Although cats and dogs get most of the press, pocket pets are popular, too, and guinea pigs are members of millions of families. As of 2009/2010, there were nearly 16 million pet guinea pigs in American homes, according to the National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
Unfortunately, there are many myths about these cute little creatures. The misinformation means that many people buy improper products for their cavies. Here are five facts about guinea pigs that will help you choose the best products for your pets.
Guinea Pigs Should Never Be Housed in an Aquarium
It's not at all uncommon to see a guinea pig (or two or three) housed in an aquarium as small as 10 gallons. People see typical glass cases in pet stores and assume that a fish tank makes a good cavy home.
Aquariums are actually totally unsuitable as guinea pig homes for several reasons. First, they're much to small for even a single guinea pig. According to the Guinea Pig Cages website, a lone cavy needs at least 7.5 square feet of living space, and that requirement goes up if you have more than one pig. Even larger sized aquariums don't provide nearly enough room.
Second, an aquarium has solid walls, which retains odors and muffles sound. The guinea pig can't hear what's going on outside its home very well, which means it will be easily startled when taken out of the fish tank and exposed to full-on noise. The animal is also exposed to urine fumes and the smell of its own waste, especially if you're not diligent about cleaning its home.
Buy or make your guinea pig a large cage with bars or grids. It's hard to find a proper-sized cage at a pet store. My own guinea pigs are in two attached cages, which barely gives them enough room. It's often easier to make your own cage out of Coroplast (sign material) and storage cube grids to give your guinea pigs the most possible room.
Guinea Pigs Cannot Make Their Own Vitamin C
Guinea pigs and humans share an odd trait: we're both incapable of manufacturing vitamin C in our bodies, which means we must get it from our food or suffer health consequences like scurvy.
Guinea pig food is fortified with this important vitamin, which means you should never feed your guinea pig food meant for another small animal, like a hamster or rabbit. Vitamin C degrades quickly, so watch the expiration date when you buy guinea pig food.
You might notice vitamin C drops in pet stores that you can add to your guinea pig's water bottle. Unfortunately, the vitamin degrades so quickly after you add it that it's pretty much worthless within a day. Instead, supplement your guinea pig's pelleted food with daily servings of vitamin-rich vegetables and fruit.
Guinea Pigs Do Best As Part of a Herd
If you adopt one guinea pig (and please adopt rather than buying), take the plunge and get a pair. Most people don't realize it, but guinea pigs are naturally herd animals and get lonely when kept in isolation. Even if you pay attention to your guinea pig, it's not the same as having a cavy buddy.
Two guinea pigs are sufficient, although groups of three or more typically get along well as long as you have enough cage space. Cavies are much more interesting pets when you have more than one because you get to observe their antics.
Be very, very sure of your guinea pigs' sex, as they're prolific breeders and you'll end up with a litter of pups if you inadvertently put a male and female together. One of my own guinea pigs was missexed, but thankfully I found out before putting him and the companion I adopted for him together. There's a huge overpopulation of guinea pigs, and females have a high rate of birth complications and mortality, so breeding is never a good idea.
There was once a popular myth that two male guinea pigs will never get along, but it's been disproven. Boys can become best buddies as long as they have enough cage space. Also, it's a good idea to get two pigloos, beds, food bowls, water bottles, and other supplies so your pigs don't have to share and end up fighting over food, water, or toys.
Guinea Pigs Need a Constant Supply of Hay
Guinea pigs can't exist in optimal on pellets alone. In addition to daily fresh vegetables, they also need as much hay as they can eat.
Hay has two important roles in the guinea pig diet. First, it helps them keep their teeth ground down. A cavy's teeth grow constantly and can get overgrown if the animal isn't provided with a way to keep them trimmed naturally.
Second, long-strand hay is essential to a guinea pig's digestive health. The most popular suitable hays include timothy and orchard grass. Alfalfa is a legume hay and is therefore not suitable as a regular part of an adult guinea pig's diet.
Some guinea pigs will gnaw on chew sticks and toys, but others ignore them completely. Never use other items in place of hay. Your guinea pig shouldn't need anything else to chew on if its getting unlimited hay in its diet.
Adult Guinea Pigs Are Lactose Intolerate
You've probably seen yogurt drops and other yogurt-based treats in the pet store labeled as being suitable for guinea pigs. Adult guinea pigs are lactose intolerant, which means these goodies can cause tummy trouble.
Most store-bought guinea pig treats, even those without yogurt, tend to be high in sugar, which is just as bad for cavies as it is for humans. Your guinea pig will appreciate some fresh fruit, a favorite vegetable, or a new hidey, bed, or other toy much more than fattening snacks.