guinea pig checked out.
To help pay for your guinea pig vet treatments it is a good idea to consider pet insurance when you first get your pet or as soon as you can.
Caring for Elderly Guinea Pigs
The average life expectancy of a guinea pig is between 4 and 8 years. You can find out more about their life cycle here.
As they become older you can expect your pet to experience changes. It is normal to see changes in diet, mobility and general condition at this stage however the older they are, the more difficult it can be to fight off infections and illnesses.
They can naturally become less mobile and certain things they once enjoyed may be more difficult, such as climbing in and out of their hutch. If you suspect arthritis, then your vet may be able to help diagnose this and prescribe pain relief and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Using a ramp may become a problem for old guinea pigs so if you have a two tier cage, you might need to change it to just one level.