Guinea pigs have been around a long time. They were domesticated around 5000 BC (7000 years ago!) by tribes in the Andean Mountains area of South America. People bred them for food and for religious ceremonies (and still are used for these purposes today). They were then discovered by European traders in the 16th century and brought to Europe where they became popular pets for the upper classes and royalty. It is reported Queen Elizabeth I even had pet guinea pigs!
Guinea pigs make great pets as they rarely scratch or bite. The only time I have been bitten was while hand feeding a treat and the guinea pig accidentally bit my finger instead of the treat!
If kept in a proper cage with good ventilation and regular cleaning, guinea pigs do not smell and are easy to take care of. Once you get used to each other, you will notice each guinea pig has its own personality.
Just like how there are different breeds of dogs, there are breeds of guinea pigs! The American guinea pig or short hair guinea pig is the most common. Check out this Ultimate Guinea Pig Breed List if you want to see what the different breeds are.
Quickly jump to a specific section
– Guinea pig diet
– Food and water bowls
– Hiding places and beds
– Brushing, bathing, nail trimming, and teeth
– Cage cleaning
– Common illnesses
– Supply list
Where does the name Guinea pig come from?
Guinea pigs are not pigs and they are not from Guinea (an African country) or New Guinea (an island off the continent of Australia). Nobody seems to know for sure where the name Guinea came from. According to Wikipedia, one possible explanation is the animals were brought to Europe by way of Guinea, leading people to think they had originated there. Another possibility is that the word “Guinea” in English used to mean any remote unknown land.
The “pig” portion of their name may come from the squeaking noise they make that reminds people of baby piglets. They also like to spend a lot of time eating and get very excited about food.
Guinea pigs that are found as pets are domesticated and do not exist in the wild. The montane guinea pig is a wild guinea pig that is from the Andes in South America and is likely the ancestor of domestic guinea pigs.
Their average lifespan is 4-6 years, but some can live up to 8 years.
When fully grown, they can reach 8 to 10 inches in length and weigh 1.5 to 2.6 pounds. Males tend to be larger than females. Guinea pigs are fully grown at around 2 months old.
Males and females
Males are called boars and females are called sows. The males are sexually mature at 3-5 weeks and females at 4 weeks. This means they can have babies before they are full grown adults.
Visit this website – Sexing Guinea Pigs – for detailed information and photos on how to tell males from females.
Guinea pig gestation period is on average 63–68 days. Litter sizes are 1 to 6, but average is 3. Baby guinea pigs are called pups. Pups are born already having hair, teeth, and partial eyesight so they are able to walk within an hour of being born and eat solid food immediately. Pups do drink their mother’s milk for nutrition and are weaned at 3 weeks old.
Guinea pigs are social animals and form strong bonds with each other. They do best in a group of guinea pigs. As pets, you should always keep at least 2 guinea pigs together and even more if possible. A guinea pig kept alone will be lonely, can become depressed, and will not be as happy and show as much personality as guinea pigs kept in groups.
Domestic guinea pigs don’t seem to have a regular circadian pattern. They are neither diurnal or nocturnal. Their activity is scattered randomly throughout the day and night with naps in between.
Guinea pigs are not very agile and not good at climbing, but they can jump over small objects and are good swimmers. Guinea pigs startle very easily and they may either freeze or run for cover as fast as they can.
When guinea pigs are happy and excited, they will do little hops which are called popcorning.
Guinea pigs can see in color, but they don’t have very good depth perception, which means they cannot judge height or distance very well. They have good hearing, smell, taste, and touch. In fact, they have better hearing and sense of smell than we do. Due to their sensitive hearing, guinea pigs do not like loud noises and should be kept in a more quiet area of the home.
Guinea pig noises
Guinea pigs make a variety of noises. Here is a great video where you can hear them and she explains what the the different sounds might mean.
Guinea pigs are herbivores and they like to graze all day. Their natural diet includes lots of grass. Your guinea pigs should always have grass hay available. The best kinds are timothy hay or orchard grass which you can give in unlimited amounts. Alfalfa hay contains lots of calcium and over time can cause painful bladder stones so should only be given occasionally.
You can buy hay at pet stores and online, but I find it isn’t always as fresh, you don’t get very much, and it can get expensive. Guinea pigs can go through a lot of hay! I like to throw a large handful of hay in my guinea pigs’ cage every day. They like to dive right into it and bury themselves in hay. It’s fun to watch! Mine like to eat it as well as sleep in it.
I found the most affordable place to buy hay is from a local feed store where you can buy grain and hay for horses. It is much cheaper and usually fresher! I can buy one bale of timothy hay for around $25 and that lasts quite a while for my 2 guinea pigs. I keep it in 18 gallon Sterilite containers that I get from Walmart to keep it clean and keep bugs from getting it it.
Another important reason you need to always keep a supply of hay for your guinea pigs is because guinea pigs are rodents and their teeth never stop growing. They always need something to chew on to keep their teeth from growing too long and hay is great for this.
If their teeth get too long, you will need your veterinarian to trim them. When I last took my guinea pigs to the vet for a checkup, she remarked on how excellent their teeth looked and I believe it is due to their always having plenty of hay available!
Just like humans, guinea pigs cannot synthesize their own vitamin C, so they must get it from their diet. If they do not get enough, they can get scurvy.
You can easily provide them the required amount of vitamin C and other nutrients daily by feeding fresh fruits and vegetables as well as good quality pellets. Here are some fresh foods that are safe for guinea pigs:
Fresh vegetables and herbs – Basil, bok choy, broccoli (only a little bit occasionally), brussel sprouts, carrots, celery, cilantro, cucumber, dandelion greens and flowers, dill, bell peppers, parsley, romaine lettuce, spinach (in small amounts), bean sprouts, green beans.
Fresh fruit – Feed fruit more like treats and limit to once or twice per week due to the sugar content and do not give them the seeds (like apple seeds) or pits – Apples, blueberries, banana, grapes, papaya, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, raspberries, strawberries, melon, orange, tomato, cherries (remove seeds), watermelon (in small amount as can cause diarrhea).
Especially limit acidic fruits like oranges and tomatoes as the acidity can cause mouth sores in guinea pigs if given too much. Just give them as an occasional treat.
I always have pellets available for mine. If your guinea pig eats too many and starts to get overweight, you might need to limit the pellets. They should get about ⅛ cup per guinea pig daily. You want pellets that contain timothy hay plus a stabilized vitamin C supplement and added minerals. You do not want them to contain nuts or seeds. Kaytee Timothy Complete Guinea Pig Food and Oxbow Essentials Adult Guinea Pig Food are good options.
I mostly just give fresh fruit as treats since fruit should only be fed a couple times a week. There are treats you can buy for guinea pigs but a lot of them are not very healthy and can be high in sugar and other stuff they don’t need. Another healthy treat you can feed are twigs from fruit trees like apple trees. They have the added benefit of helping trim their teeth. You can find them in pet stores or online and they are called apple sticks. My guinea pigs love them!
Do not feed your guinea pigs nuts and seeds (they can choke on them), peanuts, rhubarb, plants that grow from bulbs like onion and garlic, potatoes, iceberg lettuce (low nutritional value and can cause diarrhea), cabbage, avocado, hot peppers, mushrooms, chocolate, coffee, peanut butter, dairy, meat, cereal, pasta, or baked goods like cookies, bread, or crackers. Tomato greens are poisonous.
You want to keep your guinea pig enclosure in a quiet area away from drafts and extreme heat. They tolerate cold better than heat. Ideal temperatures are 65-75. Temperatures above 85-90 can be dangerous for them.
Their enclosure does not need a roof on it as guinea pigs are not very good climbers, but you may want one if you have other pets in the home that you want to keep out of the their enclosure. If you are not going to have a roof, make sure the walls are at least 12 inches tall.
They require good air circulation, which means you cannot keep them in an aquarium or plastic storage containers. Wire or screen walls are best.
Do not keep guinea pigs on a wire mesh flooring as this can cause bumblefoot which is inflammation and infection of their feet. If your enclosure has wire mesh flooring, you will want to cover it so their floor is smooth.
Give your guinea pigs the most floor space you can. They love to run around and they require the space for exercise. Giving them the amount of space they require will help ensure your guinea pigs live longer and healthier lives. With happier guinea pigs, you will get to see more personality from them and see them play more than if they are kept in a tiny cage where they will be more depressed.
Most cages you find in stores that are advertised as being for guinea pigs are actually much too small.
This is the best store bought guinea pig cage I have found: MidWest Guinea Habitat. One of these gives you 8 sq ft which is big enough for one guinea pig. The great thing about this cage is it is easily expandable. If you put two of these together you would have 16 sq feet, which is plenty of room!
Another option is to build your own C&C (cubes and coroplast) cage. You can get really creative this way. They are easy to make and affordable. These are made out of wire storage cubes and coroplast for the flooring and part of the sides. To hold the grids together, I prefer to use zip ties, which I think makes it sturdier and looks better.
Check out this website – Guinea Pig Cages – and look at the photo galleries and forum to get ideas on different ways you can build a C&C cage.
My favorite bedding is fleece. It is nice and soft. You can buy it by the yard and it comes in many different colors and patterns. You can wash it so you don’t have to constantly buy bedding. I attach mine to the sides of their cage with ¾-inch binder clips so the fleece stays in place. Some people use Velcro instead or sew their liners to fit their cage exactly.
I use a mini dustpan and brush to sweep their poop off the fleece throughout the week and then change the fleece once a week. Depending on how many guinea pigs you have and how much mess they make, you might have to sweep and change the fleece more often.
For additional absorbency and odor control, you can put U-Haul pads or puppy pads under the fleece. You might notice your guinea pigs only pee in certain areas and might be able to just put the additional absorbency pads in those areas. These also make cleaning easier as you won’t have to scrub the bottom of the cage as much.
You do need to wash fleece with unscented laundry detergent. Do not use fabric softener or dryer sheets as they will hinder the wicking of the fleece and they won’t absorb urine very well. You can use vinegar in the rinse cycle to help as well.
Check out this article How to Clean Guinea Pig Fleece for additional information on washing fleece.
Paper bedding has become really popular and many people love it. You can get shredded paper or in pellet form. I tried a shredded paper kind once, but I didn’t like it. The kind I got was dusty and smelled horrible. Maybe it was the brand or I got a bad batch?
If you want to try it, I would recommend buying a small amount and see how it goes. I have heard good things about Yesterday’s News, but have not tried it myself.
Pine shavings – If you decide on pine shavings, it must be kiln dried. This is the kind I have used previously with no issues: Living World Pine Shavings.
If your pine is not kiln dried, it may have a strong pine odor which is due to the oils in it. The oils can be harmful to your guinea pig’s respiratory system and liver and you will need to let it air out for a while to let the oils dissipate before using it.
Aspen shavings – This is a better alternative to pine because you don’t have to worry about harmful oils – Living World Aspen Shavings.
NEVER USE CEDAR SHAVINGS!
I also have an entire article devoted to guinea pig bedding that goes into more depth: Best Bedding for Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs are messy and will get poop in their bowls. To keep their water clean, it is best to use a water bottle that hangs on the side of the cage. I have had good success with Lixit water bottles. Walmart also has some affordable ones that I have used without problem.
For their pellets, you can use any kind of bowl that they won’t tip over or a bin feeder. I prefer a bin feeder as they don’t seem to get as much poop thrown in it (they still manage to get some in there though!). I use this metal bin feeder. Metal bins are nice as they can’t chew them up!
For their fresh food, you can use anything really. You can throw it on anything they won’t tip over, on a plate or in a bowl.
Even though guinea pigs are domesticated, they still have the instincts of a prey animal and to feel safe they like to hide. It is best to have several hiding places, at least one per guinea pig and more if you can. They also like comfy places to sleep. Here are some ideas for hiding places and beds you can use:
Plastic Igloos – These are my guinea pigs’ absolute favorite! One of my pigs likes to jump on the top of it too. These are also very easy to clean.
Wood houses – These are another favorite of my pigs. They chew on it a little bit, but they last quite a while.
Edible houses – A house they can eat! Good for wearing down their teeth and keeping them busy. It actually took longer than I thought it would for my pigs to chew theirs up.
Grass tunnel – My guinea pigs didn’t like this as much as the others. It did last a while before they finally destroyed it.
Fabric tunnels – These are easy to clean and the guinea pigs like to run through them. This one is made out of polyester fabric which is like tent material.
PVC pipe tunnel – You can get these at hardware stores in the plumbing department. You can make your own tunnels and they are easy to clean.
Cardboard boxes – You can cut your own doors into them. They won’t last very long as they will get dirtied quickly and chewed up, but they are free!
Here is a super cute hide and bed with a washable mat:My guinea pigs also liked this Fiddle Sticks Hide – It can also be bent and used as a ramp instead.
Cuddle cup beds are really popular. For some reason, my guinea pigs weren’t really into them. It really depends on your individual guinea pig’s preferences!
You should give your guinea pigs supervised time out of their cage to run around and explore. You will need an area where they can’t get into places you can’t get them out (like under furniture) and where there aren’t wires and things you don’t want them to chew on.
I use my hallway. I close the doors that go to other rooms and put old towels down on the floor with some of their toys. If you don’t have a safe area, you can use a playpen or even a child’s swimming pool.
Never use a wheel or exercise ball. These are fine to use with small pets like mice and hamsters, but guinea pigs are built differently and they can badly injure their backs.
When you pick up a guinea pig, you want to support their entire body. I put one hand under the front end and one under the back to pick them up and then hug them close to my body so they feel secure. Like in this picture.
If you want to cuddle with your guinea pig on your lap, you will want to use a towel as they go potty whenever they want and they go pretty often!
Guinea pigs require having their nails trimmed regularly, usually about once a month is sufficient. You can use nail trimmers made for small animals or cats. These are the ones I use: Safari Professional Nail Trimmer.
My guinea pigs can be a bit squirmy sometimes when I try to cut their nails so I wrap them loosely in a small towel with their head sticking out so they can still breathe and see and I leave their back end also accessible so I can get their back feet.
Short haired guinea pigs don’t require much brushing. You can brush them about once a week to get rid of any shedding hairs. Long haired guinea pigs require brushing more often as their hair can get matted up. You should also trim their long hair so that it doesn’t drag on the ground.
Occasionally, you may need to give your guinea pig a bath. I only give mine a bath maybe twice a year. I use my bathroom sink for their baths and only fill it with about 2 inches of warm water. Try to make it as quick as possible as it can be stressful for them. You can use small animal shampoo, kitten shampoo, or baby shampoo. Afterwards, dry them off in a towel and make sure the room they are in is nice and warm while they dry so they don’t get cold and get sick.
Your guinea pig may need its teeth trimmed occasionally. You will need to take it to the vet for this. If you give your guinea pig plenty of hay and stuff to chew on, it may not need teeth trimming. When their teeth are overgrown, eating may become painful for them. If you notice your guinea pig not eating normally, take it to the vet!
How often you need to clean the cage depends on how big it is and how many guinea pigs you have. If you have a smaller cage, it would need to be cleaned more often as the mess will be more concentrated and start to smell faster than with a bigger cage.
Most people do a thorough cleaning once a week which means removing all the bedding, wiping everything down, and putting in fresh bedding. Throughout the week, you can also do spot cleaning.
For a cleaning solution, you can mix half white vinegar and half water together. You can put the mixture in a spray bottle, spray the cage down, and then wipe with a rag or you can dip a rag directly into the vinegar solution and wipe the cage down. Vinegar helps to kill bacteria and clean off any dried urine. For stubborn spots, you can soak with full strength vinegar for a few minutes and then rinse off. Let dry fully before putting the fresh bedding in.
It usually only takes me about 10-15 minutes to do the weekly cleaning. The guinea pigs really seem to appreciate having a clean cage and they like to inspect my work afterwards!
You should be aware of each of your guinea pig’s normal habits so you will notice right away if a change occurs that might require taking it to the vet. I check on my guinea pigs multiple times throughout the day depending on my schedule, observe that they are eating and acting normally, and give them each some attention.
You want to make sure they are eating and pooping regularly and watch for signs of rashes, hair loss, swelling, bloating, injuries, abnormal lumps or masses, sneezing, crusty eyes, itchiness, if they look like they are in pain, lethargy, or any other abnormal change in behavior.
Common illnesses include diarrhea, ileus/gastrointestinal stasis, scurvy, respiratory infections/pneumonia, urinary infections, bladder stones, parasites, tumors, cancer, abscesses, eye problems, ear infections, and teeth problems which make eating painful.
Some of these can be very quickly fatal, so do not hesitate to get your guinea pig to the vet right away.
Here is a list of the things mentioned above. This is just a list to help you get ideas for what you might like with links for your convenience.
Store bought cage
Build your own C&C cage (cubes and coroplast)
- Fleece and puppy pads to put underneath
- Yesterday’s News
- Living World Aspen Shavings
- Living World Pine Shavings
Hiding places/bed ideas
- Plastic Igloo
- Wood house
- Edible house
- Grass tunnel
- Fabric tunnel
- PVC pipe tunnel
- Cardboard boxes
- Spring fever pet bed
- Fiddle sticks hide
- Cuddle cup bed
- Ikea wooden doll bed
Food and water bowls
Pellets and hay
- I recommend getting from your local feed store
- Kaytee Timothy Hay
Treats – Apple sticks
Cleaning and Grooming
- Prevue small pet playpen
- Child’s swimming pool