Guinea pigs make excellent family pets, especially for younger children who may not feel comfortable with more delicate animals such as mice, gerbils or hamsters. A guinea pig is much sturdier and less inclined to bite. Depending on the breed, there may be some shedding issues, but guinea pigs do like to groom themselves and care about their appearance. Overall, guinea pigs do provide years of companionship with relatively little maintenance required by owners. A guinea pig can be left alone during the occasional overnight trip, or boarded at a local veterinarian's office. But there are some things that guinea pig owners need to know about care and feeding.
- Guinea pigs are strictly vegetarian, and their main source of food while in captivity is compressed pellets of alfalfa and other ingredients. Guinea pigs tend to be brand loyal, so new owners should make every effort to use the same pellets the pet store or former owner provided. The best pellets for guinea pigs are fortified with Vitamin C, an essential vitamin not synthesized by the animal itself. If the pellets are not fortified, then an additional source (drops, vitamin pills, etc.) should be provided. A few drops of soluble vitamins in the water bottle should suffice.
- If changes in the basic pellet diet become necessary, it is better to start out slowly. Continue to use the original pellets for a few days, then add a small amount of the new pellets into the mix. Over the course of a few weeks, increase the percentage of the new pellets until the switch is complete. Supplement the pellets with plenty of timothy grass hay, which can be stored against the side of the cage in a wire basket sold in pet stores.
- Guinea pigs love fresh vegetables and fruits, so keep a fresh supply on hand. You may need to experiment with different foods to see what your particular pig enjoys most. Some guinea pigs like parsley, while others prefer fresh baby carrots (not cooked) or slices of apple. Avoid fruits and vegetables which spoil quickly, like bananas. Think dark and green when it comes to leaf lettuce. The lighter iceberg lettuce is not very nutritious and may cause gas.
- Treats for guinea pigs include nuts, seeds and peanut butter. Look for prepackaged treats formulated especially for small animals at your local pet store. Again, there may be a trial and error period as your guinea pig tries each new treat. Treat sticks should be taken out of the cage to avoid overeating. Guinea pigs will continue to eat as long as food is available, even to the point of gorging themselves.
- Guinea pigs usually appreciate salt wheels and chew sticks. A guinea pig's front teeth continue to grow, so he or she needs a means to keep them whittled down. There may be enough salt in the pellets to maintain health, but the extra salt on a salt wheel won't hurt. A guinea pig may need to have his front teeth clipped professionally, along with his toe nails.
- Avoid oily wood chips when selecting a bedding material. The cheapest bedding available is usually made from standard pine trees, which can be very oily and dusty. A better choice would be bedding made from Aspen pine, which tends to be drier, less oily and more odor absorbent. Many owners and pet stores prefer to use paper pulp bedding instead of wood. The material is softer on the guinea pig's body, absorbs more wetness than wood chips and lasts longer between changes.
- Don't be alarmed if your guinea pig starts eating his own fecal droppings. This is a normal behavior. Since guinea pigs are true vegetarians, their bodies cannot produce certain vitamins and enzymes essential for protein growth. Some of their darker fecal droppings contain these nutrients, so guinea pigs will routinely ingest them.
- Guinea pigs are masters at hiding their true medical conditions, so observe them carefully. Check the water and food levels to see if your pet is still eating and drinking a healthy amount of food. A lack of droppings could indicated constipation. Liquidy or poorly formed droppings could indicate diarrhea, which is a serious complication in guinea pigs. Get him or her to a veterinarian quickly. Guinea pigs are also prone to respiratory infections, so never keep their cages near drafty areas. Sneezing or a glazed appearance around the nose and eyes may indicate a serious respiratory condition.