Guinea Pigs: General care

Guinea pigs are often chosen as children's first pets. They aren't very demanding, and are easy for children to handle, once they learn the technique. They come to recognise their owners, with eager squeaks around food time, and it's relaxing to watch them grazing in the garden on a sunny day.

Guinea pigs may only live three or four years, though healthy animals can live for up to seven years. They aren't very demanding, but they do need daily care, and are all too often neglected once their young owners grow out of them. It's worth thinking about what will make your guinea pig happy, so it lives a long time. And if you feel you've grown out of your guinea pig, or are just too busy to give it the care it needs, find a friend or neighbour who wants to take it on, or an animal welfare charity may find someone for you.

Breed types

Guinea pigs acquired from pet shops are usually crossbreeds so if you buy from a pet shop, the main thing to look for is a healthy, alert animal. Pure-bred guinea pigs can be obtained from agricultural shows and exhibitions where specialist breeders sell and show their animals. There are three main kinds of guinea pigs: those with short, smooth coats; the Abyssinians with short hair in rosettes; and those with long straight hair. You will need to groom long-haired guinea pigs, and be especially careful to keep them clean, so short-haired guinea pigs are easier for younger children. There is a wide range of guinea pig colours and colour combinations, including albinos with white coats and pink eyes, which need more protection from the sun.


Guinea pigs live in groups in the wild, and prefer companionship in captivity. You need to choose their cage mates carefully, because they have to get on really well. They can't run away from a companion they don't get on with in a cage. Two males will sometimes fight, especially if they are competing over a female, and females may also fight, until they work out who's boss. Keep an eye on your guinea pigs when you introduce new companions, until you're certain they do get on. Try introducing them in a big run before putting them in a smaller cage together. Only keep adult males and females together if you have homes for the potential babies, and only put one male at a time in the same cage as a female or females. They won't pair off if you try putting two males and two females together, one male is likely to want both females!

Guinea pigs can be allowed to exercise outdoors in a secure run during the summer. They must have a shelter in their run to protect them from rain and wind, and give them more than one hiding place if it's a very big run, so they feel safe. The run should also give protection from dogs and foxes, if there is a risk of their entering the garden. Put the run in partial shade so they don't get too hot, and find somewhere in your garden with total shade for albinos.

A pair of guinea pigs needs a hutch around 75 cm long, by 40 cm wide and 40cm high, with a partition at one end for sleeping with a wooden front, and 18mm wire mesh across the rest of the front. Smaller hutches will get soiled faster, and you're more likely to have fights, though you can have a smaller cage for the night if you can let your guinea pigs out in an indoor or outdoor run in the daytime. Front-opening cages are kinder than cages opening at the top, because it's less frightening for your guinea pig to see you at its own level, than to have you pick it up from above. You need two doors, one for the sleeping quarters, and one for the living quarters.

Put the hutch in the part of your shed or garage that is most draught-free. Paper can be placed on the hutch floor and covered with around 5 cm of wood shavings, plus hay for bedding, which should be changed daily. Sawdust should not be used as it causes breathing and other health problems. Guinea pigs need a chewing block to exercise their teeth, which can grow too long otherwise.

The cage should be cleaned daily, with soiled bedding removed, and you need a proper clean-out of the whole cage every week. Cleaning the cage is very important to avoid skin problems and infestations. Wire mesh on the floor allows droppings to fall through, but hurts their little feet, so is not a good idea. You can make or buy cages with trays for the bottom of the cage that slide out, for easy cleaning. The tray only needs to go under their living quarters, because they don't usually wee in their sleeping quarters - though you still need to clean the sleeping quarters regularly to avoid infestations. Ideally, you need a spare tray for the living quarters, so you can take one out, clean it with disinfectant and leave it to dry, and put in the dry one from the day before. It's kinder to put your guinea pigs in a separate run when you give them their weekly clean.

Guinea pigs like exercise in the winter when it's too cold to allow them outside, so you can set up a secure indoor run for them. They will need a shelter to hide in, just as they do with the outdoor run, to keep them out of draughts and because they are shy, so like to be able to hide away if they hear sounds that startle them.


Guinea pigs need daily doses of vitamin C and generally eat the same range of food as rabbits. Feed them twice a day with fresh vegetables if they don't have access to grazing outside. They eat fresh green vegetables like dandelions or cabbage, root vegetables such as carrots. They should also have hay and special guinea pig mix available at all times, as well as fresh water. You need a heavy bowl that won't get knocked over and is easy to clean, for both their water and their food. Plastic bowls will tend to get knocked over.


You can prevent a lot of health problems by making sure your guinea pigs have proper food, a clean, roomy, draught-free home, and making sure they are not being too rough with each other. If you think they are fighting, it is worth checking for any scratches and cleaning them with mild antiseptic. Guinea pigs can be troubled by skin diseases or lice and mites, and you will need to take them to the vet if you see signs of these problems.


Guinea pigs are shy and need very gentle handling. They will wriggle if they are nervous, so you have to pick them up with both hands, and be careful that they don't fall and hurt themselves. A guinea pig you've just brought home is likely to be nervous of you at first. Give your new guinea pig time to get to know you before you start picking it up. Talk to it quietly so it gets used to the sound of your voice, and tempt it with titbits. You can try stroking the guinea pig gently when it comes to you, talking quietly, and offering a titbit with your other hand. When your guinea pig has got used to you (which may take a few days), then you can pick it up and put it on your lap. If you sit on the floor, it can't fall. It will get frightened if you squeal that it's tickling or nibbling you! Keep calling it with a titbit and handling it for a very short time every day, so it gets used to you, and you'll find it will come to greet you in the hope of special treats.


Guinea pigs breed freely. They have a long gestation period of from 60-65 days, and the young are born with all their fur, unlike rabbits, which are born blind and hairless. Litters are usually small, from one to four babies. Young guinea pigs are enchanting creatures, but beware of overcrowding, and keep the sexes separate if you haven't enough space and can't easily find homes for the youngsters. You can sex a young guinea pig by gently turning it onto its back and pressing (very gently) above its genitals to see if it has a penis. Females can breed from as young as a month old, males from two months, so you need to separate them just after weaning, at three to four weeks. Do this even if you want to breed them, because they aren't adult and ready for breeding until they are six months old.