The Skinny on Guineas

Audra Stillabower, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist 

Guinea Pigs were thought to originate from New Guinea because of their name, but in fact guinea pigs are from South America in the Andes region. Guinea pigs were used as food and were also domesticated. The Spanish then introduced guinea pigs into Europe where they became pets.  Spanish ships would stop in New Guinea before heading to Europe and that may have caused people to assume these small rodents hailed from that area, but the actual origin of the name “guinea pig” is unknown.

Guinea pigs, or their scientific name, Cavia porcellus, are small furred rodents without a tail. They are docile and popular pets.  They are attractive and have a wide variety of colors and fur lengths. There is even a hairless variety known as the skinny pig.

Guinea pigs are like humans in that they need vitamin C supplemented in their diet. Pelleted foods are supplemented with vitamin C for guinea pig diets. Other rodent or rabbit pellets should never be given to a guinea pig because they do not contain enough vitamin C and could cause vitamin C deficiency. A good balanced guinea pig diet will contain pellets, hay and fresh fruits and vegetables.

The two main types of hay for guinea pigs are timothy and alfalfa. Alfalfa has a higher calcium content and is used more for growing babies and pregnant guinea pigs. The higher calcium content may lead to bladder stones in adults, so timothy hay is primarily used for adult guinea pigs.  Hay can be fed free choice. Guinea pigs have teeth that continuously grow and need worn down by chewing, the same as horses. If they do not chew enough, their teeth can become overgrown and painful. Having hay available at all times helps guinea pigs wear down their teeth and prevent overgrowth.

Fruits are wonderful for an occasional snack but should not be fed too often as the high sugar content in fruit can cause obesity.  One of the best fruits to feed for vitamin C supplementation is guava. For a more comprehensive list of fruits and vegetables click here!

Vegetables are a great supplementation of a guinea pig’s diet.  Red peppers, kale, parsley, broccoli leaves and flowerets and cauliflower are all good sources of vitamin C.

There are supplements on the market with vitamin C. These generally come in a liquid form to put in water. There can be issues with using this form of supplementation. The liquid used can change the flavor of the water and guinea pigs may not like the taste and not drink. This means that the guinea pig is not getting enough vitamin C and they also may become dehydrated because they are not drinking enough water.  Vitamin C also degrades rapidly in sunlight and heat.  Within a matter of hours, there may be very little vitamin C left in the water. Supplementing with fresh fruits and vegetables is an easier and healthy way to supplement guinea pigs with the vitamin C that they need.

The Oxbow company makes a vitamin C tablet that is used as a supplement for guinea pigs that they take as a daily treat. It is recommended to consult your veterinarian before any supplements are added to your guinea pig’s diet.

Guinea pigs can also eat grass. They can be let out into the yard to graze.  Guinea pigs should not be allowed to graze in an area that has been treated with any pesticides or herbicides. For their safety, they should be confined to a pen to protect them from animals and they should always have access to shade  to prevent overheating. It is recommended to keep a close eye on your guinea pig while outside and to not leave them unattended for long periods of time or place them outside in extreme temperatures.  For my own guinea pigs, I have used a chicken pen for grazing.

Guinea pigs make wonderful pets because they rarely bite and scratch and they are very social animals. Guinea pigs have lots of personality and can make various squeals and noises. My guineas learned when the fridge door was opened that it was treat time so anytime the door was opened they would squeal .

Guinea pigs live longer than most of the other rodent species. Guinea pigs can live 6-8 years with good care.

Guinea pigs easy to care for. You can purchase a cage for them at any pet store. The cage should have a solid bottom. It is important that they are not housed on a wire cage bottom meant for rabbits. Guinea pigs can get their legs caught on a wire bottom and it can cause serious leg and foot injuries. There are various beddings available such as wood shavings or recycled paper. Guinea pigs can be prone to respiratory issues, so very pungent bedding like cedar shavings should be avoided.  Cages should be cleaned regularly to prevent ammonia smells from urine from building up and from also causing respiratory issues.

Water can be provided via a sipper tube. Water housed in crocks on the bottom of the cage can be soiled or spilled easily. Sipper tubes should be cleaned regularly to prevent bacterial overgrowth.

Guinea pigs are fun and friendly pets to have in your home. They are good pets for children. There are a lot of rescues and animal shelters that have guinea pigs for adoption. When thinking about purchasing a guinea pig, please consider adopting from a rescue or shelter instead of a pet store.


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