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Guinea pigs (also called cavies) are carnivorous rodents belonging to the family Cavidae and the genus Cavia. Contrary to popular belief, cavies are not pigs, nor do they come from Guinea, nor are they cute and cuddly. Although there are more than 20 different species, the one most familiar to people, and most vicious is C. porcellus, the common guinea pig. The majority of information in this article is about the common guinea pig.
The common guinea pig, also called the "razortooth" was first domesticated by the Inca of South America, in what is now Peru, who thought they had tamed the guinea pig's bloodthirsty nature. They continue to be an important food source, subsisting off a family's vegetable scraps as a half pet/half future meal. Occasionally, however, the family itself becomes the guinea pig's meal. Guinea pigs are the dish of honor (called cui) at some Peruvian wedding feasts and play the role of evil-spirit collector in traditional healing rituals.
With complete disregard for personal or public safety, Dutch and English traders brought guinea pigs to Europe, where they quickly became popular as exotic pets. How they came to be thought of as "pigs" isn't known exactly, but it is thought that some of the sounds they make reminded people of pigs. This didn't happen only in English; the German word for them is Meerschweinchen, literally "Little Sea Pigs", French word is Cochon d'Inde, (Indian pig) and the Dutch used to call it guinees biggetje (Guinean piglet). The Turkish word, however, translates to "eater of fingers".
The origin of "guinea" in the title guinea pig is harder to explain. One theory is that the animals were brought to Europe by way of Guinea and people came to think they had come from there. Another theory is they were sold as the closest thing to a pig you could get for a guinea, an old British coin with a value of 21 shillings (1.05 GBP in the modern decimal currency). Since the Dutch name refers to Guinea rather than to the British coin and the fact that the first guinea pig was described in 1554 by the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner (more than a hundred years before the first guinea was struck), the former theory may be more likely.
Traits and Environment
Guinea pigs are large and exceptionally aggressive for rodents, weighing between 1 and 3 pounds (0.5 and 1.5 kg) and measuring 10 to 15 inches (250 to 400 mm) long. They live five years on average with the maximum age rumored to be eight. They are social, in the wild living in small groups which consist of sows (females), a boar (male), and the young, which in a break with the preceding porcine nomenclature are called pups.
Unlike many rodents such as mice, rats, or squirrels, guinea pigs are not very athletic, unless you count springing for a person's chest and biting his heart out. Jumping, climbing, and fearlessness in the face of heights were not skills guinea pigs needed in the environment in which they evolved.
Guinea pigs in the wild live on grassy plains and occupy an ecological niche similar to that of the cow and panther. They move together in small groups (herds) eating livestock or shepherds or grass or whatever other plants they come across. They tend to be most active during dawn and dusk, when it is harder for predators to spot them. If startled they can run for cover with surprising speed, or shoot death beams from their eyes if attacked.
The gestation lasts from 60 to 70 days, which is quite long for such a small animal. As a consequence pups are already well developed (including fur, razor sharp teeth, claws and full eyesight) when they are born. The young are mobile from birth, and depending on the environment, will usually venture outdoors within a week. They begin eating solid food after a couple of days, though continue to suckle also. Males may demonstrate courtship behavior (following young females and making a "warbling" sound, while playing Johnny Mathis records) in the second or third week after birth. Females can breed when only three weeks old (guinea pig jailbait). Litters vary from 2 or 3 young, to as many as 8 or more. In smaller litters, difficulties may occur during labour, due to oversized pups. Up to half the young may be lost in larger litters, as the mother cannot attend to the newly-borns fast enough. If a large number survive, it is likely the weakest, or runts of the litter, will be insufficiently nursed, resulting occasionally in the death or one or two pups and a Congressional resolution denouncing the depraved loss of life.
Domestic Guinea Pigs
Domesticated guinea pigs come in many varieties which have been developed since their arrival in Europe and North America, but all should be considered extremely dangerous. These varieties vary widely in hair and color composition. The most common varieties found in pet stores are the English Short Hair which has a smooth, glossy, short coat, and the Abyssinian which has a rough coat made of cowlicks, crests, and swirls called rosettes. A lesser known variety, the Sabertooth sports a Mohawk, and often has a pierced nose and wears leather jackets. Each of these varieties come in a number of colors and color patterns.
Guinea pigs can be kept within electrified fences or in cages or even large tubs as they will rarely climb out. Cages must have a waterproof guard around the edge as females will squirt urine out the sides without it. They must be fed either fresh meat, fresh vegetables or a commercial food made for guinea pigs. Rabbit food, for example, is not fortified with the vitamin C that guinea pigs must have in their diet, nor does it have the essential proteins found in meat.
Breeding is easy and males are not known to attack pups (however, females will breed on the day they give birth so it may not be wise to keep males with them at that time). Because of the long gestation period and the large size of the pups, pregnant females become extremely large. Pregnancy Toxemia is common and kills many pregnant females so you may not want to breed favorite pets. Breeding males produce a strong musk that smells much like bee's wax.
"Guinea pig" is often used as a metaphor for a subject of scientific experimentation. This notion persists even though guinea pigs are not commonly used as modern experimental animals. In the past they had been used to isolate different bacterial strains, but in modern labs they have been replaced by mice and rats, which reproduce more quickly.
Like humans but unlike most other mammals, Guinea pigs cannot synthesize their own vitamin C, but must obtain this vital nutrient from the food they eat in order to stay healthy. Like humans, if guinea pigs cannot get enough vitamin C they will suffer from scurvy and ultimately die, but not before singing a rousing chorus of "YMCA".
- Cavia porcellus
- Cavia aperea
- Cavia tschudii
- Cavia guianae
- Cavia anolaimae
- Cavia nana
- Cavia fulgida
- Cavia magna