1. Home
  2. Knowledge Base
  3. Animal Guides
  4. Additional Species
  5. Introductory Care For Cavies (Guinea Pigs)

Introductory Care For Cavies (Guinea Pigs)

a black and white cavy on hay
Do you know what cavies like Jason need in order to thrive? Photo: Leilani Farm Sanctuary

What’s In A Name?
While guinea pig is a common name for Cavia porcellus, they are also commonly called cavies (singular, cavy). In this resource we will be using ‘cavy’ instead of ‘guinea pig’ because of the way the term ‘guinea pig’ has been used to describe individuals exploited in scientific settings and also because, while no one knows where the name ‘guinea pig’ came from, one theory is that it stems from comparisons between consuming the flesh of cavies and the flesh of piglets. Problematic history and connotation aside, the name ‘cavy’ makes more sense as it stems directly from their scientific name and because cavies are neither from Guinea, nor are they related to pigs (though their Latin name does translate to “little pig”). Check out more information on language choices at The Open Sanctuary Project here!

Before you provide sanctuary to cavy residents, it’s important to understand their species-specific needs, which are likely quite different from other residents’ needs at your organization. This resource covers some of the basics of providing care for cavies so you can ensure they are happy and healthy.

Cavies are small mammals belonging to the Caviidae family. Domesticated cavies (C. porcellus) originated from South America and were domesticated thousands of years ago. C. porcellus no longer exist in the wild, but other cavy species continue to inhabit various regions of South America. There are many different breeds of domesticated cavies, including the short-haired American, the long-haired Peruvian, the Abyssinian with their swirling rosettes (which look like cowlicks), and the nearly hairless Skinny Pig. Common breeds vary throughout the world.

A Note On “Cuys”
While domesticated cavy care recommendations are fairly standard regardless of the breed of the individual (though there is some variation based on their hair coat, which we’ll discuss throughout this resource), the main exception is the cuy, or “giant guinea pig”. The name “cuy” can be confusing because in some parts of the world, “cuy” refers to all members of species C. porcellus and in others it actually refers to a different species that is related to C. porcellus. In this resource we are using “cuy” to refer to a specific breed of domesticated cavies. This breed was first seen in the United States in southern California around 2010 and is believed to be closely related to Cuys Criollos Mejorados, a breed of cavy raised for their flesh in South America. Cuys grow more quickly and are much larger than the other breeds of domesticated cavies, typically weighing 4-8lbs (1.8- 3.6kg), versus around 2- 3lbs (0.9-1.4kg) for adults of other domesticated breeds. In addition to the size difference, generally speaking, their temperament is very different from other domesticated cavies. Of course, each individual is unique, but cuys tend to be much more skittish than other breeds, and they can be very dominant with other cavies. Because of this, they are often labeled “unadoptable”, with rescues in certain regions being bombarded with cuys and getting calls about cuys that have been abandoned in local parks. Please note that the recommendations below focus on smaller domesticated breeds and are based on information that predominantly comes from the US. Some of these recommendations, especially in terms of living space size and pellet portion sizes, may need to be adjusted to meet the needs of cuys or similarly sized cavies. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information available about the specific care needs of cuys, but as more information becomes available, we will be sure to update this resource accordingly.

Living Spaces For Cavies

Like other residents, it’s important that cavy residents have ample room, an enriching and dynamic environment, and that their living spaces meet their overall needs.

General Living Space Considerations

Space

Most housing options sold commercially for cavies are far too small. Many housing options offer additional vertical space to increase the overall living area, and this may be adequate for other species, but cavies rely on floor space. They may use low lofts or a gently sloped ramp, but cavies really require ample floor space for daily activity and exercise. Most cavy rescue groups recommend a bare minimum of about 7.5 square feet (6,968 square centimeters) of floor space per pair of cavies, but stress that bigger is better, with a minimum of 10 square feet (9,290 square centimeters) per pair being ideal. Some suggest an even larger space for a pair of male cavies, stating that they do best with at least 12 square feet (11,148 square centimeters) of floor space. (If you’re wondering why there are no recommendations for a solo cavy, we’ll explain more in the Social Needs Of Cavies section.)

Predator-Proofing

Cavies are a prey species and are particularly vulnerable to predation from a number of species, including other companion species who may live in close proximity to them in some settings. We’ll talk more above predator-proofing of indoor and outdoor spaces below.

Temperature Control And Ventilation

Temperature control is very important because cavies have a very narrow temperature range in which they are comfortable. Their ideal temperature range is from 65-75°F (18-24°C), but maintaining their living space between 60-80°F (16-26°C) is appropriate. In temperatures above 80°F (26°C), cavies can develop heat stroke (described in the Health Challenges section). Additionally, they do not do well in high humidity- a range of 40-70% is appropriate. Never house cavies in aquariums, as they do not provide adequate ventilation, which will result in health issues.

Flooring And Bedding

Cavies should never be housed on wire flooring as this can cause pododermatitis (bumblefoot) (described in the Health Challenges section) as well as other foot or leg issues. Solid flooring is a must. There are a variety of bedding options that can be used with cavies. These include aspen wood shavings, paper-based bedding, or soft fleece atop a layer of absorbent fabric or pee pads. Never use cedar, raw pine, or other aromatic wood shavings in cavy living spaces. Some sources suggest that kiln-dried pine is acceptable, while others recommend steering clear of pine entirely.

Hiding Spots

Cavies need covered areas for sleep and rest, as well as to offer a sense of protection when startled. Incorporate covered houses and tunnels into living spaces to give cavy residents multiple options for covered spaces.

Indoor Living Spaces For Cavies

Because of the narrow temperature range at which cavies can remain comfortable and safe, in most climates, cavies will need to reside primarily indoors, in human dwellings or similarly constructed spaces. Not only does this make it easier to maintain an appropriate ambient temperature, but so long as they are protected from any other companion animals in the home, this set-up will also help ensure their safety from predators. As an added bonus, if their living space is in an area where their humans spend a good amount of time, this arrangement will also lead to closer observation and more interactions with their caregivers.

As mentioned above, the majority of enclosures marketed for cavies are far too small. If you are going to create a cavy living space within a larger room, one option that is commonly recommended by cavy caregivers and rescue groups is the C&C setup (which stands for cubes and coroplast). These can be made using grid pieces from modular organization systems secured together with the provided connectors or secured with zip ties and then fitted with a piece of coroplast (corrugated plastic used to make signs). While you can buy pre-made setups online, these are very easy to create on your own. For instructions and ideas, check out this website dedicated to the topic of C&C setups. One of the great things about this sort of setup is that it’s an easy way to create exactly the size space you need. One important note– most grids have inner squares that are 3.8cm, which are safe for adults but will need to be covered if housing babies to prevent them from getting out or becoming stuck. Some kits have larger squares which may not be suitable even for adults. Make sure to set up these spaces in areas that are draft-free, consistently maintain an appropriate ambient temperature, and are away from direct sun and heat sources that could cause them to overheat.

Their indoor living space may not require a covered top to prevent them from getting out, but you may need a covered top to keep other companion animals from getting in. While there are instances of dogs or cats getting along with a cavy companion, there are also instances where cavies have been severely injured or even killed by dogs or cats. If dogs or cats can access your cavy residents’ living space, you should keep their living space covered. Keep in mind that even if the dog or cat is not actively trying to injure the cavy, they could do so accidentally. Additionally, their presence may cause the cavy resident to feel stressed or unsafe. Always consider both the physical and psychological well-being of all the individuals you care for.

Instead of setting up a designated cavy space within a larger space, you may opt to dedicate an entire room to your cavy companions. If you opt for this set-up, keep in mind that they chew! Make sure they cannot access electrical wires or baseboards (you don’t want them chewing on painted or stained wood surfaces).

Outdoor Living Spaces For Cavies

When the weather allows, cavies will enjoy time outdoors in a protected area and will benefit from some fresh air and sunshine. As small prey animals, protection from predators and supervision are imperative. Outdoor spaces should be designed to protect against digging, climbing, and aerial predators. Even with close supervision, a covered top is imperative to protect against hawks and other raptors. In addition to areas that offer physical protection from predators, be sure to incorporate areas with solid covered tops such as houses and tunnels where cavies can go to feel safe, just as they have indoors.

Make sure vegetation in outdoors spaces has not been treated with any chemicals and be sure to remove any toxic plants.

Fly Strike
During fly season, be aware that cavies are at risk of fly strike if housed outdoors (and potentially even if housed indoors if flies are present). Fly strike is a maggot infestation of an animal’s flesh. Cavies, particularly those with long hair on their back ends or older individuals, are susceptible to this condition because blowflies are attracted to hair that is dirty with urine or feces. Blowflies can also be attracted to open wounds and watery eyes. Prevention and frequent monitoring is imperative. Be sure to keep living spaces clean and dry, and regularly clean any individual who has a dirty bum. Individuals who spend time outdoors should be checked daily (and very vulnerable individuals should be checked twice daily) for any signs of fly eggs or maggots. Eggs should be removed if found. If one of your residents is suffering from fly strike, contact your veterinarian immediately. While you may be able to remove some of the maggots with tweezers, it’s best to have the individual evaluated by a veterinarian to ensure all of the maggots have been removed. Your veterinarian may also recommend a cavy-safe preventative treatment to protect them from future issues.

Cleaning Of Living Spaces

Regular cleaning of living spaces is imperative to prevent health issues in cavy residents. The frequency at which spaces are fully cleaned will depend on the bedding you use, but in general, full changes are recommended at least once per week to prevent issues with ammonia build-up. Wet and soiled bedding should be removed daily. Areas where residents sleep and eat will require more frequent cleaning than other spaces. Some caregivers who use fleece blankets as bedding set up the area where residents spend most of their time eating with a different type of bedding contained within a tray. This allows for more frequent changing of this bedding without having to change the rest of the bedding, which may still be pretty clean or just need fecal pellets removed.

Special Living Space Considerations For Hairless Cavy Breeds
Baldwin cavies, which are completely hairless, and “skinny pigs”, which are nearly hairless, are understandably more sensitive to the cold. They may benefit from a safe heat source such as a heating pad (with the cord protected) or a microwavable heat disc like the Snuggle Safe. Be sure to set up their living space so that they can choose to be near or far from their heat source and watch for signs that they may be too warm. Avoid bedding that may irritate their skin. With no protection from a hair coat, they need bedding that is soft and will not irritate their skin. Fleece blankets or soft paper bedding are better choices than wood shavings. They also tend to eat and poop more than other breeds of cavies, so their living spaces may need more frequent cleaning.

Nutritional Needs Of Cavies

While proper nutrition is important for everyone, it is especially important for cavy residents. Cavies, like rabbits, have a specialized digestive system and are hindgut fermenters, with most of the digestive process taking place in the cecum and large intestine. Adequate fiber is imperative for healthy digestion. Without this, digestion can slow down, resulting in the pH and bacteria population of the cecum to change, causing digestive issues.

Also like rabbits, cavies pass two types of feces- regular stool and cecotropes (sometimes called “night droppings” or “cecal pellets”), which are nitrogen-rich and intended to be re-ingested. When food is regularly available, cecotropes are often consumed overnight, so you may not actually see this taking place, but it is an important part of cavy nutrition and digestion!

Cavies, like humans, are unable to produce their own Vitamin C and rely on dietary sources to meet their needs. Vitamin C deficiency (described in the Health Challenges section) can result in a host of health challenges, so incorporating Vitamin C-rich foods is important for their overall health.

Much like human nutrition, different experts have different opinions about what constitutes the best diet for cavies. While some recommendations are universally accepted (cavies need grass hay, for example), other recommendations come with contradicting opinions (this is especially true when it comes to the types and amount of produce to offer). Also keep in mind that an individual in your care may have special dietary needs. We always recommend consulting with an experienced veterinarian to determine the best diet for your residents, but here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

Grass Hay

Cavies should have access to hay at all times. This is imperative for healthy digestion and also helps wear down their teeth. While there may be certain situations in which your veterinarian recommends something different (such as for individuals who are pregnant), cavies over 6 months old should be fed grass hay and not alfalfa or other high calcium hay, as this could result in urolithiasis (described in the Health Challenges section) which can be common in older cavies. Timothy and orchard grass are typically good choices.

Hay should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. Never feed moldy hay, and be sure to remove any hay that has become wet or soiled. Keep in mind that cavies may not eat hay that is trampled or soiled, so while they may technically have hay available to them, they may not actually eat. A fresh supply of clean hay is important.

Cavies can also eat (and will enjoy) grass, but this should be introduced slowly, and they should still have access to hay. Never feed grass clippings and be sure to remove uneaten cut grass before it begins to ferment.

Pellets

Cavies should receive a high-quality, timothy-based, high-fiber commercial food specifically formulated for cavies (and therefore fortified with Vitamin C). Avoid commercial foods with nuts, seeds, dried fruits, or corn. Rabbit pellets are not a suitable substitute. 

Always follow your veterinarian’s recommendations regarding how much to feed your residents, as different individuals may require different amounts, but starting with ⅛- ¼  cup of pellets daily is a common recommendation for cavies over 6 months of age.

Pellets should be offered in a dish that cannot be chewed and is unlikely to spill. Cavies often put their front feet up on their food dish while eating, so proper design to prevent tipping is important. Heavy, flat-bottomed, wide ceramic dishes or stainless steel non-tip dishes are good options.

Store pellets in a sealed container in a cool, dry, and dark location. Because Vitamin C will degrade over time, fortified food should be used within 90 days of being milled.

Not Eating Is A Health Emergency!
We’ll talk a bit about gastrointestinal issues later on in this resource, but it’s important to understand that if a cavy is not eating, this is an emergency and could lead to serious, potentially irreversible, gastrointestinal issues (described in the Health Challenges section). If you care for cavies, we recommend keeping a supply of Oxbow’s Critical Care For Herbivores on hand or asking your veterinarian about Lafeber’s Emeraid IC Herbivore, which requires a prescription. Both products can be mixed with water and syringe-fed to an individual who is not eating on their own. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your residents is not eating well but your veterinarian can not see them right away, syringe feeding them one of these products can help prevent gastrointestinal issues from getting worse.

Fresh Veggies And Fruits

Fresh veggies can be offered daily. Offering fresh foods that are rich in Vitamin C is a great way to help ensure they are getting what they need. There’s some disagreement about which veggies are best and how much to feed, but leafy greens (avoiding those that are high in calcium) are a common recommendation- romaine is an especially popular choice. Cavies develop food preferences at an early age, so depending on the age of your cavy companions and what they are used to, you may find they refuse certain foods. If you welcome a young cavy into your home or sanctuary, it’s recommended to offer a variety of foods early on to avoid this issue.

If fruit is offered, it should be a treat and offered in smaller portions. Some cavy caregivers avoid fruits entirely, but others include them in moderation. Dried fruits should be avoided.

Consider Avoiding Commercial Cavy Treats
Commercial treats labeled for cavies often have far too much sugar and are not a healthy addition to their diet.

Check in with your veterinarian to see what they recommend for the cavies in your care when it comes to fresh fruits or veggies. It seems that almost every cavy veterinarian and rescue group has their own list of what fresh foods to feed and how often, with some conflicting info between the various lists. To give you an idea of options, below is what Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue, the largest cavy welfare organization in the US, recommends:

Daily Staples:
Romaine Lettuce
Green Leaf Lettuce
Red Leaf Lettuce
Bell Peppers (all colors)
Cilantro
Parsley
Kale
Fresh Grass (untreated)

Veggie Snacks:
Tomatoes
Celery
Dandelion
Chard
Basil
Mint

Sweet Treats:
Carrots
Apples
Banana
Watermelon
Berries
Cantaloupe
Grapes
Corn (uncooked)

Limited (In Moderation):
Broccoli
Cabbage
Spinach

Do Not Feed:
Iceberg Lettuce (no nutritional value)

Any leftover portions that remain uneaten after a few hours should be removed.

Changes In Diet Must Be Made Slowly!
If you need to change your cavy companion’s diet, be sure to do so slowly. Changes to what they are used to eating and even changes to their food or water dishes could cause them to stop eating and drinking, which could have dire consequences. Be sure to watch their food and water intake closely!

Vitamin C Supplementation

Talk to your veterinarian about whether or not your cavy companions should receive regular Vitamin C supplementation. While offering fortified cavy pellets is an important part of their diet, keep in mind that Vitamin C will degrade over time. There have been reports of cavies on good-quality Vitamin C-fortified pellets still being diagnosed with Vitamin C deficiency. 

Offering fresh veggies or fruits that are rich in Vitamin C is considered by many cavy caregivers to be the best way to meet daily Vitamin C requirements. The amount a cavy requires varies based on multiple factors, including age and health status, and could be anywhere from 10-50mg daily. If a Vitamin C supplement is offered, it should not be added to their water. This could affect the taste, resulting in them drinking less and becoming dehydrated. Adding Vitamin C supplements to the water also is not efficient- it degrades quickly, which could result in them still not getting enough Vitamin C, even if they continue to drink water normally. Instead, Vitamin C tablets or oral suspensions should be given directly to the individual. There are some Vitamin C tabs labeled specifically for cavies. If using a human supplement, make sure you are offering the correct amount based on your veterinarian’s instructions and do not use a multivitamin.

Water

Cavies should have access to fresh, clean drinking water at all times. Cavies who are used to drinking out of a sipper bottle may be reluctant to drink out of a bowl, and visa versa. If water is offered in a bowl, be sure to use one that is heavy enough to prevent tipping. Regardless of the vessel used, water should be changed daily with the vessel thoroughly cleaned. If, the water becomes soiled between water changes, be sure to change it (this can occur with a bowl or a sipper bottle- cavies may get bits of food in the sipper tube while drinking, which can then disperse throughout the water). If using a sipper bottle, make sure you have a bottle brush to thoroughly clean all of the inner surfaces, including the metal sipper part- these devices can be difficult to clean and can become slimy. Also make sure to watch closely for signs that the sipper bottle is leaking, replacing as needed.

Social Needs Of Cavies

In the wild, cavies live in small social groups typically consisting of a primary male and a few females. Cavies are very social and benefit from the companionship of a compatible cavy companion- in Switzerland, it is actually illegal to house cavies alone! Many cavy-focused rescue organizations will only adopt out a single cavy into a home that already has a cavy for them to bond with. 

If males are neutered (and/ or if females are spayed) males and females who get along can responsibly live together without the concern of breeding. If residents are not neutered, they must be housed in same-sex groupings. Males typically do best if they are siblings who were raised together or if they are introduced to each other at a young age.

While you may have seen or heard about rabbits and cavies living together, this is not recommended for a variety of reasons. First, they have different nutritional needs. Second, rabbits, being much larger than cavies, could also cause injury to them, even unintentionally. And lastly, rabbits may spread disease to cavies, including Bordetella bronchiseptica (described in the Health Challenges section). A rabbit could have B. bronchiseptica in their respiratory tract without becoming ill, but could spread this bacteria. B. bronchiseptica can cause serious illness and even death in cavies. In a situation where a rabbit and cavy already live together and are bonded, so long as both appear content, separation may not be advised due to the stress it could cause.

Appropriate Enrichment For Cavies

Enrichment is an important part of basic care and should not be seen as something “extra”. When coming up with enrichment ideas, it’s important to think about the natural behaviors of a particular species as well as the preferences of the individual. Whenever you offer enrichment items or opportunities, be sure to observe if and how residents use the proffered enrichment. Remember, it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching! If they are frightened by something or uninterested in it, then it isn’t an appropriate form of enrichment. 

Ideas for cavy enrichment include:

  • Hidey houses can be purchased at animal supply stores or homemade. Even a cardboard box or paper bag can be a fun hiding area- just be sure to remove any tape, labels, or handles.
  • Tunnels can be made with large PVC pipes cut into 3 ft lengths, or you can use the cardboard centers from carpet rolls. Be sure nothing has been coated with any substance that could be hazardous for residents!
  • Foraging is a much-loved pastime for cavy residents, and offering fun foraging opportunities is a great form of nutritional enrichment. Consider hiding treats (veggies and fruits) around their enclosure or in a pile of hay, or you can create a fun foraging opportunity by taking a paper bag or cardboard tube, putting treats in them, and then closing them up before giving them to your residents to chew into. You can also cut fresh cavy-safe grasses to offer to them or grow it in a tray that can be placed in their living space.
  • Safe elevated spaces can be created as part of a hidey house if the top is flat and sturdy, or you can add a low shelf or platform to their space. Remember, unlike many other rodents, cavies aren’t big on climbing, but they may enjoy lower elevations in their space (bonus points if they can also go under or inside it!). 
  • Chew toys or other safe items to chew on are great additions to a cavy enrichment plan. Untreated wicker baskets are a great choice and can be filled with hay or used as a house. Depending on what the enrichment items above are made of, they may double as chew toys!
  • Create a fleece forest by hanging strips of fleece blankets from the roof of the enclosure. Residents may enjoy hiding in here or running through the strips of fleece.
  • Exercise time is important, and depending on their setup, may be best achieved with supervised time out of their enclosure, in a cavy-safe space. Never use an exercise ball or wheel with a cavy resident as this can result in injury to their back.
  • Social time can be very enriching for many cavies. In addition to spending time with other cavies, developing a bond with care staff can be enriching as well!

Safely Handling Cavies

It’s important that all cavy caregivers learn how to safely pick up and restrain cavies. As small prey animals, most cavies will be a bit nervous about being picked up, especially at first. It’s a good idea to spend time bonding with them and gaining their trust early on. If you can, start by talking to the individual and offering them some safe treats. Then work towards giving them a few gentle scratches or petting them to get them more comfortable with human contact. 

When picking them up, you’ll want to use both hands and make sure they are completely secure. A fall could result in serious injury. Depending on the individual and the situation, you may be able to get them to stay still by offering them a treat before scooping them up. However, in most cases, a cavy will try to get away when you reach both hands in to pick them up. In this case, use your hands to calmly guide them into an area of their enclosure where you will be able to more easily restrain them. You do not want to chase them or make sudden movements. In larger spaces, guiding them into a smaller area, or using a physical barrier to create a smaller area is helpful. Corners, and even some hidey houses, are good places to usher them to in order to safely restrain them.

Once in a smaller space, use your hands to create a barrier to prevent them from running out of the area. Then, place one hand under their chest and use the other to scoop up their back end. Next, bring them towards your body so that you can keep them safely in place. Continue to keep a secure hold on them. While many people recommend holding them in an upright position with their belly against your chest, most cavies will try to climb up onto your shoulder, so this position may not be best if you need to carry them from one place to another. Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue suggests holding them against your body while keeping them in their normal horizontal position. You might want to try out both techniques to see which works best for you and your cavy companions.

When returning a cavy resident to their living space, be sure to keep a secure hold on them until all four feet are firmly on the ground. It’s not uncommon for an individual to start struggling or try to jump when they see their living space approaching. Jumping to the ground, even from a short height, could result in injury, so it is imperative that you hold them securely until all four feet are back on the ground. If an individual really struggles when being returned to their living space, holding them so that they are facing away from the space while you lower them to the ground may help.

Monitoring A Cavy’s Health

Regular check-ups with an experienced veterinarian, at least annually, can help identify health concerns early, but a lot can happen over the course of a year! In order to really get to know what is normal for the individuals in your care and to catch signs of concern as early as possible, close daily observation and conducting your own regular health examinations are important aspects of care. As small prey animals, not only do cavies mask signs of illness until they are no longer able to do so, many issues that affect cavies can progress from minor to severe quickly, so close observation and regular assessment is imperative.

Daily Observation

Caregivers should be trained to observe cavy residents both for behaviors that are abnormal for cavies in general, in addition to behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind common health challenges and their warning signs. Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress to more serious situations.

Problem signs to be on the lookout for include:

  • Disinterest in food, change in appetite, or difficulty chewing
  • Increased thirst
  • General change in behavior
  • Hiding more than normal
  • Lethargy
  • Runny, crusty, squinty, cloudy, sunken, or bulging eyes
  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or labored breathing
  • Drooling
  • Weight loss
  • Lameness
  • Red, swollen, or flaky foot pads
  • Hair loss or a rough looking coat (in breeds where this is not normal)
  • Changes in urinary or fecal output
  • Distended abdomen
  • Bloody urine or crying or grinding their teeth when urinating
  • Dirty bum
  • Changes to how they respond to handling such as vocalizing more or flinching when handled

It’s important to get to know the individuals in your care so you can catch minor changes in their behavior or routines, which could indicate something is amiss. If you see any of the signs above, be sure to contact your veterinarian.

Performing A Health Examination

In addition to close daily observation, it’s important to physically assess your residents’ health on a regular basis, as well as when they are showing signs of concern so you can further investigate the issue (if they are showing signs of a health emergency, you should seek veterinary care immediately). Certain health challenges will not be apparent without physically checking the individual thoroughly. For more information about how to conduct a cavy health exam, check out our resource here.

In addition to daily observation and regular health examinations, the residents in your care will benefit from:

  • Weight and body condition monitoring– It’s a good idea to weigh your cavy residents weekly, if at all possible, as this will allow you to catch weight loss early. A healthy, mature cavy should maintain their weight and feel dense. 
  • Brushing– Different individuals will need brushing more often than others, so you’ll want to find a frequency that works best for your residents. Generally, short-haired breeds can be brushed weekly, but long-haired cavies will typically need to be brushed multiple times per week.

Veterinary Care

If you are going to care for cavies, it is important to find an experienced cavy veterinarian, typically an exotics veterinarian. Cavies have unique needs that are different from those of a cat or dog, and even from other small mammals typically grouped with cavies such as hamsters or rabbits. We recommend bringing your cavy companion in for a regular check-up at least once a year, though some individuals may need to be seen more often than this- follow your veterinarian’s recommendations.

A few important things to keep in mind about cavies and why finding a cavy savvy veterinarian is so important:

  • Cavies mask signs of illness, so catching and diagnosing health challenges may be difficult for someone who is not experienced with cavies and their common health challenges.
  • Cavies are very sensitive to many antibiotics whether given orally, topically, or injected. Use of the wrong antibiotics can result in gastrointestinal issues or toxicity, which can be fatal. It is imperative that you only use antibiotics (or products containing antibiotics) under the guidance of an experienced veterinarian. 
  • When it comes to anesthesia and surgery, cavies are often considered higher-risk patients than most other small mammals. Their risk level can be best evaluated (and potentially minimized) by working with a veterinarian who specializes in cavy surgery.

Should Cavies Be Spayed Or Neutered Preventatively?
There is much debate about the right answer to this question. Whether or not you have your cavy residents preventatively spayed or neutered will come down to your Philosophy of Care and the veterinary services available in your area. While spaying and neutering can prevent future health issues, and a preventative procedure is safer than one done in response to a reproductive issue later on, the procedure (especially a full spay on a female) does carry more risk than in many other species. If males and females are to be housed together, males absolutely must be neutered to prevent breeding. If you are an organization that has an adoption program, you might feel strongly that males, or both males and females, be sterilized prior to adoption to eliminate the risk of them eventually being bred. We recommend working with a veterinarian who has ample experience with these procedures in cavies and who has a high success rate. Have a conversation with them about the risks and benefits for each individual in your care, and ask if an ovariectomy is a possibility for your female residents, as this procedure carries less risk than a full spay.

Potential Cavy Health Challenges

Animal Healthcare Disclaimer
This is not an exhaustive list of everything that can happen to a cavy, but can help you get a sense of what challenges a cavy in your care may face in their lifetime. If you believe an individual is facing a health issue, always consult with a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible. Reading about health issues does not qualify you to diagnose your residents!

Bumblefoot (Pododermatitis)

Bumblefoot is inflammation of the footpad, a painful condition that commonly affects individuals living in cages with wire bottoms or who live in unsanitary conditions. There are many factors that can cause bumblefoot, including environmental (wire cage flooring, rough substrates, unsanitary conditions, not enough space) or physical (obesity, lameness, or a health challenge that leads to inactivity). Front feet are affected more often than back feet. The first sign of bumblefoot is redness of the foot pad, followed by swelling. Without treatment, the individual may develop a scab on their foot and the inflammation, and possibly infection, will affect structures deeper in the foot. In severe cases, there may be irreversible damage to the bones and tendons. In early cases, depending on the cause, environmental modification may be all that is needed- ensure the individual has ample space to encourage activity, has a solid floor with soft bedding, and that their living space is cleaned regularly. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if the individual has a scab, severe swelling, is especially painful, or if what started as a mild case progresses despite environmental modifications. Antibiotic treatment, foot soaks, bandages, and even surgical debridement may be necessary to resolve the issue. Supportive care may also be necessary to ensure that they continue to receive the nutrients they require and do not develop gastrointestinal issues.

Dental Issues

A cavy’s teeth continue to grow for their entire life. By constantly chewing, either on hay or other safe items, cavies are able to keep their teeth from becoming overgrown. The most common dental disease in cavies is elongated cheek teeth, though they also can develop other dental issues such as tooth abscesses or problems with their incisor teeth. Signs of dental issues typically include changes in eating habits (such as only eating soft foods or not eating as much as they normally do) and drooling. In some cases, weight loss may be the only obvious sign. If you suspect one of your cavy residents has dental issues, be sure to contact your veterinarian. They may be able to diagnose the issue with an oral examination alone, but in some cases, radiographs or CT may be recommended. Pain management and supportive care may be necessary depending on the extent of the issue. Regular veterinary assessment can help catch dental issues early, and ensuring residents are fed an appropriate diet can help prevent certain issues.

Gastrointestinal Issues

In order for their gastrointestinal tract to function properly, cavies need to be fed an appropriate diet consisting of large quantities of roughage in the form of unrestricted access to grass hay. Diets that are low in fiber can cause the process of food emptying out of the stomach and passing through the intestines to slow down- this is called gastrointestinal (GI) hypomotility. If there is little to no movement of food through the GI tract, this is called gastrointestinal stasis. In addition to an inappropriate diet, GI motility issues can be the result of a cavy not eating, which could be due to illness, injury, or stress, which is why it is imperative to pay close attention to your cavy residents’ appetite and fecal output. When GI motility slows, or worse, stops, food, as well as hair that is normally consumed during the grooming process and any other materials they ingest stays in the stomach rather than passing through. Cavies are not able to vomit, so food, hair, and other ingested material continues to accumulate and often begins to dehydrate, which makes passage of this material more difficult- thus worsening the situation. Depending on the underlying cause, individuals with GI motility issues might be off food completely or they may initially have a decreased appetite (often eating treats but not their pellets) which progresses to not eating at all. In the early stages, they may appear completely normal, but will then start showing signs of pain such as standing in a hunched position, grinding their teeth, and showing a reluctance to move. Individuals may also become bloated due to an accumulation of gas. You may notice poop pellets that are smaller and drier than normal, or you may notice an absence or significant decrease in the amount of feces present. In some cases, affected individuals may develop diarrhea. If you suspect one of your residents has GI motility issues, or notice someone is not eating or pooping normally, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately and may require hospitalization. Your veterinarian can provide the necessary supportive care and identify/ address the underlying cause of the motility issue. Early intervention is imperative- an individual’s prognosis worsens the longer the condition goes on.

Heat Stroke

Cavies are vulnerable to heat stroke in temperatures over 80°F (26°C), though in high humidity, they may be at risk at temperatures even lower than this. Signs of heat stroke include rapid and shallow breathing, lethargy, and drooling. If one of your residents is showing signs of heat stroke, be sure to contact your veterinarian right away and take immediate steps to cool them off. Move them into a cool area, and use cool (not ice cold) water to begin cooling them off. Your veterinarian can offer further advice and may suggest bring in the individual for assessment and further treatment such as fluid therapy.

Mites And Lice

Trixacarus caviae, or the sarcoptic mange mite, is the most common external parasite of cavies and can cause significant illness. Signs of T. caviae infection include hair loss and scaly skin, which usually starts in the thigh and back area and then spreads to the shoulders and neck. Affected skin may become covered with yellow crusts. T. caviae infection causes severe itching, which can be so severe that the individual has convulsive seizures. Affected individuals often lose weight and become lethargic, and secondary bacterial infections are possible. Severely affected individuals may require hospitalization. Humans in close contact with affected cavies can develop a skin rash.

Chirodiscoides caviae is a fur mite that can affect cavies, but occurs less often and does not typically cause serious disease. Some individuals will remain asymptomatic, but others may become itchy and lose patches of hair, especially on their back end.

There are no drug treatments specifically designed to treat mites in cavies, but your veterinarian will be able to recommend an “off-label” treatment such as ivermectin. Because mites can also live in the environment, a deep cleaning and possibly treatment of their living space will be necessary. If one of your residents has mites, the other cavies they live with should also be treated.  

Cavies can also be affected by Gyropus ovalis and Gliricola porcelli, which are chewing lice. These parasites are large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Some individuals with mild lice infestations will not show obvious signs, but severe cases can result in itchiness, hair loss, and flaky skin, especially around the ears and neck. Your veterinarian can recommend treatment if your residents have lice. Just like with mites, all individuals in a group should be treated.

Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are very common in female cavies who have not had not been spayed, with individuals between 2 and 4 years of age most commonly affected. Not all individuals with ovarian cysts will show obvious signs of concern, but signs to be on the look out for include hair loss on their sides and belly with no sign of itchiness or abnormality of the skin and crustiness around the nipples. When observed from above, they may appear to have a pear-shape due to an enlarged abdomen. Individuals may also show signs of lethargy, appetite loss, and painful vocalizations when picked up. The presence of ovarian cysts can be confirmed via ultrasound. If found, surgical removal of both ovaries (via fully spay or ovariectomy) may be recommended. This procedure will address the current issue and prevent it from recurring. If surgery is not an option, such as in individuals with other health conditions which put them at an increased risk during anesthesia and surgery, medical management with hormone therapy may cause the cysts to regress depending on the type of cysts. Alternatively, your veterinarian may use an ultrasound to locate and aspirate the cyst to offer temporary relief. 

Respiratory Illness

Respiratory illnesses can quickly progress into a very serious condition in cavies, so it’s important to have anyone showing signs of respiratory illness evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Signs of respiratory illness may include nasal and ocular discharge, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, a poor appetite, and lethargy. Respiratory illness in cavies is often the result of a bacterial infection, with Bordetella bronchiseptica and Streptococcus pneumoniae being the most common causes. Individuals with S. pneumoniae infection may develop a head tilt due to inflammation of the middle ear. Your veterinarian can prescribe treatment based on the cause of the illness and provide supportive care if necessary.

Ringworm

This fungal infection is quite common in cavies, and is primarily caused by Trichophyton mentagrophytes. Ringworm is highly contagious to other animals, including humans, and is spread via direct contact with affected individuals or with contaminated objects. Signs of ringworm include circular, scaly, bald patches, which typically start out on the nose or around the eyes or ears and can spread to the back. Your veterinarian can help diagnose ringworm and will recommend an antifungal treatment. Decontamination of the living space is helpful. Be sure to wear gloves and protect your skin when handling a cavy with ringworm or cleaning their living space.

Urolithiasis

Urinary calculi (or stones in the urinary tract) are fairly common in older cavies, especially females. Improper diet, such as a diet high in calcium, increases the risk of urolithiasis. These stones can result in an obstruction if they become lodged in the urethra and are unable to pass. This is a medical emergency and veterinary care should be sought immediately- surgery may be necessary to remove the obstruction. Signs of urolithiasis include difficulty or straining to urinate, painful vocalizations during urination, and in some cases, bloody urine. If one of your residents is presenting any of these signs, or if you notice a decrease or absence of urine in their living space, be sure to contact your veterinarian right away.

Vitamin C Deficiency

As explained above, cavies cannot manufacture their own Vitamin C and rely dietary sources for this important nutrient. Signs of deficiency include a rough coat, poor appetite, dental pain, and lameness, though cavies with Vitamin C deficiency may show no outward signs. However, their immune system may be compromised, making them vulnerable to infections and other diseases, and in the event that they are wounded, the healing process may be delayed. Make sure to offer pellets that are fortified with Vitamin C, but remember, Vitamin C will degrade over time. It’s recommended you use pellets within 90 days of manufacture date. When offering fresh foods, be sure to include those that are both safe for cavies and rich in Vitamin C. Talk to your veterinarian about whether or not additional supplementation is recommended.

Cavies, like all species, have their own set of needs that must be met in order for them to be healthy and thrive. If you are going to care for cavies, make sure you take the time to learn everything they need so that you can provide them with the individualized care they deserve.

SOURCES:

Adopting At The Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

Guinea Pigs Of ECC | Empty Cages Collective

Guinea Pig Care | UC Davis 

Guinea Pigs | Manual Of Exotic Pet Practice

Cuy Information | Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption

Guinea Pig Cages | Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue

Guinea Pig Housing | The Humane Society Of The United States

Skinny Pigs: What You Really Need To Know Before Buying Skinny Pigs | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

Flystrike Warning | 387 Veterinary Centre

Feeding Guinea Pigs | VCA

Feeding The Adult Guinea Pig | Oxbow

The Scoop On Small Pet Poop: Normal, Abnormal, And Everything In Between | Oxbow

Vitamin C Supplements For Guinea Pigs | Veterinary Partner

Keeping Rabbits And Guinea Pigs Together | RSPCA

What Exercise And Environmental Enrichment Do Guinea Pigs Need? | RSPCA

Enrichment | Erin’s Ark

Guinea Pig Pick Up And Holding Techniques Demonstrated | Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue

What Do I Need To Know About My Guinea Pigs’ Health? | RSPCA

Health Problems In Guinea Pigs | VCA

Bumblefoot (Pododermatitis) In Guinea Pigs | Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Small Mammal, Second Edition

Treatment Of Pododermatitis In The Guinea Pig | Cyndi Brown, DVM, DABVP (Avian Practice) & Thomas M. Donnelly, DVM, DACLAM

Guinea Pig Dental Disease | The Unusual Pet Vets

Preventing Heat Stroke For Your Guinea Pigs This Summer | Brookhurst Animal Medical Center

Gastrointestinal Hypomotility And Gastrointestinal Stasis In Guinea Pigs | Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Small Mammal, Second Edition

Gastrointestinal Disease In Guinea Pigs And Rabbits | Julie  DeCubellis, DVM,  MS,Jennifer Graham, DVM, DABVP (Avian/Exotic Companion Mammal), DACZM

Lice And Mites In Guinea Pigs | Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Small Mammal, Second Edition

Mites In Guinea Pigs | VCA

Ovarian Cystic Disease in Guinea Pigs | Anthony  Pilny, DVM, DABVP

Respiratory Infections | Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital

Guinea Pig Facts | Live Science (Non-Compassionate Source)

Giant Guinea Pigs, or Cuy Criollo (Cavia Porcellus) | Kristin Claricoates, DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Guinea Pigs | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Guinea Pigs (For Practitioners) | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Fact Check: Lonely Guinea Pigs And Other Quirky Swiss Rumors | Swiss Info (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

References To Outside Organizations?
This resource contains links or photos provided by an outside animal-focused organization. You can learn about our organization’s position on endorsements here!

Updated on April 16, 2021

Related Articles

Support Our Work
Please consider supporting The Open Sanctuary Project by making a donation today! We are 100% donor-funded and rely on the support of generous individuals to provide compassionate resources to animal caretakers worldwide.
Donate Now HERE