Welcome to our complete guide to guinea pig lifespan! When you have a pet, you want to know that they are going to stay with you for as long as possible. So let’s find out the answer to that all important question – how long do guinea pigs live?
This has been an exciting spring in our household.
In March we brought home the first pets our three-year-old daughter will know: two lovely guinea pig sows called Mr Lumpy and Mr Nosey. (It turns out our daughter has a surprising take on naming pets).
Needless to say, a lot of thought went into choosing which pet would be the happiest fit in our home and our lives.
Something we were especially interested in was guinea pig life expectancy.
My husband’s family had pet guinea pigs when he was little, and he remembers them living for around three or four years.
But my best friend has guinea pigs that are still spritely and going strong at six years old.
So how long do guinea pigs live for? And how can I make sure my guinea pigs live as long as my friend’s?
Average lifespan of a guinea pig
There are many factors which will influence the lifespan of a guinea pig.
The genes they inherit from their parents, the food they eat, their lifestyle and luck will all play a part.
Some of these factors are beyond our control, but there are also lots of things we can do to help our guinea pigs stay healthy for longer.
Life expectancy of guinea pigs
Within all species, there is a genetic component to longevity.
Our genes control the ageing process at the very minutest level within our cells, and some of us simply inherit better genes for longevity than others.
The same applies to guinea pigs.
You can’t test for these kinds of genes though, so the only clues will be in their family tree, if you have access to it.
A guinea pig whose parents and grandparents lived a long time might also be blessed with innate longevity.
Specific genes which affect guinea pig lifespan
Not only can guinea pigs can inherit a general propensity for longevity from their parents, they also inherit very specific genes which influence how long they live.
In fact, all guinea pigs seem to carry a very remarkable sequence of genes which contain the genetic code for Kurloff cells.
Kurloff cells are a specialized type of white blood cell which kill leukemic cells, and protect guinea pigs from many spontaneous tumors.
Unfortunately, other genes can bring problems rather than protection.
Since these genes are usually associated with specific pedigrees, we’ll look at them in the next section.
Does pedigree effect how long guinea pigs live?
There are many pedigrees of guinea pig these days.
Our new guinea pigs probably aren’t pedigree anything (we got them from the local pet store, so we can’t be sure), but Mr Nosey has some abysinnian rosettes, and Mr Lumpy has the tell-tale wiry coat of rex ancestry.
Will these traits affect how long they live?
Guinea pig pedigrees are created and maintained by breeding like guinea pigs with like.
So each pedigree becomes it’s own little sub-population of guinea pigs.
This automatically imposes a degree of inbreeding, and puts a limit on genetic variation between individuals within the pedigree.
Pedigree guinea pig lifespan
A common side effect of inbreeding to protect a pedigree is an overall loss in quality and vigor, known as “inbreeding depression”.
The corresponding advantage of outbreeding is called “hybrid vigor”: when introducing more variation to a genepool boosts animals’ health and longevity.
I can’t find an equivalent study in guinea pigs, but in 2013 Dr Dan O’Neill and colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom reported that mongrels live on average 1.2 years longer than purebred dogs.
And it’s likely that hybrid guinea pigs also live longer on average than pedigree guinea pigs.
Inherited conditions which affect guinea pig lifespan
Breeding within a confined gene pool can also cause hereditary illnesses to become fixed, and even amplified in successive generations.
This has particularly been the case for roan and dalmation guinea pigs.
The genes which code for roan and dalmation coloring can also cause blindness, dental problems, and abnormalities within the digestive system.
Guinea pigs with these problems often die prematurely when their digestive system fails.
Because of the way these genes are inherited, a responsible breeder can protect future pups by not breeding two roan guinea pigs or two dalmation guinea pigs together.
Effect of diet on the life expectancy of guinea pigs
Is a guinea pig’s lifespan determined solely by it’s genes?
Definitely not! Their genes are only part of the story.
What they eat and how much they weigh can also add guinea pig years or take them away.
Guinea pigs need plenty of hay, fresh greens, and an appropriate dry food.
Fruit and other treats are a fun way to bond with your guinea pig and make sure they’re getting enough vitamin C, but it’s important to find a healthy balance.
Guinea pigs aren’t typically overeaters, but if their diet has too much sugar in it they could become overweight.
Carrying excess weight puts strain on their heart and other organs, and can ultimately shrink their lifespan.
What else affects the lifespan of a guinea pig in captivity?
Guinea pigs are sociable animals. They’re also pint-sized adventurers who like mental stimulation.
Loneliness and boredom can be very stressful for guinea pigs, and this is bad for their long term health in two ways.
Firstly, boredom or loneliness often give rise to abnormal behaviors in guinea pigs.
These abnormal behaviors may include chewing their fur or skin, which can make wounds that allow infection into the body.
Infections can be treated with antibiotics prescribed by your vet, but every infection also carries a risk of being fatal.
Stressed guinea pigs also produce more cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone.
Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol place a strain all of the body’s functions, including the heart and the immune system.
Put simply, a bored or lonely guinea pig’s body will wear out sooner.
How you can improve the life expectancy of your guinea pig
So far we’ve largely looked at all the worrying information.
Now let’s look at all the good news: the things we can do to help our guinea pigs live long and happy lives!
Here are the most important steps you can take to give your guinea pig a long life:
- If you are buying from a breeder, ask lots of questions about their family tree. Find out how long their predecessors lived, and what their overall health was like.
- Unless you plan to present your guinea pigs at shows, or breed them for profit, then choosing a non-pedigree guinea pig is likely to increase the amount of time you have with them.
- Feed them an appropriate and balanced diet.
- Keep guinea pigs in pairs or herds, and make sure they have access to a variety of enriching toys.
- Get them checked over by a vet once a year, and seek treatment for health problems promptly in between check ups.
How long can guinea pigs live?
So if you do everything right, how long can you expect your guinea pig to live?
It seems the accepted wisdom still varies.
The UK animal welfare charity Blue Cross really hedges its bets: it puts the life expectancy of guinea pigs at four to eight years.
The RSPCA is more precise; they say guinea pig lifespan is five to six years “but some may live longer”.
In the last couple of decades some important advice about keeping guinea pigs has changed.
The importance of hay in their diet is better understood and promoted, and welfare experts no longer recommend keeping guinea pigs with rabbits.
Making these changes can literally add years to a guinea pig’s life.
I think this is why a quick internet search for “how long does a guinea pig live” currently produces such a wide range of results. And why my friend’s guinea pigs are enjoying much longer lives than the guinea pigs of my husband’s boyhood.
Longest living guinea pig
So where does it stop? How long can a really lucky guinea pig go on living?
There are many anecdotes of exceptionally old guinea pigs.
The Guinness Book of World Records entry for the worlds longest living guinea pig was a boar in England called Snowball, who reached an extremely stately fourteen years and ten months old.
More recently, but unverified, a boar in Australia called Sweetie was reported to be seventeen years old when he passed away.
How long does a guinea pig live?
These days, if you follow the most up to date advice for looking after guinea pigs, you should expect them to be at least a five or six year commitment.
I’m glad there’s lots I can do to make sure Mr Lumpy and Mr Nosey become grand old dames, but I also know that pure dumb luck will play it’s part.
Here’s hoping they have a long and happy life.
Do you have a very old guinea pig at home?
Do you have, or have you had, a guinea pig which out stripped the average guinea pig lifespan?
Tell us about your old girls and boys in the comments section below.
- Blue Cross
- O’Neill, D., et al. 2013 “Longevity and mortality of owned dogs in England”, The Veterinary Journal.
- Richardson, V. 2000. Diseases of Domestic Guinea Pigs.
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
- Woolliams, J. 2012. “The influence of genetics and inbreeding on disease”, In Practice.