Uncover the extraordinary world of guinea pigs – where cuteness meets curiosity, and tiny creatures hold big surprises. Brace yourself for an adventure that will leave you marveling at just how much these small bundles of fur can truly enchant us all. Here are some of the amazing facts about guinea pigs.
1. They are not pigs
Guinea pigs, scientifically known as ‘Cavia porcellus’ and commonly called ‘cavies,’ are rodents. The Latin term ‘porcellus’ translates to ‘little pig,’ possibly inspired by the pig-like squeaks they produce.
These creatures possess a sturdy physique, compact limbs, a sizable head and eyes, as well as petite ears.
It is important to note that these animals are not rats or hamsters. While both animals belong to the same family, they are distinct species with notable differences. Guinea pigs are generally larger than hamsters, approximately twice their size, and they have a longer lifespan. Moreover, they are highly sociable creatures, requiring the companionship of at least two individuals. In terms of their evolutionary lineage, domestic guinea pigs are more closely related to capybaras than to hamsters, or pigs.
There exist 13 distinct species of guinea pigs, each exhibiting slight variations in temperament. They are the Abyssinian, the Abyssinian satin, the Peruvian, the Peruvian satin, the Silkie, the Silkie satin, the American, the American satin, the Teddy, the Teddy satin, the Texel, and the White crested. In addition, there are hairless breed (the Baldwin and the Skinny) and the miscellaneous breed (the Rex, the Sheba, the Alpaca, and the Lunkarya).
While these species as a whole are commonly recognized for their affectionate and cuddly nature, the Teddy guinea pig is widely regarded as the most sociable and the friendliest among them. The Rex guinea pig is the biggest of all while the Skinny guinea pig lives the longest.
2. They don’t come from Guinea
The Andes region of South America is the original homeland of guinea pigs, but the origin of their name remains shrouded in mystery. One hypothesis proposes that Spanish explorers introduced them to Europe through Guinea in Africa, which sparked the belief that they hailed from that region.
3. They don’t live in the Wild
Centuries of domestication have transformed guinea pigs from their wild origins into distinct captive species. While their wild counterparts no longer exist, there are closely related cavy species that remain undomesticated. Consequently, stumbling upon a guinea pig while walking around South America is highly unlikely.
Originally, guinea pigs were raised as livestock and served as a source of food, just like chicken. This practice still continues in certain regions today. However, in the Western world, they are primarily kept as pets because they’re friendly, smart, and easy to take care of.
By the 16th century, they had been imported into Europe and North America, where extensive captive breeding had already solidified their status as a separate and unique species from their wild ancestors.
4. Guinea Pigs Behaviors
Guinea pigs, similar to other animals, partake in territory marking. This conduct is evident even in guinea pigs that live solitary lives in captivity. They may also mark their territory beyond their enclosure, such as in their play area or throughout the house.
When scent marking, they utilize their chin or cheeks to rub against objects, helping them maintain familiarity and comfort in their surroundings. Moreover, these rodents communicate through scent secretions left behind when they drag their bottoms across the ground. This is a form of communication that only guinea pigs can understand.
Guinea pigs may display a behavior known as ‘popcorning’ when they feel excited and happy. This behavior involves making small jumps, turns, and hops, resembling the movement of a popping kernel of popcorn. These creatures don’t hibernate.
Guinea pigs can live alone but they do better in social settings and are ideally housed in pairs or small groups. Females usually exhibit good compatibility with each other, whereas the compatibility of males depends on their individual temperament. However, males may require more space and you shouldn’t keep them with females.
These creatures will reduce stress levels when they form strong bonds with their companions. In certain regions, such as Switzerland, keeping a guinea pig alone is against the law to ensure their well-being.
While not a common occurrence, guinea pigs are capable of biting, usually in response to feeling frightened, threatened, bullied, or being handled uncomfortably. Additionally, if a guinea pig is unwell, it may bite to express a desire to be left alone.
It’s important to understand that guinea pig bites are typically not dangerous and resemble more of a gentle nibble that doesn’t break the skin. However, if a puncture wound does occur, there is a risk of infection due to the presence of germs in their mouth, teeth, and saliva.
Generally, you can manage guinea pig bites at home. However, if you observe severe signs of infection, it is advisable to seek medical attention from a doctor.
5. They can create different sounds
Guinea pigs are intelligent creatures that utilize vocalizations to communicate and attract attention. Their main vocalization is known as a “wheek,” which can convey excitement, locate companions, or elicit a response from others. However, they also produce various other noises including purring, chattering, rumbling (resembling growling), shrieking, whining, and chirping. Those sounds all have meanings.
Purring signifies contentment, while whining indicates discomfort or anger. Chattering serves as a warning, while shrieking is a reaction to surprise or pain. Chirping is infrequent but may signify stress or discomfort, particularly in sick or hungry baby guinea pigs. Squealing loudly means they are in pain and need your attention.
Rumbling is a growl-like sound often triggered by fear or anger. Guinea pigs can rump as a means of establishing dominance, particularly when food is at stake. This sound is often brief and high-pitched. Males may also rumble continuously and shallowly when courting a female.
6. They barely sleep
Despite their misleading name, guinea pigs are highly active creatures. In the wild, they cover long distances each day in search of food and mates. Even as domesticated pets, guinea pigs retain their energetic nature and inquisitiveness.
These little animals possess a high level of energy and a propensity for mischief. They tend to jump into food and water bowls, kick bedding around, and create a mess with whatever they can find.
Unlike some nocturnal animals like hamsters and rats, guinea pigs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night. They are most active during dawn and dusk, which aligns well with human waking hours, making them ideal pets for interaction.
Guinea pigs do not require much sleep. They can remain awake for up to 20 hours a day, taking multiple short naps instead of a single extended sleep period. While sleeping, they often keep their eyes partially open, a behavior developed to stay vigilant and avoid potential predators. This instinctual trait is common among prey animals.
Guinea pigs are herbivorous creatures that predominantly eat plants such as hay, fruits, and vegetables. Among their preferred treats are broccoli and carrots. Similar to other rodents, guinea pigs possess continuously growing teeth known as ‘rootless’ or ‘open-root’ teeth.
That’s why they have to chew constantly to naturally grind down their teeth to a suitable length. If they don’t have enough hay or other things to chew, their overgrowth teeth can cause discomfort and oral injuries. To know how to take care of guinea pigs, you can check our article.
The wild guinea pigs face a wide range of predators, including cats, snakes, coyotes, hawks, wolves, owls, and even humans.
8. Their vision is not good
Compared to humans, guinea pigs have a more limited vision. They cannot see long distances and have a narrower range of color perception. However, their eyes are positioned in a way that grants them a wider angle of vision and the ability to see further to the side.
Their field of vision is estimated at approximately 340 degrees, with only a small blind spot of 20° directly behind their heads. This wide field of vision is crucial for their survival in the wild as it allows them to observe potential threats and opportunities.
In addition to their visual capabilities, guinea pigs possess heightened senses of hearing and smell compared to humans. These enhanced senses contribute to their overall perception of the environment and help them navigate their surroundings effectively.
Guinea pigs, regardless of gender, can become fertile at the age of 4 weeks old. However, females may reach sexual maturity a few weeks later than males. Both males and females have the ability to breed throughout the year.
The females will go through a gestation period of between 59 and 72 days, during which they experience rapid weight gain. They will give birth to a litter of 1 – 6 babies. The size of the litter and the guinea pigs’ physical characteristics are influenced by their diet and genetics. While most female guinea pigs (sows) exhibit good maternal instincts, some young ones may abandon their pups due to the stress of pregnancy and childbirth.
Pups, the newborn guinea pigs, enter the world in an advanced state, displaying precocial characteristics. They possess a coat of fur, their eyes are opened, and they can run within a few hours of birth. Within three weeks, they are weaned, and it takes around three months for them to reach full maturity. However, their growth in size continues until they are approximately one year old.
This advanced state at birth provides an advantage for prey animals like them. It allows them to be aware of their surroundings and relatively independent from an early stage of life.
On average, guinea pigs have an average lifespan of 5 to 6 years. However, they can sometimes live up to 8 or even 10 years. The oldest recorded guinea pig, named Snowball, enjoyed a remarkable lifespan of 14 years and 10.5 months.