Guinea Pig Basics

Domesticated more than 500 years ago in South America, guinea pigs were first brought to Europe in the 1500s by the Spanish and later the Dutch, making their way into the homes of the wealthy as novelty pets.

Today they've made their way into the hearts of adults who may warmly remember the friends of their childhood or who may be enjoying these complex small mammals for the first time.

According to the 2003/2004 National Pet Survey prepared by the Greenwich, Connecticut-based American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc., there are approximately 3.3 million guinea pigs in American homes.

Because they are such popular pets and often end up at shelters or with rescue groups, the ASPCA declared March 2002 as the first annual Adopt-A-Rescued-Guinea Pig Month in an effort to celebrate guinea pigs as pets and to help promote the adoption of pigs who have lost their homes.

Cavies (the proper name for guinea pigs) come in a variety of colors and hair types, but it is their personality and behavior that make them so appealing. Ingrid Rice of Vancouver has shared her home with guinea pigs for many years. Her herd has free range of the kitchen and living room, but a few prefer to stay in the cavy condominium (a tiered open cage) during the day. Rice's guinea pigs are accustomed to receiving a bite-sized cavy snack food sparingly doled out only when personally requesting it by standing on her foot or fixing her with an intense gaze. When word gets out that treats are being served, a mob appears.

"I can tell if one of the regulars has gone back to the cage with her treat," Rice observes, "because a parade of hopeful pigs will emerge from the kitchen and make a beeline to my feet. As soon as they finish their treat, they beetle back to the cage." Two or three pigs in particular beg several times a day, knowing full well that they've already had their snack and sulking when sternly reminded, "No, you've had yours."

The sounds that cavies make are perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of living with them. Guinea pigs are not quiet pets. Communication in the form of squeaks, rumbling and rattling is an integral part of cavy life. One vocalization, fondly called a "wheek," appears to be reserved for cavy-to-human interaction and is thought to mean, "Give me food!" Some cavies are more talkative than others and produce a soft, rhythmic burbling as they percolate happily from one place to another.



A Grown-up's Guide to Guinea Pigs by Dale L. Sigler (

Diseases of Domestic Guinea Pigs by V.C.G. Richardson (Blackwell Science Ltd.)

Internet Resources
General care, medical care and information on nutrition
Advice on bedding and housing, with simple directions for constructing large cages
Information on how to introduce two or more guinea pigs, neutering and much more Adoption Sources
A wonderful resource for adopting all types of pets; select "Small and Furry" for guinea pigs


Lyn Zantow maintains an informational cavy care website and active message board at She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her two guinea pigs, Nina and Snowflake.

Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Spring 2004 Vol. 24, No. 1, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804