Should you get a guinea pig?
A guide to help you decide
My wife and I have had guinea pigs for eight years now. They have been the joy of our lives, and we accumulated a lot of experience raising them and fielding questions from our friends about them. I thought of sharing that experience here in the form of a guide for anybody considering getting guinea pigs as pets. Should you?
That is, of course, a very personal question that only you can answer. The following information should help you decide whether these special furry friends are right for you:
Guinea pigs need dedication. All pets do, of course. If you are mainly used to dogs and cats, however, you will find that guinea pigs require different levels of attention and engagement. They can be very affectionate, but they are less able to seek you around the house; they do not have the same cognitive capacities and may not offer humans the level of individual recognition that cats and dogs do; maybe for that reason, first-time guinea pig owners may lose their excitement after a few weeks and disconnect from their new pets. You should make sure that you have the time and long-time commitment to give them daily love and attention.
They need space. Unlike cats and dogs, guinea pigs usually live in cages where they have easy access to food, water, and hiding spaces. But you need space for a large cage where they can run around, exercise, and have a sense of variety. The cages sold at usual pet stores are almost always too small for adult guinea pigs. Below you can see the arrangement we have for our girls, Jane and Lizzie. This kind of modular cage is available through this store and can be flexibly customized.
Guinea pigs need companionship. Guinea pigs are social animals that thrive with companionship. I strongly recommend getting two instead of one. In Switzerland there is an Animal Protection Ordinance determining that guinea pigs must have a companion of their own species. (If you read German, you can check the details of the law here.) Having two or more of them will not only improve their life quality; it will also enrich your experience with them. There is a lot that guinea pigs do in pairs (including types of vocalization, displays of affection or dominance, and playful behavior of all types) that they do not do alone. Having a solitary pig will deprive you of some of the richness of interacting with the species.
Your two pigs may not get along. This may be the case whether you have two males, two females, or a male and a female — although the risk seems higher with two males. They may be friends while young and then become frenemies after reaching puberty. That was the case with our own Johnson and Boswell, who had to live in separate compartments in the cage. But while they would fight if put together, they still benefited from each other’s proximity and spent most of their time by the divider.
Guinea pigs poop a lot! If you are squeamish about cleaning poop, these are not the pets for you. Because herbivores eat less nutritive food than carnivores they must eat more frequently; guinea pigs accordingly have a fast digestive system and poop all the time. You must spot-clean their cage at least twice a day, with a thorough cleaning each week. The good news is that because their diet consists mostly of hay and veggies, their poop barely smells.
Guinea pigs need special vets. Most veterinary hospitals that see cats and dogs will not see exotic animals, and guinea pigs count as exotics. Before buying or adopting guinea pigs, make sure you have convenient access to an exotics vet. Keep in mind that they may charge more than regular vets. If you are adopting females, you may need to spay them early on, to reduce the risk of uterine cancer, mammary tumors, or ovarian cysts.
Guinea pigs have shorter lives than larger pets. The average life for a guinea pig is between 5 and 7 years, so a heartbreak will come sooner than for larger pets. They also have delicate bodies; a toothache may lead very quickly to potentially deadly gastrointestinal complications. A guinea pig owner must be willing to monitor their pigs’ health regularly, weighing them a few times a week and making sure they are finishing their food.
If these conditions seem okay to you — if you have time, space, vet access, and a long-term commitment to making them happy — then guinea pigs may bring you immense joy. They are extremely affectionate, always in the mood for treats, fond of petting, and hilarious all around. Their little quarrels and antics will make your day when there is little else to be happy about, and they will fall asleep on your lap if you give them a soft blanket. Just look at these little faces.
Last but not least: there is no shortage of abandoned guinea pigs at shelters waiting to have a second chance in life. Adopt if you can.