Cuddly cavies have special care needs --
Guinea pigs have special housing, health demands
"I am not from Guinea, nor am I a pig. Don't call me a hamster, I am much too big! I'm cute, that's for certain, and cuddly, too. I come from the hills and grassland of Peru." This riddle-like quote from the Cavy Madness webpage refers to one of my favorite creatures, the guinea pig.

They are also known as cavies, from their scientific name. Some scientists argue that they are not even rodents, but deserve their own special classification. But whatever you call them, there are many people who love them. They are wonderful, entertaining animals with personality plus. Each piggie has a different personality, from shy to fearless. The plus has to do with their movements and sounds.

Guinea pigs rarely walk; no, they scamper, or waddle, or hop, or bolt. Their frequent little hopping fits are affectionately called "popcorning" by cavy enthusiasts. During these they jump straight into the air in all directions, like popcorn kernels over heat. If a popcorning piggie doesn't make you smile, you need serious anti-depression therapy.

They also have a lot to say, and don't mind saying it. They communicate with each other and with their caregivers, using their own special language. Cavies squeak, squeal, whistle, rumble, grunt, chatter and coo. They also make "motorboat" noises, which sound something like the letter "D" repeated rapidly. This sound is usually emitted as the cavy waddles very slowly around the cage. Rumblestrutting is the official name for this hilarious habit.

As you might guess from these antics, cavies are used to communicating. They are very sociable animals and need a lot of attention. In their natural habitat they live in family groups, so to have a happy guinea pig it is best to get two to provide companionship to each other while their human friends are away.

Two females or a neutered male and a female are the best choices. Two males also can live together. Try to buy or rescue your cavies at the same time and house them together from the very beginning to avoid territorial disputes.

Many cavies find themselves in homes where they may not be the best match for their caregiver. According to the Humane Society of the United States, a guinea pig is viewed by many as an "easy" pet for children. Many parents select a guinea pig as a child's first pet, believing a small pet needs only a small amount of care. It is important to understand that cavies have many needs, including a roomy cage, specialized diet, daily cleanup and gentle handling. Usually, an adult is the best primary caretaker.

 The HSUS offers these care tips for keeping guinea pigs healthy and happy:

* Give them proper housing. Cavies need space to move about. Make sure their living quarters are at least 18 inches wide, 14 inches high and 25 inches deep. Do not use aquariums, as they provide  poor ventilation, or mesh or wire-floor cages that damage guinea pigs' tender feet. A nest box or "pigloo" will provide a place to hide and sleep. Provide a heavy food bowl resistant to tipping and gnawing and a water bottle with a sipper tube.

* Prepare for busy jaws. When choosing floor linings and cage furnishings, keep in mind that guinea pigs will chew on just about anything to wear down their constantly growing teeth, so everything placed in the cage must be nontoxic. Use plenty of lining material, such as shredded ink-free paper or aspen or pine shavings, because guinea pigs will use the material as both bedding  and bathroom. Do not use sawdust, cedar chips or fabrics that may cause respiratory problems. Cedar, those green chips and fragranced wood shavings are treated with scented oils and are toxic to guinea pigs.

* Handle with extra care. Guinea pigs are easily stressed, so they require careful handling. To pick one up, slowly place one hand under his chest just behind the front legs, and gently cup your other hand under his hindquarters. Once you have a firm but gentle grip on the animal, lift him. Then immediately pull him close to your chest or lap so he feels safe and doesn't thrash around.

* Get the right diet. Feed your guinea pig a pelleted diet free of seeds and colored bits, formulated especially for the species. Plenty of high-quality timothy hay is a must. These herbivores require a lot of vitamin C, about 20 to50 mg a day, so provide veggies such as kale, cabbage or romaine lettuce, and ask your veterinarian about vitamin supplements. Treat guinea pigs to different bits of fruits and vegetables.

* Help keep things tidy. Guinea pigs try their best to keep clean, grooming themselves with their front teeth, tongue and back claws. But cavies often require brushing and regular nail trimming. Since their cage lining doubles as bedding and potty, they need daily housekeeping assistance. Scrub the cage, then let it dry before lining the floor with fresh bedding and replacing the cage furnishings. Also clean the water bottle and sipper tube daily to prevent buildup of food, algae and bacteria.

Visit the HSUS site at or or  for more information on cavies.

A Companion Animal Health Column
for the local newspaper, written By BWK

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