Despite their name guinea pigs are not pigs nor are they from Guinea. Guinea pigs, cavies or more accurately domestic guinea pigs are short-tailed, rough-haired South American rodents. They were first domesticated sometime around 5000 B.C., as a source of food, from an unidentified species of cavy as per all other domesticated animals they do not exist naturally in the wild.
Guinea pigs thrive in groups, indeed in Switzerland it is illegal to keep guinea pigs on their own. Guinea pigs have been kept as pets in Western Europe since European traders brought them back from South America in the 16th century mainly due to their easy going nature, hardiness, ease of transportation and tastiness. Biological experimentation has been carried out on guinea pigs since at least the 17th century which is where our modern idiom ‘guinea pig’ originates, even though their use in medical experiments has largely been replaced with smaller rodents such as mice and rats since the 20th century.
A guinea pig was one of the first pets that I had as a child, so I have a soft spot for these friendly rodents. Notwithstanding my personal affection for guinea pigs there are a number of reasons why I think that they make a great first pet:
- Guinea pigs are easy to care for. They only require hay, fresh water, fresh vegetables and a small amount of guinea pig food, plus a vitamin C supplement each day – unlike other rodents guinea pigs can not produce their own vitamin C and thus require it from their food. They need a secure cage lined with paper and a little sawdust. A quick tidy daily and a thorough clean once a week and that is it. If you want to keep them friendly, a daily cuddle is required and you have a happy and contented pet.
- Guinea pigs are great pets for children. They are not as big as rabbits and far more relaxed when held than smaller rodents like hamsters and gerbils so it helps children to build confidence when holding them, however it is still important to supervise younger children and those who aren’t as familiar with animals.
- Guinea pigs are hardy. When you adhere to the first point guinea pigs will generally stay healthy, as with all pets diseases can be kept at bay with regular trips to the vets.
- Guinea pigs live long lives. While most small rodents (such as mice, hamsters and gerbils) only live for about two or three years, guinea pigs can live for five to seven years, this means that more of a bond can be formed without the extended commitment that comes with a dog or a cat.
- Guinea pigs have personality. From my experience guinea pigs have different personalities, more so that the smaller rodents. They can be shy; while others can be bold and dominant and just because two guinea pigs look the same doesn’t mean will be the same.
- Guinea pigs like people. People who haven’t kept guinea pigs often don’t believe this, but they really do recognise and respond to their owners. Many squeal with delight when they see their owners or try to climb up the sides of their cage to greet them.
- Guinea pigs talk! Guinea pigs are extremely vocal animals. They squeak, squawk (indeed my second generation of guinea pigs were called squeak and squawk), and sometime purr like a cat. They will also make a rumbling sound or chatter their teeth, especially when they are angry or aggressive. They will call to you to get your attention, who is training who there?
Given their low-maintenance care, overall hardy nature, strong ability to bond with their owners and generally long lifespans, guinea pigs make fantastic first pets for families who want an animal that is loving and rewarding but would find a cat or a dog too much of a bind. With enough time and patience they can even be trained to do simple tricks.