Guinea pigs make great first pets—and since March is National Adopt a Rescued Guinea Pig month, now is the perfect time to start looking for a guinea pig to add to your fur family!
To teach new small pet owners how to care for a guinea pig, we’ve asked Dr. Melissa McNeil, DVM, an associate veterinarian with a special interest in exotic pets at the VCA Wakefield Animal Hospital in Wakefield, MA, for advice.
Picking Out the Right Guinea Pig Cage
When it comes to a home for your fuzzy pal, bigger is always better, says Dr. McNeil. “A cage that houses one guinea pig should be 36 inches by 18 inches by 22 inches with a solid floor and soft bedding such as shredded paper or fleece,” she explains.
You also will want to choose a guinea pig cage without solid walls, so that your guinea pig can get proper ventilation. When you are selecting bedding for the guinea pig cage, you will want to stick to shredded paper or fleece. You should avoid using wood shavings, says Dr. McNeil.
Finding Nutritious Guinea Pig Food
These herbivores do best on a healthy diet that contains hay, pellets and greens, says Dr. McNeil. “For adult guinea pigs, be sure to provide free access to good quality grass hay like timothy, orchard or oat hay,” she notes. Juvenile pigs (less than 6 months of age) should be fed alfalfa hay, which is higher in calories, calcium and protein. “This hay is also recommended for pregnant and lactating guinea pigs, too.”
Adult pigs can have a small amount of timothy hay pellets, but consult your vet before offering them. “Too many pellets can lead to obesity, and be sure to avoid the high-calorie variety that’s made from dried fruits, seeds, grains and nuts,” she notes. Speak with your guinea pig’s doctor about the type of greens he should be consuming, too. Dark, leafy greens are preferred because they have more vitamins and minerals. It is not recommended to feed your pet guinea pig iceberg lettuce because it doesn’t have much nutritional value and it can cause stomach issues if a guinea pig eats too much.
“Guinea pigs, like humans, do not synthesize their own vitamin C, so commercial pellets that are supplemented with this important nutrient are essential,” explains Dr. McNeil. “I highly recommend including foods rich in vitamin C, such as red bell peppers, in your guinea pig’s daily diet. A small sliver or about 2 tablespoons, once daily, is all that’s required for vitamin C supplementation,” she notes.
And don’t forget water! “Fresh, clean water should be provided at all times, in both a bowl and water bottle, and frequently refreshed to encourage hydration,” she says.
Socializing Your Guinea Pig
Guinea pigs are very friendly animals, but you’ll need to go slowly as you begin to socialize your new pet, says Dr. McNeil. “They are wonderful pets, but it can take time for them to adapt to human interaction,” she points out. Start by offering treats and then work up to pettings, she advises. “Many guinea pigs don’t enjoy being picked up, so try to interact with them on a flat surface.”
Exercising Your Guinea Pig
Guinea pigs need plenty of time outside of the cage for exercise, notes Dr. McNeil. “I recommend at least a few hours daily, as a lack of exercise may contribute to the development of numerous medical problems, including obesity, sore hocks and bladder sludge,” she explains.
Unlike hamsters, guinea pigs do not run on an exercise wheel, but these animals do enjoy time spent outdoors. “Be sure that your pig’s outdoor time is always supervised in an escape-proof area that is not treated with pesticides,” warns Dr. McNeil. And keep in mind that guinea pigs overheat easily, so you’ll need to limit their time in the yard to days when the weather is mild.
Dental Care for Guinea Pigs
It is also important to know that a guinea pig’s teeth never stop growing, so the chewing and grinding of hay contributes to healthy teeth. Providing your pet guinea pig with hay and treats to chew on is always smart, but make sure you talk with your veterinarian to make sure that you are not overfeeding them, and that the treats you give your pet are appropriate.
Health Care for Guinea Pigs
All guinea pigs should have yearly exams with a veterinarian who’s savvy and knowledgeable when it comes to exotic pets. Meeting with the right veterinarian means you can discuss the most up-to-date husbandry tips and help prevent certain diseases, adds Dr. McNeil. Guinea pigs should never stop eating or defecating. “If this happens, or if the poops become smaller, it is an emergency, and he or she should see a veterinarian immediately,” she cautions.
Bathing is not recommended as a routine experience for healthy guinea pigs. To groom your guinea pig, you can get a small animal grooming kit, which will provide you with all the tools you need. A comb will keep your guinea pig’s coat silky and smooth, and nail clippers will keep their nails at a healthy length.
Find out what other supplies guinea pigs need:
Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City writer/editor and the mom of two teenage girls. She’s also the devoted owner of a rescue pup named Django, a temperamental Shepherd mix. Geddes has worked for Food & Wine, Parenting, Seventeen and Airbnb magazines and creates content for dozens of sites, including Care, Fisher-Price, the National Sleep Foundation and Realtor.