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This little piggy...

Cavies make great pets, but they aren't for little kids and you can't keep 'em locked up

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Have you considered taking a little piggy wee, wee, wee all the way home? Naturally, I'm not referring to a real pig, but a guinea pig.

According to the book Guinea Pigs: Practical Advice for Caring for Your Guinea Pig written by Virginia Parker Guidry, they're "neither pigs nor from Guinea Africa." Instead cavies, as guinea pigs are also known, were found in 5000 BC Peru and Bolivia. They are related to chinchillas and porcupines. While they were (and still are in some locales) used as a food source, they make wonderful pets.

Guidry says that Queen Elizabeth I had a guinea pig. She also reports that in "the 1800s, guinea pigs became the favourite pets of the ladies of the court and were carried about on silken pillows by servants."

While I don't recommend you carry a guinea pig around like a glass slipper, I can see why they're so loved. A young volunteer at Petland melted when she showed me a male pup and said "see, they love to snuggle!" I doubt she'd say the same thing of a porcupine. Well not for long, that is.

In the wild, guinea pigs live in colonies. This living arrangement helps protect them from their enemies. They are social creatures, which is the reason pet stores and breeders recommend owners purchase two at a time.

Cavies share this same social spirit with their human contacts, too. Dr. Nancy McQuade from Best Friends Animal Hospital explained that they "need to be properly socialized." And the younger they're exposed to daily contact with humans, the better. McQuade suggests that these pets need daily interaction and exercise throughout their lives. These are not mere darlings to be left in a cage to be admired.

Guidry notes that pigs, once they have bonded with their owners, will even coo at them. Cavies are quite vocal. Not only do they coo, they squeak, click and chirp. Each noise means something different, so owners need to learn what they mean. But the click of the teeth is universal; it means stand back -- what you're doing is about to get you bitten. But this doesn't mean that bites are common. In fact, they rarely bite.

Like cats and dogs, there are different breeds of guinea pigs, 13 to be exact.

Also, like canines and felines, cavies need their fur brushed and their nails trimmed. Products like slicker brushes and even human toe-nail trimmers work well to assist with your guinea pig's maintenance.

Naturally, there are other reasons to groom. It allows owners to look over the pet's coat to ensure there are no lice, skin patches or lumps. Loss of hair can indicate parasites. And lumps could be an indication of more serious issues such as cancer.

Diet is very important to their health. Similar to humans, guinea pigs don't produce their own vitamin C. Drops and/or vitamin C-laden fruit is recommended. Cavies need a blend of pellets and hay for a healthy diet. Dark, leafy greens to wonders for guinea pigs, just like they do for humans.

I think I might be related to these furry little guys, because as Guidry says, "cavies are big drinkers, especially on warm days." Naturally, she's referring to water. I'm not.

Like rabbits, their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives. It's important that owners monitor their eating habits. Changes can indicate a malocclusion (or misalignment of the teeth). Sores can develop and prevent them from eating properly.

There are other tidbits about guinea pigs that make them interesting. Like possums, they play dead if they're threatened. And if you've ever tried to pick one up, and notice how difficult it can be, you'll come across another defensive mechanism -- they scurry to confuse potential predators.

It's important to get the right cage. Wire-bottomed cages can cause foot ailments. Cages need to be cleaned once a week and there should be sufficient bedding (no cedar shavings). Guinea pigs like to tunnel, so they require a place to hide and play. Toys can be as simple as toilet rolls.

While children want to hug the stuffing out of these pets (sometimes literally), they're not a good beginner pet on which a young owner can hone animal-care skills. McQuade suggests that you refrain from getting a guinea pig until your child is six years old or older.

Like other pet choices, remember it's a responsibility. Just as you need to have time and funds to properly care for dogs and cats, you need to have the right lifestyle for a guinea pig. If you travel, and have no one to daily feed and allow for the social needs of a guinea pig, it's not the right pet for you.

Cared for correctly, however, these little piggies can make wonderful, furry family members.

Guinea guidance

Dr. Nancy McQuade from Best Friends Animal Hospitalrecommends you have a pet exam before final purchase. This prevents owners from bonding with an ill animal, or at least allows you to make the decision with full knowledge of potential added expenditures.

Breeding should be left to experts. Talk to your veterinarian if you choose to breed. However, if you accidently choose one of each sex, note that one can be either spayed or neutered (it's easier to neuter the male because the procedure is less invasive.) Guinea pigs can live with other animals, depending on the animal (usually dogs are less receptive). Introductions must be slow.

Size matters with cages, the bigger the better. Cages shouldn't be set up in the sun or near drafts.

Guinea pigs can also be litter-trained.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2012 D6

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