Breed: Cavy (Guinea Pig)
Temperament: quiet and manageable
Lifespan: up to 11 years, average 4-5 years
Recommended for: families, small residences
Very little is known about the domestic origins of the Guinea Pig, otherwise known as the Cavy (Cavia porcellus). A rodent native to South America, where they still exist in the wild today, cavy domestication is reported by Peruvian archaeologists to have occurred from at least 900BC. Domestication at this time was not so much as a pet, but rather as a food source for indigenous Andean cultures. Cavies, known by most natives in the Andes regions as cuy (thought to mean ‘little pig’), are in fact still regarded as a food source in the South Americas; millions are eaten each year! Though thankfully in Australia these cute critters are banned from the dinner plate.
Around the late 15th and early 16th century, Spanish traders began regular expeditions to the Americas, and are likely to have returned to the European continent with the first cavies. Breeders state that these curious looking, brick-like animals soon became very popular as household pets.
The origins of the name ‘Guinea Pig’ are unclear. Common theories suggest Guinea may be a corruption of Guiana, a region in South America. Or it may refer to Guinea in West Africa, where the cavy may have passed through on its way to Europe. Another theory claims that the name refers to the gold coin known as a guinea, which one may have paid for each of these small animals.
Cavy clubs and exhibitions have existed in Australia for about thirty years, with the first cavies imported from England.
Cavies come in a multitude of colours and patterns but may be divided into four main coat types:
Shorthair: Covering a range of colours, markings and crests
Coarse-coats: The coat stands away from the body
Longhairs: A long coat which can grow about one inch per month
Satin: The coat has a shiny appearance due to hollow hair follicles
Additional groups also help describe the variations in the coat. These are:
Crested: A small crest is evident on the head
Ticked: The hair has a base colour with silver tips at the ends of the hair
Marked: A patterned coat with more than one colour
Self: Any plain solid colour with matching coloured pigment
Satin and coarse-coats are also included to help make up distinct groups for judging
Cavies come in 10 main colours: White, black, red, gold, buff (a pale gold), cream, lilac, slate, chocolate and saffron. These colours may be combined with any of the groupings.
Cavies can be tamed quickly if handled often and gently. They are social animals and appreciate attention from their owners. Both males (called boars) and females (sows) are easily handled, however males may be inclined to fight if kept together after having been mated. It is important not to keep cavies and rabbits together. Although they socialise well, their individual diets and difference in size make them incompatible house mates.
Cavies are herbivores and require fresh, clean vegetables and grasses daily. All cavies, particularly pregnant sows, require high levels of vitamin C, which is best obtained from clean grasses or lucerne chaff. This should make up the bulk of their daily diet, supplemented by those parts of vegetables which we humans are inclined not to eat, such as carrot tops and peelings, corn husks, broccoli stalks and celery tops. Specialised cavy pellets are available from pet stores. Beetroot and rhubarb leaves, oxalis, potato and its peelings should not be fed to cavies as these vegetables are toxic. Likewise nor should animal products, cakes, white bread or sweets. Excess lettuce may cause diarrhoea. Naturally, clean fresh water should also be provided daily.
Health and lifespan
Cavies are susceptible to extremes of heat and cold. They should be sheltered from temperatures above 30°C, sudden cold snaps and draughts. Toxaemia during pregnancy may occur if females overheat so it is important to keep them cool. If housed outside, cavies may also suffer occasional hair loss. This may be due to a fungal infection resulting from damp conditions. Seek veterinary advice for conditions such as this. Check the coat regularly, especially around the eyes as grass seeds trapped in the hair can cause irritation. Cavies will average four to five years of age but have been known to live as long as 11.
Shows are run regularly by the various state cavy clubs. Although everyone ultimately strives to win in their class, members do not take themselves too seriously and like to have fun too. Included in the usual judging classes are novelty events like carrot eating competitions, fattest guinea pig and most colourful cavy. The atmosphere at these shows is friendly and relaxed and breeders are generally happy to help each other out.
Cavies are very easy to breed. Sows are able to reproduce from a very early age, about three months. And although the average gestation (pregnancy) period is about 70 days, which is quite long for a rodent, sows are able to fall pregnant again about 12 hours after giving birth. In order to ensure that the sow does not become pregnant again, the boar should be removed from the cage prior to the female giving birth. The average litter size for cavies is about four pups. If purchasing a sow, expect her to be pregnant if she has been kept with boars. It is advisable to ask the store owner or breeder if the sow has been kept with boars and check to see if she appears pregnant. Although this is only possible quite late in the pregnancy.
Space and exercise
Commercial cavy hutches are available from pet shops and will cost from $50 to $200. Standard rabbit hutches will also suffice as long as there is a covered area for the cavies to rest in. Don’t overcrowd the hutch; allow a minimum of about 70x70cm for each cavy. Treated wood hutches are not suitable as the wood is toxic if chewed. Bedding should be softwood shavings or straw. As cavies are social animals, females can be kept together or with a single male. Males should be kept apart or introduced together at an early age. Cavies are equally happy if housed alone. A suitably sized hutch is generally sufficient for exercise and if handled often, cavies will lie quietly with their owner and sleep. Children should keep an eye on their pets when playing with them. Cavies will get up to mischief if left alone and should be protected from other animals.
Cost and maintenance
Cavies range in cost from $5 for a non-exhibition pet, or from $10-$45 for pedigree and long haired varieties.
Pet cavies should be bathed every three to four months with a normal anti-dandruff shampoo. Show animals will need to be washed about fortnightly. The hutch should be cleaned regularly of waste and food scraps. Cavies don’t like living in dirty conditions. Novice owners should not start with the long haired varieties as they are more difficult to maintain. If kept clean, cavies will produce little body odour.
Cavies are easy to keep in most domestic situations. It is best not to introduce them to children under the age of five as they do not appreciate rough handling or being dropped however they are a great animal for introducing children to responsible pet ownership. Cavies may also be kept indoors with an appropriate hutch.
We filmed this segment with Maria and Gemma Amos at their house in Sydney. Maria is the Secretary of the Sydney Northsiders Cavy Club. Phone: (02) 9411 3590.
State Cavy Clubs:-
NSW: Vice President, Daniel Duffin, phone (02) 6254 0001
VIC and SA: Ken Pedderson, phone: (03) 9776 5455
WA: Sue Scott, phone: (08) 9455 3789
QLD: Jo Boys, phone: (07) 3204 4058
Townsville and Districts: John Boag, phone: (07) 47891202
TAS: Laurie Sampson, phone: (03) 6276 9059