As prey animals, guinea pigs like to have a range of safe hidey holes to escape to if they become alarmed about something
Giving your pet guinea pigs the best possible piggy life means creating an environment that lets them exhibit their natural behaviours in safe, predator-proof accommodation.
A good place to start is by finding out a little more about how these small rodents live in the wild, what they like to do, and all the things they need to make them feel safe and happy.
- Guinea pigs or ‘cavies’ (their scientific name is Cavia porcellus) originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America.
- In the wild, they live in close family groups of five to 10 individuals, though several groups may live in close proximity, forming a colony.
- Wild guinea pigs have many natural predators including various mammals, birds of prey, and reptiles such as anacondas and caimans. That’s why they’re hardwired to avoid open areas without shelter and are on constant alert against potential dangers.
- Guinea pigs naturally eat a diet of grasses, plants, vegetables and crops, which they spend their time foraging for.
What pet guinea pigs need to be healthy and happy
Check out the five important things that your pet piggies require.
- A cosy, safe space
Even when they’re well-loved pets, it’s in a guinea pig’s nature to be constantly on the alert, looking out for danger. Being very observant is incredibly important to prey animals – which is why guinea pigs love to peek out from a safe hiding place.
A great way to keep your guinea pigs feeling safe is to provide them with cosy, predator-proof accommodation, with plenty of tunnels and pipes to dart into and deep piles of high-quality hay to enable natural tunnelling behaviour. Although on the shy side, guinea pigs are endlessly curious and need spacious areas to explore that are furnished with plenty of hiding places, such as willow tubes and wooden hidey houses, where they can peep out from. Find out how to make a fleecy peek-a-boo curtain for your guinea pigs >>
Animal welfare charity Blue Cross advises that guinea pigs need:
- A large, predator-proof wooden hutch, Wendy house or shed no less than 5ft x2ft (10 square feet). Traditional small hutches do not provide the space guinea pigs need to behave normally. A hutch should just be viewed as your guinea pigs' 'bedroom'.
- A separate sleeping area where they can retreat out of sight to get some peace and quiet.
- To be housed out of direct sunlight in weatherproof and draught-proof accommodation.
These little rodents are active for up to 20 hours a day and sleep only for short periods, so as well as plenty of space to exercise when they’re awake, they need a comfy guinea pig nest box with cosy bedding material and sweet smelling meadow hay inside to snuggle into to enjoy some relaxing piggy shut-eye.
Always provide the right bedding. NEVER use wood shavings or sawdust as these not only absorbs the natural oils that guinea pigs have which they need to keep their coats and skin in good condition, they also create dust, which can lead to potentially fatal respiratory problems.
- A permanently attached outdoor run
As natural grazers, enabling your guinea pigs to be able to access a permanently attached, safe outdoor run is also essential. If a ramp connects the hutch to a run, check it is wide enough and not too steep or your piggies, with their short little legs, may be too scared to use it.
Keeping your piggies’ accommodation dry is essential throughout the year as they can be susceptible to a number of skin complaints. Damp and dirty bedding creates the ideal environment for bacteria, fungi and other harmful things to thrive in, which ups the chances of your pets developing a nasty skin condition.
- Plenty of things to do
Guinea pigs like to keep busy and, if they get bored, their health and wellbeing will suffer. You can keep them occupied by hiding some of their favourite food in different places for them to discover on one of their explorations, mimicking natural foraging behaviour. Tuck away some tasty, grass-based nuggets in cardboard egg cups, or mix a few natural guinea pig treats in with some yummy Timothy hay.
Guinea pigs are vulnerable to all extremes of weather and very cold or very hot temperatures are dangerous for them. During the warmer months of the year, your guineas will be happy housed outdoors in a large, good quality hutch, Wendy house or shed. In winter, it may be best to move their accommodation into a shed, porch or utility room.
- Another guinea pig chum
Due to their highly social nature, guinea pigs can only be truly happy as one of a pair or as part of a small group of the same sex – littermates make the best companions. If you’re planning to keep a male and female together, it’s essential that the male is neutered to avoid the unwanted patter of tiny guinea pig feet. Never keep guineas with rabbits or chinchillas as they all have different housing and nutrition requirements. Bullying between species can occur and rabbits can give guinea pigs serious diseases.
Guinea pigs think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might) but crouch down to meet them at their level. When your guinea pigs come forward in their enclosure, don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat – such as some yummy Fruity Feasts with Banana and Blueberry – so your pets learn to come to your hand. Once your guinea pigs are confidently taking treats and allowing you to stroke them, you can try gently handling them.
- The correct nutrition
Along with grazed grass (never feed your guinea pigs grass clippings as this will make them ill), top quality feeding hay should be the main part of a guinea pig’s diet. Not only does this help their digestive system to work properly, gnawing on hay keeps their constantly growing teeth the right length.
Just like humans, guinea pigs are not able to make or store Vitamin C. Feeding good quality, grass-based guinea pig nuggets which are high in fibre and Vitamin C and rich in nutrients, will ensure they’re getting everything they need, along with a small handful of leafy greens, such as a few dandelion leaves or little bunch of parsley daily, along with fresh water in a sipper bottle. Avoid ‘muesli’-style food as these have been shown to cause digestive problems and dental disease.
Traditionally thought of as an ideal pet for children, small animals such as guinea pigs are classed as exotic pets and, as such, are more complex to feed and care for than a cat or dog. Guinea pigs require more looking after than a child can offer and responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults.
- If you’re interested improving the health and welfare of all pet guinea pigs, find out more about the annual Guinea Pig Awareness Week >>
- You’ll also find lots of useful advice on creating a fantastic, enriching environment for your gorgeous guinea pigs >>
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