Cute, cuddly, and easy to keep, guinea pigs might very well be the gentlest, sweetest rodent in the world. As such, they’re well-suited as pets for children and seniors, but also make a splendid addition to any household. Happiest in small groups as they do feel depressed when alone, they make sweet “wheeking” noises and respond with delight to attention, petting, treats, and food. Also known as “cavies,” these hairy little companions originally from South America are affectionate herbivores that interact constantly with their keepers. With a lifespan of about 4-7 years, not only are these piggies easy to maintain, but they’re also an inexpensive animal to keep in general, even if you’re caring for several of them in a group.
Whether you’re considering a new furry addition to the family or simply looking for further information about your fuzzy companion, this guinea pig care guide will provide all the information you need. From essential equipment to feeding, grooming to exercise, we’ll cover the basics and then some!
Table of Contents
- Essential equipment for guinea pig care
- Guinea pigs need companions
- Food – healthy diet for a healthy pet!
- Cages – cavies need a happy habitat!
- Cage location
- Cleaning cages
- Hideout huts
- Entertaining your guinea pigs
- Common health issues – keeping your guinea pig healthy
- Training – do guineas do tricks?
Essential equipment for guinea pig care
The great thing about guinea pigs are, you don’t need much equipment to maintain them and keep them happy. Essentially, you’ll require:
- A pet carrier (for safe travel)
- A cage or C&C (cubes & coroplast) habitat
- Food and water dish and/or dispenser
- Bedding (guinea appropriate material)
- Wood for chewing
- A hideout hut
- Nail trimmers and a brush
Guinea pigs need companions
First and foremost, before we get into the specifics of caring for guinea pigs, it’s essential to understand that cavies need companionship. While you may be a doting pet parent, the fact of the matter is, nothing can replace another fellow guinea pig.
Since these fuzzy little guys are extremely social creatures, they would feel sad and lonely without another cavy companion, to the point where they may become depressed. Do keep in mind, however, that if you don’t want wee furry babies scampering about the habitat, then it’s best to stick to same-sex groups.
Food – healthy diet for a healthy pet!
While they’re easy to maintain, the truth is, cavies are messy. So, don’t be surprised when their food and water dishes end up flipped over or full of poop… that’s just kinda the way they roll. Consider purchasing a hanging water bottle to avoid some of that mess.
In the wild, guinea pigs constantly graze on grass, leaves, plants, and stems, as well as any vegetable or fruit they can find. But in captivity, they have adoring, human servants to gather their meals for them! Moderation is the key, however, especially when it comes to fruit because of high sugar levels. Typically, their diet consists of:
- Lettuce leaves
- Fresh vegetables
- Fresh fruit
- Dry food pellets
Usually, they enjoy feasting on fresh veggies and fruits such as:
- Red, yellow, and orange peppers
- Mixed lettuce varieties
- Celery and celery leaves
As with any other animal, your guinea pigs may have food preferences. One piggy may love cucumber, but their companion may not. For instance, I have one piggy that adores red pepper and one who presents her posterior to me every time I dare offer it to her.
No matter what you serve, ensure it’s always fresh and crunchy. The rule is, if you wouldn’t eat it yourself – because it was slimy or rotten – then please don’t offer it to your pets. See my feeding guide entitled How to Feed Guinea Pigs: An Easy-To-Follow Feeding Schedule for a Healthy Pet for detailed information.
At all times, your furry companions should have access to clean, fresh water. Every day, clean the water bowl and fill it with fresh water. If using a water dispenser, check it daily to ensure it’s always full.
Cages – cavies need a happy habitat!
Technically, your guinea’s cage doesn’t have to be very tall as these rodents don’t jump very high. As long as the walls have a height of at least 10″, cavies won’t get out. Before investing in a cage or a C&C habitat, consider whether or not your pets will need a roof over their heads. To help you figure out the ideal environment for your group, think about the following questions:
- Will your guinea pigs need protection from other pets?
- Will you need to restrict access to guinea pigs from young children?
- Are you worried something may fall into the cage, perhaps from a nearby shelf?
If you need a cage with a roof, then a commercial cage would be the best option. On the other hand, if there is no worry about other pets, kid hands, or possible falling objects, then you may want to consider purchasing or constructing a C&C habitat. Do keep in mind that most commercial rodent cages are much too small. In terms of space, 10″x20″ per cavy is really the bare minimum.
Regardless of which type of cage you decide on, you’ll need ample bedding. Whichever material you opt for, do not use softwood shavings like cedar or pine. The oils and dust from these woods are very unhealthy for your pet’s lungs. Instead, consider the following:
Fleece bedding: Typically used for C&C habitats, this bedding is basically thick, washable fleece pads that attach onto the sides of the cage to secure it in place. This material will require frequent laundering with an unscented, hypo-allergenic detergent, but it is by far the most comfortable choice.
Paper pellet bedding: While I used to use fleece bedding in my guinea pigs’ cage, I’m now a huge fan of recycled paper pellet litter like Yesterday’s News. Dust-free and with odor-controlling properties, it certainly makes cleanups a real cinch.
Guineas aren’t nocturnal by nature, but they can have periods of activity during the night. Therefore, it’s essential that you think about the location of the cage before placement. Initially, our guineas were located in the children’s bedroom. But after too many nights where sudden activity from their furry companions woke up the kids, we decided a better place would be the living room.
Additionally, aside from installing the cage somewhere safe, you may want to place it in a spot that doesn’t get too much noise or have easy access by other pets.
At least once a week, you should clean out the cage and change its bedding. However, this all depends on how many rodents you have, so you may need to clean it out more often. But honestly, it’s pretty simple and straightforward, like this:
- Remove the guinea pigs and place them in a safe spot
- Scrape the mess off the bottom of the cage and dispose
- Replace the litter or fleece and/or bedding
- If it’s time for a more detailed cleaning, sanitize the cage appropriately
- Return all items to the cage
- Add your cavies
Daily cleaning routine
- On a daily basis, there are some things you’ll be required to do, such as:
- Remove small sections of the litter if very soiled
- Replace bedding if very dirty
- Remove food leftovers
- Replace water
- Check hay status (and refill if needed)
Weekly cleaning routine
On a weekly basis, you’ll need to do additional cleaning like:
- Sanitize the cage with a pet-safe cleaning product
- Wash material items with an unscented, hypo-allergenic laundry detergent
- Do a safety check to ensure nothing is damaged by chewing and poses a health risk
My step-by-step guide on how to clean a guinea pig cage goes into more detail about this subject.
Guinea pigs need a place to hide because they’re burrowers. In nature, they live in underground caves. Thus, they have an innate urge to dig and burrow. But in a cage, it’s impossible to do so. As an alternative, hideout huts make a nice addition to an enclosure, providing them with a place to hide when they feel anxious or simply wish to take a nap.
In my cavy’s cage, I opted for a wood structure to give them something healthy to nibble on to keep their teeth from excessive growth.
Even though you won’t have to spend a lot of time on their fur coat, your guinea pigs’ glorious locks still need regular grooming. How often they need brushing all depend on what breed of Guinea pig you have. Hair and care maintenance includes coat brushing, nail clipping, ear cleaning, occasional bathing, hair trimming, grease gland cleaning, as well as regular checks on their ever-growing teeth.
While long-haired Peruvians need daily brushing, short-haired breeds like Americans need a less intense hair care regiment. A wide-tooth comb, soft bristle brush or a finishing brush may be required for your pet.
Guinea pigs need nail clipping about once a month to avoid the nails curling up into the paw. You’ll need a tiny nail trimmer like the Kaytee Pro-Nail Trimmer, which is the one I use on my guineas. Clipping their nails are easy, but the process can be a bit tricky. These fuzzy little creatures are quite skittish, so you may want to ask for a helping hand until you get the hang of nail trimming.
Useful trim tips
The goal is to trim your pet’s nails while also avoiding the “quick,” the visible red line on their nail that is the blood supply.
Keep these tips in mind:
- Trim one nail at a time, don’t rush the process.
- Pay attention not to clip too close to the “quick.”
- Avoid the chance of bleeding by positioning the clippers below the red line.
If the nail starts to bleed, apply styptic powder or use a styptic pencil. Apply pressure with a clean cloth or tissue until it stops bleeding. A lesson learned!
Don’t bathe your cavy unless it’s absolutely necessary. They simply don’t enjoy immersing their bodies in the water, just like most other rodents. As such, baths aren’t normally a part of their grooming routine. However, should your furry companions get into a messy situation, keep their clean-up as short and to the point as possible. Mainly, you’ll need two things:
- Pet-safe, unscented, non-medicated shampoo like the SofiesSecret 100% Natural+Organic Pet Shampoo or the hypoallergenic Odie and Cody Organic Pet Shampoo
- Towels, at least 3 per guinea
Lastly, only wash them in a warm room free from drafts. Immediately after bathing, wrap your pets in a warm towel to dry them off. We go into great detail in our guinea pig grooming guide.
It might be fun watching hamsters, gerbils, and rats use an exercise wheel or ball, but these things should never, ever be purchased for guinea pigs. Even if the product is labeled as a guinea pig cage accessory, stay far away from it. Cavies simply have a different anatomy than their fellow rodent counterparts. These products can result in back and leg injuries, as well as heat stroke – a fatal condition. Instead, consider the following ways to provide your companion with exercise:
- Allow them to have more floor time
- Purchase a larger cage
- Take a (small) trip to the backyard on-leash (a favorite with my pigs)
- Provide more lap time or longer periods of lap time
Entertaining your guinea pigs
Although they may have a guinea companion or two, your pets will need some means of entertainment to stave off boredom. If kept in a cage with nothing to play with, you can imagine how things could get a little boring. We cover this topic at length in our 12 Ways to Make Your Guinea Pigs Happy post, so please make sure to read through it. Here are a few ideas on how you can entertain your little darlings:
As mentioned in the very beginning of this post, guinea pigs need companionship. Therefore, it’s best to provide a fellow cavity or two to keep them both happy and healthy. Not only do they need cavy companions, but they also need to socialize with you, their pet parent. Playtime is bonding time as well, so make it a point to spend at least 30 minutes a day with them, twice a day.
Time spent out of the cage
Essential to their development, healthy, and happiness, time spent outside of their cage is crucial. At least once a day for about an hour or so, let them walk around in a safe area, making sure all nooks are blocked off and doors are closed. They’ll have tons of fun sniffing around and playing with you or their fellow cavies.
Toys and accessories
Use different toys and accessories to make their cage time more enjoyable. Certainly, you can purchase a myriad of doodads, but with a quick Google or Pinterest search, you can also find plenty of DIY ideas. Here are some of the things your guineas would like to play with:
- Chewing toys – both fun and necessary to wear down their ever-growing teeth
- Hideouts and covered sections – a must-have for borrowers who like their alone time
- Tunnels – diggers in the wild, these make for a lot of excitement!
- Ramps – while they’re not climbers, they do like to go up and down to other levels of their cage
- Foraging toys – gives them a mental challenge that ends in a delicious, nutritious treat
Common health issues – keeping your guinea pig healthy
Once you notice something is wrong with their health, it may be too late to help them. That’s why as a pet parent you must be vigilant. Every day, check your guinea pigs. Before anything happens, locate a knowledgeable exotic animal vet that has experience treating guinea pigs.
Contact your vet immediately if you notice the following signs:
- Lack of interest in food
- Change in bowel movements
Keep on the lookout for these four common health problems:
1. Food preferences/restrictions
Early on in life, a guinea pig may develop food preferences, to the point that they limit their own dietary intake. Additionally, a sudden change in pellet food may lead them to refuse food altogether. Always supply the same, high-quality pellet for your pets, along with fresh food and water. If you must switch pellet brand, switch it gradually and only upon the advice of a veterinarian. As well, a Vitamin C supplement is essential for guinea pigs.
2. Gastrointestinal disease
Without a healthy diet and proper vitamin C levels, your piggy’s GI system may not run smoothly. Not only do you need to pay attention to what your pet is ingesting and how much, but you must also check their stools regularly. Inadequate dietary fiber may result in gut stasis, resulting in constipation and pain.
3. Respiratory disease
Always keep your pig’s cage in a well-ventilated, clean environment. Do not let feces and urine buildup, resulting in unlivable, unsanitary conditions that can cause respiratory infections, among other things. Wood chip bedding can also predispose your pig to respiratory infections, so avoid using it at all costs.
4. Skin disease
Intense scratching is not normal in guinea pigs and can point to a skin issue like a mite infection (mange) or dermatitis, or a fungal infection called dermatophytosis. These conditions require early interventions and treatment.
Training – do guineas do tricks?
There is little training required for a cavy. Whatever you decide to do, please remember to handle them gently and patiently. Usually, they’re taught some very basic things like to:
- come when called
- mini-jump over small distances
- litter train to keep their cage clean (as detailed in our potty training guide)
Read more about training your guinea pigs here.
I want a guinea pig! Now, what?
If you already have a few guinea pals, you surely know they make delightful roommates for humans. For those who would like to venture into the wonderful world of piggy pet parenting, the next few steps would be to locate an experienced veterinarian in your area, consider what type of enclosure you’d like, and of course, find out where you can purchase some guineas.
Lastly, do keep in mind that there are many rescues and shelters out there for guinea pigs that need a forever home. So, please, consider visiting these places to adopt a few furry friends. My little companions, Muffy and Lilly, came from a local guinea pig rescue after having been abandoned, and let me tell you, I feel very blessed being able to provide these two furry critters with a home and a loving family.
Hopefully, this guide helped you understand the needs of these cute rodents a bit better and how to care for guinea pigs to make them happy and healthy. Still have a question? Leave it in the comments section 🙂