It has been said many times before, but it's worth repeating: guinea pigs are not from Guinea-and they are not pigs. Far from it. Guinea pigs are from Central and South America, and their closest relatives are the shy, wild cavies that inhabit the rocky Andes and the dry pampas regions. Although they've reportedly been domesticated for some 10,000 years, guinea pigs are still shy around people, which is, of course, part of their charm. Cavies were prized as far back as the Incan civilization, and it is likely that they made the long sea voyage back to Europe shortly after Christopher Columbus brought back stories of the new world.
With their erect little ears, their gentle eyes, and their endearing personalities, these small rodents have become one of the most popular of children's pets. What many children and even many adults don't realize is that guinea pigs and their wild cavy cousins are not so far removed; to understand a guinea pig, you must first examine her natural behavior.
Cute, lovable and - mysterious? Yes, for such a small animal, guinea pigs seem to raise quite a few questions. Is a guinea pig a rodent? Where did they come from? And how did they get their name?
Guinea pigs, also called cavies after their official genus title Cavia porcellus
, are considered a type of rodent. Originating in South America, there are a few well-argued theories about how they got their name. One school of thought claims "guinea" is a mispronunciation of Guyana, a South American city where cavies were acquired by European traders. Others assert that guinea pigs were sold by Dutch merchants for one guinea, an old European coin. There are differing views on the addition of "pig" to the name as well. The most common opinions are because animal looks like a miniature pig or because they squeak like pigs. Once exotic pets of the wealthy, guinea pigs have been credited with almost magical powers. In their native South America, the guinea pig is believed to have great powers of healing. To us, she is simply a warm and loving pet whose powers are cheering us up and enchanting us with her fun-loving personality. Guinea pigs are naturally wary; earning your pet's trust and love will take time and patience. Once it is bestowed, your guinea pig will want to be a part of your life and activities.
Like dogs, guinea pigs are pack animals that are highly social. They rely on each other for companionship, and in the wild, these animals live in herds with continuous interaction. A lack of companionship produces mental stress. Many people find that a single guinea pig that initially seems content and curious will lose interest in her surroundings after a time if not given enough outside stimulation or interaction.
Part of the guinea pig's unjust reputation for unfriendliness stems from lack of attention, since one of the myths about cavies is that they don't need much attention. Because of their interactive nature, guinea pigs who are left alone for long periods of time will withdraw and be unfriendly.
Bundles of Energy
Not only do they want attention, guinea pigs want to play. Part of this comes from their social nature, and part comes from their need to burn off energy. Young guinea pigs in particular are very energetic, and if you leave them enclosed in a cage all day, they will become frustrated and depressed. What your guinea pig really needs is some freedom. If you have a room that's been "guinea pig-proofed," or a pen (a playpen!) where she can stretch her legs, she will show you just what an avid playmate she can be.
Keep in mind that your guinea pig's idea of play and your idea of play may not exactly coincide. Guinea pigs find chewing on furniture and cords to be great entertainment, but it's not likely that you'll smile indulgently when she goes after the table legs or the lamp cord. Training your guinea pig in suitable ways to play and burn off steam is an absolute necessity.
Intelligence comes in many forms, and guinea pigs have many attributes you've probably never heard about. For instance, did you know guinea pigs speak in their own language? Guinea pigs have an intricate language full of sounds and gestures. But since they don't show signs of the intelligence of, say, a cat or dog, many people believe guinea pigs to be untrainable. This is a myth too; guinea pigs are actually very easily trained. Spending the time to train them serves two valuable purposes: by using techniques of repetition, your guinea pig will learn not to chew on the couch, and by spending the time necessary for training, you are providing her with the attention and companionship she needs to be happy.
Because they need companionship and sociable relationships in their lives, guinea pigs are sensitive creatures who will react and respond to your attention, or lack of it. Your guinea pig will be happiest with a daily routine involving playtime with her, and if that routine is seriously disrupted, you can expect symptoms of withdrawal. She's not able to look into the future and foresee a return to the normal way of life, so if you have to work late or you're going out of town, be sure to provide not just for her food and litter needs, but for her emotional needs as well.
Behavior in the Home
You can take a guinea pig out of the wild, but you can't take the wild out of the guinea pig-or all of the wild, anyway. Your guinea pig will love to burrow in her nest and explore every corner of your home, if you let her. This is a natural part of life in the wild, and it's been part of guinea pig family life for generations. Before bringing a guinea pig into your home, make sure you've decided where she can and cannot go before letting her out of her cage. Also, ensure where she can go is safe and "guinea pig proofed."
Children, who are sometimes raucous and rough, can become fast friends with your guinea pig, once the children have been taught about her sensitive hearing and the importance of being gentle. Once a child has learned to avoid playing with her in a way that could cause injury, there's a very real possibility that your children and your guinea pig will develop their own "pack."
The most important thing to remember about your guinea pig is that her life centers around her need for community-like most of us, whether human or animal. Fulfill that need, and you'll have a happy, healthy guinea pig as part of your community.