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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.

Is It Right for You?

Despite the benefits (and the delight), having a guinea pig isn't for everyone. Before you pick up the sweet cavy in the pet store or the breeder's, answer these questions:

  • Do you have the time? Although relatively low-maintenance compared to other pets, you will need to dedicate some of your time for caring for your guinea pig. As you get to know and like each other, she will demand your time by squealing loudly for attention and interaction. Besides providing her with fresh food, water and Vitamin C, you'll have to trim her toenails when they need it. Don't forget cleaning her cage - this is essential to maintaining her robust health, and also takes time. Add it all up and you may re-think the term low-maintenance.
  • Can your children or other pets adjust? Most small children love guinea pigs, but a guinea pig won't necessarily love your children. Kids can play too rough for a guinea pig, and it is hard for a child under five to grasp the fact that this small creature doesn't necessarily want to play -- or that being carried around from room to room isn't your guinea pig's idea of fun. Guinea pigs tend to feel the need to defend themselves from this "childish" attack. Fortunately for the guinea pig, and unfortunately for the child, guinea pigs have teeth and sharp nails, and this is not always a healthy combination until the child is old enough to respect the guinea pig's defensive nature. By the same token, other animals don't always appreciate having another pet of any kind around. Your guinea pig is a prey animal, and that means your dog or cat may be considering her dinner. Or your dog may simply be happier as the "only pet," as may your cat. If you have pets, or children, be sure to consider how well they will acclimate to having a new furry friend -- before you bring a new guinea pig home.
  • Is your lifestyle stable? Are you in a career that may require you to move frequently from city to city, causing stress not just for you but also for your guinea pig? Do you travel extensively, leaving your guinea pig home alone for days on end? Are you uncertain about your future living arrangements -- for example, are you thinking of moving in with someone else or moving to an apartment complex which doesn't allow pets? Frequent changes in her environment often produce stress -- not a healthy state for your guinea pig to be in.
  • Can you afford it? Guinea pigs are relatively inexpensive to acquire, but that's only one of many money-related issues in owning a guinea pig Supplies: At a minimum, you need a cage, food and water dishes or water bottle, bedding or nest boxes and hay rack with hay.. From there, you can look at first aid supplies, guinea pig toys, habitat add-ons, and we haven't even looked at food or the necessary Vitamin C supplements yet. Medical care: You should have your guinea pig spayed or neutered, and that kind of surgery can be fairly expensive. However, you only have to do it once in your guinea pig's lifetime. As long as you take care of her properly, most likely your pet will rarely become sick. But when she does, she can go down hill very quickly, and must be treated immediately; medication may be prescribed and that may cost more than your guinea pig. Also, unforeseen emergencies can cost you hundreds of dollars.

The First Steps

If you've gotten this far, congratulations! You're ready, and probably eager, to take the first step. You want to run out to the pet store, or the breeder. But don't rush off just yet. It's important for you to take time out to read as much as you can about introducing, and keeping, a guinea pig within your family. Browse through the other articles on this web site. Visit your public library and read the books, or purchase some reference material that you will later keep on hand.

In between pages or clicks of the mouse, look around your home and decide what changes you will need to make. You'll want to decide where in your home your new friend will live. Remember that your guinea pig will enjoy out-of-cage time with you, so you'll need to guinea pig-proof areas where she can go, and you'll want to get the right supplies. She'll have natural instincts and urges to satisfy; it will be up to you to ensure that she can do so appropriately.

After you've done your homework, get pro-active. Decide whether you want a male or female - there are behavioral differences between the two, and talk to other owners. Find out where they purchased their pets. Tap their base of knowledge and experience and discover which solution is right for you.

Once you decide to get a guinea pig, take the opportunity to make it an occasion to remember. Pull out the camera, create an album, and make lots of memories. You'll want to record your family's reactions as well as hers. In fact, preparing your family in advance and selecting the most opportune time to bring your new pet home (she'll need quiet and attention for those first few days of socialization) is absolutely critical. And, of course, you'll need to know what to expect and how to care for her when you first bring her home.

Carefully chosen, and happily settled into her new environment, a guinea pig can be one of the greatest joys in your life. She doesn't require a large house with an enormous yard to be happy. She won't ask you to get up and walk her at 6:00 AM in the dead of winter, and she can amuse herself, and you, with a few simple toys and accessories. She'll offer you love and affection. But do remember that a guinea pig is a commitment. She is a living, loving creature who requires care, love, and nurturing in return. Offer her that, and you will have a better friend than you can possibly imagine.