Visiting Vet: Horses they are not, but guinea pigs have their own charms

When my younger daughter turned five, she got mad at me because I wouldn’t get her a pony. I managed to get back in her good graces with the gift of a beta fish. Having never kept fish before, this ended up being more work than anticipated, but I became quite attached to Prince Ruby and I was embarrassingly sad when he finally went belly up. Now, at 13, my daughter no longer wants a pony. She wants a horse. Preferably something at least 16 hands that can jump three-foot fences. A beta fish wasn’t going to do the trick this birthday. So let’s talk guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs are neither pigs, nor are they from New Guinea. They are rodents related to the wild Andean cavy of South America. Thought to have been domesticated around 1,000 B.C.E. (some sources say as early as 5,000 B.C.E.) cavies were used by the Incans for religious ceremonies and as a food source. In the wild, cavies live in small social groups of five to ten individuals, making their home in burrows, emerging to feed at dusk and dawn. In South America people still keep cavies for food, often allowing them to roam freely like chickens in rural areas.

In the 16th century, European explorers brought guinea pigs back to Europe where they became popular pets. By the 18th century they were also used as laboratory animals (hence the idiomatic use of “guinea pig” meaning someone who is being used for experiments.) Thanks to the breeding efforts of centuries of pig fanciers, nowadays they come in many different colors and coat types. The most common include the Smooth-Coated, also called English, American or Shorthair, with its uniform, smooth, short coat, the Abyssinian with its wiry, rougher coat which grows in circular patterns called rosettes, the long-haired Silky, and the Peruvian, whose flowing tresses reach all the way to the ground (although admittedly that is not very far on a guinea pig.) Adults weigh one to two and a half pounds and live an average of five to seven years, although the Guinness World Records reports one who lived more than 14 years.

The adjective used most often to describe the guinea pig’s nature is docile. They rarely bite or scratch, making them nice pets for children who are mature enough to handle them gently. Renowned for their expressiveness, they are said to make nine different noises, ranging from a loud squeal called a wheek, which indicates excitement, to a contented purr. When happy they kick up their heels and bounce straight up in the air in a move called “popcorning.”

My favorite bit of guinea pig trivia involves when a male is courting a female or showing dominance. The pig swaggers his rear end while making a rapid, low-pitched staccato sound called rumbling. The entire performance is called “rumble-strutting.” How adorable is that?

Pigs are social critters and are happiest living with a companion. Obviously you don’t want a male and female together or you will quickly end up with more pigs than planned. Adult pigs’ gender is obvious but it can be tricky to sex young ones, so get help identifying the sexes before picking a pair. Two females usually get along fine. If you want two males, get young siblings and raise them together, otherwise adult males may fight. A guinea pig living alone is more likely to experience stress and depression.

Pigs need plenty of living room. The ASPCA recommends a minimum of four square feet of cage space per pig, but even larger is better. That old goldfish aquarium won’t work. It’s too small, and there’s not enough air flow. Pigs need good ventilation but should be kept away from drafts. They prefer a temperature of sixty to eighty degrees. Avoid direct sunlight, as they are prone to heatstroke. For bedding, check out pet store products but avoid pine chips and cedar as their oils can irritate. Replace bedding at least weekly, or more often if needed to control odor.

Guinea pigs are herbivores. A common mistake is feeding them just those processed green pellets. Although these are fine in moderation, pigs need to eat good quality grass hay like timothy. (Avoid alfalfa as it is too rich both in calories and things like calcium for daily use.) Like people and other primates, guinea pigs cannot manufacture their own vitamin C but need to ingest it daily, or they can develop scurvy. Don’t rely on packaged guinea pig foods that say they contain vitamin C, because as the food gets old, the vitamin C rapidly degrades. Some veterinarians advise adding vitamin C to the drinking water, though this is no longer considered optimum by other specialists.

Instead, you can feed fresh C-rich foods every day just as people learned to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages by bringing casks of lemons or limes. But citrus fruit is not a natural food for guinea pigs. One quarter cup of shredded dark leafy greens like kale fed daily meets a guinea pig’s daily C requirement. Introduce them slowly to small amounts of other C-rich vegetables such as red peppers, parsley, and broccoli. In addition, you can use vitamin supplements specifically designed for pigs that can be given as a tasty treat or liquid you squirt right into their mouths.

My daughter named her birthday presents Sweetpea and Honeybunch. If handled gently and often, so they feel safe and secure, guinea pigs can be surprisingly playful and interactive. After sleeping together inside their plastic igloo, they bounced out this morning to enjoy a breakfast of fresh kale and hay. Then, much to our delight, Sweetpea “popcorned” across the cage. I have to admit, they are pretty endearing.

My daughter loves them — but she still insists I should tell you that she has been saving all her money, so if you know of a nice, gentle horse who jumps and is available for an affordable lease this summer, please give us a call.