Guinea pigs are one of the most common types of pets in America, but have you ever wondered about the story behind them? What type of animal is a ‘guinea pig’? Where did they come from? When did people start having them as pets?
Guinea pigs are in the rodent family, their scientific name being Cavia porcellus.
They run large for rodents, typically weighing 1 ½ -2 ½ lbs. (The normal rat is less than a pound). They grow to be between 8-10 inches long, and they live for 4-5 years. (The oldest guinea pig on record was named Snowball and lived for an ancient 14 years!) They originated in the Andes Mountains and are very important to many South American indigenous groups, where they are used for food, folk medicines and religious ceremonies.
Guinea pigs have been in North America since about the 16th century, when they were brought up by European traders and they have been a popular pet since then.
I got my cavies three years ago, from two different local pet stores. Generally, it’s a better idea to get a pair of the same sexed piggies from the same litter, but you see, I never meant to get another one. An ex-boyfriend surprised me with Vacuum (so named for her voracious appetite), and I went to the pet store the next day to get toys and treats for her and… I walked out with toys, a new cage setup, and Mouse (a very timid piggy). (She was so cute and after all, they do better in pairs.) They were only a couple of weeks old, and with dynamic personalities from the first day. Vacuum is mostly white, with brown patches and pink feet and ears. She is the alpha female without a doubt; very bossy, bold and curious female. She’s a little bulldog; when she squeezes between narrow spaces, she’ll push through it, using her shoulders like a football player. She chews on everything— because of her I’ve gone through two pairs of iPod headphones, and one time she ate the month’s entire rent receipt. (It’s amazing the amount she can consume in a split second’s worth of inattention.)
Mouse is just about the exact opposite; she’s tri-colored, with a white stripe down her nose. Three of her feet are white, and she’s got one black one. She’s very timid and meek; Vacuum enjoys chasing her all over the place. The only time Mouse will show any aggression is if I bring them apple pieces, Mouse’s favorite treat.
I keep Vacuum and Mouse in separate cages, as Vacuum is the instigator of trouble, and she’ll bother Mouse into making high-pitched squealing noises, which is nothing that you can sleep through.
After I’ve carefully scoured the floor and made sure it was free of any tidbits they would chew on (and it’s a long list) I let them out of their cages. They race around and do their jump-kick-twist move that cavies exhibit when they’re happy-it’s called “pop-corning” and it is absolutely adorable!
One way to exercise your piggies is to roll up some big pieces of construction paper to make tunnels and place them all over the floor; they love racing through them and poking their heads out the other end. Once in a while, the tube will get abutted to the wall, and they’ll dive into it and realize they can’t get out the other end, so -scramble scramble- they back all the way out of the tube. It’s quite a funny sight to behold.
They are generally easy to care for, but they can have their assortment of problems. The most common are respiratory infections, diarrhea and scurvy. The latter is the most common one as guinea pigs are incapable of producing their own vitamin C. This can be prevented by feeding a pelleted food that is enriched with vitamin C, and by treating your piggies to such delights as apple and orange slices. When I give my girls treats, I sit cross-legged on the studio floor, and they immediately race over and climb into my lap, making their cute begging noises. Vacuum loves carrots, while Mouse prefers apples. They both go crazy over lettuce and banana. (Note: don’t go overboard on lettuce, or you’ll end up with the second of the aforementioned problems: diarrhea. For an adult guinea pig, a small handful is good.)
If your guinea pig(s) spend a lot of time in the cage, make sure you give them “playtime”-a time and place in the day when they can romp and explore. One of the most stressful things you can do to piggies is to keep them caged up all day. They are a very playful, curious animal and very entertaining!