These cute little rodents originally came from the Andes in South America and were domesticated as livestock for a source of meat, and despite their common name, guinea pigs are not native to Guinea, nor are they related biologically to pigs, and the origin of the name is still unclear. The guinea pig has enjoyed widespread popularity as a pet since its introduction to Europe and North America by European traders in the 16th century.

The guinea pig or domestic guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), also known as the cavy or domestic cavy is a species of rodent belonging to the genus Cavia in the family Caviidae. In the wild, they are incredibly social little animals and live in ‘muddles’ of ten or more. Those living alone will experience loneliness, and boredom and more than likely develop behavioural issues and this may impact on their physical well-being, so if you are thinking of one as a pet, you would be wise to consider getting two. Two females or a neutered male and a female are good combinations.

All have a robust body with short limbs, large head and eyes, and short ears. Their fur varies in length, texture, and colour depending on the breed, and there are 13 recognized breeds, but are predominantly black/brown/gold/white combinations, some with long, silky fur, more commonly short, but sometimes with whorls of fur that look like a bad nights’ sleep! The feet have hairless soles and short sharp claws, with four toes on the forefeet and three on the back.

Fairly big creatures

They are fairly big creatures, weighing 500 to 1,500 grams, and measuring 20 to 40 cm long. They are herbivores but must have water if fed dry commercial pellets as well. They don’t have a breeding season in captivity and will have up to 13 young per litter, with 4 being average. Although the young are lively and eat solids the day they are born, they are not fully weaned for about three weeks. Females mature in two months, males in three, and they live 3-5 years, maybe more, so you can enjoy them longer than most other rodents.

Guinea pigs make great pets as they all have different personalities and are very vocal, making it easy to know their individual identities. They are fun to play with and very entertaining, and despite perhaps being nervous or skittish at first, with consistent gentle handling they are easy to tame. Careful handling is important, and children should be supervised with them, but they are unlikely to bite even when stressed.

The size of a cage for one, or a maximum of two, according to the RSPCA, is roughly 2.5 sq m, but the preferred size should be around 3.5 sq m, with one end for sleeping quarters and the other end for toileting, with a litter tray available. They will need time out of their cage every day for exercise and exploring, or just cuddling in your lap. They aren’t nocturnal either, so will be awake when you are. Daily interaction and attention are essential for a guinea pig's well-being, and this ‘time out’ would be a good time for their regular grooming, with shorthaired types being maintained with a once-a-week brushing and longhaired breeds requiring daily grooming, something the kids might enjoy under supervision.

They can live caged outdoors as long as they have enough space, and if you are able to keep them at a comfortable temperature, or indoors, as they will be happy living loose in your apartment. You can also keep your guinea pigs in their own shed or a car-free garage, just ensure their exercise area doesn’t get too wet or muddy and avoid any hard or cold surface that might hurt or damage their feet.

There are several types of bedding available for them to nest in, including paper-based, fleece, wood, and hay. The best is either paper or fleece based, and the cage should be thoroughly cleaned on a weekly basis and spot-cleaned every few days. If you don't enjoy the smell of a dirty cage, consider how your guinea pig might feel about stinky living quarters!