Keep Your Guinea Pig in Good Health for Life

October 24, 2012

The rodent species Cavia porcellus, (Guinea pig), or "cavie" makes a wonderful pet that is easy to care for, and they most certainly will entertain you with their gentle ways. Their wild ancestors originated in South America, but they have been captive-bred for over four hundred years, and are now well domesticated. 

Types of Guinea Pigs, or "G.P.s"

The breeding programs select for both hair color and hair type, and as a result, some distinct hair coat appearances have evolved. There are four basic hair coat types. Long straight hairs are found in the Peruvian coat, smooth shorthair coats are found in the English coat; Abyssinian coats consist of straight, medium length hairs organized into whorls or circular patterns over the body, and finally, there is a medium silky-type coat. Many coat variations exist because single colour, bicolour or tricolour varieties can mix colour combinations such as white, brown, and black in different patterns. 

Basic Biology

The guinea pig is an herbivore, which means that vegetables, seeds, grasses, and fruits are typical dietary components. They ferment these feedstuffs in a large colon (lower intestine) and require constant access to their food. It is important to provide water in a leak-proof bottle suspended from the cage since they will foul water left in an open dish. The species lacks an enzyme for Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) production and thus require daily supplementation with this dietary component. The supplement can be added to the water, or provided as a natural fruit source, such as three orange sections daily. If the pig is not used to the supplement being provided in the water from a very young age, it can be tough to convince them to take it this way, so they should be consistently provided with one or the other type of supplement. 

Guinea pigs live between 5 and 10 years on average. The average weight at birth is 85 g, and the average adult female weighs 800 g. The average male adult weighs 1050 g at maturity. Young guinea pigs are usually weaned at about three to four weeks of age. Sexual maturity is usually reached when the body weight is about one half of the final adult weight. If a breeding program is to be undertaken, make sure that information about this species has been reviewed. Allowing the female (sow) to fully mature before breeding can lead to birthing problems, for example, so make sure that proper breeding management is in place. 


Guinea pigs are not noted for tidy housekeeping so regular environment maintenance is very important. They require a very dry environment, and temperature extremes and drafts should be avoided. Aspen shavings are used for solid floor surfaces. At least part, or all, of the floor should be solid floor rather than wire. Guinea pigs left on wire-only surfaces will develop foot problems. 

Behaviour and Handling

Guinea pigs should be handled from an early age. Gentle restraint that provides support of the hind end with one hand, and support of the chest area by placing the other hand on the underside is appropriate. Handle to prevent falls because they do not tolerate even minor falls well. Avoid scruffing the neck, or encircling the chest area with a hand. If they are handled regularly and gently, they will not be likely to bite or scratch. The nails may require periodic trimming, and teeth should be checked if any change in appetite is noted. Inter-pig aggression can occur when dominant males are placed with subordinate males either alone or in the presence of a sow in estrous, or if a male (boar) is left in after the sow gives birth, the young may be at risk.

Health Considerations

If any change in attitude, appetite, or appearance of the guinea pig is noted, don't wait before you consult with a veterinarian. Guinea pigs are quite stoic, so they may not shows signs of ill health until later in the disease process. Weighing them once every two weeks at home is an excellent way to monitor their basic health. Some veterinarians do not look after this species, so when you bring your guinea pig home, contact a veterinarian in the area that does handle them routinely so that if a problem should arise, you have a health care team ready to help!