Whether you’re looking for a first pet for your kids or a new friend for yourself, guinea pigs are a great choice. Small, social and low maintenance, they’re relatively easy to look after, making them an ideal pet to help teach young children about caring and companionship.

The domestic cavy is the only species of guinea pig kept as a pet, living on average for 5 to 6 years. These are sociable animals, so it’s important if you can keep them in pairs. Just because they’re quite easy to look after, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to be prepared. On the exciting day when you bring your guinea pig home, you’ll feel even better knowing you’re ready to give them the best life you can.

Caring for your guinea pigs

Guinea pigs aren’t keen on loud noises, which means they’re best suited to living outside in a cage. Get one as big as you can so they have plenty of space to explore, with a large exercise area and secure shelter to rest. When it comes to their diet, your pet will need plenty of vitamin C and lots of fibre, so make sure you keep an eye out for this in their food. You also need to ensure that they always have access to plenty of hay and fresh water, as well as guinea pig pellet food.

 

A suitable environment for guinea pigs

Ensure your guinea pig has a suitable place to live

 

Brown and white guinea pig sitting under a wooden shelter © iStockphoto

Things you should do

  • Secure accommodation large enough for all to exercise and high enough to stand up fully on their back legs.  
  • A large exercise area and secure shelter to rest, feel safe and protected from predators, extremes of weather/temperature. Ensure all areas are well ventilated/dry/draught-free. Living in draughty/damp/poorly ventilated/dirty environments can cause suffering/illness.  
  • Regular exercise. Ideally give free access to the exercise area with pipes/shelters to encourage exercising. They’re active animals needing opportunities to run/stand fully upright on their back legs/stretch out when lying down.   
  • Protecting from draughts/temperature extremes. They're sensitive to temperature changes. Temperatures above 26°C can cause heat stroke; below 15°C can cause them to become chilled.  
  • Outdoor accommodation sheltered from direct sun/prevailing wind direction. In temperatures below 15°C they should be housed indoors. Otherwise they need sufficient bedding throughout the whole enclosure to keep warm.  
  • Indoor accommodation away from direct heat sources e.g. radiators/sunny windows, and draughts. Room temperatures of 17-20°C are ideal. Some areas of centrally heated houses may get too hot so locate their accommodation carefully.  
  • Keeping in quiet/calm/safe areas away from dogs/cats/ferrets/other pets they may see as threats.   
  • Enough warm bedding. Bedding should be safe to eat, e.g. dust-free hay. Don’t use softwood products, e.g. pine - these can cause illness.  
  • Don't give guinea pigs nesting materials that separate into thin strands, e.g. cotton wool or similar 'fluffy' bedding products. They pose a serious risk to their health and welfare, due to the possibility of entanglement or ingestion.  
  • Untreated wooden toys to chew, e.g. fruit tree/willow sticks. Avoid plastic toys as they may harm them if chewed/swallowed. They’re intelligent and enjoy gnawing/chewing/exploring by moving to different areas through tunnels.   
  • Regularly cleaned accommodation.  
  • Caring for by a responsible person when you’re away to meet all their welfare needs within their familiar home. If boarding, keep grouped guinea pigs together and take familiar items (e.g. toys). They prefer routine and can become stressed if housed around lots of noise/activity.  
  • To be comfortable/safe when transported. Putting familiar smelling items/companion(s) in carriers/new environment helps them feel at ease.

A healthy diet for guinea pigs

Ensure your guinea pig has a healthy diet

 

Two guinea pigs eating hay from a hay rack © iStockphoto

Guinea pigs need:

  • Fresh clean drinking water continuously, checked twice daily. Ensure water doesn’t freeze in winter. Without water guinea pigs become seriously ill.  
  • Good quality hay always available which should constitute the majority of their diet. Their digestive systems need grass and/or hay to function properly.  
  • Fresh grass/vegetables as frequently as possible, ideally daily. They naturally graze, eating only grass/herbs/some plants (e.g. dandelion/groundsel) for long periods both day and night. Their teeth grow continuously, needing wearing down and keeping at the correct length/shape by eating grass/ hay/leafy green plants. Incorrect diets can cause serious dental disease.  
  • A fresh portion of grass-based guinea-pig pellets daily, as per manufacturer’s instructions. These provide essential Vitamin C, which is destroyed over time and quickly with exposure to air. Fresh pellets must be given daily. Don’t just top up the bowl; ensure pellets are used by the best before date. Guinea pigs have special dietary needs and must have sufficient Vitamin C in their diet.  
  • Fresh grass/leafy greens e.g. kale/broccoli (excellent Vitamin C sources) daily. Don’t give citrus fruits.   
  • Larger pellet portion if growing/pregnant/nursing/underweight. Vets give dietary advice.  
  • Safe, washed leafy greens/weeds daily. Some plants are poisonous to guinea pigs.  
  • To avoid sudden changes in diet; never feed lawnmower clippings. These upset digestive systems causing illness.  
  • Root vegetables like carrots, or fruit e.g. apples, only in small amounts as treats, e.g. apple quarter. Don’t feed other treats as these may harm your guinea pigs. They don’t naturally eat cereals/root vegetables/fruit.  
  • Feeding quantities adjusted preventing them becoming underweight/overweight. Quantities guinea pigs need depend on age/lifestyle/general health. They become overweight and may suffer if eating more than needed.  
  • The amount they eat/drink monitored. If these habits change, droppings get less/stop or soft droppings stick to their back end/lie around the cage, consult your vet immediately as they could be seriously ill. Guinea pigs produce two dropping types – hard dry pellets, and softer moist pellets they eat directly from their bottom and are dietary essentials.