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One guinea pig or ten?
Member Name: louise_mc
Date: 03/02/11, updated on 03/02/11 (254 review reads)
Advantages: Sweet natured, robust animals
Disadvantages: Ongoing costs associated with ownership
I couldn't be without my guinea pigs. It's amazing how addictive they are. Most people will melt when they hold one. As with all animals though, they take some work and you should never buy one without considering the implications. I have kept guinea pigs since I was ten years old, 18 years in total, so I definitely speak from experience here. The most I've kept at one time was 13 - practically the whole back garden was devoted to them. Guinea pigs don't have the longest lifespan, about four years, and as old age carried my herd off, I wasn't allowed to replace the numbers due to my imminent leaving home and going off to university. I had four relatively pig-free years at university (save my trips home - my mother loves them as much as me and still kept a couple) then I returned home and immediately purchased a couple of long haired guinea pigs to keep me company. Since then, I've added a third. Now I'm in my own home, I don't have the space I once did so I'm unable to return to a garden full and sadly, I think three piggies are my current limit.
The thing about guinea pigs is that they are so loving. A lot of people find that small animals don't 'love you back' like a dog or cat (being a small animal fan, I dispute that) but with guinea pigs, it's different. My guinea pigs can certainly tell the difference between me (the bringer of cucumber) and other people. I have one guinea pig that will actually take flying leaps out of guest's arms to get to me: the highest compliment! Guinea pigs are particularly recommended as a first pet for small children due to their size being larger than other small animals (making them easier to hold and less fragile) but mainly because they rarely, if ever, bite. In 18 years, I've only ever had one 'biter' and that's because she was poorly and in pain: after we fixed that, no more bites.
Guinea pigs love to be picked up and will demand your attention! Unlike other small animals, they're very 'vocal' and have a variety of different squeaks and rumbling noises which they will use constantly to talk to you and other pigs. Don't buy one expecting a quiet animal - they don't shut up! I find the noises cute though, as do most people, and they are not overly loud, like a dog barking for example. The other thing to mention here is my comment about them talking to each other: yes, that's right, you will need at least two. You can not just buy one - it's cruel. Although unscrupulous outlets may sell single guinea pigs, reputable breeders will only let single pigs go if you already have others to keep them company. Guinea pigs are extremely social animals, living in large 'herds' in the wild. They need company and will be absolutely miserable alone, even if you handle and play with them everyday. You should not go into guinea pig ownership unless you can house at least two.
So, you've decided to get two or more. What should you expect now? Well first of all, stock up on supplies. You're going to need a large enough cage for your pigs. The standard size hutches sold in pet shops will only house two; any more and you're going to need more hutches or a proper run. This is the most expensive initial outlay. I purchased my last standard size cage five years ago. It cost me £50.00 and I'm sure prices will have risen since then. Your guinea pigs cost will vary depending on where you buy from. For various reasons, I have concerns about buying animals from pet shops and recommend you find a reputable breeder, or rescue. Pet shops will charge around £15.00 a pig and breeders the same, although breeders usually give heavy discounts on pairs or trios to encourage you to keep your pigs in groups. You may see guinea pigs housed with rabbits in pet shops but don't even think about it! A rabbit will not fulfil a guinea pig's social needs and sharing can be downright dangerous. One good kick from a rabbit's hind legs and your piggy's going to heaven. Aside from the immediate danger, guinea pigs have very special dietary requirements that differ from rabbits. Sharing food runs the risk of the guinea pig becoming malnourished.
So you have your hutch/cage and your guinea pigs. Now you need to get them comfy. You'll need: a good supply of newspapers to line the cage, chunky wood shavings (not fine wood shavings/sawdust and no cedarwood or pine, all of which cause respiratory problems and massive vet's bills in guinea pigs), hay (not straw, which is too hard and sharp for delicate eyes and mouths), guinea pig dry food, a food bowl, a water bottle and some nice wooden toys to chew on. All this could easily run up to another £30.00. You should purchase a decent ceramic food bowl. As with all rodents, guinea pigs are chewers and will shred plastic bowls in a matter of days (not to mention electrical wires, fabrics and anything else within mouth-range). This is also why you need to buy plenty of wooden toys. Rodents need to chew constantly to wear down their teeth. Problems with teeth can result in vet's bills and even death if the guinea pig's eating is affected. The newspapers, hay, dried food and wood shavings will be ongoing for the lives of your animals. Hay is required daily - guinea pigs need hay to 'process' their poop (sorry!). Stocking up on hay, food, wood shavings and paper each week costs me about £10.00 for my three piggies. You will need to clean your piggies twice a week and scoop out their 'poop corner' every day.
Aside from these basic costs are other expenses. The guinea pig's dietary needs are specialist mainly because they cannot produce or store Vitamin C and require a good dose every day to stay in optimum health. Some owners crush Vitamin C tablets into the water supply but the best and most stimulating way is fresh veg. Unlike rabbits who can get by on the humble carrot, guinea pigs need their veg to be dark, leafy and full of Vitamin C. Kale and cabbage greens are particular good for this but most pigs love cucumber and salad leaves too. My guinea pigs get fresh veg every day, this probably costs me about £5.00 a week, and you should be prepared to do the same. It is important to note that your dry food should be especially for guinea pigs: rabbit food just doesn't contain the required Vitamin C.
As for other expenses, well - VET BILLS! When I purchased my very first guinea pig, insurance just wasn't available for them. It is now, but only through two or three specialist companies (you can find them on the internet). If you decide to purchase insurance though, you have to weigh it up. Most guinea pigs I've kept have only ever needed one visit to the vet in their lifetime, costing about £20.00 a time, usually for mites they caught outside or in a bad batch of hay. A quick injection and they were good as new, never seeing a vet again for as long as they lived. Some piggies of mine have never seen a vet. So when you get your insurance quote for £6.00 a month, you have to wonder if it's worth it. I would insure a dog or cat no questions asked, but a guinea pig? Well, you have to make your own choice about that I'm afraid.
On the other hand, that average four year lifespan can stretch to eight years and the older your animal gets, the more likely it is to need a visit to the vet. When you buy your guinea pig, you should prepare yourself for an eight year lifespan, not four. Can you devote eight to ten years? My oldest piggy is six and early last year, at five years old, she finally needed to see a vet. One morning we woke up to find her back legs completely paralysed. Thank goodness it was only a temporarily slipped disc but it took £100 of x-rays and £200 of steroid and antibiotic treatment to clear (no insurance remember!). She's now happily running around on all fours again and showing no signs of letting old age slow her down.
The final point to make about vets and guinea pigs is that believe it or not, guinea pigs are classed as 'exotic pets'. Finding a vet that has the specialist knowledge to treat a guinea pig properly is like finding a needle in a haystack sometimes. I've had some great vets but also some who were clearly uncomfortable with exotics. My poor pig with the slipped disc was threatened with being put to sleep by the first vet we saw, simply because he didn't know what else to do. Thank God for his brighter colleague who seemed to love her as much me. Most experienced guinea pig owners will warn you to brush up on basic vet care before you buy. Learning how to clip your guinea pig's nails and in the case of boys, how to remove impacted poop (sorry again!) is a must. For the love of God, please don't venture into breeding without a good vet on speed dial. For my last litter, I had to help my girl give birth (this is quite common) then hand rear a pup she rejected. As in the human world, not all girls make good mothers. My advice: don't breed unless you know what you're doing and already have good homes lined up.
In summary, guinea pigs are beautiful, sweet little animals that (unless you want to breed from them) generally need the minimum of veterinary care. They are excellent with even small children. As with all animals though, it pays to remember you're buying a living being that needs as much attention as any other member of your family.
Summary: An amazing first pet for any child and totally addictive for any adult