A Parent’s Guide to Guinea Pigs

Boston PignicImage courtesy of Tammy Raabe Rao

Children observe guinea pigs at the Boston Pignic, a public gathering of guinea pig owners and hobbyists.

It usually comes out of nowhere and doesn’t go away. You can avoid it or hide from it but eventually you need to face it. Your kids want a pet guinea pig.

If you’ve had a cavy (the other name for a guinea pig) or two of your own recently, you might be well versed in what it means to care for one. If you fall into that category, this article is not for you. However, if you’re like most parents, having a pet guinea pig is a distant memory. You might have never had a guinea pig at all. Times have changed. Caring for the modern guinea pig is quite different than what you might expect.

You might be envisioning a fat pet kept in a small open top aquarium and fed the leftover scraps of dinner veggies. Weekly, a bunch of pellets are dumped into the largest bowl possible and refilled when empty. The water comes from a monster sized bottle that is refilled when your piggy starts banging it on the side of the tank. Once a month the guinea pig goes in a plastic ball and runs around the house all day while the stinky tank is sprayed with a hose, left to air dry, then filled with half a bag of cedar chips. Your guinea pig lived a year and a half and mysteriously died having never seen a vet.

Please don’t go to your local rescue and explain this vision to them. They’ll lose their mind for the fourteenth time that day while they kindly explain to you that you should read up on some basic cavy care. This is what proper guinea pig care really looks like…

A bonded pair of healthy sized guinea pigs kept in an 8 square foot C&C (cubes and coroplast) cage you’ve built yourself. They’re fed romaine or dark leaf lettuce and a mix of fresh veggies a couple times a day. They also have a small bowl of pellets and fresh grass hay available at all times. Water is changed daily. Small toys that encourage discovery and healthy chewing along side hidey houses for security. The cage is swept daily, cleaned weekly, and the bottom can be covered with CareFresh bedding, appropriate fleece blankets that can be washed and reused, or a combination of both. Your guinea pig will be weighed regularly and brought to a vet if there’s an abnormal change in weight as this is one of the more obvious signs of illness. Your guinea pig can live 5-8 years.

When it comes to your kids taking care of guinea pigs, there’s no perfect age to know when they can handle the responsibility. It depends on the child, their level of experience with animals, and how invested they are in caring for one. Many rescues will not allow a child to adopt guinea pigs and will encourage the care of the guinea pigs to be a family effort. Guinea pigs have a fragile structure and can easily break a leg (or worse) if dropped from even a short distance. Children should be taught to sit on the floor and use both hands when holding their pet.

If you suspect your child’s interest in owning guinea pigs is limited, there’s a few options for you. The simplest solution is providing your child with a toy guinea pig as an alternative. Stuffed guinea pigs by Ty and Hasbro can be just as much fun as the robotic guinea pigs available elsewhere. It can also help you explain to your child that pets are not toys and caring for a real pet can involve real work.

If you’re past the stuffed toy phase, you might want to evaluate if guinea pigs are the right pet for your family as opposed to a hamster, rabbit, or even a dog. No pet is a starter pet. No pet deserves to have their needs or life sacrificed for the sake of your child’s education. Also keep in mind that young children can be just as upset over the death of a pet hamster as they would over the death of a pet dog or cat. It can be traumatizing for a child to learn the pet’s poor health or death was a direct result of their actions. These “hard lessons” are as out of date in the book of parenting as keeping your guinea pig in a fish tank.

Visiting an adoption event as a family can allow you to observe and discuss the care and level of involvement your family would be comfortable with. Discussing the experience with your child can help you better understand their needs as well. It can help you discover if you child has any fear related to the new pet. Allergies can also be a problem with some children and need to be address before bringing a pet into the home.

If you family is comfortable with the idea of a guinea pig but unsure or unable to commit to its lifelong care, talk to your local rescue about volunteer programs. You might find that you enjoy contributing to adoption events or even fostering a pair of guinea pigs for a time. Being a part of a community of guinea pig hobbyist is a great way to learn before bringing a real one home.

If you have a great idea for an article about guinea pigs, please let us know. Guinea Pig Today is a network of guinea pig lovers and we’re always looking for the next great story. View our submissions page for more information on how to submit your idea.

Angela, Editor-in-Chief, GPT

Angela founded Guinea Pig Today and guest writes for CavyMadness. She volunteers with Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue and supports the ROUS Foundation. Her guinea pig, Papua, is the star of WHEK-TV/DT.

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8 Responses to “A Parent’s Guide to Guinea Pigs”
  1. Linda says:

    Great article!! I’m going to print it out and place it in our FFA Chapter’s small animal care binder 🙂 THANKS!

  2. Becky Wilson says:

    This is a great article. I would love to send it to about 40% of the families that submit applications to adopt. Thank you.

  3. Margery says:

    Great article, and that’s my cavy Peaches in the photo!

    I would reword this sentence:

    They also have a small bowl of pellets and fresh grass hay available at all times.

    …to make it clear that it’s the pellets that are in a small bowl, not the hay:

    They also have fresh grass hay and a small bowl of pellets available at all times.

  4. Denise says:

    Great post! I’ve never had a guinea pig – or bought one for my children. I do, however, have three prairie dogs. 🙂

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