When we share our lives with pets, it’s important that we consider the ways in which we can meet their unique needs – this will help to keep them mentally and physically stimulated and help ensure they are able to lead fulfilling lives. By enriching their environment as much as possible we can help promote well-being and positive welfare, as well as reducing frustration, boredom, and loneliness.
Although the guinea pigs we keep today as pets are a domesticated species, they are very similar to their wild ancestors and still have an incredible amount in common with their wild ‘cousins’ that still exist today. When we think about the ways in which we might enrich their lives, we must look at what is important to them as a species and what sort of behaviours they naturally carry out. The main areas that we focus on with guinea pigs are:
- Their housing
- Their diet
Guinea pigs are active, so they need a lot of space to move around. They are also a ‘prey species’ so they tend to avoid open and empty spaces as it can make them feel exposed and vulnerable. Naturally, wild guinea pigs avoid travelling in the open, and tend to move from place to place using hiding places, like the undergrowth. Giving your guinea pigs lots of cover and hiding places helps them feel safe – they’ll enjoy exploring and moving between their ‘safe’ places, and you’ll see they move around a lot more as they feel more confident. As guinea pigs are low to the ground and not very agile, avoid ramps with a steep incline and make it easy for them to access different areas. There are plenty of ‘hides’, tunnels and pipes available to buy at retailers, but it doesn’t need to be expensive – you can also use cardboard boxes, upturned plastic beds and scatter large ‘hay piles’ around their housing. Guinea pigs are more likely to use hiding places with a couple of entrances and exits, so cut a few extra holes in cardboard boxes!
Guinea pigs are curious and enjoy exploring, so you can rotate objects or introduce novel items to their housing to help keep them interested in their surroundings. However, don’t change everything at once as this might be a bit stressful – instead swap or give them new objects a couple of things a week to introduce a bit of novelty and help keep them mentally stimulated.
Guinea pigs are natural foragers and spend a great deal of their waking hours munching. This helps keep their ever-growing teeth in good shape and their delicate digestive systems working well. The main bulk of their diet should be hay based and there’s a variety of ways in which you can present this to make it interesting. Hay piles (also good for burrowing into!), low hay racks, filled cardboard tubes and paper bags (with the handles cut off) are great options to help encourage this important behaviour.
A small amount of vitamin C rich greens, vegetables and herbs should also be fed, as well as a small amount of concentrated food. As with their hay, there are various ways in which you can offer food to keep them busy, such as hiding it in a ‘foraging’ box or tray filled with hay or scattering it around their exercise run or housing – guinea pigs really don’t need a food bowl, instead let them engage their powerful senses to find tasty bits of pepper, cucumber or coriander. It’s much more satisfying for your guinea pigs to ‘find’ their own food instead of it being served up for them in a bowl! Just make sure you remove any uneaten food daily. Vary the vege and greens you offer to spark their interest – this will also help ensure they get a range of nutrients.
Guinea pigs are naturally sociable having evolved to live in groups for safety so companionship of their own kind is a must. There are many reasons why keeping a guinea pig with at least one other guinea pig is important:
- Guinea pigs feel safer when together – as a prey species they are not designed to be on their own. Guinea pigs who live together are usually more confident as they can rely on each other to detect ‘danger’.
- Social interaction – bonded guinea pigs will spend a great deal of time in each other’s company, lying side by side, eating together, grooming each other and ‘talking’ to one another.
- Guinea pigs will huddle together when cold as their combined body heat helps keep them all warm. Guinea pigs kept outside benefit hugely from a companion as this will help raise their body heat when the temperature drops.
Fortunately, there are several ways to meet your guinea pig’s companionship needs:
- 2 or more females
- Any number of females with a neutered male
- Two males, either neutered or unneutered
Most rescues will rehome in groups or will have singles ready to rehome with other singles. When introducing adults, the easiest pairings are usually a female with a neutered male but in many cases two adult guinea pigs can be successfully bonded when introductions are done carefully.
If you have a single guinea pig, please do consider getting them a friend to share their life with – rescues have plenty waiting to find new homes. Watching guinea pigs together is wonderful and it really is one of the very best ways you can enrich their lives. Once you see how happy and ‘chatty’ they are together, you’ll never look back!
For more information on how to look after your guinea pigs please take a look at www.bluecross.org.uk
Written by Blue Cross