Latin Name Cavia porcellus Order: Rodentia Family:
A common pet, Guinea pigs are familiar to most guests. They’re surprised, however, how trainable they are. They are easily presented in hand, on tables, or even trained to do A-Bs across stages (which is always a hit!). This is also a great, entry-level animal for newer handlers.
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
The guinea pig was domesticated from the wild cavy, which lives in grasslands, woodlands, swamps, plains, rocky areas, and deserts in much of South America. Archaeologists suspect domestication of the cavy may have occurred as early as 5000 BC, but the most reliable early records of domestic cavy population in the north-central highlands of Peru date to 900 BC.
Today they are raised in captivity around the world: in North America as pets, in South America as food source.
Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
- Guinea pigs do not care to live on wire mesh, as their feet are intolerant of this base. Cover areas of mesh with newspaper, bedding, or towels to give them opportunities to get off the mesh.
Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: The majority of our Guinea Pig’s substrate is shaving. They have a hutch filled with care fresh. They also get igloo hides on beds of Carefreh. Our kids also LOVE blankets and their crinkly tube.
Social Housing/Colony Management
- The most important thing to know about guinea pigs is that they have a high social requirement. They should be kept in at least a pair.
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: We have successfully had two males live together and, currently, have a male and a female living together.
- Woodland Park Zoo: we have 1.4 guinea pigs. They are all various ages, colors etc. The male was already neutered when we acquired him so they can all live together.
- USDA standard state that guinea pigs cannot be housed in a primary enclosure with any other species.
Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
Diet in the Wild
- Herbivore, preferring leafy foods and roots.
Diet under human care
- Guinea pig pellets, fruits, vegetables, timothy hay; items high in Vitamin C such as carrot, orange, etc.
- Guinea pigs must have vitamin C in their diet
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: we adjust diet depending on their weight or medical needs. We weigh our guinea pigs at least once a week. Below is their current diet for two guinea pigs that weigh 860 g and 960 g
- F1: 15 g fruit (something high in vitamin C required for every feeding) + 10 g vegetables (ours hate zucchini) + 9 g greens + 9 g guinea pig pellets + 18 g timothy hay
- F2: 3 g fruit (something high in vitamin C required for every feeding) + 3 g vegetables (ours hate zucchini) + 15 g greens + 18 g guinea pig pellets + 18 g timothy hay
- Hutch Treat: 20 g fruits/vegetables + 2 leaf eater biscuit
- They cannot produce their own Vitamin C, so providing that to them in their diet is essential.
- Guinea Pigs are enthusiastic eaters, so it is easy to over feed them. Weekly weighing and vet BCS scores will help with this.
- They also can have cloudy urine if their calcium intake is too high. Keep this in mind for fruit and veggie selection. Too much calcium can lead to bladder sludge.
Enrichment & Training
Behavioral Relevant Information
- This species is very social, so contact with conspecifics (or their scent from opposite gendered animals) can be very enriching.
- Brandywine Zoo: our guinea pigs live in a 2-story corners limited cage. The base layer is lined with paper and shredded paper for their feet and for them to rustle in.
- We provide browse or just sticks for them to chew on, paper and cardboard boxes for shredding. We have had campers make origami boxes to hide food in for them.
- Brandywine Zoo: we exercise or guinea pigs in large rodent/rat balls or set up play pens in the grass for supervised exploration time.
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: They love a good grassy park for enrichment and fresh air. It is like a giant salad.
Other Enrichment Resources
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: Guinea Pigs are very trainable. Ours are are kennel trained and harness trained for their daily programs, and know a target and a mark behavior. They are mainly trained by our volunteers for enrichment. In my experience, approximation is important when working with them.
- Approximations work well with them as I find they don’t really “jump to conclusions” very well and need to be “shown” everything. They are very food motivated and the ones I have trained seem to enjoy the “game” of training as well.
- Skipping too many steps quickly makes the game “not fun.” Small steps works better, in my opinion.
- In addition to kenneling, they also know how to shift to an alternate location on cue.
- They get greens and produce for kenneling reinforcers.
- Woodland Park Zoo: they are trained them for our small stage program, so they actually voluntarily crate as a group and run across the stage A-B in a herd.
- Guinea Pig training videos from Barbara Heidenreich
- Trailer for her Guinea Pig training video- has lots of inspiration in it for set ups (like obstacle courses) and other ideas that could be replicated https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHj_dldKuMY
- Full list of guinea pig training videos, including several on shaping a them to play “basketball” (a ball drop in cup behavior) https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL535EQukKq4qdM955zWdNEzpIyTyTCBDl
Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement
- Some facilities have reported using urine-scented bedding from females as a primary reinforcer for training males.
Colony or Breeding Management
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: We have historically had only pairs. I have worked with a 2.0 group and a 1.1 group. In the 1.1 the male was neutered. Both groups the animals were paired up when they were very young. Our current group is siblings.
- They get fed their remaining diet together; sometimes they’ll bite at each other, but I’ve never seen one make contact.
- Like many rodents, guinea pigs breed before they are 1 year old. This is valuable information when considering mixed sex colonies. Litter size is between 1 and 6 young, with an average of 3. Can have up to five litters a year, but three litters a year is more usual.
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: Since they are rodents, our male had to be neutered and separated from the female from 60 days post op to ensure that his sperm plug won’t impregnate the female. They had visual contact at all times during this 60 days and were allowed supervised play time.
- Use them for programs the require a mammal, so classification, adaptations, etc.
- Woodland Park Zoo: Most guests have no idea that guinea pigs can be trained, and many people can relate to this as many families have guinea pigs as pets. We use the opportunity to talk about how prey animals feel safe in a group and how we give our animals what they need to thrive at the zoo, about appropriate pet choices and even plug rescues and “adopt, don’t shop” because animals can learn at any age (just like people) etc.
- Enrichment is not a zoo word! Let your pets play with their food at home.
Threats and Conservation Status
- Guinea pigs have no special conservation status. Common predators are dogs, cats, and humans.
Interesting Natural History Information
Did you know…
- The “guinea” portion of the name is said to have originated because they are found in the South American country of Guyana, which was a Dutch colony in the 16th century and the name could be a corruption of Guyana. The “pig” portion of the name refers to the short, stout body and squealing sound guinea pigs make.
- Female is a sow, male is a boar.
- Guinea pigs are used in scientific medical research of heredity, nutrition and disease.
- The domestic guinea pig was first described in 1758. Even Queen Elizabeth I had one as a pet!
Handling & Presentation Tips
- One facility reports they use them to run across a stage (A to B), which usually gets a good response from guests.
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: They are presented on the ground or elevated surface in their harness; in a tall sided enclosure on a cart; or unharnessed in a pen.
- Denver Zoo: We take them on outreach as well as have them for onsite programming.We have 11 (!) that we use primarily for an area called “Be a Zookeeper Zone” where guest experience staff work directly with our young visitors to help them learn how we care for our animals, and allow the guests to choose enrichment, design habitats, observe behavior, etc. We use both guinea pigs and box turtles in this area, so species that are accessible/relate-able and generally easy to handle. Beyond that our pigs do meet and greets at our wildlife show, and at zoo events with our volunteers. The appropriate pets messaging is also prominent.
- Northeastern Wisconsin (NEW) Zoo & Adventure Park: we use them a lot with the youngest audiences especially, and with some of our scout groups to talk about pet care, domestic animals, etc.
Signs of Stress:
- Alarm vocalizations (loud squealing)
- Heavy breathing or laying down with body spread
- Agitated movements
- Jumping after being touched
- Frequent handling keeps them reliable for programs.
Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: They are touchable (though our girl does not like her butt touched.) and are calm in your arms when holding them. We don’t often let the public hold them, because then everyone would want to and you’d have to take them away from people to share. In private animal experiences, we allow people to hold them.
- Brandywine Zoo: Guests are allowed to touch, but not hold.
- Cannot tolerate extreme heat or cold
- Guinea pigs tend to drink a lot. Always offer water at classes and off-site.
- What temperature ranges can this animal be used outdoors? Any restrictions for travel that are temperature specific? How long can they be used at each temperature?
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience: Guinea pigs are susceptible to over-heating. Avoid temperatures over 85° F. They should always have access to a water bottle for classes, tours and off-site programs. On hot days, they may be sent to programs with a frozen water bottle.
- Signs of over-heating-hunkering down or laying out flat, heavy breathing
- Nashville Zoo breeds guinea pigs. We have Peruvian, Abyssinian, American broken, and/or teddy breeds. Our transaction terms are a cost of $100.00 per animal to offset the cost of staff time and effort involved in socializing the animals. Please contact Shawna Farrington at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
- Roger Williams Zoo: We got 2 guinea pigs from our local shelter earlier this year. The individuals are surrendered pets and are very fearful even with a rigorous acclimation regimen, they still hide from us when we go inside their enclosure. In my opinion, these 2 don’t make very good ambassadors because they don’t have that “magic” connection with their handler that makes an encounter extraordinary. I know that St. Louis has a great program worked out. They would be a good resource. From my perspective though, I would advise you to get young animals that you can acclimate yourself rather than try to “rehab” a pet that was neglected.
Look for specialty/exotic rescues such as:
Contributors and Citations
- The Philadelphia Zoo
- Lindsay Wildlife Experience
- Denver Zoo
- Roger Williams Zoo
- Woodland Park Zoo
- Brandywine Zoo
Comments from the Rating System
- Natural Science Center of Greensboro: Very skittish and nippy; if they are only held for a short amount of time, they seem to do better.
- Philadelphia Zoo: Not popular with visitors as a program animal – too common in the pet trade.
- Toledo Zoo: We have had many medical issues with our guinea pigs.