Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Care and Nutrition of Guinea Pigs, by Dr. Michelle Bellville

Guinea Pig
Photo by Izzie Atkinson
Guinea pigs, also known as Cavies (singular Cavy) are affectionate, lively, and responsive little creatures. They make excellent pets since they are gentle and if handled frequently while they are young, rarely scratch or bite.  They originate from South America like another popular pocket pet, the Chinchilla.  Guinea pigs are “monogastric” herbivores, meaning that they have one stomach (unlike the cow that has a multiple or compartmented stomach) and eat plant-based foods.  A happy, healthy guinea pig can live up to 4-8 years as a pet, 5 years being the average.  They make the coolest sounds, and their calls have names: chutt, chutter, whine, tweet, whistle, purr, drr, scream, squeal, chirp, and grunt!

Guinea pigs do best on a solid bottom cage, but beware they can make quite a mess of their surroundings! Clean up their food bowls daily and check the patency of their water bottle too – your guinea pig may have shot a food slurry into the tube of their sipper bottle!

Just like rabbits, guinea pigs are “hindgut fermenters,” meaning that they break down their food in the last portion of their intestines (versus cows that ferment in their “foregut” or stomach).  To then get these nutrients absorbed, guinea pigs and rabbits are coprophagic – they ingest their own feces.  Gross, I know, but it is very important to their overall health!  This is more problematic for obese guinea pigs, especially ones kept in a wire bottom cage: obese guinea pigs are unable to catch these nutritious fecal pellets from their anus, which then drops through the wire, and the guinea pigs are unable to stay properly nourished.

Unlike rabbits, guinea pigs have a dietary need for Vitamin C, as they cannot produce it on their own. Unfortunately, Vitamin C is not stable for long in foods or water, so a fresh source of Vitamin C must be given daily. The easiest thing to give them is a Vitamin C containing fruit or veggie daily such as red or green peppers, cabbage, broccoli, tomato, kiwi, or a few wedges of an orange.  You can also add Vitamin C to their water source, but make sure to change it daily.  Vitamin C deficiency is a very common and very serious disease that can easily be fatal!

Guinea pigs learn what foods they like very early in life, so get your guinea pig used to different guinea pig chows and vegetables so they are not weary of variety. Guinea pigs should eat guinea pig pellets and grass hay, supplemented with fresh veggies. Good quality grass hay should be available at all times. Depending on the age, lifestyle, and weight of your guinea pig your veterinarian may recommend that pellets are offered in limited quantity or that they are offered free choice. Veggies can be offered in small handfuls, and leafy greens are the best to offer. Treats such as fruits or other marketed snacks are unnecessary, but if you choose to use them, offer only very small amounts (one treat per day) or use a special veggie as a treat!

Remember that just like any pet, guinea pigs should see their exotic animal veterinarian at least once yearly for a physical exam, a fecal exam, and likely bloodwork as your guinea pig gets older.  Check out Oxbow Animal Health for more info on how to care for your guinea pig, as well as a great place to get the good quality hay and pellets they need!

Written by Dr. Michelle Bellville

Read more or contact Dr. Michelle:
Dr. Michelle Bellville
(407) 487-4445

Dr. Bellville assists families in the Orlando Florida area with In Home Hospice and Euthanasia. She is also available to assist families with 'exotic' species like birds, hamsters, rabbits, etc with all end of like care.  

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