Neither Pigs, Nor From Guinea
By Dr. Anndrea Kapke
The time honored tradition of the classroom pet is remembered fondly by many of us. A classroom pet is an opportunity for children who don’t have a pet at home to interact with an animal and learn about the responsibility required to care for one. But any elementary school teacher can tell you that a pet in classroom isn’t without risk. Sometimes an unintended lesson occurs.
Rusty and Butterscotch are the classroom guinea pigs in Mrs. Kristen Ratzman’s fourth grade class at Westwood Elementary School in Greenwood. Mrs. Ratzman thought both guinea pigs were boys until her daughter, Kaitlyn Proehl, a fifth grader at Westwood, noticed some unusual activity. She turned both pets over and realized they didn’t look the same under the hood. Rusty was a girl.
Despite the name, guinea pigs are neither pigs, nor from Guinea. They are domesticated rodents from South America. They weigh one to two pounds as adults and typically live six to nine years. Guinea pigs are described as gentle pets that rarely bite.* (*In 14 years of veterinary practice, I’ve only had to get stitches for an animal bite once, so far, and that was from a guinea pig bite.) Usually, when startled, guinea pigs either freeze or stampede.
The three most common types of guinea pigs are English and American short-haired varieties, Abyssian rough-haired, and Peruvian long-haired guinea pigs that look like brooms.
Following along with the pig name, female guinea pigs are called sows and the males are called boars (arguably, an appropriate term in any species), but for some reason, baby guinea pigs aren’t piglets, they’re pups.
Guinea pigs make a variety of whistles and squealing noises. They don’t climb, so they can be kept in low, open enclosures. They should have at least two square feet of cage space per guinea pig; more is better. They should be kept in temperatures of 65 to 85°F. Despite being from South America, they are especially sensitive to becoming overheated; don’t place the cage in direct sunlight or outdoors. Don’t use cedar shavings for cage bedding, the oils can cause respiratory irritation. Aspen pine shavings or hay will make good bedding. Buy a lot of it. Guinea pigs are messy. You will need to change the bedding in his pig pen once a week. You should also provide a small container within the cage for cage for your guinea pig to hide in. You’ll need a bowl for food which will need to be cleaned daily. And you’ll need a sippy bottle for water that you’ll need to clean daily. Did I mention guinea pigs were messy?
I don’t know why, but guinea pig diseases have cute names-scurvy(Arg…ye scurvy dog, er…pig!), bumblefoot and slobbers. Like humans, guinea pigs can’t make their own vitamin C so they must get from their diet. Sailors and passengers on long sea voyages sometimes suffered and died from vitamin C deficiency or scurvy, when the sea voyages outlasted their supply their supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Guinea pigs should be fed timothy hay and guinea pig pelleted food. However, even under ideal storage conditions the vitamin C in the pelleted food won’t last 90 days past the milling date. So a vitamin supplement should be added to the water and changed daily. Also supplement your guinea pig’s diet with green leafy vegetables that are high in vitamin C such as kale, parsley, beet greens, chicory, and spinach, also red and green bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, and oranges. If a guinea pig has a vitamin C deficiency, he may be weak and not want to move or will move stiffly, have skin and gum sores, nasal discharge or respiratory disease. An infection called bumblefoot can occur when a guinea pig suffers a foot injury from a wire cage floor. Slobbers happens when a guinea pig’s teeth aren’t lining up correctly. Guinea pigs may also need their nails trimmed periodically. They can’t take certain types of antibiotics because they can damage their intestinal bacterial leading to a fatal disease.
Guinea pigs are very social animals and like to have guinea pig friends. But before you buy, turn each animal over carefully to determine its gender so that you don’t inadvertently end up with several more guinea pig friends. Guinea pigs breed like tribbles, and we all know the trouble that can cause. If you are unsure, you can schedule an appointment with a veterinarian who is familiar with guinea pigs. You can’t rely solely on behavior to determine gender because guinea pigs of the same gender will sometimes mount each other to show dominance.