What is a Guinea Pig?
A guinea pig is a rodent belonging to the family of Caviidae. Though they are named Guinea pigs, they neither originated from Guinea nor any relation with pigs. They originated in the Andes region of South America. They were earlier raised as a food source.
Guinea pigs are super cute. The minute you see them, you may like to hold them and cuddle. But, each cavy (they are called cavy) has a personality of its own and has its share of likes and dislikes that may differ from its sisters and brothers. It is always cool to know more about these fluffy and cute creatures, and hence, we brought you today guinea pig facts. Read and enjoy!
Before we start our guinea pig facts, lets us learn its scientific classification:
Species: Cavia porcellus
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1. The scientific name of the common species of a guinea pig is Cavia porcellus. In Latin, porcellus means ‘little pig.’
2. Breeders lovingly call these animals cavy, and it is labs and scientific contexts, ‘guinea pig’ is used.
3. Pigs and guinea pigs have few things in common, like their large heads compared to the bodies, small and insignificant tail, and sounds produced are similar to each other. Other similarities include devoting a great amount of time eating, could be easily transported, and can live in a small space for a very long time.
4. They are called pigs in different languages of Europe. In German, they are called Meerschweinchen, meaning little sea pig. In French, they are called Cochon d’Inde meaning Indian pig.
5. The origin of the word ‘guinea’ is not known. There are two major hypotheses placed. The first one is that the guinea pigs were brought to Egypt via Guinea. Hence, people thought the animals originated in Guinea.
6. The second hypothesis is based on linguistics. ‘Guinea’ is a word often used in English to refer to anything far-off and unknown country. So, they must have used the word ‘guinea’ to cavy as they didn’t know its true origins.
7. Another theory states that ‘guinea’ is a corrupted word for ‘Guiana’ of South America. Others believe that ‘guinea’ is an alternation to the word ‘coney,’ meaning rabbits.
8. They were first domesticated around 5000 BCE in the Andes region of South America. Statues (dated from 500 BCE to 500 CE) of guinea pigs were unearthed in Peru and Ecuador.
9. Peru’s Moche people worshipped them and depicted them in their art quite often.
10. At around the 1500s, the natives started selective breeding of the guinea pigs, which would eventually result in the present form of the animal.
11. They were exchanged as gifts and used in religious and social ceremonies by the indigenous people. They were used as part of traditional medicine. They believed guinea pigs are a supernatural medium. They used them to diagnose diseases like arthritis, rheumatism, jaundice, and typhus.
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12. English, Dutch, and Spanish explorers took these guinea pigs to Europe, and they were an instant hit. Guinea pigs became an instant hit among the rich and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I.
13. In 1554, Conrad Gessner, a Swiss naturalist, was the first person to describe them in the West.
14. Adult domestic pet breeds weigh anywhere between 700 and 1,200 grams or 1.5 to 2.6 pounds and are 8 to 10 inches or 20 to 25 centimeters long. It has 258 bones and 20 teeth.
15. Some of the breeds can weigh as much as 3 kilograms or 6.6 pounds when fully grown. Their lifespan is about four to five years. However, some of them have lived for eight years.
16. According to Guinness World Records (2006), the longest living guinea pig lived for 14 years, 10.5 months!
17. All the species of guinea pigs have fur except for one – a laboratory breed. Some of the species have long fur hair like the Silkie, Peruvian, and Texel. Most of the species have five types of hair that make up their coat.
18. They are pretty intelligent. They can easily learn complex paths to reach food and can remember them for months. They are very good swimmers as well.
19. Guinea pigs have four toes on the forefoot and three toes on the hindfoot. They cannot climb properly and are not agile. They get scared easily. When they sense danger or get scared, they either run very fast haphazardly or freeze for a very long time.
20. Groups of startled or surprised guinea pigs stampede – running aimlessly to confuse the predator. When excited, they keep hopping in the air, which is called popcorning.
21. They regularly groom themselves and sometimes involve in social grooming. During grooming, their eyes secrete a milky-white substance, which is rubbed into their fur. Male guinea pigs chew each other’s hair to establish hierarchy.
22. Piloerection, head thrusts, non-sexual mounting, biting, leaping attacks, and angry noises are a few ways of showing dominance in guinea pigs.
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23. They have an amazing sense of smell, touch, and hearing. According to Louisiana State University, the hearing range of guinea pigs is 50 Hz to 50,000 Hz. But their sense of sight is not powerful. They are dichromats, meaning they can see fewer colors than what we can see. However, they have a wider angle of vision of 340o.
24. Guinea pigs use several vocalizations to communicate with each other. Some of the common vocalizations and their purpose is given below:
- Chirping – It is similar to a bird song. It is related to stress, or a baby guinea pig makes the sound when it wants to be fed.
- Wheek – It is also known as ‘whistle.’ A guinea pig wheeks when it is excited about something.
- Purring or bubbling – It produces the sound when it is enjoying.
- Chattering – When a guinea pig senses danger, it makes a chattering sound to warn others.
- Shrieking or Squealing – It is a sound produced in response to pain or danger.
- Chutting – It is produced when a guinea pig is pursuing another guinea pig.
- Whining – It is produced when a guinea pig is being pursued by another guinea pig.
25. A male guinea pig is called boar, a female is called a sow, and the babies are called pups and not piglets.
26. Guinea pigs are not present in the wild. In the 20th century, two domestic species related to guinea pigs were reintroduced to the wild. It was seen that they held the same ecological niche as a cow. These ‘wild’ cavies are social and live in small groups. They eat grass and don’t save food. They don’t form burrows but sometimes take shelter in others’ burrows. To avoid predators, they stay active during dawn and dusk (crepuscular nature).
27. The domesticated ones live in groups of two to three. The most common combination of a group is a neutered male and two females. However, two or three males can live together if they are introduced to each other early, if the cage is spacious enough, and if there are no females with them.
28. Domestic guinea pigs are more active than their relatives in the wild. They don’t have any particular sleeping and waking routine.
29. The opinion differs regarding housing other pets with guinea pigs. Cats and dogs can be trained to be on good terms with guinea pigs. But other smaller pets like hamsters, rabbits, and gerbils may not go well with guinea pigs.
30. The molars of guinea pigs grow all their life, which is one of the characteristic features of a herbivore or a plant/grass-eating animal. They eat their fecal matter (a phenomenon called coprophagy) to supplement their diet. Their stomachs produce two types of fecal matter. The first one is devoid of any nutrition, but the second one has recycled vitamin b, good bacteria, and fiber. It is this feces that they eat.
31. Unlike other mammals, guinea pigs can’t synthesize vitamin C. They need 10 mg of vitamin C every day. They develop scurvy if the RDA of vitamin C is not met. Other than that, they need potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamins, and other minerals.
32. Guinea pigs suffer from metastatic calcification, muscular dystrophy, vitamin deficiencies, teeth problems, and pregnancy difficulties if they are given a poor diet.
33. Plants like nightshade, bracken, buttercup, foxglove, hemlock, lily of the valley, wild celery, etc., are poisonous to guinea pigs.
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34. Boars reach sexual maturity at 3 to 5 weeks, and females when they are four weeks old. They can produce litter all round the year, especially in the spring. In one year, a sow can have five litters. If a sow doesn’t give birth by the age of six months, the pubic bones fuse. If she gets pregnant later, the pregnancy may become harmful where the sow may die trying to push the baby out.
35. The gestation period can be between 59 days and 72 days, the average being 63-68 days. The litter size is 1 to 6, the average being two to four. The largest litter size ever to be recorded was 17 in 2007.
36. Two or more females (who had babies) can benefit if they practice alloparenting where a female would adopt other female’s babies and take care of them as hers.
37. The pups are well developed at birth with hair, claws, teeth, and partial eyesight. They start eating solid after their birth almost immediately (they still drink mother’s milk) and are mobile.
38. Sows can become pregnant again just after 6-48 hours after the delivery.
39. If handled properly at an early age, they don’t bite or scratch you when you take them in your hands.
40. There are several breeds of cavies. Some of them are English shorthair (also called American), Abyssinian, Silkie, Peruvian, and Texel.
41. The guinea pigs were raised for their meat in the Andes. Earlier, they were seen as a delicacy and consumed only during ceremonies. But as of now, it has become a part of a normal diet, especially in Bolivia and Peru.
43. some occasions are celebrated in Peru and other adjoining areas in the name of guinea pigs. There is a festival called ‘jaca tsariy,’ meaning collecting the cuys. It is celebrated in Peru.
44. Churin, a town in Peru, has an annual festival involving dressing guinea pigs in colorful costumes. Guinea pig festivals are celebrated in multiple cities of Peru. National Guinea Pig Day is celebrated on the second Friday of October in Peru.
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45. The use of guinea pigs in science experiments started with performing vivisection of guinea pigs by Marcello Malpighi and Carlo Fracassati in the 17th century.
46. Antonie Lavoisier, in 1780, used a guinea pig to experiment with a calorimeter, a device to measure heat. The heat generated from the guinea pig’s respiration melted the snow around the calorimeter. It showed that the respiratory exchange of gas is combustion.
47. Guinea pigs played a pivotal role in germ theory in the late 19th century by Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and Émile Roux.
48. Not just that, they even entered into orbital space flight multiple times. The first attempt was by the USSR on 9 March 1961 on the Sputnik 9 biosatellite. The second successful attempt was China’s launching of a biosatellite in 1990.
49. The usage of guinea pigs as laboratory animals has decreased since the 1990s. Earlier, they were used to standardize vaccines and to study how antibodies were produced in the body in reaction to anaphylaxis or other extreme allergic reactions. Other uses were in pharmacology and irradiation. Now, they are mostly replaced by rats and mice.
50. Guinea pig played a very key role in the research of vitamin C. Complement, a very important part of serology, was first isolated from a guinea pig’s blood.
51. Guinea pigs serve as model organisms for studies of juvenile diabetes. The placental structure is the same in both humans and guinea pigs. Their gestation period can also be divided into three trimesters like humans. There is a similarity in the fetal development of both humans and guinea pigs.
52. In 2008, Switzerland passed a law stating that guinea pigs are social species. It is against the law if any person has only one guinea pig as a pet in Switzerland.
53. The American Rabbit Breeders Association and the American Cavy Breeders Association recognize 13 breeds of guinea pigs. The first breeds to be recognized were Peruvian, Abyssinian, American, or English shorthair.
54. They don’t sweat like us and hence if left out in the sun or in hot places they can get heatstroke.
55. They are listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN’s Red List. However, Moleques de Sul Guinea pigs are only 42 left in the wild, and IUCN listed it as ‘Critically Endangered.’