Guinea pigs evolved in South America. Explorers introduced these animals to Europe in the 16th century. Their scientific name is Cavia porcellus. They live about 4-6 years generally. Guinea pigs have some interesting characteristics. They are one of the few species, besides humans, that cannot have appropriate supplementation with Vitamin C in tablet or liquid form. We commonly see guinea pigs suffering from this terrible disease, which can cause joint pain, lethargy, and spontaneous bleeding from the gums. We recommend supplementing with the Oxbow vitamin C tablets or children’s vitamin C drops or chewable tablets. They should get at least 50 mg a day but sick guinea pigs should have 200mg a day. Although guinea pig pellets may claim to contain vitamin C, it is degraded quickly by exposure to light, heat, dampness and length of storage time, so you still need to supplement even if your pellet says it is complete. Some people feel that a quarter of an orange or a small amount of kale daily can supply enough vitamin C, but since we have seen this disease in our clinic even in guinea pigs given these things, we recommend supplementation to be save. It is almost impossible to overdose Vitamin C, as any extra is excreted in the urine.
Guinea pigs teeth grow forever and must be worn down by hay, roughage, etc or they can develop tooth overgrowth and subsequent problems. In the wild, the rough forage they eat keeps these ground down. It is important that their teeth are checked regularly-at the annual exam visits, we will look into the back of your guinea pigs mouth with an otoscope to see the molars (which are very difficult to see normally.) These can overgrow and form points which cut into the cheeks or tongue, or sometimes even grow over and entrap the tongue, especially in older guinea pigs. Sometimes, we need to give the guinea pig a short anesthetic to adequately visualize the back molars and trim or file them down (similar to “floating” a horse’s teeth). We may need take x-rays of your pet’s jaws to see overgrown or abnormal roots. You might notice signs such as excessive drooling, weight loss or reluctance to eat hay or hard vegetables such as carrots if these tooth problems occur. Also, events such as a fall may injure the jaw and result in abnormal tooth wear. Occasionally, pigs with chronically overgrowing or damaged incisors (the teeth in front) may have them surgically removed (we are experienced in this surgery here at Laporte Animal Clinic), however their molars will still need to be filed down, as they are not easily removed. The pigs can eat fine without the incisors, but not without the molars! Guinea pigs with this disorder will likely need periodic tooth trimming every 6-8 weeks or so for the rest of their lives, although some can be kept under control with proper hay supplementation. This brings us to the importance of hay in your guinea pig’s diet.
I cannot stress this enough: a good timothy or other grass hay should be given every day. Guinea pigs have intestinal tracts similar to a horse’s, and need roughage all the time to keep things moving properly and keeps their teeth healthy. We often see intestinal upsets, blockages, etc in guinea pigs that do not receive hay. We do not recommend alfalfa hay (or pellets) for adult guinea pigs, as it can cause them to be overweight and also develop urinary stones (alfalfa is OK for young growing guinea pigs). We recommend the Oxbow brand pellets, as this company is very diligent in their research into pet small mammal nutrition-many other commercial pellets are based on lab rodent fare, which is not particularly designed for the long life of pets. Do not feed the seed mixes sold at pet stores, as they cause obesity and many other metabolic problems. Adult guinea pigs should have the Oxbow Adult Guinea Pig Timothy Pellets, while youngsters and pregnant females can have the Oxbow Young Guinea Pig pellets which have some alfalfa and is higher in protein. Again-don’t forget the Vitamin C, even if they are on the Oxbow food!
Guinea pigs do fine as solitary pets as long as they have plenty of love and attention. Often 2 male guinea pigs that have been raised since babies together will get along. Be aware that 2 females may be more likely to fight as they can be territorial. Guinea pigs go into their first heat at 3-7 months. While baby guinea pigs are extremely cute, breeding of Guinea pigs has some inherent risks. Females that are over a year old or so and have never had young will fuse their pelvic bones, and have a very hard time delivering, usually requiring a c-section, which can be very risky for both the mother and the babies survival. So if you do plan on breeding your guinea pigs, you must do so the first time before the female is 7 months old to avoid this. The pregnancy lasts 63-68 days. They usually have 3-4 young in a litter and wean them at 2-3 weeks. The young are delicate, and hand raised orphans rarely survive.
We recommend a recycled newspaper bedding such as Yesterday’s News to avoid the dangers of toxic fumes from many of the wood type shavings (especially cedar). Guinea pigs should be housed in as large a cage as possible, with a solid floor (we don’t recommend wire mesh floors as they can lead to foot sores and even broken legs from getting stuck in the wire) and be careful of closed glass aquariums, as ammonia fumes from the urine can build up and predispose them to respiratory infections. Always have plenty of water available at all times (a sipper type water bottle is best) as guinea pigs drink an amazing amount compared to their body size. Change bedding every day or every other day to avoid fumes and bacterial/fungal growth in the bedding. Guinea pigs are susceptible to heat stroke, so keep the temperatures between 65-75 F ideally and do not house them outdoors in sunny areas-they need shade and plenty of air circulation. During very hot weather, you can place a fan blowing over a frozen water bottle or block of ice to cool them.
Guinea pigs should have annual physical exams to check their teeth, skin, nails and general health. They are prone to teeth overgrowth, nail overgrowth and curving (we will be glad to do inexpensive routine nail trims for you or show you how to do these at home) and skin conditions (mites may be carried in on contaminated food or bedding-bring your guinea pig in for a checkup quickly if you notice signs such as hair loss, excessive scaling and crusting of the skin and ears and itchiness-discomfort can be so bad from this condition that some guinea pigs may show seizure like symptoms!) Respiratory disease is also seen in Guinea pigs and can progress to pneumonia-Rabbits and rats may carry bacteria which can cause pneumonia in Guinea pigs, so they should be housed in separate rooms. We stress again that proper levels of vitamin C and good diet are the best prevention for skin and other health problems, and ready access to hay keeps teeth growth in check (although some older guinea pigs can develop teeth overgrowth with even the best diet.) Please feel free to ask us if you have any other questions on general guinea pig care when you come in for your annual or first examination.