Keeping your Guinea Pigs ‘popcorning’ happy
What’s not to love about a pet that when it’s happy does a ‘popcorn’? Popcorning is the happy little jump that guinea pigs give when they are full of joy. Guinea pigs, also known as cavies, are longer-lived than many other small pets and regularly reach five to eight years of age. They make great pets because they are active during the day and tend to be really interactive with their range of chutting, purring and wheeking to communicate! This also means that piggies remain popular pets for children, but this should always be under parental guidance and bear in mind that they are a significant commitment especially given their longer life expectancy than other small pets.
In the wild, guinea pigs originated from South America and would have lived in social groups of ten adults. Domesticated piggies should be kept in much smaller groups than this, but not housed alone as they are social beings and lack of companionship can lead to significant distress. There is a lot of information about ideal groupings which can become confusing so if in doubt speak with your local pet shop owner or vet for their advice.
Single sex pairings are usually advised, but it is essential for males to be neutered if they are to be kept with females. It can be very dangerous for a sow (female) to become pregnant with her first litter after 6 to 8 months of age as her pelvis will have fused by this stage and she will be incapable of delivering her babies.
Multiple boars (males) can co-habit a hutch together happily as long as there are no females nearby, especially if they are brothers or have been introduced at a young age. Ideally boars should be kept in groups no larger than three or as a pair, otherwise there can be increased levels of in-fighting. Introducing a new adult boar to the group is not recommended for newbie pig owners, who would do better to see whether a baby boar will be integrated and that should also be done very gradually and with care.
Sows are more likely to get along in a larger group than boars, but usually a group of two or three is still the optimum. As with people, they have their own individual personalities and can vary in how timid, inquisitive, calm or playful they are as well as a whole host of other characteristics. Different personalities may be a better or worse match with each other.
Free to roam – night or day
Although piggies need plenty of space, their requirements are not as large as rabbits, making their hutches more accessible for those with smaller gardens. Current guidelines for minimum guinea pig hutch size for a pair are 120cm x 60cm (with height of 45cm). Ideally opt for the biggest hutch and run size that you can accommodate. It is particularly important for individuals housed in smaller hutches to have opportunities for additional, supervised exercise.
The hutch should be weatherproof and preferably raised off the ground and should always have access to a grassy run for exercise. This is because pigs nap on and off around the clock, so will want the option of being active at any time of day or night.
One of the most common health problems in guinea pigs is ‘bumble foot’. This can arise due to sharp or dirty bedding damaging the foot pads leading to infection. Tiny Friends Farm Eco-Friendly Bedding is very gentle to guinea pigs feet and helps to prevent bumble foot and as it is virtually dust free to help prevent respiratory irritation.
Pet hutches can be kept cleaner using litter trays placed in the corners. These can significantly reduce soiling of bedding, although piggies won’t exclusively use these designated areas. There are also cleaning products available that are specifically designed to clean pet products.
Chew-sing the right diet
Like many small pets, guinea pig teeth grow throughout life so they need plenty of opportunities to chew and wear them down. Plenty of hay should be provided, and at a minimum the daily ration should be the same size as the pig! However, free access is recommended as much as possible. Gnawing blocks or chews are also great for keeping teeth in shape.
These characterful pets have an interesting dietary quirk — they lack the enzyme to make their own Vitamin C. Suitable diets like Science Selective Guinea Pig Food contain added Vitamin C as well as a specially balanced calcium:phosphorous ratio, high fibre for dental and digestive tract health and no added sugars.
Regardless of diet choice, free access to water is a must – as with any pet. However, piggies can be cheeky individuals and are known to take great entertainment in tipping over their water bowls. A heavy-based ceramic bowl might be a good option. Guinea pigs can also be happy drinking from water bottles but these must be cleaned and replaced regularly.
Guinea pigs are infamously active but are also known to overeat due to boredom, just like us hoomins! The best toys and games cater to their natural instincts. For example, they have a tendency to hide when alarmed, so tunnel-based toys meet this need while also adding great variety to their enclosure for exploring. Hidey-huts or beds provide great enrichment for the same reason. They are natural grazers, so will be motivated to hunt out food that is scattered around their enclosure or hidden in tubs. We recommend rotating the toys available to keep their environment interesting and varied.
Socialisation and interaction with these pocket pets is important from a young age as this will significantly affect their personality into adulthood. Treats such as Selective Naturals Woodland Loops are a great option for encouraging interaction. They have a satisfying crunch that piggies love thanks to being baked to perfection at our Suffolk-based Supreme Petfood bakery. There has been a lot of growth in the available toys and treats for small pets over the past few years, so you should be able to find some awesome options to fuel your guinea pig’s curiosity.