Guinea pigs are very popular as pets, particularly in families with children as they’re easy to handle and can be very friendly. However, guinea pigs aren’t as straightforward to manage as a hutch and the occasional pat! They’re intelligent, social and have a few special needs to keep them healthy for their whole lives.
Guinea pigs are pretty similar to rabbits – they have teeth that grow continuously so they need lots of tough, fibrous food to keep them worn down. Guinea pigs should have constant access to a good quality hay (such as wheaten or lucerne hay) to keep their teeth healthy.
Fruit and veggies are important as well – keeping in mind that fruit has a lot of sugar and should be kept as a treat. Guinea pigs can’t make their own vitamin C so veggies high in this nutrient are important – you can safely feed parsley, broccoli, capsicum, kale, spinach and silverbeet. Access to fresh grass can be great as well – having a tiny furry lawnmower in the family is worth it! Guinea pig mixes or pellets are available commercially, but should be fed as a treat only. Your guinea pig should also always have access to clean fresh water.
The most important part of guinea pig housing is keeping things clean! Guinea pigs should have clean bedding with no dust (shredded paper is ideal, but hay and wood shavings can work too). Bedding should be changed weekly – dirty bedding can cause a buildup of ammonia, which can harm your guinea pig’s lungs. Commercially available hutches are fine as housing enclosures, just make sure they are protected from direct sunlight and any cold windy conditions.
Adding a little enrichment is great as well! Guinea pigs like to burrow and hide so tunnels, nesting material and cardboard hidey-holes are great additions to any hutch.
Remember that guinea pigs sometimes struggle with warm Australian conditions. On warm days make sure your guinea pig’s hutch is well shaded and that there is plenty of cool fresh water. A frozen water bottle placed in the hutch can provide your guinea pig with something cool to lie against.
Guinea pigs are social animals, and with enough handling they make great friends for humans young and old! They do tend to live in herds in the wild so it’s best to think of having more than one at a time. However, not all guinea pigs will get along well – undesexed male guinea pigs sometimes fight with each other, and having an undesexed male and an undesexed female together will result in a very social situation! If you have two males, make sure they are either from the same litter or introduce them slowly.
Rabbits and guinea pigs do generally get along well, but rabbits carry a disease called Bordetella bronchiseptica that can cause a nasty respiratory disease in guinea pigs. Rabbits also have slightly different dietary requirements to guinea pigs so keeping them together isn’t ideal. The best companion for your guinea pig is another guinea pig.
Guinea pigs don’t need vaccinations like rabbits do but an annual check-up with a vet is important to prevent any health care issues. Not all vets are familiar with guinea pig medicine so calling ahead or looking for a veterinary clinic that specialises in exotic and unusual pets can be very helpful.