By Kaje Nielsen
Guinea pigs are undeniably my favorite creatures on the planet. Each one has a unique and bold personality, a distinguishable coat of fur, and preferences on how to live life in general. They are also adorable.
However, owning a guinea pig is not something to go into blindly, as they are high-maintenance creatures; the smallest thing can be lethal to these poor, delicate balls of fuzz.
Luckily, I have done extensive amounts of research on these critters in my lifetime of consistently owning them. Whether you are contemplating adopting one or owning one, here is some essential information to properly care for your pet.
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One of the first steps to becoming a successful guinea pig owner is understanding a little bit of their language. While I can offer a barrage of general information to keep your piggies happy and healthy, understanding them for yourself is one of the best ways to care for them. Here is a list of some of the most common and uncommon noises and what they mean.
- Chit Chat: One of the most common noises you will hear a guinea pig make is short, repeated, quiet squeaks, which I call chit chat. This noise is basically a guinea pig’s way of making small talk, and it shows contentment.
- Emotional Chit Chat: Unlike normal chit chat, emotional chit chat is more slow and long squeaks, but is still relatively quiet. This noise is not a bad thing but means they are just discussing more serious topics, such as perhaps their daily follies or desires. This noise is a good thing to hear when cuddling them, as it means they are expressing their love to you.
- Wheeking: Probably the most iconic guinea pig noise, wheeking is defined as very loud and very long squeaks that can be heard from across the entire house. This noise is a guinea pig’s way of getting your attention–usually because their food bowl is empty or they want a treat. This noise can also be used to get the attention of a distant guinea pig.
- Short Growling: This noise sounds like a weird mixture of growling and purring, and is done in short bursts. This noise simply means your guinea pig is scared. Piggies are usually easily scared creatures and make this noise quite often. While petting guinea pigs, they often make this noise. This just means that you may be petting them too close to a private area, such as their bum or belly.
- Long Growling: As the title might have given away, long growling is the same sound as short growling, but longer. Guinea pigs will also sway their bums from side to side as they make this noise. It is used for either asserting dominance or as a mating call.
- Popcorning: While this isn’t really a noise, it’s still a form of piggie-talk. Popcorning is when a guinea pig will jump into the air and violently shake their fat bodies around before landing back on the ground. This means that they are in a really good mood, and happy with their surroundings.
- Squealing: This noise sounds like wheeking, but in a much more distraught tone. This is not a good noise to hear, as it means your piggie is in pain. If one of your piggies makes this noise, be sure to check what’s wrong with them.
- Soft Chatter: When a piggie chatters, they sound as if they are chewing food when they are not. This just means that they are slightly disgruntled and is not something to worry about.
- Hard Chatter: Hard chattering is when a guinea pig starts furiously chattering their teeth really loudly. Use caution when you hear this noise, as it means they are angry and likely about to attack you or another pig.
- Chirping: Chirping is by far the rarest guinea pig noise, and most owners never hear it during their lifetime. Piggies seem to be in a trance when making this noise, and it sounds indistinguishable from an actual bird’s chirp. There are many theories as to what this noise actually means, with everything from it being their attempt to sing, to them sending a call to the mothership.
While there’s a lot of variety for guinea pig cages, there’s a few essential guidelines to follow for making sure they are as comfortable as possible.
- The bigger the better: As a general rule of thumb, the more space your piggies have to run around, the happier they’re going to be. If you can’t afford or find space for a large cage, make sure to let them out to exercise every day. This should be done despite cage size, but it is especially important if their cage is small or if they live alone.
- Two pigs is better than one: When it comes to guinea pigs, two is the magic number. Owning more than two can be stressful for both the owner and the pigs, but owning only one is even worse, as guinea pigs are social critters and will become depressed without a playmate.
- Guinea pigs aren’t hamsters: By this I mean that you’re guinea pigs aren’t going to try every trick in the book to escape their cage, they actually enjoy being in there. As long as you have an enclosed cage around them that’s at least around a foot or so in height, they likely aren’t going to try and escape. A top is not needed for their cages. However, some guinea pigs are unusually curious and may try to climb out, but usually once they’ve done it once, they won’t want to do it again.
- Fill their cage with fine wood shavings bedding: Whether you choose to include an additional liner underneath the bedding is up to you, but be sure to fill their cage with very fine wood shavings (usually found at Tractor Supply Co. or IFA) to eliminate odor, and so they can sleep comfortably.
- Give them private areas: As much as guinea pigs like to socialize, sometimes they just like to be left alone. Be sure to include areas for privacy such as plastic huts or tunnels somewhere in their cage. If you own more than one pig, (which as discussed earlier, you should whenever possible) then make sure there are at least two private areas, as they like having daily alone time. Make sure that whatever material their huts or tunnels are made of is non-toxic, as guinea pigs typically will chew on anything you put into their cage.
- Choose toys with caution: Guinea pigs aren’t nearly as versatile as hamsters, and can injure themselves quite easily, so keep toys in their cage limited and make sure they are safe. Especially do not put hamster wheels into their cages, as they have been known to break their backs. The same applies to hamster balls.
- Ensure proper lighting and darkness is accessible to their cages: Guinea pigs, while they have an unusual sleep cycle, still enjoy having light during the day and darkness during the night. If they are not in a room with a window for natural daylight, artificial lighting during the daytime will also suffice.
- Be considerate of their tiny ears: Alongside being very small and naturally timid, guinea pigs also have very sensitive eardrums. Loud noises may deafen or cause heart attacks to these poor creatures. If you store them in a room with a TV, avoid turning up the volume too loud.
- DO NOT HOUSE THEM OUTSIDE: The ideal climate for a guinea pig is somewhere that is warm and only slightly humid. In places like this, piggies are fine to live outside. However, in a cold, dry place like Utah, they need to be kept indoors year round, but especially during the winter. A garage isn’t enough. In addition to keeping them indoors, be sure to run a space-heater in their living space during the winter if home-heating is not working properly in their living space.
Here’s a few tips to keeping your guinea pig happy and healthy by feeding them the right foods.
- Pellets: The main source of nutrients in a guinea pig diet is pellets, which can be found in the pet aisle at Walmart. Make sure that the package says they are for guinea pig consumption, as certain types of rabbit food, which looks very similar, may not be the best for them. Be sure to provide about 1/8th of a cup per guinea pig per day. For two guinea pigs, this is about a fistful twice per day.
- Hay: While hay doesn’t provide as many nutrients as pellets, it is the staple of a guinea pig diet, as it keeps their teeth healthy, and provides them with fiber to keep them full. Since hay is low in fat and calories, they should have an unlimited supply. Be sure to only use store-bought hay, such as Timothy Hay, not the kind you give horses.
- Water: Though this is obvious, giving water the correct way is sometimes misunderstood. Be sure to provide guinea pigs with an unlimited supply of fresh water, and do not use softened water or salt water; use the same kind you would drink. Do not give them water in a bowl, but in a rodent water bottle.
- Veggies: Remember that guinea pigs are herbivores, and if you give them a special treat, it needs to be a fruit or a vegetable. Typically, green veggies are the best, but they enjoy a large variety. My piggies especially enjoy carrots, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and spinach. They also enjoy mixed salad greens, but if you feed them this, avoid letting them eat cabbage as it can cause bloating. Also avoid any acidic vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, or hot peppers. Pigs should be given at least one form of veggies daily. Remember that they are tiny, and only need a small portion. One large baby carrot, a small slice of a pepper, or a handful of greens is enough.
- Fruits: While guinea pigs love fruit, it should be given to them sparingly, as high amounts of sugar can be bad for their bodies. They enjoy watermelon rinds, strawberry stems, bananas (very small portions), apple slices, seedless grapes, and more. Avoid feeding them fruit more than a few times per week.
One of the most satisfying parts of being a pig owner is building their trust and relationship with you. Here are a few activities to keep them happy and build their trust.
- Proper Carrying: Holding your guinea pigs correctly when transporting them is a critical aspect of gaining trust. Make sure to always use two arms to carry them, and do not carry more than one at a time. Pick them up and set them down using two hands: one on their tummy, and one to support their bums. Hold them against your chest when carrying them long distances. Never hold them upside down, and always make sure that their full body has support, as their arms are very tiny.
- House exploring: Guinea pigs, especially males, are curious creatures, and love to explore your house. Make sure they have some time every day where they can move around freely outside of their cage. Make sure they are monitored constantly while this is happening, and keep them away from cords, electric appliances, and tight spaces where they may get lost. Do not let them play on dirty floors, and let them play on carpet at your own risk, as they may pee on it.
- Cuddling: Along with giving them time to run around each day, make sure you give them some cuddle time as often as you can. Unlike hamsters, guinea pigs will calmly sit in your lap and let you stroke them once they have warmed up to you. Hold them while reading a book, quietly watching TV, or even to feed them a treat in your arms. Pigs can typically be held for 10-20 minutes before they need a bathroom break. If they start tugging on your clothes or nipping at you, then it’s usually time to put them back.
Guinea pigs aren’t always little angels when it comes to getting along with their fellow piggies. Here’s a few things to be aware of.
- Females are best for new owners: If it’s your first time owning a guinea pig, I would start with owning females as they tend to be much more calm.
- Introduce them young: The older a guinea pig is, the harder time it has getting along with newcomers. If you want to minimize fighting, adopt both at the same time. Adopt siblings when possible.
- Listen for hard chattering and squealing: These two noises are never a good thing to hear, especially hard chattering. After a fight has occurred, carefully check each pig’s body for injuries. If you walk in on a fight, use a towel to break it up, as they may draw blood if you try to intercede with your bare hands. If fighting persists, consider putting a separator in their cage, as this will allow them to still smell and talk to each other, but not cause further harm.
- Dominance Competition: If you own males, be prepared to hear a lot of long growling, as they are constantly trying to assert their dominance on one another. Usually this is relatively harmless behavior. Make sure you examine the bodies of your males daily for urine or boar glue, and carefully clean it off with a damp towel.
- Breeding: Breeding guinea pigs can be a special experience, but it is not something to go into without prior experience with guinea pigs. If a male and female are living together, then they will inevitably breed, so only keep them together if you are prepared. Also be prepared for fighting amongst the female and male if they do not wish to breed. While the female is pregnant, keep the male in a separate cage, and as soon as the babies are more than two weeks old, separate the males from the females.
One of the most important aspects of owning a healthy pig is a sanitary living space. Guinea pigs need their cages cleaned at least once per week. Here’s the proper way to clean them.
- Replace all bedding: Remove all toys, bowls, guinea pigs, and everything else from the cage and scoop all bedding into a garbage sack, and then replace with new bedding. Alternatively, if you have a fabric cage liner, bundle up the liner with all of the bedding, dump out all of the old bedding, and clean the liner in the washer and dryer before placing it back into the cage with new bedding. Because of this, owning two fabric cage liners is usually the best, as one can be washed and stored while the other is in use. If you do not own cage liners, spray out the cage itself with hot water at least once per month.
- Clean huts, bowls, and water bottles: The huts and toys only need to be cleaned every other week, but water bottles and food bowls should be cleaned weekly along with the bedding. Use only hot water for cleaning, and thoroughly dry everything.
- Piggie Bodies: Guinea pigs usually clean themselves and do not need to be washed. However, if they have been peed on, spilled fruit juice on themselves, or did anything else especially messy, use a warm, damp towel to clean them. Do not bathe them in climates like ours.
Guinea pigs can become sick or injured very easily. I am not qualified to give medical advice, but I would advise you to always contact the vet or a Facebook page if anything seems wrong. Be sure to stay away from them if you have a cold, as many human influenzas are contagious to guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs sure are hard work to own, but it’s well worth it in the end. By following this advice, you can expect to give your guinea pigs long and healthy lives, build strong and fulfilling relationships with your furry friends, and create memories that will stay with you furr-ever.