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Caring for Your Guinea Pig
Guinea pigs have become popular pets, because they are small, quiet, are very gentle and good natured, take up little room, and are sometimes represented as being easy to care for. While all of these things are true, A certain amount of care is required, and just because they are not in need of constant care and attention, does not mean that they can be neglected. They need fresh water, and food, naturally, as well as a certain amount of space, and good ventilation. To remain healthy, they should also have exercise, and attention. A guinea pig that has no affection, will get lonely, and lethargic, so they need attention, and interaction from a human that they know and trust. What they should really have, is a cage mate. No guinea pig should have to live alone.
The basic component of the guinea pig diet consists of pellets, generally made from ground hay, with vitamins and various other materials added. This should only be considered as the basic component though, the way that bread is considered to be the basic component of a human diet. Because of the importance of vitamin C, and the volatility of that vital substance, pig pellets should be as fresh as possible and properly stored and sealed. Even then, you can not really be certain, that the pellets have retained their full vitality. Shelf life of Vitamin C in pellets is approximately 90 days, from time of milling. Because of this, fresh food should also be served. I give my pigs carrots, which is one of the favorite foods of guinea pigs, as well as romaine (not iceberg) lettuce, and a mixture of greens, which the store calls spring mix. I have also found cantaloupe to be to their liking, along with broccoli, bananas, cilantro, parsley, grapes, and even fresh grass, which I pick from a wild field, where I know that there are no insecticides or fertilizers. before feeding fresh grass, I always put it in the freezer for an hour or two, to kill any ticks, mites, or laid eggs that the grass may contain. Guinea pigs are extremely enthusiastic about fresh grass, and gobble it up at an amazing rate. Spinach is generally considered not to be a good food for guinea pigs. It can cause kidney and bladder stones, a condition to which guinea pigs are predisposed.
Hay is very important, and is a necessity, not just a treat, or a supplement. In nature, grass is the main food of the cavy, and a guinea pig's entire day would be spent grazing on grass, and avoiding predators. Unless you plan on feeding your pigs large amounts of fresh grass daily, hay with water will have to be provided. Regular amounts of hay prevent bloat, keep the digestive system moving and healthy, and are well liked. No hay, or intermittent hay is probably a source of many health problems, in pigs as they age. It is generally considered that timothy hay is the best, for guinea pigs, due to the low calcium content. Recall that guinea pigs are very susceptible to kidney and bladder stones. My favorite brands of pig pellets are Ox Bow Cavy Cuisine, Hartz Bonanza Gourmet Guinea pig diet, and Sun Seed brand. There may be better brands out there; but these are what I use.
For fresh foods, one of the more important factors is the vitamin C content. Vitamin C is a big factor for a couple of reasons. the main problem is, that Vitamin C degrades very quickly, and is the most likely nutrient to be missing, or neutralized in a pig's diet. This is particularly true of dried food. The following list of foods, will help to make certain that that special guinea pig gets some extra vitamin C. amounts given are per cup:
Turnip Greens ______________260 mg
Mustard Greens_____________252 mg
Dandelion Greens___________200 mg
Kale _____________________192 mg
Brussels Sprouts____________173 mg
Collard Greens_____________140 mg
Broccoli Leaf______________120 mg
Beet Greens_______________100 mg
Honeydew melon____________90 mg
Broccoli Florets_____________87 mg
Of course, none of these numbers matter, if you can't get the pig to eat. Most of the pigs I have known, do not care for oranges, are indifferent to strawberries, and collared greens; but love romaine lettuce, parsley, and cantaloupe. Plus, with vitamin C being so volatile, and decomposing so quickly, time is a factor. So the parsley that gets eaten right away, gets more vitamin C into the little pig's body, than the collared greens that sit in the cage for five hours, before finally being nibbled at.
In addition to that, it is great fun, both on the part of the guinea pigs, and the caretaker, to give fresh food. Guinea pigs are fairly simple animals, and one of their great pleasures is eating. They get very excited, when being offered treats. A pig seeing you with a nice carrot, or a piece of fruit, will stand up, run around the cage, squeak, and just about jump up and down. I have never had a pig, who takes more than a few days to learn the significance of the refrigerator door opening, and a wrapper crinkling. This usually generates a chorus of excited squeaking. When I emerge from the kitchen, I generally have two pairs of little eyes staring hopefully, with more concentration than you would think possible from such a small creature.
Living Space, and Exercise
Some people allow pigs to roam the house; but this can be an invitation to disaster. Guinea pigs are not dogs. They nibble constantly, and randomly. Thus there is always the possibility of a little pig nibbling on an electrical cord, a poisonous plant, the leg of your sofa, or favorite chair, and perhaps an assortment of your favorite books, for desert. A modern household is a hazardous place for a guinea pig. Still, they do need exercise. I am fortunate in having a long hallway in my apartment, which leads to the bathroom and bedrooms. I can block off one end, and give my pigs a large, safe area, in which to roam, run, and play.
Initially I kept my little pigs in a large, plastic storage bin - very unsuitable. Though such bins can be had quite large, and would give a fair amount of room, they isolate the poor inhabitants, permitting them no view of the outside world. I highly recommend not using such a container; but if you are silly or desperate enough to do so, please let it be only for a very short time, while a proper cage is found. Never put the top on. In addition to everything else, even with the top off, such containers do not provide proper ventilation. There is also a possibility that the little pigs might be able to chew the plastic, which could cause digestive issues all the way up to a fatal case of bloat. Fortunately, in my own case, I only used such a container for a week or two.
Another common, but poor, home for guinea pigs, is the common aquarium. Though these do allow the pig inside to see out, they are too small, and have poor ventilation. I housed Dilbert, and Einstein in adjacent aquariums for two years, before realizing the error of my ways. Adding to the unsuitability of the aquarium, is the fact that exposure to sunshine can heat up the inside, and guinea pigs are very susceptible to heat stroke. What probably saved them, was that I take my guinea pigs out, handle them, and let them run my hall for exercise, quite often. So they probably did not spend too many hours in these makeshift homes, every day. The photo to the right is of Einstein, in her aquarium.
The most common home for a pet guinea pig, is the traditional wire cage. This gives good ventilation, allows the pig to see, hear and smell the outside world, and is easy to clean. Space required by each pig is a matter of some conjecture, and I have seen it listed as anywhere from a couple of square feet, up to about eight square feet, per pig. though the minimum is not universally agreed upon, generally it is agreed that the more space, the better. you can not harm a guinea pig by providing too large a cage. A larger cage will also lessen the aggressive tendencies of males that live together. My present wire cage is 20" x 32", about 4.5 square feet, probably not really large enough for two pigs, and I am searching for a larger one. The way that I try to moderate this, is by taking the pigs out often, letting them roam my hallway, and sitting them beside me when I work at home, or relax at the computer or the television.
Some lucky pigs live in custom built enclosures, with ramps, and little corners to hide away. Though guinea pigs are poor climbers, and hate heights, some caretakers use multi level enclosures to house them. Guinea pigs are not great jumpers; but can probably scale a foot high obstacle, if they are really determined. They are rather heavy for their size - a full grown male can weigh three pounds, or perhaps a bit more. The reason for this is muscle. Guinea pigs are built like bears, and are as strong as miniature bears. When a guinea pig really wants something, it is amazing how strong it can be. When they put their heads down and push, they are like little furry bulldozers.
Whatever the size of your pig's home, it will need a little hiding place. This can be a towel hung over the side, a little wood house, a sleep sack, or anything else that the little pig can burrow into, crawl under, or run inside. They love to burrow, and need a little hiding spot in which to feel safe. There are some factory made shelters, like the Pigloo. I would shy away from the plastic one, because of the guinea pig's tendency to chew everything; but there are some nice wood ones. I usually just hang a towel over the side, which they seem to like quite a bit. A photo of my present pig quarters is just above. It is right next to the refrigerator, and every time I open the refrigerator door, I hear squeaks and squeals. They increase in volume and intensity if I rattle a carrot back. Passing the cage on the way out fo the kitchen, always provokes some hopeful stares. My hallway is adjacent, and is already blocked off, for some pig romps. Food and hey are kept below. I use food cups, and water bottles. Some pig caretakers use water dishes, but in my experience, the little pigs tend to fill them full of bedding. The divider is in place, because at the time this photo was taken, my pal Gipper was very sick, and I didn't want to worry about Red eating all of his food. I am planning the purchase, or possible construction of a larger cage/enclosure. The photo to the left, just above, is of Chewy and Gipper, not too long after I got Gipper from the Humane Society. The photo to the right, is of Chewy and Dilbert, not too long after I got my new wire cage. Dilbert was beginning to look a bit thin here; but had not yet developed any obviously serious health issues. I would usually throw a towel or a bit of newspaper in the cage, to give them something to play with or hide under; but generally they just curled up against each other, in a corner of the cage, when they wanted to sleep. The cage was probably a bit too small for the two of them, though opinions vary about how much room a guinea pig needs. Fortunately, the two of the m got a long very well, and at any rate were often let out to roam the hall. I never had any problems with them seeming to be cramped in their little world.
Issues and problems that I have dealt with personally
I refuse to give advice on any situation that I have not personally dealt with, and do not wish to simply regurgitate things I have read on other sites. I have listed a number of very good sites, for advice, care, and medical issues affecting guinea pigs, in my links section. One piece of advice that I will give, with no reservations, is that if you have a concern, or something does not seem right, go to the vet immediately. With most vets, you generally can get in within a day or two, often the same day. Costs vary, but figure $40 - $60, if nothing special is required. Some are less, some more. If X-rays, medication, or other special services are needed, it will cost more; but to my way of thinking, more money can always be made - a dead pet can never be brought back. Do not let anything go, or wait to see if the condition will improve - generally, it will not. Unlike people, a guinea pig can not tell you where it hurts, or how long it has been feeling bad. Unlike the more common pets, like cats and dogs, guinea pigs actively try to hide their ailments. Though another pet may be adopted, to try and remedy the loss, it can never really replace the pet that died. My best advice, when dealing with any guinea pig ailments is to always pay attention to the state of your pet, and act fast at the first sign of trouble.
Bloat - A guinea pig that does not eat for 24 hours will definitely develop bloat, and may develop bloat after as little as 6 - 8 hours of fasting. It is not normal for a guinea pig not to eat. They have a two hour digestive cycle, and are virtually always hungry. Though it is possible to remedy this situation, through force feeding to get the system moving again, bloat is almost always a death sentence, particularly if it is not recognized immediately. This was what ultimately killed my friend Gipper. The emergency vet advised me that it is possible to pierce the skin, and puncture the stomach, letting the gas escape. He also advised that he has never seen a pig survive more than a few minutes, after such a procedure. It would seem then, that the only justification for this would be to relieve suffering, before the animal is put to sleep. Still, veterinary medicine continues to advance. Bloat does have another possible cause, and that is blockage of the intestine. This can actually happen if a guinea pig chews some plastic, or if a bit of plastic wrap remains on a bit of vegetable. If it is caught very early, bloat can be treated through administration of Phazyme®. It has also been suggested that Rennie Rapize, crushed and in 2.5ml of water via a syringe. Followed by one crushed tablet of Buscopan. (See http://www.oginet.com/pgurney/bloat.htm )
Teeth - Like rabbits, and most rodents, the teeth of a guinea pig never stop growing. You will probably notice that your guinea pig is constantly engaged in tooth grinding. You will also certainly notice that anything with range of a guinea pig mouth, gets chewed. As with many other guinea pig ailments, the first sign you will generally notice, is that your little pig is not eating, or will only eat certain, very soft, foods. The two most common disorders are points, and overgrowth. In overgrowth, the front teeth get so long that the moth can not be properly closed, and the poor little pig can not chew. Points occur on the back teeth, and are just what the name indicates. The points can badly cut a pig's cheeks, and tongue, and make it very painful to eat. The unfortunate animal is in the dilemma of slowly starving, and being very hungry, while at the same time having to endure great pain at every feeding. So every moment, the pig is deciding if the pain in the mouth, is worse than the ache in the gut. And of course, bloat is always a possibility for the pig who goes too long without food. There are other tooth problems, of course, which may be diagnosed by a good vet; but the two above are what will be encountered in the vast majority of cases. I have never had a guinea pig, that did not have to have this done at least once.
Constrictions - Often, particularly on older pigs, the pouch outside the anus can become clogged and impacted. This is not necessarily deadly; but is very unpleasant. This pouch is there to store certain feces, and allow them to stay moist, for re-consumption. Every once and a while, you will notice your pig doubling over, and eating one of these special droppings. The reason for this, as explained to me, is that the digestive system of a guinea pig is so fast, that certain nutrients can only be extracted properly, by going through the system twice. Normal procedure for blockage is to use a Q-tip coated with oil, to smooth and clean the pouch out. If the blockage is large enough, sometimes the rear opening can be gently stretched open, and the mass shook out under it's own weight. Be advised that this is very unpleasant, both to the little pig, and to the human caretaker. It should also be noted that guinea pigs may squeal, complain, and resist this procedure. My little pig, Chewy had this problem.
Respiratory - Guinea pigs are not really able to cough, and can not easily clear their lungs. They are thus susceptible to pneumonia. and respiratory infection. Any discharge from the nose is cause for concern. Though pigs do sneeze and cough to the extent that they are able, a pig that is sneezing or coughing all the time may be cause for concern. One thing that scared me as a new pig owner, was discharge from the eyes. A white milky discharge is actually normal, though any other kind is suspect. You will often see your pig wiping this discharge down the face, and it is actually used by the pig to groom the fur.