Breed: Guinea Pig (Cavy)
Temperament: quiet and manageable
Lifespan: up to 11 years, average 4-5 years
Recommended for: families, small residences
Most people know them as guinea pigs although they are also often called cavies (Cavy porcellus). Cavies are rodents native to South America, where they still exist in the wild today and where domestication first started; not so much as a pet but rather as a food source. Cavies still form a substantial part of the Andean culture’s diet today.
Cavies come in 10 main colours: White, black, red, gold, buff (biscuit colour), cream, lilac, slate, chocolate and saffron. A ‘self’ is any plain solid colour with matching coloured pigment. The coat types have four main variations;
- Shorthair: Covering a range of colours, markings and crests.
- Coarse-coats: The coat stands away from the body, such as the Rex. Unlike a rex cat, the coat is wiry. These look a little like a Koala, with hair much like steel wool. Another example is the Abyssinian. Again, unlike an Abyssinian cat, the cavy coat has a number of rosette-like crests in a number of patterns. Sometimes described as toilet brush but more often called ‘whirligigs’ by breeders.
- Longhairs: A long coat which can grow about one inch per month.
- Satin: The coat has a shiny appearance due to hollow hair follicles.
In addition to these coat types, there are additional groups which 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.
These coat types may be combined with any of the colours.
As with all rodents, temperament largely depends on how the animal is handled. Well handled cavies are inclined to be placid. Infrequently handled cavies are not. You can keep one cavy on its own, but it will need plenty of attention, otherwise it will become solitary. They are social animals and appreciate attention from their owners. Both males (called boars) and females (called sows) are easily handled, however males may be inclined to fight if kept together after having been mated. Females in particular can fight with each other when in heat. Although rabbits and cavies socialise well together, it is important not to keep them in the same hutch. Their individual diets and difference in size make them incompatible house mates.
Cavies will eat most fruit and vegetables that you eat yourself. Although, beetroot and rhubarb leaves, oxalis, potato and its peelings should not be fed to cavies as these vegetables are toxic. All cavies, particularly pregnant sows, require high levels of vitamin C daily, which is best obtained from clean grasses or lucerne chaff. This should make up the bulk of their daily diet. Specialised cavy pellets are also available from pet stores.
Health and lifespan
Provided you keep them clean there are few health concerns. Cavies may catch colds and their teeth may become overgrown as a result. A cold will stop a cavy from eating, thus their teeth wont be worn down.
Cavies are susceptible to extremes of heat and cold. They should be sheltered from temperatures above 30°C, sudden cold snaps and draughts. 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. The coat should also be checked regularly, especially around the eyes. Bloodshot eyes may be due to grass seeds trapped in the hair around the sockets. Cavies will average four to five years of age but have been known to live as long as 11.
Cavies range in cost from $10 for a non-exhibition pet, or up to $45 long haired varieties. About $15 in pet shops.
Cavies are very easy to breed. A male is sexually active at about four weeks, so remove it from the mother. Litters average at about four babies and sows are able to reproduce from a very early age, about three months. Sows are able to fall pregnant again about 12 hours after giving birth. In order to ensure that the sow does not fall pregnant again, the boar should be removed from the cage prior to the female giving birth. If purchasing a sow, expect her to be pregnant if she has been kept with boars.
Space and exercise
If you want to keep your cavies outside they will live in a hutch on the grass quite happily. If you’re keeping them inside, you’ll need to keep them in a hutch that’s lined with a good layer of newspaper or plastic on the bottom and then some absorbent material such as kitty litter. Once it’s dirty, just take it all out and reline the hutch. An exterior hutch should be made of dressed wood with strong, square wire. An enclosed area should allow the cavies a secure place to rest. For full details on how to house a cavy, see Scott Cam’s fact sheet, ‘Building a Guinea Pig Hutch’ in this week’s show.
Cavies should be bathed every three to four months with a normal anti-dandruff shampoo. Don’t bath them in winter unless it’s absolutely necessary. Novice owners should perhaps not start with the long haired varieties as they are more difficult to maintain. If kept clean, cavies will produce little body odour, though they can’t be house trained.
They’re easy to maintain. They don’t take up a lot of space; you can keep a guinea pig on the veranda, the laundry or inside. They love to be picked up and nursed and like to be put on your lap and cuddled. You don’t have to take them for a walk, you don’t have to give them inoculations and they don’t have heartworm troubles.
Cavies are easy to keep in most domestic situations. It is best not to introduce them to children under the age of five as cavies don’t appreciate rough handling or being dropped. However they are a great animal for introducing children to responsible pet ownership. Also great for the elderly as they love being nursed.
Sydney Northsiders Cavy Club
Club Secretary Maria Amos
Phone (02) 9411 3590
Phone: (03) 9776 5455
Phone: (08) 94553789 or go to http://www.cavywest.com.au
Phone: (07) 3204 4058
Townsville and Districts: John Boag
Phone: (03) 6276 9059