The Guinea Pig or Cavy
The guinea pig is classed as a rodent. The scientific name is Cavia porcellus – porcellus meaning 'little pig'. Their other common name is 'cavy'. Guinea pigs originated in the Andes and have an important cultural role in the lives of many indigenous South America groups. It is still used as a source of food and fur and it also has a place in folk and religious ceremonies.
Since its introduction into western societies in the 16th century, the guinea pig has wormed its way into the affections of many a child – and adult. Its popularity as a pet stems from its docile nature, its way of interacting with its handlers and its relative ease of care. There are now many specialised breeds of guinea pig with each type having its breed societies and aficionados.
The American Rabbit Breeders Association recognises 13 different breeds of guinea pigs or cavies. Some of the breeds are Abyssinian, American, Coronet, Peruvian, Silky, Teddy and Texel. Within the breeds variations occur in hair and colour composition. Short hair, long hair and even no hair varieties are available. The Abyssinian has a coat covered in cowlicks or rosettes and the Texel has long curly hair. Some have satin coats, or crests on the head. There is even a 'skinny pig' with almost no hair at all.
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The guinea pig was domesticated by tribes in the Andes as early as 5000BC. They are still used as a food source in the highlands of the Andes and are fed on vegetable scraps.
In the wild, the guinea pig is found on barren rocky slopes, marshy floodplains, open grasslands and mountain meadows. However they are not normally found in dense jungle vegetation.
The description of a guinea pig varies somewhat from breed to breed. Basically they are a large rodent weighing between 700 and 1200grams. They are 20 to 25cm in length and have an average lifespan of 4 to 5 years with some living up to 8 years. The head is large relative to the body. They have stout necks and rounded rumps which appear tailless.
Guinea pigs are social creatures and in the wild will live in small groups consisting of a male (boar), several females (sows) and their young (pups). They move around in groups and often shelter in tunnels, crevices or burrows made by other animals. They are most active around dawn and dusk although domestic animals are more likely to spread their activity over 24 hours.
Domestic guinea pigs like to have a companion and boars can be neutered to ensure there are no disputes. When frightened, guinea pigs may freeze or alternatively stampede, darting hither and thither hopefully confusing their enemy. Guinea pigs are good swimmers.
These animals strengthen social bonds by mutual grooming and regularly self-groom. Dominance is established by biting, head thrusts, attacking and aggressive noises. They communicate using a number of different sounds. Guinea pigs have poor sight but the other senses are well developed.
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The natural diet is grass. The molars grow throughout the life of the animal. Interestingly, the guinea pig practices coprophagy (ingestion of faeces). Special soft pellets are produced which recycle B vitamins, fibre and digestive bacteria.
Guinea pigs breed year round with up to five litters being produced per annum. The average gestation is 63 to 68 days. The babies have hair, teeth, claws and some sight. They are instantly mobile and will eat solid food as well as suckling right from day one. The average litter size is three, although it varies from 1 to 7. Males are sexually mature at 3 to 5 weeks and females at 4 weeks. Females not bred before six months of age commonly develop pubic symphysis or fusing of a joint in the pelvis. This condition prevents them from birthing their pups.
Because of their fecundity and rapid increase in population, pet guinea pigs need to be husbanded carefully unless you want to be overrun with guinea pigs.
The term 'guinea pig' has also come to mean a test subject for medical research although their role in this capacity has been largely taken over by mice and rats. Guinea pigs are still used as models for research into such conditions as juvenile diabetes and tuberculosis.
Unless badly handled or hurt, guinea pigs will rarely bite and make ideal pets for children.
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