Did you know that guinea pigs are the 12th most popular pet choice in America today? American guinea pigs are smart and social and they wear their hearts on their sleeves.
If you have ever seen a guinea pig “popcorning” with happiness (you know you are seeing it when your piggie starts hopping up and down repeatedly), you know how easy it is to fall in love with these fuzzy cuties!
Guinea pigs also purr like kitties, squeal like pigs and chatter like squirrels. They stay awake during the day and early evening and mostly rest at night, unlike many other small “pocket pets” that are nocturnal (active at night).
But even though they are small, this doesn’t mean that guinea pigs are easy to care for. Your American guinea pig will need a very specific habitat and environment to remain healthy and thrive.
You are smart to seek out as much information as possible about the American guinea pig before you make the commitment to care for a piggie of your very own! So now read on to learn all about this smart, cute, small mammal!
What are American guinea pigs?
For many enthusiasts, the American guinea pig is “the” guinea pig to choose. Out of all 13 recognized guinea pig breeds, the American and the American Satin (different only in the sheen of their short coats) are arguably the most popular pets.
In fact, the American guinea pig is one of the three most popular guinea pig breeds of all time (sharing this honor with the Abyssinian and the Peruvian).
The American guinea pig breed is widely available through breeders and rescues as well as pet stores (read on below for why we don’t recommend purchasing your new pig from a pet store!).
In this article, we share fascinating American guinea pig facts, talk about important American guinea pig care tips and offer insights into the personality, health and habitat needs of these precious furry cuties!
American guinea pig size
The American guinea pig can range in size from 1 to 3 pounds. Most guinea pigs will weigh in between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds at maturity, with males outweighing females.
Similarly, males will typically be longer than females. Length at maturity varies from 8 inches to 12 inches. This guinea pig has a fairly uniform body size from nose to tail stub and is sometimes described unflatteringly as “brick-shaped.”
All guinea pigs are considered tailless, although they do have tiny stumpy tales that are hard to see underneath all that fur.
American guinea pig colors
American guinea pigs today sport 19 different color combinations! They can have solid (one color) fur or patterns. Colors range from white to black, blue to beige, red to orange, cream to chocolate brown.
The American Cavy Breeders Association (ACBA) groups these colors into 5 categories: agouti, self, marked, solid and tan.
American guinea pig grooming
Both the American and the American Satin guinea pig belong to the same breed. The only difference is that the American guinea pig has matte (non-shiny) fur and the American Satin guinea pig has shiny fur.
Both are short-coated. Their fur is thick and close and is regarded as easy to care for. Weekly brushing can help maintain the coat, keep your bond close and allow you to examine your guinea pig up close to spot any problems.
Complete grooming includes trimming teeth and nails. Unless you are very comfortable performing these essential grooming tasks, you may wish to take your pig to the vet.
American guinea pig personality
American guinea pigs have vivacious and social personalities. However, they are more easygoing than some other guinea pig breeds as long as their basic requirements are met consistently.
If you are purchasing a young American guinea pig from a breeder, it is advisable to get two pigs – same gender or fixed, unless you plan on breeding lots of little piggies! Guinea pigs as a whole are accustomed to living in groups and they typically live longer, healthier lives if allowed to have a guinea pig companion.
If you decide to bring home two males, be sure they are fixed. Otherwise, they may still fight with one another.
There are occasions where guinea pigs are kept alone and then relinquished to a rescue organization or animal shelter. In these cases, it may be better for the pig’s wellbeing to continue housing it alone – sudden change can be very stressful to guinea pigs.
Talk with the rescue coordinator and your vet to decide what is best.
American guinea pigs are smart and can even learn tricks. They are good pets for older children who are sufficiently strong and responsible to hold them securely and handle them confidently.
Otherwise, a guinea pig can easily be injured if dropped, squeezed or handled too roughly, which younger children may do without meaning to cause harm.
American guinea pig life span
The typical lifespan for the American guinea pig is 5 to 7 years. However, some few captive guinea pigs have lived to be a whopping 14 years old!
Optimal diet and hydration, a clean habitat, plentiful enrichment and exercise and regular preventative vet care is the key to prolonging your guinea pig’s life.
American guinea pig care
In general, all guinea pigs will be healthier and happier when kept with other pigs. Unless you plan to breed your guinea pigs, however, be extra careful your new pet pigs are fixed or same-gender!
Guinea pigs are more fragile than they appear. They also have fairly exacting environment needs to stay healthy. Veterinarians specify the following environment requirements:
- Temperature should remain in the range of 65 to 75°F (18 to 23°C) to avoid heatstroke.
- Humidity should remain below 50 percent.
- Per pig, the habitat should offer at least 2 cubic feet of space (2 feet long by 1 foot wide by 1 foot high), but more space is always better.
- Habitat flooring should be a solid surface, not mesh or wire.
- Habitat must be placed in a draft-free area that is not exposed to direct sunlight.
- Habitat should be located in a quiet area during sleep hours.
American guinea pig health
The most serious health issues for guinea pigs are respiratory, digestive and dental.
Guinea pigs can develop respiratory infections and pneumonia quite rapidly. This is because most pigs carry the bacteria responsible for respiratory illness. When your pig gets stressed the bacteria can get triggered.
Diarrhea is another common health concern that can arise from stress, imbalance of digestive flora and certain bacterial infections. Untreated or improperly treated diarrhea can be fatal.
Obesity can be a real issue in sedentary pigs, especially if they are kept in too-small habitats. However, overfeeding the wrong diet is the primary cause of obesity.
A guinea pig’s teeth are what vets call “open-rooted,” which means they will grow continuously throughout your pig’s lifetime. Without sufficient material for gnawing and chewing, the teeth can grow to an unhealthy length both inside the gums and outside, causing injury and infection.
Vitamin C deficiency
One common cause of dental issues is insufficient Vitamin C in the diet. This can cause “scurvy,” which is perhaps best known as the sailor’s disease (it was caused when human sailors didn’t have access to fresh fruit on long sea voyages).
Scurvy leaves your pig vulnerable to all kinds of minor and severe health issues, including poor wound healing, skin and coat problems, joint swelling, and mouth and skin ulcers and bleeding.
Guinea pigs can develop calcium stones in the kidney, bladder, ureter (narrow tube connecting the kidney to the bladder) or urethra (narrow tube carrying the urine outside the body). These stones are painful and can cause lethal obstructions.
Female guinea pigs are particularly prone to bladder infections, which are also linked to the formation of stones.
Abscesses and tumors
When the tissue gets infected and swells, this can lead to an abscess. Guinea pigs can develop abscesses anywhere, but oral abscesses are most common.
Guinea pigs are prone to skin and mammary tumors, as well as other growths. While these are usually benign, they may still need to be removed for your pig’s safety.
Bacterial and fungal skin infections and parasites can plague guinea pigs.
Like other mammals, guinea pigs can suffer from fleas and lice as well as ringworm. This can cause your pig’s skin to become itchy, crusty, scaly and, over time, hairless.
Before you bring home an American guinea pig pet, be sure you have already located a knowledgeable exotic vet. Guinea pigs are very sensitive to many antibiotics and medications that other mammals tolerate well.
American guinea pig health notes
Here are a few things you may wish to consider if you’re a potential guinea pig owner, when it comes to keeping your guinea pig – and yourself – healthy.
Hay allergies in humans
Guinea pigs must have uninterrupted access to fresh hay. They need the fiber for digestion and to keep their teeth filed down.
If you suspect you may have an allergy to hay, you may want to first purchase some hay and handle it for a week or so to see if you develop allergies. This is much preferable to bringing home a guinea pig and then discovering you have to relinquish it due to your hay allergies!
To stay healthy, guinea pigs must have constant access to their own feces, which they need to eat to get maximum nutrition and maintain digestive health. This practice, known as coprophagy, is essential.
While it sounds super-gross, coprophagy is similar to how a cow will regurgitate once-chewed grass and chew it again in the form of a “cud.” Guinea pigs don’t have the second stomach to store the cud and send it back up for a second chewing, so they have to wait until it comes out the other end before chewing it again.
Coprophagy is not a sign of ill health – it is a sign of a healthy guinea pig. This is especially important to know if you will be caring for a guinea pig for the first time so you won’t panic when you see it happening!
American guinea pig breeders
Guinea pig mills are a big problem in the pet trades today. To avoid inadvertently supporting guinea pig mills, it is best to get your new guinea pig pet directly from a reputable breeder or to adopt a rescued pig in need of a new home.
With so many potential health issues to watch out for, you may be wondering what you should look for to be sure you select a healthy baby American guinea pig!
Veterinarians offer the following guidance when choosing a pig from a breeder or adopting a rescued guinea pig:
- Personality. Look for a guinea pig that is active, curious, friendly and open to being handled.
- Appearance. Choose a baby American guinea pig with bright, clear eyes and nose, clean soft fur, healthy teeth and gums, healthy feet and skin and a clean area around and under the tail.
- Environment. Make sure your guinea pig comes from a clean and healthy living situation, whether at the breeder’s or from the rescue housing.
Are American guinea pigs the right choice for me?
American guinea pigs are very popular pets today. These sweet, sociable pocket pets are likely to thrive with good preventative vet care, a healthy diet, plenty of fresh water, an enriching environment and a caring owner – YOU!
Plus, there is nothing like cuddling a soft, furry guinea pig in your arms!
But choosing to bring home a new pet of any species is a commitment, and only you can determine whether now is the ideal time to start a new life with your guinea pig.
Let us know if you decide to get a guinea pig and which breed you choose. We love to keep up with our readers and learn about your experiences with guinea pig pets!
Resources and Further Reading
ACBA Online (2014). 13 Guinea Pig Breeds. American Cavy Breeders Association.
Quesenberry, K.E. (2018). Description and Physical Characteristics of Guinea Pigs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Axelson, R. (2018). Guinea Pigs – Problems. VCA Animal Hospital.
Zoological Education Network (2018). What to Expect from Your Guinea Pig. Tampa Bay Animal Hospitals.
Hess, L. (2018). Are Guinea Pigs Good Pets? Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics.
Dietz Kumar, J. (2012). Guinea Pig Care. South Coast Pet Hospital.
Moss, L. (2016). 8 things you didn’t know about guinea pigs. Mother Nature Network.