Guinea pigs are very gentle creatures that can live for 6-8 years in the right environment and, with regular handling from a young age, can become very friendly and sociable. They are prey animals and are naturally very timid until they get to know you but are generally easily won over with food and can become very vocal! They enjoy company of their own kind and are best kept in same-sex pairs or trios, or at least kept within sight and sound of another guinea pig (some males will fight). They make great pets for children but handling should always be supervised (often a towel on the lap of a sitting child is best) as they are fragile creatures and can be easily injured if dropped.
They can be housed indoors or outside, provided their accommodation is dry, draught-free and away from direct sunlight in summer. They cope much better with cold than heat (provided they have plenty of bedding) but don’t tolerate damp or poorly ventilated environments. There are many types of hutches and cages available for guinea pigs but it is always best to aim to give them as much space as you can provide, along with places to hide. Contrary to popular belief, guinea pigs are very active if they have the room to be and will also appreciate a pen on the grass in the summer to be able to graze and exercise. Dust-extracted wood shavings are a suitable bedding material for them, along with plenty of hay to burrow in, and their accommodation should be cleaned out regularly. Guinea pigs should never be housed on wire surfaces as their feet can be easily damaged and lead to infection.
Guinea pigs’ teeth grow constantly throughout their lives (like rabbits) and good quality hay should therefore provide at least 80% of their diet to both keep their teeth trimmed and their digestive system healthy. 15% of their diet should be given as fresh food such as carrots, bell peppers, broccoli and fresh greens fed once or twice a day as, like people, they cannot make their own vitamin C. Fresh grass and safe garden weeds such as dandelions and milk thistles will also be greatly appreciated! The final 5% of their diet is made up of a dry food usually available in either a pelleted or colourful mixed ‘muesli’ form that will also have added vitamin C if marketed specifically for guinea pigs. It is best to choose a pelleted ration to remove the chance of grain selection and an unbalanced diet that could contribute to health problems in later life. Fresh water should be available at all times to guinea pigs, usually in the form of a water bottle, and it is important that any changes in diet should always be done gradually, especially when introducing new fresh foods so as not to cause diarrhoea.
Guinea pigs are generally very healthy little creatures and rarely suffer from health problems if their housing and diet is right, and they don’t require any vaccinations. Tooth problems are quite common in older guinea pigs, often requiring regular trimming if they become mal-aligned (and are a common cause of weight loss), and regular attention to nail trimming may also be necessary if they don’t have a chance to naturally wear their nails down on hard surfaces. Guinea pigs can suffer from skin parasites and diseases and develop growths and cysts just as any other creature can and so, if in doubt, always seek veterinary advice.
Hamsters, gerbils, rats and other rodents
There are many types of small rodents that are available as pets now ranging from the more traditional hamsters, gerbils and mice to chinchillas, degus and jirds (in the gerbil family). They all have their own requirements regarding housing, diet and bedding, and it is best (as it is with any animal) to as much research as you can about the requirements of the pet you wish to keep to ensure it will fit into your lifestyle and you can provide for all its needs.
Hamsters are one of the most common small pets often kept for children as they have a relatively short lifespan of around 2 years and are relatively undemanding. There are quite a few different types available, some solitary (such as the Syrian) and some more sociable (such as the Russian Dwarf varieties). They are nocturnal creatures and so consideration must be given to a suitable place to keep them where they aren’t going to keep their owners awake at night while they are active!
Although a commercial seed-based diet still forms the bulk of their food, hamsters appreciate extra protein sources such as dried mealworms and hard-boiled egg as well as some fruit and vegetables alongside their regular food. Any new food must always be introduced gradually, however, in order to prevent digestive upsets and checked to ensure it is safe to feed. Their cage also needs to be cleaned out regularly as they will collect food in their cheek pouches and store it away in areas where some foods can spoil very easily.
They benefit from having objects like wood blocks in their cage to gnaw in order to keep their continuously-growing incisor teeth trimmed and plenty of toys to tunnel through and explore. With patient and regular handling, hamsters can become very tame and friendly. They don’t tend to suffer a great deal from health problems if housed and kept correctly, but one of the most common is overgrown incisor teeth that may need to be trimmed. Hamsters must be kept at a warm and even ambient temperature as they can enter a state of hibernation if the room temperature drops too low in winter.
Gerbils are very similar to hamsters in dietary requirements but are a burrowing species and benefit from living in a tank or similar environment where a deep layer of bedding can allow them to express their natural behaviour. They are also very sociable and one should never be kept on its own.