OneKind’s summer campaign this year has focused on how we can care for the mental health of our companion animals. It’s an important issue. So often, we think we are doing best by the animals we love and share our lives with, but, as our previous blog on the issues with breeding for looks shows, this isn’t always the case.
To raise awareness of this important topic, we’re writing a series of blogs on how to care for the mental health of some of our most popular companions. To kick off, we’re starting with guinea pigs or cavies. With the right care, guinea pigs make fabulous companions – but are they the right fit for you?
Are guinea pigs right for your home?
While guinea pigs are often seen as an easy introduction to companion animals for children, there are a few important facts to consider before choosing to bring them into your home. They:
- can live for up to six years, sometimes longer, so are a long term commitment;
- love company and should be kept in same-sex pairs or groups;
- need more space than you think – a small hutch is not enough;
- are prey animals that spook easy, don’t like a lot of noise and won’t always appreciate being picked up. Children will need to be supervised when handling them.
Provide a suitable home
Providing a suitable home is one of the main things we can do to look after their mental health. Guinea pigs need plenty of space and a home in a quiet area.
- Avoid areas with extreme temperatures such as conservatories which get very hot
- Provide shelter from weather
- Clean them out regularly to ensure their bedding is clean and dry
- If you have other animals in the house such as dogs and cats, be mindful that they are predators and may scare your guinea pigs – always secure the environment
Meet their needs
If you have guinea pigs in your home, there are a few things you can do to make sure they are happy and healthy.
- Give them plenty of exercise. This could be in a secure run outside or in the house, though if inside it is important to make sure there are no escape routes or wires they could chew through. Keep an eye on them and provide plenty of tunnels and things they can run through and hide in.
- Make sure they have access to dust-free hay at all times. They are grazers and they need it to keep their digestive systems healthy. They also need food pellets, fresh vegetables and clean water. If outside in winter, keep an eye on water to make sure it doesn’t freeze and leave them without anything to drink.
- Provide plenty of hiding places. Guinea pigs scare easily and to be comfortable in their environment, they need to be able to run away and seek protection. They should always be kept in pairs or groups for company and all of them should be able to hide at the same time, that means providing multiple hiding places in one cage.
- Put plenty of tubes, tunnels and hidey holes in their environment. While they may not interact with toys, they are inquisative and like to tunnel. Piles of hay work really well for borrowing and hiding food around the cage can give them something to look for.
- Give them plenty of attention. Guinea pigs are sociable creatures and with time and patience they can learn to love and trust their human companions. Make time to give them cuddles but also do it on their terms – they will be nervous at first. Let them come to you, avoid taking them out of their safe spaces, and pick them up properly, supporting all four feet. If they don’t want attention, let them be and try again later.
Be mindful of health issues
While your guinea pigs hopefully won’t need regular trips to the vets, yearly check ups are a good idea. They can be prone to a few conditions and keeping an eye on their health is one way to ensure they are physically and mentally well.
- Keep an eye on their nails and trim them regularly. Their nails grow continually and need to be kept short to prevent issues. This can be done by the vets or at home yourself with clippers but, if doing it yourself, make sure you learn how to do it properly first and avoid the fleshy pink part of the nail. The same goes for teeth, though never try to trim teeth yourself at home; always ask a vet. The best thing to do is provide plenty of hay and natural wood chew toys; cardboard tunnels are good too.
- Check them regularly to make sure they are healthy, including their ears, eyes, teeth, feet and nails, and feel for any new lumps or bumps. If you find anything wrong, take them to the vet to get them checked out.
- Groom them regularly, especially if they have long hair, and keep an eye on their fur to make sure its not matted.
Behaviour to look out for
Once you get to know your guinea pigs, keep an eye out for any changes in their behaviour. They are unlikely to show signs of pain so any change in their eating, drinking or toilet habits could be the first indication of health issues. Other worrying behaviours to look out for include chewing cage bars, pacing in circles, aggression or over-grooming. If you see these behaviours, book an appointment with the vet and look at your guinea pigs home to see what changes you can make.