Keeping guinea pigs.

By Heidi M. Sands.

As a young child I was taken to see and choose my first guinea pig. The lady who kept them did so in large adapted poultry cabins. To my young eyes, there seemed to be millions of guinea pigs in each cabin, loosed housed running around on the floors. There weren’t millions of course, probably 40 or 50 animals to each cabin. I duly choose my guinea pig and my brother chose his; one male and one female and we headed home with them.

My father had made separate cages with a linking door between them for the guinea pigs to live in. At the time of purchase the connecting door was closed but when all was ready the door was opened and our guinea pig breeding programme began. Gestation of a guinea pig lasts for between 59 – 73 days, and right on time, a tiny multi-coloured female guinea pig was born.

In the intervening years I’ve had many guinea pigs, some I’ve bred from, others I’ve kept as companions and pets. They’ve been a delight and a worthwhile addition to our family and they introduced my own children to the delights and responsibilities of animal care.

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Keeping guinea pigs is rewarding. They are responsive, and well handled they are one of the most friendly of small pets. They will recognise the sound of their approaching owners and will whistle and make noises to you in greeting. They also know when it’s feeding time and will make similar encouragements for you to hurry with their food.

Once born young guinea pigs will feed from their mother for the first three weeks of their lives. With as many as eight baby guinea pigs in a litter, although 3 – 4 are more usual, the mother can have high demands made on her. She needs good nutrition and care and must be kept in warm, dry conditions. Baby guinea pigs will begin to feed from their mother’s food dish at only a few days old. They are born fully furred and with their eyes open and can run almost immediately. By the time they are three weeks old they can be considered ready for weaning and in the next few weeks can go to their new homes. It’s worth noting that female guinea pigs can become pregnant at only two months old, so if you are buying a young female guinea pig ensure she has been kept only with other females, or you may have more guinea pig mouths to feed than you bargained for. Male guinea pigs can be used for breeding from around 3 months old.

If kept with a male, the newly birthed female can be pregnant again only hours after giving birth and is capable of having up to five litters a year. Be vigilant, ensure she is kept only with other females and plan her pregnancies and you will have a happier, healthier guinea pig. Several breeding females can be kept together with their young quite happily. Remember the poultry cabin idea? Splitting the cabin, not only at floor level, but also by building a tier of large, front opening cages half way up the walls, can give family groups of guinea pigs more space than more traditional pet cages.

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Remember too that guinea pigs do not like draughts or to be kept in direct sunlight. They have delicate feet and toes and do best on a soft surface such as clean dust

extracted shavings. A sleeping box, a cardboard box will suffice with a doorway cut into it filled with soft hay, will be used by your guinea pigs with relish. More hay should also be offered as foodstuff and ensure it is kept clean and dry and not soiled. Food will probably be in the form of guinea pig pellets or similar, plus fruit and vegetables including apples and carrots fed fresh on a daily basis. Guinea pigs also have a liking for fresh grass and dandelions, and clean water should always be available.

Guinea pigs should be handled from about 2 or 3 weeks old. At this age they will bond well with their human handlers and learn to be calm when petted. Ensure that they are well supported and not over-handled though, as they are still quite young and need consideration.

Whether kept in communal cages, pens or converted cabins it’s also worth thinking of allowing your guinea pigs access to the great outdoors in good weather. Converted or purpose built moveable chicken runs are perfect for letting your guinea pigs have a few hours of comparative freedom out on the grass. Keep an eye on the weather though; guinea pigs don’t like getting wet.

Guinea pigs come in a variety of colours including sandy, black and tan, white and different shades of reds, browns and chocolates. They also come in several coat types; smooth, rough (with rosettes) and longhaired and with thirteen different types/breeds available there’s plenty for everyone to choose from.

With a life expectancy of between 5 – 6 years your guinea pigs should be with you for quite some time and although usually healthy there are one or two things to consider. Male guinea pigs can inflict nasty injuries on one another unless they’ve been kept together from a young age; don’t mix older male guinea pigs. Teeth of a guinea pig grow almost continually, ensure they have something to chew on, carrots are ideal. Unless unavoidable refrain from neutering guinea pigs; they don’t do well under anaesthetic. Avoid breeding from female guinea pigs for the first time after about eight months old; it can be especially dangerous.

Ensure that you’ll have homes for any guinea pigs that you breed before you plan a litter and ensure that any guinea pig you buy is healthy and from good stock. In-bred guinea pigs are best avoided, as too are those with open sores, signs of parasites, running eyes or the sneezes. Take care of your guinea pigs and you’ll have the perfect pets for years to come