The absolute beginners guide to guinea pigs

At some stage, with everything, we are all absolute beginners. When a lot of us started keeping guinea pigs, there was no GUINEA PIG MAGAZINE to help us find our way and we made mistakes that possibly make us cringe today(it’s not just me, is it?). But now, there is a handy magazine that just happens to be about these wonderful bundles of personality! So, without further ado, please welcome our new expert Catherine Alliss, with a beginners guide to having popcorning pigs…

Guinea pigs are delightful little creatures who have a lot of love to give to their owners. They’re Often seen as an ideal starter pet for children. They do make good pets for children, but they should not be left in the sole care of children, they should be a part of the family, with the adults taking final responsibility for ensuring the animals are housed and cared for properly and provided with everything that is needed.

What do you need to know?

Before getting a guinea pig, it is essential to research their basic requirements- housing, feeding, lifespan, different breeds, where to find a guinea pig, vet care, etc.

  1. Where to obtain guinea pigs

There are many places you can get guinea pigs.The obvious one is the Pet store– some pet stores sell guinea pigs. However, they are seen more as commodities’ or ‘shelf-space’ rather than living animals by pet stores. 

Some stores will provide a guarantee and will cover the cost of veterinary care should the animal fall sick within a certain number of days after purchase – but that is rare. The downside of purchasing from a pet shop is that you have no information on the parents or genetic lineage of the guinea pigs for sale – and no ongoing support.

From a Breeder– there are good breeders and not so good breeders; some people show guinea pigs, and breed small number to keep their show stock,and responsibly sell on piggies that may be mis-marked for example. But There are people who only breed to sell animals to shops or markets. A good breeder will keep full records and will be able to give you information about the parents and genetic lineage of the guinea pigs they sell. A good breeder will also often offer to take the guinea back should your circumstances change in the future.

If you are looking for a pet guinea, GPM recommends that you contact your local registered Rescue; many guinea pig rescues throughout the world rescue and take in unwanted guinea pigs and are always looking for homes for them. They may or may not be able to give you background information on the guinea pigs in their care, such as age, genetics, etc. But, a rescue will be able to offer you advice on the correct care of guinea pigs. They will ensure the piggies you get are free from illness and pregnancy. The rescue will serve as a useful source of advice and information, and will also always take the guinea pig back should your circumstances change in the future.

  1. How many?

Guinea pigs are sociable herd animals, and in the wild, they live in herds composed of a number of small groups of a male with up to 3 or 4 females. Because of their sociable nature, you should always consider having at least two guinea pigs.

  1. Cage or hutch?

Ideally your guinea pigs will live indoors – as part of the family. In which case you will need a cage or indoor hutch of a suitable size. If your guinea pigs will be spending some or all of their time outdoors, then a secure, waterproof structure of a proper size will be required.

There are many different cages and hutches available; Ready-made hutches, plastic cages, C&C cages, and bespoke hutch building companies who will build hutches and indoor enclosures to your specifications. If you are practical, you can create your own cage or indoor enclosure. The most important thing is the size.

  • 1 or 2 guinea pigs need a minimum available floor space of 7.5 ft 2or 0.7metres2
  • 3 guinea pigs need a minimum open floor space of 10.5 ft 2or 0.98 metres2
  • 4 guinea pigs need a minimum open floor space of 13 ft 2or 1.2 metres2
  • For each additional adult guinea pig add 3 ft 2 to these figures

If you plan on keeping two (or more) males together, it is advisable to have a cage that is at least one size larger than the minimum suggested above, as boys need lots of space to ensure they get on together. Remember, too, that the above measurements are the actual available floor space of the cage or hutch, rather than manufacturer stated dimensions. 

For example, the base of a plastic cage has slightly sloping sides and alip around the edge to hold the wire top (remember, manufacturers will always state the widest and longest measurements which are the external dimensions of the cage). Hutch manufacturers also quote the outside dimensions of the hutch, again not taking into account the thickness of the timber. Guinea pigs love to run and need plenty of exercise every day to help keep them healthy, so the more space for safe floor-time they have, the better.

  1. Feeding

The guinea pig’s diet should be 80% hay– they are fibrevores, and their digestive system is really well adapted to eating a diet consisting mainly of grassy plant material. Hay should be freely available at all times!

Around 15% of their daily diet should be fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit –roughly 50g in total daily per guinea pig, which can be fed either as one meal or split into two smaller meals. The guinea pigs will get used to their routine and will tell you when it is time for their vegetables. The final 5% should be commercially available pellets or nuggets. These pellets or nuggets provide the essential vitamins and minerals that may not otherwise be available in their diet that are required to keep the guinea pig healthy.

  1. Water

Guinea pigs need access to fresh water at all times!. This can be either a bottle –preferably multiple water bottles, so if one should fail, there is another one available; ideally one water bottle per guinea pig, so they don’t fall out over them. Or you can offer water in a bowl.

If you decide to use a water bowl, be prepared to change the water a few times a day – it will get contaminated, with either food, water, or urine, or knocked over while the guinea pigs are running around.

  1. Bedding

There are many different types of bedding available and there are advantages and disadvantages with each. The kind of bedding you choose is down to your personal preference. 

Fleece cage liners; These are really only suitable for use indoors, you also need an absorbent layer underneath as urine will soak through the fleece liner. You will need at least two sets of cage liners to enable you to change them regularly. Fleece liners will need regular changing and laundering and occasionally replaced if they become worn.

Wood shavings, wood flakes, hemp-based bedding, paper-based litter – these are all absorbent and can be used both indoors and outdoors. Once used, these bedding materials can be disposed of by composting.

  1. Finally

If you decide that a guinea pig is the right companion for you, remember that a guinea pig is a Forever Companion, not an until the kids got bored/we decided to get a puppy/we needed room for the Christmas tree companion.


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The Need To Exhibit Normal Behaviour

Photo: Victoria Sponge Cake, Pancake, Rhubarb, Bagel, Toastie, Pompom. From Kaitlin (@bagelandpigs on Instagram)

Article by Abigail Edis FdSc RVN Cert VNESCC Exotics veterinary nurse

When veterinary nurses like myself are looking after our patients, we tend to use something called ‘nurs-ing care plans’ which takes into account the animals’ healthy behaviours and bodily actions. We make care plans, so we know what we need to do to care for our patients to allow them to behave and live as normal-ly as possible. 

For example – if they cannot breathe normally, we usually intervene by giving oxygen orin severe cases breathing for them, or if they cannot move well after surgery, we help them walk and provide them with physiotherapy for their muscles.

To discuss exhibiting normal behaviour, I am going to present it as if I were talking about a patient’s needs to break it down into the typical behaviours and bodily functions all animals should be allowed to exhibit.

These are: eating, drinking, urinating, defecating,breathing, maintaining temperature, grooming/clean-ing themselves, mobilising, sleeping and resting, and expressing healthy behaviours. All of these functions and actions are natural, and when animals are not able to or not given a chance to do the above, then their welfare and quality of life reduce. Of course, this is something which happens when animals (and humans)are sick. 

As a veterinary nurse, it’s my job to assess a patient’s needs and nurse them back to health, sothis topic does apply to all animals. We are also talking about when guinea pigs are well at home too, so let’s look at these behaviours and body functions one at a time and discuss how you as an owner can do the best for your little wheelers

Eating

Guinea pigs should always have access to hay and a limited amount of pellets and mixed vegetables/herbs/weeds. Hopefully, as owners, we are already doing this. When piggies are poorly or in pain, they will often stop eating, and it’s at this point we need to step in and syringe them food to help them eat. This should only be a short term solution, and the underlying illness should be addressed.It can sometimes take several weeks for guinea pigs to begin eating correctly, however, they should not be syringed food for the rest of their lives as this is probably unfair on their welfare, but all piggies are different individuals.

Drinking

Piggies should ways have access to fresh, clean water. Ifthey do not drink well from a bottle, then they should be provided with a bowl from which to drink. Unless they are not eating, then guinea pigs will self-regulate how much they need to drink, there is no need to syringe them water. In periods of illness, then they will be syringe fed foods containing water and a vet will provide more if needed

Urinating and defecating

Passing urine and faeces sounds like a trivial and automatic bodily action, but as owners, we need to keep a close eye on our piggies to ensure they are doing this frequently. We will discuss this more in the next issue but always ensure that they are passing regular normal urine and standard pellets of poop. Any changes in size,consistency and number can mean they are unwell and will need intervention such as feeding and gut stimulant drugs. Older unneutered boars may also need a little help evacuating those faecal pellets which can get stuck in their small perineal sac

Breathing

Something which we often don’t consider as owners but we need to ensure that piggies have a supply of fresh air. Therefore they need to live in open-topped (not glass or plastic topped) cages and run to ensure there is no build up of ammonia from urine. We should also be aware of not using smelly fragranced bedding for fragrance diffusers near them; these are likely to be unpleasant for them to have nearby and cause undue stress to them. In winter time also ensure that if you’re bringing them into a sheltered outhouse (and not indoors) that they are not in a garage which is in use. Fumes and, including cigarette and vape smoke should be kept away from piggies as they will all have detrimental effects on their little lungs.

Maintain body temperature

Guinea pigs bodies are designed for the neotropical cli-mates of South America, living in savannahs and bush-lands. The temperate climate of the UK is very different,and although they can enjoy the warm temperatures of a mild British summer time the harsh and unpredictable changes in the colder months of the year are no place for an unprotected guinea pig. In the winter time,without protection from the elements guinea pigs will not be able to maintain their temperatures and will suffer. 

Therefore we need to either bring them indoors or provide them with warmth and weather protection from an outhouse. When Piggies fall poorly, are elderly or very young, and those who are hairless will also be at risk of not maintaining average body temperatures so need to be kept indoors and sometimes given a heatsource.

Grooming and cleaning themselves

Piggies naturally wash and groom themselves, and when young and fit don’t generally need us to intervene with this. However, long-haired breeds will certainly be predisposed to getting matted and dirty fur, especially around the backend and underneath. These will be both uncomfortable and also potentially attract unwanted attention from flies. Long hair will also obscure vision, making them more jumpy and grumpy with other piggies, being a prey animal they feel safer being able to see. It is often most ideal for clipping back longer haired breeds, especially around the bottom and underneath and around the face. 

Luscious locks may look attractive, but they are not practical or always pleasant for the piggie, especially in hot weather too. Sick guinea pigs are also experts at sitting in one spot and soaking themselves in urine or not washing their faces due to being poorly. So some poorly piggies need a bum bath, or abit of a pamper to make them feel more comfortable and clean. Other times we may need to help is in the elderly or disabled piggie who may be unable to wash themselves

Mobilising

Mobilising simply means ‘moving’. So we need to ensure that our piggies can move easily and nat-urally. This means that their bedding must be soft and absorbent and cleaned frequently so that they can move normally. They should not live on slippery surfaces where they cannot run about like normal.

Piggies who are poorly and unable to move should be given gentle physiotherapy and held up to walk on front legs (if back legs are not currently working). However, piggies that are paralysed cannot express this normal behaviour so will have a reduced quality of life. All animals are different, but as a prey species being unable to run and hide questions should be asked as to whether the guinea pig can be cared for correctly and have a good quality of life like this.

Sleeping and resting

Sounds very trivial to be able to sleep and rest but we all know what it’s like to not have an adequate sleep. Ensure that your piggies get plenty of ‘downtime’. They are crepuscular, which means they are often most active at dawn and dusk and will usually have more quiet times in the middle of the day and the middle of the night. The latter may not be an issue for having peace but if you have a busy house-hold with children, other animals, guests, parties and even continual television watching it can be disturbing for them if it’s for long hours. Ensure that your piggies get a reasonable amount of time to rest without noise and interaction. They often seem to fit well into our routines no matter what time of day it may be.

Express normal behaviour 

Guinea pigs are social, interactive species who love food but are also prey animals who will run and hide if worried. They should be allowed to live in a group repairing and should be given adequate space to have time away from one another and not be overcrowded.It’s crucial to allow piggies to interact with one another, allow boats to rumble and mount, behaviour to one another is healthy even if this involves bickering over a bowl of food (this is normal and healthy, providing they do not fight outright and one is not getting continually bullied). 

Allowing them to run and hide asprey animals is essential, so provide them with natural hiding places, hay to burrow in and natural bedding if you can. Eating fresh and live food (e.g. grazing on the grass or offered live plants) is also a natural behaviour this should be provided where possible. All of this stems from what guinea pigs would do naturally in the wild during the day, so it will involve grazing and forag-ing for food, interacting with other piggies and sorting out the hierarchy, watching for predators and hiding when scared. 

The one behaviour we don’t advise inbreeding, as although they would do this in the wild they would also be preyed upon and eaten in the wild often keeping the population very much stable (which doesn’t happen in the pet trade). Peoples opinions tend to vary on this, but many reasons we don’t advocate breeding is – too many unwanted pets needing homes, the risk from pregnancies to mother and pups and also ‘backyard breeding’ without understanding the genetics and breeding lines correctly (therefore making lots of poorly bred animals with health issues).Neutering board is much safer than it used to be considered a neutered boar and sow pairing, often one of the strongest and natural pairings you can get without the babies to go with it.

It’s all about quality over quantity – when do we stop intervening?

The combination of everything mentioned amounts to what we call the quality of your guinea pigs (and other pets) life. We often use the term ‘quality of life’ when talking about poor animals andalso when discussing the end of life with owners. It’s crucial as an owner to consider all of the above things, and think about how much your guinea pig can carry on being and behaving like a nor-mal piggie when you are worried about their quality of life. 

If your pet is likely to get over the illness or injury, then it’s often acceptable to help them eat,move, groom, and other functions. However, when your piggie or other pet is only likely to rely on us more and more, then you may need to question at what time you decide to say goodbye and consider that dreaded time you have to put them to sleep. Always remember there is no exact right time; it’s not a black and white subject. 

Over the years of nursing, I have come to develop the saying ‘better a day too early than a day too late,’ as I have seen so many animals suffer for too long before being euthanised. It is heartbreaking to say goodbye, but as an owner(and as vets and nurses) we need to ensure the best quality of life for our pets and patients and allow them to behave as normally as they can. When this becomes an issue, then the best thing we can do to relieve them of this life and say a final farewell. The hardest and best decisions I have ever made for my pets has been a peaceful and quiet end, perhaps one day sooner than needed, but never a day too late to suffer.


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Fantastic Weeds and How To Find Them

By Abigail Edis FdSc RVN CertVNES CC Exotics veterinary nurse.

Wild weeds and plants make a fantastic addition to a piggies’ diet, not only are they more natural, but there is also a lot of variety you can give, and some even are known to have excellent health benefits, though there is little research into this area in piggies. For example, plants such as milk thistle are known to help the liver, mint for digestion and nettle is meant to have benefits to the urinary tract. During the warmer months of the year here in the UK you can wild forage for many different plants for your furry friends, so here is a handy little crash course in foraging, feeding, drying and cultivating of weeds – the best type of fresh food for your pigs.

What are the advantages of feeding weeds? 

Weeds are a much more natural food item for guinea pigs (and rabbits). In the wild meadows and scrublands of South America piggies are grazing all the time on grasses and weeds and many different plants. These plants will also be seasonal and varied. Weeds are also likely better for our pets, some scientific studies have shown many wild weeds have higher levels of fibre and some vitamins than green vegetables such as kale, making many of them superfoods in their own right. 

The big plus for me is this food source can be free, and I also highly enjoy searching out plants on a warm summer afternoon in my nearby fields. But fear not, you don’t need to be a botanical geek or go walking far, you can also grow many of these plants in your garden and even windowsills if you’re not up for countryside trails or don’t have the luxury of living close to green areas.

When should I feed and how much?

You can feed weeds at any time you like. Think of weeds as you would fresh vegetables, you can feed as you would these. In the summer months, when weeds are abundant, I feed the herd weeds instead of veg, or you can do a bit of a mix, just ensure your portioning as you would veg.

Where to start?

I was quite daunted by the idea of identifying and picking wild plants for the piggies initially, also not wanting to pick anything toxic to them, but over the past few years have grown in confidence. It has taken me a few years to get used to many of the plants, and I am still learning new ones often, so don’t worry about knowing them all right away. The easiest thing to start doing is picking the common plants which many people will already be able to identify. Easy and obvious starting points are dandelions and plantain, both easy to spot and grow absolutely everywhere. Many plants grow in gardens so if you don’t have close access to public rural footpaths/bridleways then a great start is in the garden. Great places to forage are public footpaths and some parks (careful they are not sprayed with pesticides), rural roadside (not heavy traffic roads), friends paddocks or farmland (with permission) and allotments (with permission). Plants are also very seasonal, so you will find them at different times of the year, or even different years

Some of the golden rules about foraging are:

  • never take a large amount of the plant, take small amounts as not to disturb natural hedgerows/environments. It is illegal to uproot wild plants
  • never trespass onto private land – stick to public access routes
  • if picking from local dog walking areas try to pick away from the pathways to avoid potential contamination from dog waste
  • avoid busy roadsides if you can, quiet country lanes are better if picking roadside
  • never pick a plant unless you’re sure of its identity – if in doubt leave it. If your picking for rabbits ensure your bunnies are fully vaccinated against VHD/RHD both 1 and 2 as wild plants may have the virus on them – this does not affect guinea pigs so no need to worry about them.

Growing at home

Growing at home is, of course, a fabulous way of having fresh weeds and plants onhand, especially if you’re unsure about identifying plants yourself or you are limited on access to green space. Many weeds grow with no problem in small window pots and trays, so even in the smallest of homes can accommodate this. You can also grow lots of different varieties of grasses, which piggies will enjoy including cereal grasses like rye and oat, alfalfa (as a treat only) and Timothy grass. 

Most of these plants will grow with little care, so no need to worry about being particularly green-fingered either, just regular water and some sun are usually all that’s needed. There is a variety of places you can get wild plant seeds from but here are a few I know and have used. 

Take care that the plants are on the list of safe ones for piggies as some of these sites sell food for tortoises too, for example.

  • Galens Garden http://galensgarden.co.uk 
  • Herbiseed http://herbiseed.com 
  • Meadow mania http://meadowmania.co.uk 

Alternatively, some large garden centres will sell small wildflower plants and seeds. I have managed, this year to get hold of teasel, corn chamomile, herb Robert, knapweed and meadow cranesbill which I was delighted with. These may require a Ripplewort Herb Robert Mallow 

Storage and drying 

Once picked, it is nice to feed fresh, however wild weeds can be stored for a short time. They can be placed into bags in the fridge and fed as you would other fresh veggies. They can also be dried and fed later in the year – I will often stockpile dried weeds for the winter months where there are less fresh weeds available, or I am unable to get out due to short daylight hours. I like to dry weeds in the height of the summer when I can dry quicker, and the temperatures are better for it. There are several methods I have tried with drying, all have worked well. My first is to tie in bunches and hang weeds from the washing line (the only downside to this is I managed to sting myself on nettles several times hanging out the washing!), my second method is laying plants out on top of the guinea pigs’ run in the sunshine, I had to place mesh over these to avoid them blowing away, you can also get drying nets which I am planning on trying this year. 

Weeds must be in warm environments, in the sun if you can. They should ideally not get wet (i.e. get rained on) and plants do better being separated to avoid the risk of mould or mildew building upon them. If you see any signs of mould, then the plant should be discarded. If in the direct sun and they are kept dry, however, this doesn’t happen much. Those plants with thicker stalks take longer to dry for obvious reasons, and some weeds don’t dry as easily. However, good drying candidates include (but not limited to) dandelion, plantain, silverweed, herb Robert, nipplewort leaves, sow thistle, lavender, chamomile, vetch, nettle and brambles

Identification

Identifying weeds takes time and experience. Don’t expect to be able to ID plants overnight, start with a few and slowly build up your confidence and expertise. I Will happily spend hours over the fields milling over plants, but this isn’t for everyone. Pay attention to the plants’ size, leaf shape, flower and also smaller details such as hollow stalks, furred greenery, spiky leaf edges, for example, all of this will help. If in doubt about your plant, then leave it be- better to be safe than sorry.

There are a few books that can be of help with identifying if you’re interested,these are:

  • Foraging for rabbits, by Twigs Way(available on the Rabbit Welfare Associate and Fund website)
  • Green foods for rabbits and cavies by FR Bell
  • Collins wildflower identification

There are also a vast range of apps available to help ID plants just using your phone camera.

What’s safe?

Here’s a shortlist of some of the plants safe to feed piggies, there are plenty more. Please ensure if you’re picking you identify them well. I take no responsibility for determining them. (Some of these may also have other common names):

Dandelion, plantain (broadleaf and longleaf/ribwort), prickly lettuce, catsear, hawksbeard, hawkbit, sow thistle/milk thistle, avens, shepherd’s purse, groundsel, nipplewort, common stinging nettle, red and white dead-nettle, vetch, yarrow, bramble/blackberry briar, hawthorn, clover, cranesbill, silverweed, chickweed, mallow, chamomile, cleavers/goosegrass (sticky weed),chicory, buddleja, hazel, hogweed/cow parsnip leaves (USA giant hogweed should not be fed), willow, wild thyme.

There are domestic garden and kitchen plants/herbs which you can feed as part of a varied diet which you may find interesting. 

These include: Basil (all varieties), thyme, rosemary, parsley, chervil, sorrel, coriander, sage, mint, dill, fennel, English mace, winter savory, summer savory, peppermint, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, lavender, wild and planted strawberry plant (and fruit), apple and pear tree branches and leaves.

As you can see, even from this smallest piggies can have quite a tasty variety in their diet. Variety really is key to happy, healthy piggy. You may find that initially some plants are not eaten well, this is often because guinea pigs are quite neophobic (suspicious of new food items)and it may take a few times of offering a new plant before they decide they enjoy it.

What’s poisonous and/or toxic

The one thing we all worry about feeding our small furries something toxic to them, so here are a few common plants which are known to be toxic to piggies. Bluebell, forget me not, nightshade, foxglove, hemlock, ragwort, crocus, buttercup (in large quantities), celandine, elder, poppy, oak, beech, daffodil, lily of the valley, rhubarb, potato (leaves and stem), tulip, snowdrop, yew, ivy (though this plant may be okay at certain times of year I tend to steer clear of it).If you’re worried you’ve fed something toxic then give your vets a call, you can also call the animal poisons helpline (can be used for all other pets too!). 

Details here:https://www.animalpoisonhelpline.co.uk/

I hope this little topic has brought you closer to understanding the fantastic benefits of feeding more natural weeds and plants and makes you realise it’s not all that daunting


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