Here’s an overview of the basics on guinea pig care and ownership.
One Or Two Guinea Pigs? Male Or Female?
Guinea pigs are very social animals and do best with a good amount of attention and play time every day. If you’re unable to interact very much daily, you simply must get him or her a companion cavy (or more!) in order for him or her to be truly happy and thrive. Guinea pigs can actually die from loneliness.
Be careful selecting a companion though as most males will NOT get along with other males and they’ll fight terribly to the death. However, if males are raised together from very young, they’ll be okay; and sometimes you can put a baby male with an older male.
But note that if you would put one or both of these male companions with a female, they will fight when put back together later, even if they were the best of buddies before.
If this happens, you could house males in separate cages that are touching each other, so they can easily see what the other is doing all the time, and they’ll keep each other fine company again and not fight. Females will get along with all other females, with only very rare exceptions.
Please do NOT plan on housing a male and female Guinea pigs together permanently as she cannot have more than two or three litters per year or it will be very hard on her. You can have a male neutered, but it can be costly and also risky for the male. Many veterinarians are not very knowledgeable on small animals like the Guinea pig.
There are many Guinea pig owners that say males make better pets than females as they tend to have more ‘even’ personalities. Then there are those that prefer females as they say they’re more gentle and less rowdy. Both make excellent pets!
Guinea Pig Handling
If you are a new Guinea pig owner, be aware that it’s not unusual to take a few attempts before you are successful in catching him in his cage at first. This is because Guinea pigs are prey animals and the instinct to always run away is deeply rooted.
Approach him slowly so you don’t startle him, letting him smell your hand.
When you pick him up, be very, very careful not to squeeze his body as you can bruise his insides. If you should bruise his lungs, he can develop breathing problems, then even pneumonia, which can lead to death. Use both hands to support the full length of his body.
Do not allow his body to sort of ‘bend in half’ or to the side or lean backwards when you pick him up. If you need to reach far into his cage and can use only one hand initially, reach fully under him in such a way as to support as much of the length of his body as you can, then get your second hand under him as quickly as you can so he’s fully supported.
When you get him all the way out of his cage, position him so the front part of his body is cupped in the palm of one hand, with the back part of his body laying on up the wrist of that hand.
Then place your other hand on top of him, to steady him and to be sure he cannot jump down.
You do not want him to jump to the floor as he has delicate bones that will break.
Once you’re sure he’s quieted down, use your top hand to pet his head.
Stroke him down the center of his nose and on up between his ears as he’ll really like that and it’s calming to him.
Some guinea pigs like their body petted also; however, we have one sow that hates to be petted any place other than her head.
Guinea Pig Housing
CAGE – Please, please, please provide your cavy or cavies with as large a cage as possible. There are way too many pet guinea pigs living out their lives in extremely small cages.
Recently, pet stores have been selling larger cages than they used to; however, even larger cages than that are better.
You absolutely will see a difference in your Guinea pig’s outlook on life if you house him in a wonderful, large cage. He will run laps around his cage and do much more popcorning, which is when they jump straight up in the air from delight.
Avoid Wire Grid Bottom Cages
DO NOT use a cage that has a wire grid bottom with any size of grid openings for Guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs startle easily as they are prey animals, and their legs are delicate. When they move so fast, they can get their whole foot or leg caught in an opening, and their leg will actually rip off. This has actually happened.
You will come home to your friend in terrible pain with an entire leg dangling by a tendon, and you will need to have him euthanized immediately.
Wire bottom cages are actually designed for rabbits, as rabbits have much bigger feet and they have lots of hair on the bottoms of their feet, which cushions them more from the wire (guinea pigs have no hair on the bottoms of their feet).
However, we do not like to hear of any pet rabbits (or any animals) having to live out their time on this earth being forced to walk around on wire.
Guinea Pig Cage Location
Guinea pigs are social animals and they can get lonely, so please try and keep their cage in an area of the house where there is a nice level of activity going on, but not too much, as it can make “some” cavies nervous.
If in doubt, try it and see how your Guinea pigs do. Don’t put their cage right next to a stereo, radio or TV that’s loud.
Don’t put your Guinea pigs in a laundry room due to abrupt humidity changes, plus it’s too noisy when the machines are running, and it’s definitely too isolated.
Cage Temperature And Drafts
Hairless guinea pigs will need to be kept warmer than the haired guinea pigs, but amazingly, not as warm as you might think.
Skinnies and Baldwins can tolerate temperatures between 60 degrees and 75 degrees, but we feel closer to 75 degrees is better.
The haired guinea pig breeds will prefer temps a bit cooler. You do NOT ever want a guinea pig to get over 85 degrees, hairless or haired, as they may collapse.
Also, their cage needs to be in an area where there are no drafts.
NEVER house a hairless guinea pig outside. In fact, we do not like to hear of haired guinea pigs that live outside.
Guinea Pigs and Rabbits
Do NOT house any guinea pig with a rabbit of any size. There are actually books that say it’s fine to do so, and they even have pictures of them together; however, it’s very dangerous for the guinea pig.
A rabbit has large and very strong back legs. They could be the best of friends, but if the rabbit would suddenly become frightened and jump around (and rabbits are very fearful animals), his back legs could strike your cavy and kill him very easily.
They also have different diet requirements. If you are currently housing a guinea pig and rabbit together that are good buddies, let them live out the rest of their lives in separate cages that are butted right up next to each other. They will still be able to lay beside each other along the adjoining ‘wall’ and they’ll be content because they can keep track of what the other is doing all the time.
Guinea Pig Toys And Furniture
Toys are very important to a guinea pig, and they consider toys and furniture to be totally interchangeable, so we’ll place them together here in honor of them! They’re so curious about anything new you give them. They have to walk all around the new item, checking it out.
Our guinea pigs love the big plastic plumbing pipes that form the joints (the bigger sewer pipes). We like the ones with two or three outlets.
They enjoy taking the different routes in and out of them, following each other, and they’ll lay and sleep in them as well.
When we remove their pipes to clean and put them back, the cavies act like it’s a brand new toy and have to check it out all over again.
Just be sure to file or sand down any rough places on these pipes so your hairless guinea pig won’t get scratched. They also need to be big enough in diameter so your guinea pig can run easily through it without bumping the sides or top.
We also like to make tubes out of smaller, plain paper sacks, tearing the bottom out, folding both ends back about an inch (forming a cuff) to help keep the sack in a tube shape. They follow each other in and out of them, over and over at first, and they like the crackling paper sounds.
Another inexpensive toy to provide for your guinea pig is paper cups (NEVER styrofoam). We give them each a bathroom sized paper cup, and they love to throw them around and bite them, somehow making a distinctive popping sound.
It must have something to do with the shape of their incisors and the firmness of the paper cup. It’s a hoot when we give everybody in the caviary a new cup at the same time, which is something we love to do by the way, and everybody’s popping their cups!
Balls also make good toys, but get really firm ones they cannot rip or chew apart.
Some people provide small leather dog bones or leather chews. We provide some bird toys that have leather chews hanging on a chain, so they don’t get dirty from the floor. These are the hard, brittle leather chews made for a dog. Do not use something like a leather shoe lace.
Wood chews are important to provide for a guinea pig. This is because he’s a rodent, so his teeth never quit growing. He needs to gnaw on something to keep his teeth worn down.
The “safest” way to provide wood is to simply buy little packages of wood chews at pet stores.
Wooden chew toys made for pet birds are especially great, as they’ll often have bells or shiny, fun objects to play with, and the wood lasts a really long time.
Just be VERY sure there’s nothing they can chew or pull off that would become a choking hazard. We recommend bird toys because they hang on the side of the cage, which keeps the wood clean as opposed to laying wood chews on the floor.
When the wood is chewed up, we replace it with new wood chews (with holes drilled) from a pet store, simply stringing the replacement wood chew onto the toy’s chain.
Do NOT just put in any piece of wood you might find around your house or garage as it may not be safe for chewing because it will splinter too much.
Also do NOT use woods that have been treated for outdoor use (green/brown treated), painted, or varnished, etc.
HINT: If you provide your cavy with timothy hay cubes instead of, or in addition to, loose timothy hay, they will help keep their teeth worn down. You can find timothy hay cubes at www.oxbowanimalhealth.com and they’re wonderful as they’re 100% timothy hay, with NO alfalfa, which is not good for adult guinea pigs (except for pregnant/nursing females). Alfalfa contains too much protein and calcium, which can cause urinary stones and related problems.
Do NOT use toy exercise wheels for guinea pigs. They may be able to maneuver it; however, guinea pigs have been known to injure their backs from them because of their overall body shape.
Their body is larger than their legs can handle, so to speak. They also have much longer and larger back feet and legs.
Bedding and Litter
Your guinea pig will need litter on the bottom of his cage to absorb urine and poops.
There are now many bedding products available, from very low cost to high.
You may want to experiment with various products until you find one that suits your needs, based on how often you will be able to clean the cage.
The cheaper brands will usually need to be changed more often, depending on how many guinea pigs are in each cage.
Do NOT use any of the clay cat litters and also NONE of the scoopable cat litters. The guinea pigs could ingest them as they’re so curious.
Do NOT use Cedar Shavings as they contain cedar oil which will cause your guinea pig to have skin problems.
Cedar smells good to us, but it’s very bad for small animals, even toxic. Unfortunately, many pet stores still sell this product for small animals. Please do NOT buy it, even if your pet store recommends it. In fact, please tell your pet store they should stop carrying it! Tell them to research it on the internet.
You can use Pine Shavings if they have been “kiln-dried”, which means the pine oil has been removed. If the sack does not say “kiln dried”, do NOT buy it either.
Cavies can even get liver problems from pine oil.
Aspen Shavings are always excellent to use, as it has no oils. It also is not very expensive, just a little more than kiln-dried Pine.
CareFresh is always a popular choice; however, it is quite expensive. There are some sites on the internet with lower prices; however, you also have to pay shipping. Some people do not like the smell of CareFresh when it becomes damp from sippy water bottles and urine; however, we did not notice a problem with that.
Some people mix litters (i.e. CareFresh and Aspen Shavings) and are very happy with that.
There are quite a few companies that sell “pelleted” litter/bedding. We believe they are not very comfortable for the guinea pig.
When you watch them scurry around on the tubular hard pieces, it becomes clear they’re not enjoying their bedding.
Some tubular pieces are bigger than others; however, we did not care for either the smaller pieces or the larger.
We tried all the name brands, and some of our cavies even appeared to be avoiding walking whenever possible, decreasing their running and walking around. They’d lay in areas they cleared away.
Also, a couple brands produced a high amount of dust, and guinea pigs are sensitive to too much dust and can develop breathing problems.
Actually, it would be ok to use a pelleted litter in their corner litter box, if you use one, but put it only in the litter box, and avoid pellets that produce dust.
We are always keeping an eye on bedding products. Currently we have settled on using kiln-dried Pine Shavings in our caviary as it’s very inexpensive. It does not keep the odors away for very long; however, we clean our cages daily or every other day.
How Often Should You Clean The Cage?
Well, a simple way to tell is if you can smell your guinea pigs’ cage, you have waited too long to clean their cage.
It’s not good for you to have that smell around you, and it’s also not good for your guinea pigs. They can develop breathing problems from a dirty, smelly cage.
Hairless guinea pigs can even develop skin problems from having to lay in it. You need to keep their home like a home, and not let it become like a garbage can.
Unfortunately most veterinary colleges do not include training on animals as small as the guinea pig.
You need to seek out a veterinarian that has received such training, or who acquired the training on his/her own.
Sometimes they cannot be found nearby, if at all. Most veterinarians are very willing to adapt their practice to suit your animal needs.
Also, please find your veterinarian ahead of time. Don’t wait to find one at the time your guinea pig has a health issue.
However, if you learn the quite specific needs of cavies regarding their pellets, vegetables, fruit, hay, Vitamin C and housing requirements, you very well will never or rarely need veterinarian care.
Skinny Pig And Baldwin Health Care Basics
Skinny Pigs and Baldwin Guinea Pigs will suffer from the same health ailments as haired guinea pigs, and the same treatments are recommended. The hairless will have a few issues with their skin care that the haired will not have as often, if at all.
Being hairless, or nearly so, Skinnies and Baldwins can get scratches and cuts on their skin from rough cage edges, wood houses, toys, even their toenails.
You need to treat scratches immediately to prevent infection.
Udder/Bag Balm is usually good for scratches.
Cleanse the scratched area first with a mild soap and rinse well.
Bacitracin or a triple antibiotic like Neosporin is also good for scratches, as well as Aloe Vera lotion.
We’ve become fond of ‘BandAid brand Hurt-Free Cleansing+Infection Protection FOAM’. It gently cleanses and provides a mild antiseptic all in one.
Bites And Deep Scratches
Cleanse the area first with a mild soap and rinse well. If your hairless guinea pig has numerous bites or scratches, it’s a good idea to use Iodine (NOT Merthiolate and NOT Merchurochrome).
You can buy Iodine in large bottles, sometimes even a gallon jug, at WalMart, Target, K-Mart, etc. Either apply Iodine directly to each injury, or you can make a bath from 1/2 Iodine and 1/2 water and dip them down into the bath to apply it all over their body.
Bathe your hairless guinea pig when their skin gets dirty. The same applies to haired guinea pigs, but they need baths much less often.
Use tearless baby shampoo, or kitten shampoo, and rinse really well.
Do NOT wash much on the head as you don’t want to get water in their nose.
Also, please do NOT use a blow dryer on them, not even on a low setting, as it’s really, really easy to burn their delicate skin. Just wrap them in a dry towel and cuddle til good and dry! In a pinch, or if they have just a dirty spot, you can use Baby Wipes.
Skinnies and Baldwins will sometimes get dry patches on their skin, or just get dry all over.
Apply unscented Hand or Body Lotion.
Also, Udder/Bag Balm is good for dry skin.
NOTE: Do not get carried away with applying lotion, as you need to get it all rubbed in good, or it may cake up later. Also, do not apply lotion if it’s not really needed (skin is not dry) as it may contribute to pimple-like bumps.
Dry Patches That Won’t Go Away
Sometimes a guinea pig will have a small patch or patches of dry, very scaly skin that will not respond to, say, a good couple weeks of applications of Hand/Body Lotion or Udder/Bag Balm.
Sometimes you’ll also see a build-up of skin tissue, forming a mound that can build up quite tall.
This may be a Fungal Infection or it could be Sellnick Mange (Sellnick Mites) from parasites.
It’s always good to take your guinea pig to a veterinarian, of course.
Be aware, though, it is very possible that the veterinarian will not be able to detect either Sellnick Mites or a Fungal Infection.
He or she may prescribe a mild antibiotic. If so, please provide your guinea pig with some Plain Yogurt to be sure he does not develop digestive problems due to the antibiotic.
Male’s Scent Gland
Being hairless, you’ll be able to see the male’s scent gland, as opposed to it being hidden by hair on haired guinea pigs.
The lighter colored Skinnies or Baldwins show it much more.
It’s an area about 1/2 inch or sometimes an inch in diameter, located on his upper back but way at the rear end area, above the area where his tail would be if he had one.
You’ll want to be attentive to this spot and clean it when it gets dirty.
It can be difficult to clean as it will get so waxy. “Mechanic’s Goop” used to clean hands is good.
Also good is “Dawn” dish soap or sometimes just liquid hand soap.
Soak the spot for a few minutes to break it down.
Once softened, try wiping it clean with a cloth; however, you may need to very gently use your fingernail to carefully scrape and remove little chunks.
Do not scrape deeply or you’ll make a sore. It’s not as gross as it sounds, it’s just waxy.
Clean your guinea pig’s ears regularly with Q-tips, being very careful NOT to go any deeper than you can see.
You may use a dab of vegetable (cooking) oil to clean stubborn spots.
This is actually quite easy to do for guinea pigs, compared to a cat or dog.
Keep their toenails trimmed with a nail clipper. Just use a nail clipper that us humans use, and trim them in very bright lighting.
If your guinea pig has at least one white toenail, you can hold their foot near the light and see the quik, which is the blood supply that comes down from the toe.
You will be able to see where the quik ends, and from there it’s all clear to the end of the toenail. You can then use your best judgment as to where the quik would be on dark toenails that you can’t see through.
Do not cut into the quik or it will bleed.
Make your cut a little bit beyond where the quik ends.
Use flour or a steptic pencil or steptic powder (some pets stores have the powder version) if it does bleed.
HINT: Place a flat rock with a somewhat rough surface in their cage where they’ll run over it frequently to keep their nails filed down so you don’t have to trim them as often, if at all.
Being a rodent, a guinea pig’s teeth never stop growing.
They need things to gnaw on to wear them down, or they’ll overgrow.
If guinea pigs can’t gnaw down their teeth, they’ll grow long and/or crooked (bending inwards into the mouth) and will need to be trimmed or they will impede their eating and drinking.
Wood chews provide good gnawing material for your cavy. The safest way to go is to simply buy little packages of wood chews at pet stores.
Wooden chew toys made for pet birds are especially great, as they’ll often have bells or shiny, fun objects to play with.
Just be VERY sure there’s nothing they can chew or pull off that would become a choking hazard.
We recommend bird toys because they hang on the side of the cage, which keeps the wood clean as opposed to laying wood chews on the floor.
When the wood is chewed up pretty good, we replace it with new wood chews (with holes drilled) from a pet store, simply stringing the replacement wood chew onto the bird toy’s chain.
Do NOT just put in any piece of wood you might find in your garage or basement as it may not be safe for chewing because it will splinter too much.
Also do NOT use woods that have been treated for outdoor use (green or brown treated), painted, or varnished in any way.
HINT: If your guinea pig is slobbering or losing weight, check his teeth. If you provide your cavy with timothy hay cubes instead of, or in addition to, loose timothy hay, they will be great for helping them keep their teeth worn down. NO alfalfa, which is not good for adult guinea pigs (except for pregnant/nursing females). Alfalfa contains too much protein and calcium, which can cause urinary stones and related urinary problems.
Guinea Pig Food
We put Vitamin C first on this list, as guinea pigs are unique animals in that they WILL get sick if they do not receive enough Vitamin C. They get scurvy.
Signs of Vitamin C deficiency:
- poor growth
- bad skin
- pregnancy/delivery deaths
- weak legs
- may limp
- broken teeth
- bleeding gums
- they may slobber
- problems eating
Each guinea pig differs in how quickly they will show Vitamin C deficiency: some show problems in the first 3 to 4 months of life, others take 10 to 12 months to get sick and die.
Do not worry that you may overdose, as too much Vitamin C will not hurt them; however, you can overdose on all other vitamins (provided in their pellets), so do not give them “multiple vitamin” supplements, not even those specifically for guinea pigs, just give them Vitamin C supplements.
Some pet stores carry liquid Vitamin C, as well as some health stores and baby departments.
You also can use Vitamin C tablets and crush them.
We add “Vitamin C Crystals” to their water.
Vitamin C loses potency in water after about a day or even less, so be sure to replace daily.
We’ve also heard that if you use tap water, the chlorine will depleat the Vitamin C in as little as 8 hours.
We adjust down as close as possible to the following dosages:
- Adult – 20 to 30 mg Vitamin C every single day.
- Pregnant or Nursing Female – 40 to 90 mg every single day.
- Baby – 2 to 3 mg per 100 grams of body weight every single day.
Provide unlimited offerings of an excellent quality guinea pig pellet.
Pellets will have vitamins and minerals added, including Vitamin C (however, you still need to supplement Vitamin C as it’s never enough Vitamin C, plus the pellets could be old).
Do not purchase more than 2 or 3 months’ supply of pellets at a time, as the vitamins and minerals will lose potency.
Also, some guinea pigs will refuse to eat stale pellets, and some can even get so fussy they won’t finish their daily bowl.
For adults, we feed OxBow Hay’s “Cavy Cuisine” Guinea Pig Pellets. www.oxbowhay.com
For babies and pregnant/nursing mothers, we feed OxBow Hay’s “Cavy Performance” Guinea Pig Pellets.
Other good brands are American Pet Diner and Mazuri by Purina.
Some bags of guinea pig pellets also contain seeds (sunflower seeds, millet, safflower, etc.). Please do NOT buy them as seeds are a choking hazard for guinea pigs.
Provide unlimited offerings of Timothy Hay every day.
It can be loose hay, or Timothy Hay cubes.
We buy our timothy hay cubes from Oxbow Hay.
The cubes are less messy for you and they provide good dental care for your cavy as well, but they can be difficult to find, especially in larger amounts, and especially containing ONLY Timothy Hay (NO Alfalfa Hay).
For babies, and pregnant/nursing mothers, also provide Alfalfa Hay.
Do NOT give Alfalfa Hay to adults (except for pregnant, nursing females), except perhaps in very, very small amounts very occasionally as a little treat, and then not every day or even every week. Alfalfa Hay can give adults urinary/bladder stones.
You need to educate yourself on which veggies are low in calcium, as you don’t want your guinea pigs to get too much calcium or they get urinary tract problems.
Over all, make sure you take out the seeds, stems and strings, as they can be a choking hazard.
CLEAN their veggies very good. You can get “Veggie Cleanse” which is excellent. You soak their veggies or fruit in a bowl of it for 20 minutes and it will remove pesticides that ARE present.
It also will help them last a bit longer in the fridge. It’s good for your family’s use too.
Feed carrots only 2 or 3 times per week, as they’re high in sugar, plus they can overdose from the Vitamin A in carrots and that’s toxic to them.
Feed spinach only 2 or 3 times per week, as it’s high in calcium.
Good daily choices are romaine lettuce, parsley, kale and chicory.
Never feed iceberg (head) lettuce, as it has very few nutrients and it can actually cause diarrhea. In general, choose dark leafed veggies.
Other vegetables you can feed are fresh green beans, cilantro, okra, turnips, parsnips, squash (Winter or Summer), asparagus, endive, tomatoes, green peppers and cucumber (with the skin, washed very well).
Don’t feed too many tomatoes as they can get sore mouths from the acid.
Celery and also celery leaves are good; however, cut stalks into pieces no longer than 1/2 inch so the strings can’t be an issue.
Occasional veggie choices:
- young clover
- dandelion greens (from a farmers’ market, or from your lawn if you’re positive of no weed killer exposure, and don’t take from a dog’s area)
- Wheatgrass in the organic form is excellent (get from your farmer’s market).
AVOID all cruciferous vegetables (i.e. cabbage, broccoli, collards, etc.), as they give gas and bloat to many guinea pigs, and gas can kill them.
Some owners feed small amounts of cruciferous veggies, but it’s very risky. If they do get gas, give them an infant (human) formula of anti-gas medication like “Simethicone” – give at half of whatever the infant dose is. It’s good to keep this anti-gas medicine on hand all the time.
AVOID onions and garlic, and avoid potato tops and green eyes of potatoes as they’re very toxic.
Also tomato leaves are toxic.
Over all, make sure you take out the seeds and stems as they can be a choking hazard.
CLEAN their fruit very good.
A good guideline is to think of fruit ONLY as a treat for them.
Offer fruit only 2 or 3 times a week, due to the sugar content.
Related: Can Guinea Pigs Eat Grapes?
If you choose, you can offer fruit every day if it’s in very small amounts, like a tiny treat.
Fruits you can feed guinea pigs are:
- seedless oranges (not too many apples or oranges as they can cause mouth sores)
- seedless grapes or raisins
- cantalope or watermelon (with the rind left on, but washed very well).
Related: Can Guinea Pigs Eat Apples?
How Many Vegetables / Fruits Can Guinea Pig Eat Daily
It’s actually kind of hard to judge this, but we have been providing an amount of vegetables/fruit (remember though not too much fruit, and not every day) to equal “approximately” 10 percent of their daily food intake, which is about a cup per day, every day.
Some very successful breeders feed more vegetables than this though.
If you do so, be sure to provide a nice variety of vegetables to broaden the vitamins/minerals they are consuming.
Our thinking currently is that we want to be sure they’re consuming their recommended amount of guinea pig pellets daily to get their vitamins/minerals, and that amount is posted on their pellet sack.
They can get diarrhea from too many veggies.
Provide unlimited amounts of fresh water daily (with Vitamin C added – see above).
You can offer water in a bowl in a pinch; however, the sippy bottles keep it fresh and sanitary.
Clean their sippy bottles daily, or at least weekly, using a mild soap and a bottle brush to avoid mold and slimy buildups.
We are not in the veterinary profession, and guinea pig care and breeding continues to be an ongoing learning process for us. All information in this article is intended to be used as a guideline for those seeking basic information on the guinea pigs in general, and especially good Guinea Pig Care. We very much welcome any and all corrective information regarding what we have compiled in this article. Just share your opinion below in the comments.