It happens every year about this time: Households find themselves the proud, temporary owners of the grade-school guinea pig. Guinea hogs need summer homes, too, so some unsuspecting families are into their fourth week of caring for their new adoptee and many may not know much about these cute little visitors. I figured we could share and shed some light on the whys and wherefores of the anatomy, physiology and care of these pets.

One thing you don’t have to worry about is the dietary preferences of your pig. Unless you have a very young one, they already know what they like and like what they know, and they really don’t like change. Don’t feel like you have to give them special treats or new foods, as they may go on an anorexic binge. And for a tiny, little guinea, that can cause big trouble in a relatively short period of time. Secondly, when your children are playing with the pig and it urinates on the floor, do not worry if you see a white puddle. It is normal urine for guinea pigs. Cloudy, white urine that appears thicker than you would expect is the pee du jour for guineas. And lastly, if you see them eating their own poop, that is normal, too. Just like rabbits, they do this routinely and it is thought to gain a nutritional benefit by giving it a second go ’round through the GI tract.

Another peculiarity is that guinea pigs cannot manufacture their own vitamin C. They need it from some other source, obviously in their food or as a supplement in their water. You see, they don’t have the enzyme needed to produce vitamin C, but lucky for you, your summer guest’s eating habits probably have already included variety in their diet. You likely will need to do nothing extra, just stick with what your child’s teacher, Mrs. Cavy, told you to do.

If you were the lucky fosters of more than one classroom pig, make sure you have their sexes right or you may end up with a whole crew to go back to school come September. For adult pigs, proper identification of the sexes is not hard, but I still have trouble with the babies.

Speaking of babies, let’s delve into the physiology of our pet pigs. Babies are born of a long gestational period and are born precocious. They are ready to go right off the bat. They are born with their eyes open and a full coat of hair. Sure, they still need help from Mama, but they are not naked and helpless, like mice. If you have ever seen newborn guinea pigs (called pups), they are more precious than precocious. I still call them piglets; it’s cuter. Litters of babies are usually small, around two to four, but they can have up to a dozen, or just one big bruiser. They usually are born after a pregnancy of approximately 70 days. They need to nurse right away to have the best chance at survival, and are on their own in three weeks. They start eating solid food while they are still nursing, maybe that’s why they’re called pigs.

Guinea pigs live about 5 or 6 years, but they sexually mature early. Boys can breed at 3 months and girls start even earlier, at 2 months of age. They have teeth that continually grow, like other rodents. You have probably discovered how vocal they are, especially first thing in the morning when you turn on the basement lights and it’s breakfast time. It is kind of endearing though, knowing that a rodent can’t wait to see you.

Typically you see two kinds of guinea pigs: The short-haired ones and the whorly, curly-haired ones. The former are the American style, and the latter are called Abyssinians. A third kind, the Peruvian guinea pigs, have hair up to six inches long.

The great thing is, guinea pigs are really simple to care for, and generally, there is not a lot to talk about—veterinary problem-wise. As long as they have proper diet and environment, you can ride out the summer smoothly. Fresh water and fresh pellets are essential. If there are leftovers, uneaten fruits or vegetables in the cage, remove them so they don’t rot. Keep the cage clean and draft-free. Don’t let them get too hot. Handle gently and enjoy. You may want to ask your vet what to look out for regarding medical problems. Thanks for being the good summer Samaritan. And rest in peace my first pig, Petunia—a red and white Abyssinian that reminded me of Tonto’s paint horse, Scout.

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