Guinea pigs make great first pets for young kids

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2003

Guinea pigs are hardy little animals that can make a wonderful first pet for youngsters.

They are readily available, have docile temperaments, are generally easy to care for and require minimal adult supervision once children learn the basics of how to care for them.

The only drawback of guinea pigs is that they are not particularly long-lived animals. Although they can live for seven to 10 years, on average most live only four to six years. Many parents look at this in a positive way, though, since often it will teach children the ups and downs that are part of life.

Guinea pigs are social animals that do best if kept in pairs or small groups. How well pigs get along can vary, but generally if they were raised together they will continue to enjoy each other's company as adults.

Proper housing is very important to guinea pig health. Each pig should have roughly 100 to 200 square inches of floor space.

Enclosures can be made of glass, durable plastic or wire. Wood should be avoided since it can be difficult to clean and also can't withstand guinea pigs chewing on it.

Also, wire mesh can be used for the walls of an enclosure but should not be used for the floor. The mesh can cause serious injuries to the bottom of guinea pigs' feet. Furthermore, a leg can be broken if it slips through the mesh and becomes entangled.

Bedding should be absorbent and easy to clean. Shredded newspaper and wood shavings work well. Avoid cedar and pine shavings because they can cause respiratory ailments. Sawdust shouldn't be used because it can cake around the genitals of females and also can cause breathing problems.

Guinea pigs can be very sensitive to temperature extremes. They do best if kept between 65 and 75 degrees.

Places to hide are very important and each animal should have one of its own. These can be store-bought items or be made of heavy plastics or ceramic items from around the home.

Food and water should be available at all times. Water bottles that hang work better than water bowls that are easily tipped over as they will wet the cage bedding. Guinea pigs have a tendency to "backwash" into bottles so they should be cleaned and refilled daily.

The topic of feeding guinea pigs generates debate. Some people say that pigs should be provided with unlimited amounts of grass hay, such as timothy. Others believe that grass hay should only be offered in moderation. Both groups agree that alfalfa hay is too rich to be offered.

Commercially available guinea pig pellets provide a solid dietary foundation. Never substitute rabbit pellets, as these lack many vital vitamins that guinea pigs need and get from their specially formulated chow.

Guinea pigs are very prone to vitamin C deficiencies. As such, they should be offered one-quarter of an orange daily. They also can be given small amounts of leafy greens like kale, but this should not exceeded 15 percent of their daily diet.

Food should be offered in a heavy bowl that cannot be easily tipped. Also, try to avoid bowls big enough for pigs to climb into so they won't urinate and defecate on their food.

Also, the teeth of pigs can grow very long if they are not provided with enough course material to chew on so long in fact that they can no longer eat properly. Consult a veterinarian or pet shop employee as to what items are most suitable to wear down teeth.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently, as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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