In the world of animals, a guinea pig is a small mammal that originated from South America where they are called cuy. Originally, guinea pigs were mainly kept by people as a food source, somewhat like chickens. When guinea pigs initially got exported to other countries, they were treated more as prizes or pets. In more modern times, they also found a niche as research animals.
At some point their name changed from cuy to guinea pig or cavy, the two common names for the species in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and other regions. The scientific name for a guinea pig is the same everywhere — Cavia porcellus. Today, guinea pigs are pets in most places, although in some areas of South America they are still considered a food source, and they might be used in research labs anywhere.
Guinea Pig Description
Pet guinea pigs have short legs and lack a tail. They’re a small animal usually no longer than an adult human’s forearm, and typically weigh 1.5 to 3 pounds. Their ears look a bit like a flower petal, and their general body shape is a rounded rectangle. Some people say they look like a brick with round corners. They have pea-sized, round eyes that protrude a little and have a red eyeshine. An arched nose dominates their head shape.
The American Cavy Breeders Association in the United States recognizes 13 breeds of guinea pig, and the United Kingdom’s British Cavy Council recognizes even more. Guinea pig breeds differ based on fur texture, length, and color. Some breeds have long fur, some short, some curly, some translucent, and some have little or no fur. Colors range from a single color to various mixes and marked patterns. Common colors seen on guinea pigs include white, brown, tan, black, and more. Eye colors can range from black to brown to pink to red to ruby.
Cuy from South America are actually larger than pet guinea pigs found elsewhere. Some cuy have made it into the pet trade, so if you see a guinea pig larger than any guinea pig you’ve ever seen, suspect a cuy. Besides being larger, cuy are usually less tame.
Guinea Pig Traits
Guinea pigs are usually vocal animals. The most common sound they make is a drawn-out squeal when anticipating being fed. Many people who share their lives with guinea pigs call this noise a wheek. And it’s a standing joke that guinea pigs start wheeking at any sound they associate with food, such as a refrigerator opening or the crackle of a bag containing food.
Although guinea pigs are not known to be climbers, they have some modest climbing ability. Another surprise is that they can jump a little. This jumping is usually only an inch or two and done in a short burst. It’s called popcorning. Their limited vertical ability makes it possible to house them in enclosures with short walls and no top. One of the most popular enclosures for guinea pigs are C & C cages.
Guinea pigs are herd animals who are very social. In fact, in Switzerland a law dating from 2008 made it illegal to sell animals classified as social as a single pet. Guinea pigs fall into that category. Most guinea pigs truly enjoy the company of other guinea pigs. Of course, not all guinea pigs get along, so any pairings or groupings should be done with care.
An attentive owner is a must for guinea pigs or any pet. One bonus to guinea pigs rather than fish or even hamsters is that guinea pigs often enjoy interacting with their human companions. They tolerate being held and some might really enjoy it. Be warned that guinea pigs are also famous for urinary accidents and leaving pellets. If you plan to hold a guinea pig on your lap, do so with a towel or mat beneath your pet to contain any accidents. And if your guinea pig begins squirming, that’s a sure sign to place him or her back in the exercise pen or cage.
Guinea pigs are herbivores, and their main food is grass hay. Chewing hay not only provides nutrition, it also keeps their constantly growing teeth worn down. This helps prevent their teeth from overgrowing or misaligning. Their status as champion chewers not only improves their health, it also makes guinea pigs adorable. Their quick chewing action is fascinating to watch.
Guinea Pig Stats
Humans and guinea pigs share an important nutritional need — vitamin C. Unlike many other mammals, people and guinea pigs must get vitamin C from their diet. Without it, scurvy occurs. This disease causes weakness, anemia, gum disease, skin ailments, and other health problems.
According to the book “Ferrets, Rabbits, And Rodents Clinical Medicine And Surgery,” the typical life span of pet guinea pigs is 5 to 6 years. Their heart beats 240 to 310 times a minute. Pregnancy lasts about 68 days. Although a litter can have 1 to 13 pups, the average litter size is 2 to 4. Female guinea pigs who are not bred by 7 or 8 months of age will be at high risk for a difficult or dangerous birth after this age.
Guinea Pig Appeal
The amiable nature of guinea pigs and their almost universal likeability makes them a media darling.
Bloomsbury Publishing publishes a book series devoted to guinea pigs in costume to convey an adaptation of classic books. Titles to date include: “A Guinea Pig Nativity,” “A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice,” and “A Guinea Pig Oliver Twist.” “A Guinea Pig Romeo & Juliet” is due out in October 2017.
Guinea pigs frequently pop up in movies in tiny roles. Some movies that included prominent guinea pig action are “G-Force,” “Dr. Dolittle,” “Bedtime Stories,” and “The Secret Life Of Pets.”
Social Media has created numerous guinea pig stars. One YouTube video from Pets Add Life that interviews a guinea pig has more than 7 million views. Individual guinea pigs or groups who have found social media success include Ludwik, Ponyo Piglet Of The Sea, The Lava Empire, and Guinea Pig Lips.
And yes, there is even a guinea pig song. The famous Parry Gripp created one to go with a video of guinea pigs at the Nagasaki Bio Park. It has more than 3 million views on YouTube.