They’re unbelievably cute. Vocal. Animated. Cuddly. Active. Skilled con artists. You’ve seen them in “G-Force,” “Bedtime Stories,” and “Dr. Doolittle” providing sassy comic relief and mega-attitude. You may have had one as classroom pet when you were in school and, if you have kids, might have provided vacation care for a friend’s guinea pigs a time or two. Those who have surrendered themselves to the Power of the Guinea Pig call themselves “guinea pig slaves” with neither shame nor guilt.
Guinea pigs are endearing little spirits who quickly steal your heart, take over your home, and figure prominently in your budget. In spite of your best judgment, you find yourself looking for new ways to spoil them and not minding that your schedule ultimately winds up revolving around them. They’re happy to see you when you come home. They’re Zen masters, drama queens, and class clowns. They play hard and loaf easily. They’re both trusting and fearful, delicate and resilient. Those who have spent a lot of time with them swear that they provide far too many well-timed nose nuzzles to be thought of as anything but excellent listeners.
Because they’re so small, folks unfamiliar with guinea pigs often write them off as simple creatures with little real intelligence and very few care needs. In actuality, they have big, well-developed personalities, complex and delicate physiologies, and care needs that are crucial to keeping their physical and emotional health in balance. Like dogs, they are social creatures of habit, who require daily attention and interaction and who settle into routines quickly (and fall out of them slowly). Like cats, they can have seemingly finicky appetites until you understand their particular preferences for fruits, veggies, and hay. Like chinchillas, they require the medical attention of specialized veterinarians (called exotic vets or exotic specialists). And, like horses, they require diligent attention to their diets and observation of their habits in order to maintain good dental and gastro-intestinal health.
In the interest of setting realistic expectations, these are not — despite the sales pitch of (some) pet store clerks and the regurgitated information on Web sites run by non-owners — low-maintenance pets. There is a laundry list of daily, weekly, and monthly tasks for animal care and cage care that can make guinea pigs — lovely as they are — unsuitable for certain households’ lifestyles and life stages. (I argue, though, that there’s no such thing as low-maintenance pets but, rather, good and bad matches between pets and owners.)
Unfortunately, as with many species of pets, there is a lot of bad and incomplete care information out there for guinea pig owners. This information can be found in some published care guides (which are not always written by people who have much, if any, experience with this species), and on the Web, which is littered with sites created by amateur owners, as well as e-commerce sites masquerading as educational sites. This proliferation of information can be challenging to sift through, making things difficult for owners trying to educate themselves and for rescues and veterinarians who have to counter and correct misinformation and misconceptions.
This month, AAHA Healthy Pet launches a new series focused on guinea pigs (written by yours truly). Each week, I’ll talk about guinea pig care and behavior, debunk myths, and help you navigate the maze of pet products and sort out what you do (and don’t) need. I hope you’ll join in the conversation with your comments and questions. As you’ll soon see, when it comes to guinea pigs, there is no shortage of things to talk about!