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First Pets: The Guinea Pig

Gentle, good-natured guinea pigs are terrific pets for preschoolers

Their snouts are cute, as are their tiny feet, their rakish fur, their purposeful waddle, their zealous squeals, their bean-shaped little selves. Miniature beavers? Oversized hamsters? Any way you look at it, guinea pigs are kid-stopping cute. And maybe "cute" gets a guinea pig in your door, but in my experience (years and years of pigs and pigs) the reason to keep these animals around children is that pigs are gentle tutors. Their curriculum is all good stuff: Nutrition. Life cycles. Trust-building. Caring for your corner of the world. Establishing work habits. Learning to see the world from someone else's point of view.

Truth is, you could learn all that from a herd of other pets too. But let me make the case for guinea pigs.

First off, for ease of handling, guinea pigs outclass their pet-store rodent kin. Sturdier and heavier, they lack the lightning speed of, say, gerbils or mice. And the how-to-hold etiquette couldn't be more straightforward: One hand acts as the pig's "floor," while the other wraps around his chest. Or rest the pig on an old towel in your child's lap. The pig may be skittish at first. He expects you, like the three billion predators in his species' history, to attack him at every turn and eat him. His fear can be overcome with time, food, and affection.

The good news: Pigs are considered the gentle rodent. Occasionally, a pig may mistake a child's finger for a carrot and act on bad information. This sort of pinch can be avoided with a brief explanation either to the pig or the child; the latter is more effective. Even a well-mannered guinea pig will, however, bite a child who is rough with him. Your pet will appreciate your vigilance on his behalf, and so will the child.

Day in, day out, a guinea pig is grateful. He relishes exactly what a young child can offer: his pellets, water, good hay, and fresh vegetables. Soon he'll be squealing "Wheek!" when the refrigerator opens — it's his enthusiasm for greens — and purring when he is out for his half hour of rug time. His young owner will be proud to be such a capable animal specialist, to know (as she likely will) what all his comments mean — "Pig wants to watch television," or "Pig is sad he has to go to bed." He will come out every day, try the ramps she builds for him, check out any new toys, eat some parsley. Pig depends on her for everything; she needs to live up to her duties.

For you, the pig's spartan requirements are a boon. You will not find an aisle's worth of authors at Barnes & Noble struggling to define the inner life of the guinea pig. (See "Cats," next aisle.) Pleasure, in the form of food, is the pig's life. He does not waste time carrying on about things he cannot change. You are already raising at least one complex creature; if you're voluntarily bringing in another, make it an easier one.

Reality check: Although the child may be the official owner of the guinea pig, the truth is, the buck stops with you. You will have to remind her every day to feed and hold Pig — way more work than if you did it yourself. (Resist.) At least once a week, you'll be involved in cleaning his living quarters. If you go away, you'll have to arrange for a pet sitter. Plus, in welcoming any animal into your home, you open your hearts to both love and sorrow. Guinea pigs generally live three to four years. While some of us use the passings-on of our animals as opportunities for healthy previsiting of the big questions in life, I use them mainly to mope around the house and eat starch. Your choice.

A Room of Pig's Own

  • A spacious cage (no wire bottom; their feet can get stuck) will cost $50 to $170, depending on how elaborate and well built it is, and will require a thorough cleaning once or twice a week.
  • He likes a fresh cardboard box or tubes for hiding in and for chewing, and some little bells dangling where he can ring them when he runs out of things to read.
  • His bedding (paper pulp; never pine shavings or cedar — they're toxic to the pig) will cost $2 to $7 a week, depending on the brand.

Procuring a Pig

  • The American Cavy Breeders Association (guinea pigs are sometimes called "cavies" because their Latin name is Cavia porcellus) recognizes 13 breeds of guinea pig. You can use their Web site, www.acbaonline.com, to find a breeder near you. Or look for a pet store or shelter whose cages are clean and fresh smelling, and that separates males and females so they don't breed.
  • Pigs love company, so if you'd like to get two, go with females (males often must be neutered to share a cage, and they don't handle the operation well).
  • When in doubt, choose a short-haired American pig. Step firmly away from the Rapunzelesque Peruvian pig. I don't even know you, but I can guess you don't want to spend 20 minutes a day grooming your guinea pig.

Fun Facts


Snoozing: Guinea pigs are not nocturnal or truly diurnal, but sort of alert nappers. They tend to settle down at night instead of running incessantly in a squeaky wheel or hatching some elaborate escape plan ("Let's try all night to dig through steel!").

Duplication: Guinea pig young are usually born in litters of two to four, and are fully furred, unbelievably cute miniatures of their parents. They act like broncos, leaping and bucking around for no reason. Some call it "popcorning."

Misnomers: Guinea pigs are not actually pigs, nor did they come from Guinea. They may have acquired the name because of their piglike squeals and the fact that they came to Europe as pets, by way of Guiana in South Africa or Guyana in South America. Another theory is that they cost one guinea in the marketplace. As with real pigs, the females are "sows" and the males are "boars." A group is a "herd."

Origins: Guinea pigs came from South America, where most of their history with humans can be summed up as "tastes like chicken." The Incas hunted them for meat and used them in traditional healing rituals. Over time, pigs were domesticated, again, sort of like chickens.

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