California’s Giant Guinea Pigs and the Cuys Criollos Mejorados

Titan, the second largest Cuy discovered in CaliforniaImage courtesy of Wee Companions

Pictured is Wee Companions founder, Fenella Speece, holding Titan, the second largest Cuy we have seen and the most tame. Titan was 5 pounds when Wee Companions discovered him in a shelter.

In 2010, small animal rescues in Southern California began receiving phone calls from animal shelters reporting extra large, “wild” guinea pigs. Many of the shelters did not normally contact rescues; yet the guinea pigs were so difficult to handle that shelters deemed them unadoptable. Rescues were puzzled at first, until a San Diego veterinarian posted photos on Facebook of a large, polydactyl guinea pig that resembled those found in the shelters. These guinea pigs came from a local Petco store. When asked about the guinea pigs, Petco queried their supplier and replied that “. . . these are a new type of guinea pig that they are testing. They were excited to hear that people noticed and liked them.”

These are in fact, not a new type of guinea pig. They bear a striking resemblance to the Cuys Criollos Mejorados commonly raised for food in South American countries such as Peru. Here are some characteristics they share with the Cuys:

  • Always red, red and white or white in color (It is not acceptable to eat dark colored Cuys in Peru);
  • May have Polydactyly, a mutation caused by inbreeding that results in extra toes;
  • Weighing between four and eight pounds when full grown (average guinea pigs weigh about two pounds);
  • Larger features, such as wider ears and huge feet.

Most of these Guinea pigs are feral and difficult to tame, especially if they have reached adulthood without much handling. They also possess superior jumping skills, and cannot be kept in an uncovered cage.

Titan, the second largest Cuy discovered in CaliforniaImage courtesy of OC Cavy Haven

A side view of an adolescent Cuy (Fiona, below) next to a full grown male guinea pig of average size (Acorn, top). Fiona was 1200 grams at the time and already longer than the adult male. She was not even close to full grown.

Several inside sources at Petco have revealed that these guinea pigs are indeed imported from Peru. Why would Petco import guinea pigs from Peru? It is likely that purchasing the Cuys is somehow more cost effective; since they are raised for meat and not for pets, they may wholesale for less. In addition, purchasing small animals from a meat grower instead of a pet breeder may furnish a loophole for Petco to escape inspection by APHIS, the division of the USDA that regulates pet breeding facilities. Since many of Petco’s distributors in recent years have been investigated and charged with animal cruelty and neglect, the company may be seeking creative ways to avoid further negative publicity while maintaining the profit margin. Further inquiries to Petco went unanswered.

The difficulty for rescues lies in the fact that these Cuys are not desirable pets for the average American family, most of who are interested in guinea pigs as docile pets for their children. The Cuys are incredibly strong and difficult to tame. They seem to have more fear of humans than domestic guinea pigs. Because of their wild nature, they are much more likely to be relinquished to a shelter than regular-sized guinea pigs. Even more disturbing are reports that the Cuys have a shorter lifespan and are prone to heart disease. Rescues are receiving reports of sudden, unexplained deaths before the age of three years old.

Fiona and Acorn, a comparison of guinea pig and cuy featuresImage courtesy of OC Cavy Haven

A frontal comparison of their facial features. Notice how Fiona's head (left) is shaped differently from Acorn (right) and her ears appear so much larger.

Concerned small animal rescues contacted several government agencies to inquire about oversight on the practice of purchasing and selling the Cuys. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and, in California, the Department of Health Services Food and Drug Branch regulates the slaughter and sale of exotic animals for meat. However, the Cuys are being sold as pets and not slaughtered, which would be illegal in California according to penal code section 598b. It is not illegal to raise guinea pigs for food in California, as long as they are slaughtered elsewhere. It is not illegal to sell “meat” guinea pigs as pets.

Inquiries to other government organizations went nowhere. APHIS does not regulate slaughterhouses or facilities where animals are grown for meat. The California Dept of Fish and Game regulates the importation of non-native species. However, it will require genetic testing to prove that the Cuys are not the same species as Cavia porcellus, the common domestic guinea pig. They are most likely genetically very similar. Many of the guinea pigs raised for food in Peru are the same size as the domestic guinea pigs in the United States. The Cuys Criollos Mejorados are the results of selective breeding designed to produce larger, meatier animals for food consumption.

Image courtesy of OC Cavy HavenImage courtesy of OC Cavy Haven

A comparison of Fiona's foot (left) and Acorn's foot (right). Look at how truly different they appear. It's like a guinea pig Clydesdale!

In recent years, the promotion of guinea pigs as micro livestock has become very popular, especially in developing countries where raising cattle is problematic. In other words, the Cuys are not likely to go away anytime soon. None of the regulatory agencies are willing to claim jurisdiction over the sale of meat guinea pigs as pets. Cuys have started appearing in other pet store chains such as PetSmart and Kahoots. Since they appear similar to regular-sized guinea pigs when young, consumers may have a difficult time identifying the Cuys in pet stores. When they grow up to be wild giants, impossible for children to handle, they will continue to land in the local shelters.

Animal rescuers recommend that people avoid purchasing animals from pet stores. It perpetuates the existence of pet mills, which rely on supply and demand. In addition, the potential for purchasing a sick, mis-sexed, or pregnant animal is high, especially when dealing with rodents. Now there is even one more reason not to purchase animals from pet stores: the chance that you could receive a wild, untamable, short-lived, giant mutant—instead of a small, docile, family friendly pet that lives six to eight years.

Further reading:
GuineaLynx thread logging Cuy data
GuineaLynx thread on the discovery of Cuy
Translated page of helpful information on Cuy.

See University of California publication 8146, “Selling Meat and Meat Products.” “598b. (a) Every person is guilty of a misdemeanor who possesses, imports into, or exports from, this state, sells, buys, gives away, or accepts any carcass or part of any carcass of any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion with the intent of using or having another person use any part of that carcass for food. See

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.

Nicole Peeples, CEO, Orange County Cavy Haven

Nicole is a co-founder of Orange County Cavy Haven and has been rescuing guinea pigs since 2002. OCCH is a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity that rescues guinea pigs and finds them new homes as well as educating the public about their proper care.

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14 Responses to “California’s Giant Guinea Pigs and the Cuys Criollos Mejorados”
  1. Francine says:

    I have heard of the large cuy but never saw one before! An eight pound guinea pig would be fabulous if it had a proper lifespan and was healthy! How awful Petco is…

    Is there any evidence that they can be tamed if worked with at a young enough age, or are they too close to wild stock?

    • They can become somewhat tame if handled regularly starting when they are young. However, they require more focused, consistent taming than is given in the average home where the guinea pigs are a pet for a child. Most of them are too strong for children to handle; they are also hyper-vigilant and startle easily.

    • Victoria says:

      I live in Northern California. We are seeing more of these “giant pigs” all the time in shelters now. Even adults can be tamed, but it takes someone with a great amount of time and patience, as well as cavy knowledge, a quiet home, and the understanding that they are great jumpers and runners. The influx is a result of the south american meat industry looking for more revenue buyers, and the fact the we border the country in which they are bred to become so large.

  2. Steph Irwin says:

    I would imagine that a standard cage would not hold them either. The ones we have are held together by small, plastic clips. Better to go to a rescue to get your piggies anyway!!

  3. Becky says:

    This is so sad for everyone concerned. I hate the thought that guinea pigs are raised for food but understand the various food practices of other cultures. However when you take an animal like this and sell it in the local pet store the consequence can be just terrible. That first pet guinea pig will most likely determine if you are a guinea pig owner for life. What a shame to think children will end up with these rather than the sweet animals we all know and love.

  4. Heather says:

    About a year ago, I adopted a Cuy. He was sold at a pet store, then returned to them by the family that bought him due to his size and “wild” nature. After being returned, he was kept alone in a cat-sized travel carrier by himself for over 6 months in the back room of the pet store. I saw a small sign saying that they had an animal available for adoption, and when I asked to see him, it was love at first sight. His name is Rupert, and he is the sweetest guinea pig I have ever owned. He weighs in at around 5 lbs and has the large size described here, however the behavioral issues are, in my opinion, just a bad stereotype. When I first brought Rupert home, he did display some of these behaviors; he didnt want to be picked up, and always seemed scared. After just a few weeks, his true colors started to show. Rupert now loves to be held and cuddled. If you put him on your lap, he will put his front paws up on your chest and nuzzle your chin. I have had regular guinea pigs in the past, and none of them have ever been as affectionate as Rupert. Even better, from day one, Rupert has never “done his business’ on my lap or on any furniture, etc. He has a special wheek that he does when he has to go, and unfailingly waits until he is back in his cage or out on the grass to do his business. I would not say that Rupert would be a great child’s pet, and take note that they definitely can jump very high, probably around 2 feet or more in the air. He will unfailingly try to escape when he goes outside for playtime, however as long as you have a good enclosure there will be no problems. Overall, Rupert has a few special needs, but I think that every pet does. This doesn’t mean that we should misunderstand or disregard this whole breed of lovable giants. This line “a wild, untamable, short-lived, giant mutant” cut right to my heart and for the first time made me disappointed in this site. How many times have we all as guinea pig owners heard that our piggies are “silly children’s pets” or “brainless little rodents”? This stooped to that level in my opinion, and I hope that you will all give Cuys more of a chance than just to reject them like this.

    • It’s great that you rescued a Cuy and that he was tame. This is not the case most of the time. And, like it or not, the popular notion persists that guinea pigs are good pets for children (no matter how hard we rescues fight this idea). Petco should not be selling giant guinea pigs to unsuspecting families; the end result is, as you saw, the pet being abandoned.

      • Frida says:

        This just leads us to the point where we know that no animals whatsoever should be sold in pet stores.

  5. I wonder how different the description of these giant guinea pigs is to what people say about regularly sized guinea pigs that are given up for adoption. I would guess that most of their owners said that the pig was not tame, would bite, wouldn’t let their child hold them, etc. This is what happens when someone gets an animal that they don’t know how to care for, or whose care they turn over to a child too young for the responsibility. The only difference is probably the size.

  6. Adrian Johnson says:

    The giant guinea pig was selectively bred from ordinary Peruvian stock as micro-livestock at the University of Lima in Peru. The process of selectively breeding the largest animals to increase the size and weight took 40 years; however the giant strain was not bred from “wild stock” because the cavy has been domesticated for 2000 or 3000 years as a food animal. Because the giant cavy has larger muscles, it is to be expected that they can jump higher than the ordinary sized ones.

    Before the Spanish conquest of Peru all guinea pigs were large; after their culture was disrupted, however the people lost the knack of breeding the animals for weight as they began eating the largest ones, effectively selecting only the smaller ones to breed which gradually reducing the breed to the size we consider “normal” today.

    The professor who bred them back to pre-conquest size knew that the ancient genes for size were still there if the animals were selectively bred for it. Since the university was breeding them in great numbers for commercial production, none of the breeders were ever pets and so the young got out of the habit of being handled so the behavior described is to be expected.

    These giant guinea pigs are being exported to protein-starved third world countries (like Africa, India, and Bangladesh) where the small animals can be concealed from thieves or terrorist armies the way cattle and goats cannot. They represent a rare affordable source of good nutrition to people who would otherwise starve. Although we think of guinea pigs as pets, we must remember the ancient Incas bred them from the wild viscacha (related to the chinchilla) as a food animal; and the giant variety is genuinely helping starving people in the third world. The University of Peru has a program to teach people how to raise, process, and cook them.

    • Kim says:

      Is there a problem with these poor people turning vegetarian? It’s actually a more viable, less expensive way of living, uses fewer resources and doesn’t involve killing a mammal.

      • Adrian Johnson says:

        Yes, Kim, there is a problem with these poor people turning vegetarian. (forgive me for supposing you are a young city dweller who has no experience of farming or agronomy).
        It is actually MORE expensive to have a healthy, vegetarian lifestyle, because it takes lots of land to raise enough bulk and variety of plants to provide adequate (=healthy) diet.

        Poor people don’t have that much land, nor is it good land; rich people own the good farmlands. People cannot eat poor-quality grass & weeds; however, the guinea pigs quickly convert grass to meat protein and the people can eat the guinea pigs roasted or stewed, and with the few plants they can find or raise, have a decent diet.

        Surplus guinea pigs can be traded or sold as meat for income, which gives the poor a way to survive and even flourish; if they get money for the meat, then they can afford a pair of cheap shoes or a shirt.

        This is why these large guinea-pigs are called “micro-livestock.” You don’t need much land or space to raise enough grass to sustain a flock of 20 or 25 guinea-pigs in a shed for food and trade. I have lived and worked in third-world countries, and know how hard it is for the poor to get decent nutrition.
        You are probably used to having more than one meal (and no snacks) a day; these people are lucky to get that. You should not let your prejudice against meat-eating blind you to the fact that meat protein is necessary to keep many people alive in desperately poor countries. Remember that Guinea pigs originated millenea ago in Peru as food animals; they only became pets in Europe in the early 19th century. Remember, in time of war and famine, even people sentimental about their pets eastern europe in WW I & II got so hungry they ate their dogs and cats; they don’t put this in the history books because it upsets school- children. In the seige of Leningrad, (an other less-known places) once all the pets and zoo animals were eaten, many survived by canablizing their dead relatives. (Look it up.)

  7. lily says:

    This is very sad to read, I hate the thought of these poor guinea pigs being abandoned when the owners can’t care for them any more.

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