Guinea pigs are ideal as children’s first pets: they are small, friendly, benign creatures who enjoy socialising with each other and with humans. And crucially, they are awake during the daytime, at the same time as their owners. In contrast, hamsters are solitary creatures who like to live on their own, sleeping in the daytime and coming out at night time, when their owners are asleep. Guinea pigs also live for longer, as in 4 – 7 years, rather than the hamster’s short life of just 2 – 3 years.
Like all pets, guinea pigs need careful care, and even with responsible, mature children, adult supervision is essential. Amelie and Lucie’s parents waited until the two girls were old enough to be reasonably rational before getting the pets (two years ago), and they still keep a close eye on them, to make sure that the animals are looked after well. As an example, in the recent hot weather, the guinea pigs started to drink more water, so that their water bottle needed filling up more frequently. The young girls might not have realized the importance of this, so her parents had to step in to make sure that this was checked twice daily.
Guinea pigs don’t usually need huge amounts of money to buy and get them set up, nor do they need frequent visits to the vet. The most important aspect of their care is to get the initial daily routine right.
JP and Pepper have a large, double storey cage outside; this is moved regularly around the lawn to ensure that they have a continual supply of fresh grass to graze on. This is essential for guinea pigs: unlike other species of small pets, they need to eat Vitamin C every day in their diet. Nearly all other living creatures manufacture Vitamin C in their own bodies: guinea pigs and humans are amongst the few exceptions. If guinea pigs don’t get enough Vitamin C, they start to suffer from scurvy, and this is really common. The signs of scurvy vary, but they can include sore skin, swollen joints and general poor health.
Commercial guinea pig food is usually supplemented with extra Vitamin C, but even so, a regular top up is helpful. In the winter, the girls give JP and Pepper a daily Vitamin C tablet, ground up and sprinkled onto their food. But in the summer months, a fresh daily supply of green grass gives them everything they need. The girls’ parents run a busy guest house, so the guinea pigs also have the bonus of fresh raw vegetable peelings every day.
They don’t feed everything to the guinea pigs and they contacted me to ask about celery. They had heard that celery could be toxic to guinea pigs in high quantities: was this really true?
Like many internet rumours, this idea is only half-true. Celery has a high water content so it is not highly nutritious. It causes bloating and gas in humans when eaten in large quantities and it could do the same to guinea pigs. But most of all, the string-like fibres on celery sticks can get tangled up in a guinea pig’s teeth, throat, and intestinal tract. For these reasons, it’s best not to give celery as the main part of a guinea pig’s diet, but it’s fine to give as an occasional treat. The leaves can be given freely, and the stalks should be cut into small sections, removing long strands of fibrous tissue. I told the girls that it’s OK to give celery several times a week, following these guidelines. They also get fresh hay every day: as well as providing even more Vitamin C, this provides safe, bulky fibre which is essential for the guinea pigs digestive tract.
The girls have also thought carefully about the guinea pigs’ living quarters. The two pets are brought indoors every night, into a smaller cage, to protect them against predators and to keep them warm in winter. Every year, I hear stories about guinea pigs and rabbits that are taken by foxes and mink; it’s definitely safest for them to be indoors from dusk till dawn. And in the coldest weather (such as we had back in March), it’s difficult to keep outdoor animals warm enough for them to be safe and healthy.
In the recent sunny weather, the girls have been careful to make sure that the hutch is in the shade: guinea pigs can overheat in full sunshine.
Most guinea pigs have short fur, which is easy to maintain: they don’t even need to be brushed. In contrast, Abyssinian Guinea Pigs have long fur that’s up to four inches deep. This can make it difficult to see which end of the guinea pig is which: the girls sometimes find themselves offering food to the wrong end of their pets! The extra-long fur does involve some extra work: it can get matted and dirty. They are given a bath every few weeks, which luckily, they seem to enjoy. And they need to visit the vet every few months to have matted patches of fur taken away using electric clippers. This special maintenance is very important: if animals are allowed to accumulate damp, matted fur, it tends to attract flying insects in the summer months, and this can lead to a serious condition called “fly strike”. This starts with eggs being laid in the damp fur, and the eggs hatch out into larvae (maggots) which can burrow through the guinea pigs’ skin. The best way to prevent this is regular hair care to avoid matted clumps.
Hair care for guinea pigs: who would have guessed?