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Guinea pigs - A history

Guinea pigs are hystricomorph rodents (related to chinchillas and porcupines) that originated from the Andes Mountains region of South America.

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The history

Guinea pigs were probably first domesticated by the Indians of Peru, who used them for food and as sacrificial offerings to their gods. In the 16th century Dutch explorers introduced guinea pigs to Europe, and selective breeding and captive rearing began in earnest.

Guinea pigs are very popular pets because of their availability, docile temperaments, tendency not to bite or scratch when handled, and relatively clean habits. They are not long-lived, which can be disconcerting to owners, especially children. Many parents, however, believe that having their children experience the relatively short period of companionship and subsequent death is a meaningful way to expose children to the "ups and downs" of life.

In their natural habitat, guinea pigs live in open, grassy areas. They seek shelter in naturally protected areas or burrows deserted by other animals. Guinea pigs are sociable animals and tend to live in groups.

They are strictly herbivorous (plant-eating) and do most of their foraging for grasses, roots, fruits and seeds in the late afternoon and early evening. For many years guinea pigs have been used in biomedical research laboratories. Consequently, their medical problems have been traditionally approached on a group basis, rather than on an individual basis. As a result, very little practical information exists on the medical care and treatment of individual pet guinea pigs.

What are a guinea pigs vital statistics?

  • Scientific name: Cavia porcellus.
  • Life span: 3-4 years.
  • Potential life-span: 6-7 years.
  • Desirable environmental temperature range: 18-24°C / 65-75°F.
  • Desirable relative humidity range: 40-70% (50% is considered ideal).
  • Recommended age at 1st breeding:
    • Male: 3-4 months.
    • Female: <3-7 months (not after 7 months).
  • Length of oestrous: (heat cycle) 16 days.
  • Length of oestrus (period during which female is receptive to male for copulation): 8 hours.
  • Gestation (pregnancy period): average 63-68 days.
  • Average litter size: 3-4 young (ranges 1-6).
  • Age at weaning: 2-3 weeks.

Through selective breeding efforts, guinea pigs are found in an array of colours and coat types from which to choose. Four primary varieties are commonly encountered in the pet industry.

The Shorthair or English is characterized by having a uniformly short hair coat. The Abyssinian has whorls or rosettes in their short, rough, wiry coat. The Silky is a large variety distinguished by its medium length silky hair.

The Peruvian is recognised by its very long silky hair. All types are commonly kept as pets.

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