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Pet Passions: How I Fell in Love With a Guinea Pig

Adorable, affectionate cavies aren't 'starter pets' — they're perfect for midlifers

By Niki Vettel | October 7, 2012
Ralphie the guinea pig
The author's guinea pig Ralphie gets his mug shot.
Courtesy of the author

Our family just returned from a lovely vacation in Vermont’s Woodstock village. My husband, Rich, hiked Mts. Peg and Tom and enjoyed generous pours of Harpoon and Long Trail, the local craft beers. I did my usual swimming, gallery-hopping and visiting with friends. Meanwhile, Ralphie was treated like a little prince, having fun on the grounds, being chased by the adults and schmoozing with the resident Norwegian Forest cat, Snorri.
 
This would probably be a good time to mention that Ralphie is our 11-month-old guinea pig.
 
When I tell people that we have a guinea pig, they wait expectantly for the rest of the story, assuming that Ralphie belongs to a child or, more likely, a grandchild.
 
But Rich and I don’t have kids. Ralphie is our pet. And I am hopelessly in love with him (Ralphie, that is. I love my husband too, but this story isn't about him).
 
How could I not be? For starters, Ralphie has a luxuriant red fur coat of hair whorls, called rosettes, full of cowlicks. (He’s an Abyssinian breed, whose fur contortions translate into “bad hair day, every day”). He has expressive, almond-shaped black eyes that appear ringed in eyeliner; front paws that he uses to grasp onto my fingers; a funny little nose-mouth combination like an old-fashioned teddy bear; and a full vocabulary (more on that later).



Ralphie in Action

Guinea pigs got on my radar by accident. While visiting the Rabbit Barn at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts about 12 years ago, I overheard some women my age talking enthusiastically about their guinea pigs. Curious, I asked one owner if they were friendly, and she gushed about how cuddly and responsive they were. I’ve always loved animals, but a travel-heavy career had kept pet ownership at bay. But now that I was married and keeping travel to a minimum, this sounded intriguing.
 
I was also beginning to care for my loveable but cantankerous elderly mother, who had moved cross-country to be closer to us. Frankly, I needed some unconditional love. “Fur,” a close friend whispered to me. “You need some fur.” 

After that, I became obsessed with guinea pigs. I read books  and researched them on the Web. I made endless trips to pet stores to look at them and hold them. I even dreamed about them. I was clearly in need of one. So when we finally decided on our first one, Beanie, I was over the moon with joy.
 
Today, I'm what's known in guinea pig circles as a “piggy slave.” This 2.6-pound bundle of cute has me wrapped around all 14 of his fingers (four on the front paws, three on the back). I’ve made 10:30 p.m. salad runs to the supermarket so there’d be organic, sweet baby lettuce for Ralphie’s breakfast the next morning. I’ve rearranged my work schedule to accommodate his “mani-pedis.” And I’ve been late for an untold number of meetings because someone needed to have his ears scratched, head petted and just one more piece of cilantro.
 
But I do all this gladly, because the rewards are immeasurable.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Pay Less for Pet Medications)
 
It's a Wonderful Life — With a Cavy
 
Calling Ralphie affectionate is a ridiculous understatement. He loves to sit, half-napping, on my shoulder, his back legs stretched out to their full four inches and his furry, whiskered face nuzzled against my neck. And talk about loyal: Rich has observed that a full 20 seconds before my key turns in our door, Ralphie, whose enclosure is at the other end of the house, will rouse himself from a nap or interrupt snacktime and begin “wheeking” (guinea speak) and “popcorning” (making vertical jumps). I swear he’s saying, Mommy’s home! Mommy’s home!
 
After dinner, he takes his place on the back of the couch between Rich and me and joins us for Downton Abbey, NCIS reruns and the 11 o’clock news.
 
What melts my heart is Ralphie’s method of enjoying treats. He nibbles out of my hand—when my palm is in the correct position. He’ll place one surprisingly strong front paw on two of my fingers and push my hand down to the level of his mouth. Slays me every time.
 
Is it any wonder, then, that I’m a zealot when it comes to educating people that guinea pigs make great companion pets for adults?’
 
A Guinea Pig Primer
 
These small animals exist amid a huge amount of mystery.

  • The Name: No one is sure where “guinea pig” came from. Some believe it was because the critters, which are native to Peru (there’s evidence of Incan ownership), could be purchased for a guinea by sailors. Others say it’s because among their many vocalizations, they “oink” like a pig. They certainly traveled via water: In Germany, they’re called meerschweinchen, or “little pigs from the sea”; in French, cochon d’Inde (“pig from India”), and in Dutch, it’s meerzwjihn: sea-pig.
  • The Species: Their scientific name is cavia apera porcellus, shortened to cavy (KAY-vee), yet debate swirls around their genus and whether or not these sweet little creatures are technically rodents. 

Don’t confuse piggies with hamsters or gerbils. Those are entirely different species, weigh between two and five ounces (Ralphie will top out at around 2.8 pounds) and, in the case of the gerbil, have a long tail.
 
Guinea pigs typically live to age seven, but some “seniors” make it to 8 or older. Just like for us humans, longevity is a consequence of good diet, a healthy environment and a stimulating lifestyle.

Our poor dear Beanie had all that, but still passed away unexpectedly last year at 5½, when she had to undergo emergency surgery for a possible tumor. She didn’t survive the anesthesia, a common and heartbreaking side effect for smaller mammals. I was devastated, just as I’d been as a youngster when our family cats would die. When I posted the news on one forum, there was an outpouring of sympathy from the cavy community.

Speaking of community: There are a lot of owners out there (around the world), and they’ve organized themselves into guinea pig clubs who regularly hold “pignics”! Plenty of active rescue groups attract piggy lovers. I’ve met some lovely people in-person and online over shared discussions of bedding, antics and other cavy concerns. 
 
A note about companionship: Cavies are herd animals, and many owners have two or more, and a lot of rescue organizations strongly discourage single cavy ownership. I’m able to spend many hours with Ralphie on a daily basis—that alleviates long stretches of loneliness, which can be stressful for solitary cavy. If you would like to own a guinea pig and you’re not home during the day, plan to get a pair because it would be cruel and inhumane to have just one.

(MORE: The 5 Lessons Learned From Animals, and They're Not What You Expect)
 
Learning to Speak Cavy
 
Ask any cavy owner what they love most about their pet, and in the top three is sure to be its language. The cavy vocabulary includes cooing, cat-like purring, gurgling, and the famous “wheeking.” The high-pitched wheek isn’t made by cavies in the wild but is reserved for human companions. It’s usually uttered when a refrigerator door is opened, a plastic bag is rustled or any food-handling noise is made.
 
Ralphie wheeks every day at precisely 5 p.m. His repertoire includes a sound we call “munchy-mouth,” which is accompanied by a chewing motion and uttered when he’s very relaxed (and translates loosely into “All’s well in my world”). In contrast, piggies can, and will, shriek when something’s not right.
 
The Care and Feeding of Guinea Pigs
 
As prey animals, cavies have a natural instinct to flee, but given love, proper housing and food, plenty of treats—and patience—they become devoted and responsive.
 
One thing they are not is maintenance-free. They require daily care and thrive on routine. So before you rush out to a guinea pig rescue or animal shelter (the best places to adopt your new best friend), consult with a local “exotic vet” (see below), read books and please visit these websites: Guinea Lynx: Medical and Care Guide for Guinea Pigs, Guinea Pig Today: A Contemporary View of Life with Cavies, CavyMadness: Making the World a Nicer Place, One Guinea Pig at a Time, Cavy Cages: Your Guinea Pig’s Home and Guinea Pig Zone.
 
Here’s a list of must-haves for your cavy. With the exception of the veggies, all are available in independent pet stores, chains like Petco, Petsmart, and online. Check with an exotic pet vet (below) if you have questions.
  • Spacious housing: You need at least seven square feet per cavy. Within that, you need a sleeping enclosure (aka “hidey-house” or “nest box”) large enough for him to turn around in, and made out of plastic or, better yet, chewable wood. An aquarium is not appropriate housing, due to poor ventilation.
  • Fresh water: A hanging guinea pig water bottle with sipper needs its water changed every day.
  • Hay: Piggies need Timothy hay  available 24/7; this is a critical part of their diet, necessary for digestion and healthy teeth. (Hay packages are clearly marked either Timothy or Western Timothy.)
  • Pellets: Specially formulated dry guinea pig food, one cup daily in a heavy bowl (available in pet stores) and left in the “house” all day; must be cleaned away and refreshed every morning.
  • Dark, leafy vegetables: At least once daily; depending on age and size, half-cup to a cup twice a day; unfinished food must be cleared out.
  • Bedding: Commercial guinea pig bedding is a must—it functions as both litter and bedding. Figure two inches to cover the entire bottom of the housing. Wet spots must be cleaned out and bedding replaced daily, entire housing cleaned once a week. Note: Piggies cannot be litter-box-trained, and cedar bedding can actually kill a cavy.
  • A good, exotic-pet vet: Guinea pigs are considered “exotics,” and there are vets who specialize in their care.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that vet care isn’t essential. “Any pet is a commitment, and guinea pigs are no exception,” says Linda Siperstein, DVM, Exotic Staff Veterinarian at Wakefield VCA Animal Hospital in Massachusetts. “They need proper health care, but knowing what 'proper' means requires research beyond what the teenager at the pet store tells you.

"Left undiagnosed, piggies can develop medical problems that could end very sadly," she adds. "Although guinea pigs can be prone to developing certain health issues, that is not to say they are particularly prone to ill health. On the contrary, they are, when properly cared for, easier pets to keep than, say, turtles or rabbits."

(MORE: The Joy and Benefits of Being a Pet Therapy Volunteer)
 
What’s Next for Ralphie?
 
Ralphie’s and my next big project is to get certified as a Pet Partners Team through the national Pet Partners program of Animal-Assisted Activities/Therapy. The local chapter is excited about including a guinea pig among the species that visit children in hospitals and schools and elders in nursing homes and other facilities.
 
All Ralphie needs to do, really, is wear a harness, but the first time we tried it, he went Harry Houdini on me. But with a little cilantro, I think he has a brilliant career ahead of him.
 
Niki Vettel is an independent producer and program developer for PBS who focuses on fund-raising specials. She has produced all of Wayne Dyer's programs, plus those of many other mind-body-spirit thought leaders. She lives north of Boston.