I can hear the whistles from the other room. I have a guinea pig here right now, and boy is he a friendly fellow. He’s much louder than the rabbits, but in an approving way. “You’ve got food for me? Wheep!” “Oh, you’re going to clean my cage? Wheep!” “Hey, how about petting me? Wheep! Wheep!”
This is new for me, as the rabbits, fish and frogs in our home tend to be pretty quiet. I have cared for guinea pigs before, but never have I seen one warm up – and become vocal – so quickly.
This guinea pig, a small black male with a white spot on his forehead, is named Sprite. And he seems to like the place. If you, too, have been thinking about a guinea pig, please keep in mind that they are not “throwaway” pets – they need proper food, housing and vet care just like a dog or cat. Guinea pigs live about 5 years, but it is not unheard of for one to live as long as 8 years, so bringing one into your family is a long-term commitment.
Guinea pigs make super family pets as long as you take their needs into account and make diet and housing plans before bringing one home. It’s also best if mom or dad takes ultimate responsibility for the animal, assigning feeding and cage cleaning chores to the children as needed. Small children should be supervised when handling any pet, and to be safe it’s a good idea to play with small pets like guinea pigs on the floor. That protects the guinea from being accidentally dropped and the child from being scratched.
I have written about guinea pig care in previous columns, and I advise that you do plenty of research before deciding one is right for you. Find out about its Vitamin C requirements, housing needs and behavior. There are several Web sites that can help – I recommend starting with the Guinea Pig Compendium at www.aracnet.com/~seagull/Guineas.
One of the joys of keeping a guinea pig as a pet is the sounds they make. Guineas do chatter, squeal and grunt—quite a difference from quieter rabbits and rodents.
Content guinea pigs, also called cavies, will also make low-pitched versions of those sounds, as well as cooing noises. Generally, you’ll hear these when you’re cuddling or petting your guinea.
Squeals usually greet food or treats as well. At least you will know that your guinea pig is appreciative of the meal.
Cavies love attention and they like to be with other guinea pigs, although keeping a single is OK if it gets lots of your time. Generally, a male-female pair is happiest, but that requires at least one partner to be altered so there’s no risk of pregnancy. Neutering the male is often the easier of the procedures and, unlike with rabbits, there is little chance of an unspayed female cavy running a high risk of uterine cancer.
A pair of females is often easy to keep together as well. But usually males are tougher to bond. If there is no female cavy in the house, you’ll have better luck keeping two males together, but they may still fight.
Typically it’s not so hard to determine guinea pig gender, but I’ve heard stories of pet stores misidentifying sex and owners winding up with the opposite gender from what they thought. Take the guineas straight to a vet to avoid unpleasant surprises.
One of the more unpleasant issues with guinea pigs is that they do tend to have an odor that is more distinguishable than cats or rabbits. It may be a matter of opinion, but you need to be prepared for this to be a problem. I clean the guinea pig cage daily or every other day – forget it if you think you can do it every two weeks. Guinea pigs are not easy to litterbox train, although some owners report that their pigs do use one corner of their cage, making it easy to clean.
You’ll also need to purchase an absorbant litter, ideally a paper-based litter like Carefresh. Newspaper and hay is a good, inexpensive way to go but will need to be changed daily.
Be prepared for a new guinea pig to go into hiding. To be kind, you should provide each guinea with a cave, box or igloo where it will feel safe. If your new pet runs into this box every time you reach in the cage, you’re not doing anything wrong – that’s just the cautious nature of a prey animal. Make it a habit to have a healthy treat – a bit of carrot or fruit – in your hand when you begin interacting with your guinea pig. It will soon figure out that playing with you means a nice treat.
Don’t worry if your guinea pig does take some time to become friendly – even if the pig is a youngster. Make sure that everyone who handles him is quiet and provides a secure hold – or have an adult take the pig from the cage and have everyone sit in a circle on the floor to play.
It won’t take very long before your guinea pig recognizes you as its source of food and regards you affectionately because of that. Guineas are very food-oriented and like to be rewarded in that way. If you’re lucky, before long you’ll get some “Wheep!” noises of your own.