Guinea pigs are traditionally thought of as great first pets for children since they are small and sociable. However, they have multiple needs which much be understood and met in order for them to lead a happy life.

There are several different breeds of guinea pig with a wide range of coat lengths and colours. It's important that you find out about the history of your guinea pig(s) before you make them a permanent part of your family as they may have different needs e.g. feeding habits, health issues, easily-matted fur.

They typically live for around 5-6 years and spend up to 20 hours a day being active, only sleeping for short periods. Guinea pigs are highly sociable animals and are happiest in pairs or small groups. In the wild, guinea pigs live in close family groups of 5-10 guinea pigs. This typically includes an alpha male, 3-4 females, and their offspring. Several groups may live in close proximity to form a colony. 

All guinea pigs should receive daily handling from a young age. This helps them to learn that humans are friends and avoids them becoming distressed when handled in future.

Read our top tips if you are planning to adopt a guinea pig, so you can provide them with the best life possible.

 

Environment

Guinea pigs are able to live indoors and outdoors, as long as steps are taken to ensure their safety. Firstly, their living environment should be high enough for them to fully stand up on their back legs, and long enough for them to stretch out when lying down. If you are housing multiple guinea pigs together, there needs to be space for all of them to separate if they wish to. It needs to be well-ventilated, dry and draught-free, as well as secure. 

In their environment, they should be able to eat, sleep and exercise comfortably. Their main shelter should be enclosed and darkened and have places for them to hide whenever they feel threatened. Bedding should be absorbent and safe for them to eat, such as hay. Their living area could be an exercise run – here, they will explore, play, run and hide. Guinea pigs should have plenty of access to tunnels, shelters and wooden chew toys to keep them entertained, as they are very intelligent animals and may suffer if overwhelmed by boredom.

In terms of cleaning, their toilet area should be cleaned daily, and their whole enclosure should be thoroughly cleaned at least weekly. Guinea pigs have a well-developed sense of smell so may become stressed at cleaning time. To ease this, after cleaning, place a small amount of used bedding back into their closure to provide them with a familiar smell.

                Indoors

Indoor accommodation should be away from direct heat sources (such as radiators or windows). An ideal temperature is between 17 and 20 degrees, so be mindful in homes with central heating as temperatures above 26 degrees can cause heatstroke for guinea pigs. Furthermore, they should be housed in a quiet spot, away from any televisions or music systems.

                Outdoors

If guinea pigs are being kept in a hutch outdoors, they should be sheltered from direct sun and wind. They need sufficient bedding throughout their entire enclosure so that they are able to keep themselves warm, and if the temperature drops below 15 degrees, you should consider moving them indoors. Furthermore, their enclosure should be placed in an area that is quiet, calm and away from dogs, cats and birds of prey that they may see as a threat.

 

Diet

Guinea pigs need a high-fibre diet that is based on fresh grasses and hays – these should be available to them all throughout the day so that they can graze at their own leisure.  Hay is very important for the correct functioning of their digestive system, and is abrasive so helps to wear down their teeth (which are always growing!) Their diet should also be supplemented with plenty of Vitamin C; a small amount of freshly washed leafy greens every day (such as kale or broccoli) and a small amount of grass-based pellets. Guinea pigs lack the enzyme needed to synthesise Vitamin C so are only able to store it for short periods. This is why their diet must be supplemented with plenty of Vitamin C. Root vegetables or fruits should only be given in small amounts and as an occasional treat, so not to cause any tummy upset.

Guinea pigs produce two types of droppings – hard dry pellets and softer moist pellets. In a digestive process called caecotrophy, they will eat their own softer droppings, allowing food to be re-ingested. 

Guinea pigs also need constant access to clean drinking water that is changed daily to ensure it is fresh. Their bottles should be checked daily for any leaks or blockages, and to ensure it doesn’t freeze in periods of extremely cold weather. To avoid contamination and possible disease, the entire bottle (including the nozzle) should be thoroughly cleaned regularly.

 

Behaviour

The behaviour your guinea pig displays can depend on its age, personality and past experiences. Although you may not necessarily understand their behaviour at first, it is important to monitor for any signs of it changing. Changed behaviour could mean one of many things: boredom, stress, illness or injury. If their behaviour becomes an ongoing problem, you should contact your vet for advice.

                Signs of stress can include:

- spending a lot of time hiding

- displaying signs of aggression to their owners or fellow guinea pig companions

- consistently chewing the bars of their accommodation

- over-grooming themselves

- a change in feeding habits

- a change in toileting habits

- excessive drinking

- being reluctant to move

- repeatedly circling their enclosure

  

Bonding

Unless otherwise advised by a vet or clinical animal behaviourist, guinea pigs should be kept in at least pairs. They can also be kept in small groups if they are bonded correctly. It isn’t common for female guinea pigs to be neutered, but males should be.

Accommodation should be large enough for all guinea pigs to separate themselves if they wish to. They should each have somewhere to hide, as well as somewhere to eat, drink and rest.

  

Health

You should check on your guinea pigs daily for any signs of illness or injury. Especially in times of warm weather, check the fur around their rear for urine staining or stuck droppings as these can attract flies which can lead to a sometimes-fatal condition called flystrike. Often, guinea pigs don’t show any obvious signs of suffering which is why it is important that you monitor their behaviour for any signs of it changing.

  

For further advice on how to properly care for your guinea pig, you can contact your vet or a clinical animal behaviourist.