Guinea Pigs as a Child’s Pet: Yay or Nay?

Several things to consider before becoming a guinea pig pet parent.

Happy March, CHS Supporters!

Ahh March, time to plan out the garden, especially with spring making a surprise early appearance this year. March is a month for all things rabbit, but we will also bring you some fun features on adorable pocket pets to celebrate this month devoted to little critters.

At Calgary Humane Society one of the most common species we are asked about is the (undeniably adorable) guinea pig! These captivating little critters are about the size of a potato but sweet as jellybeans! Guinea pigs are playful and interactive pets known for their fun vocalizations, including chirps, wurbles and even purrs!

This led us to the most obvious topic for today’s blog… Are guinea pigs a good pet for children?

Guinea pigs are typically a popular thought when it comes to children’s pets for a number of reasons. Today, we are busting some common guinea pig myths and looking at a few of the reasons that a parent might consider a guinea pig for a pet.

 

Myth 1: Smaller pets are “easier” to care for/take less work than cats or dogs.

One of the primary reasons we hear at Calgary Humane Society when a parent is considering a smaller pet for a child is that a dog or cat is too much of a commitment, so a smaller pet may be “easier” to care for… but is this true? While this may be a popular belief, in reality smaller pets often need just as much care and attention as a cat or a dog. Unfortunately, many smaller pets across the country are neglected or cared for improperly due to this common belief that small pets are less work.

Guinea pigs are considered a type of caged or ‘pocket pet’, but this is a bit of a misnomer. While guinea pigs do typically live in cages (for safety amongst other reasons), many of the cages currently sold for guinea pigs are really too small. A guinea pig will thrive best in a larger cage that has enough room for the guinea pig to run around with plenty of areas for hiding, foraging and chewing stations. Guinea pigs also need out of cage time for exercise and enrichment, but unlike a hamster it is NOT safe to put a guinea pig in an exercise ball. Exercise balls (even large ones) force a guinea pig to bend at an unnatural angle and can cause pain and even spinal damage.

In addition to needing large cages, guinea pigs are social animals requiring lots of care and attention. Daily time out of cage for exercise, one on one time with their humans and environmental enrichment are all-important parts of a guinea pig’s life. Guinea pigs also require regular grooming to keep their hair, skin and nails in good condition. Regular dental care is also a must for guinea pigs because their teeth grow continuously. In reality, the daily time spent with a pet guinea pig should be equal to that of a cat or a dog.

What about cleaning? Well like any pet the food that goes in to a guinea pig must eventually come out and all of those “leftovers” require some serious cleaning! Guinea pigs tend to produce a LOT more poop than dogs or cats and also produce poop much more frequently due to differences in both diet and digestive tract. Unlike a dog or a cat, guinea pig poop is usually pelleted and easy to sweep up. Because guinea pigs live in a cage and poop many times a day, you will need to clean your guinea pig’s entire cage each day rather than selectively pooper-scooping… though some guinea pigs can be trained to use a litter box to help contain the mess. While guinea pig poop may be easier to clean, guinea pig urine can be more challenging. Guinea pig urine contains calcium and when the urine dries these calcium deposits often need to be scraped up during cleaning.

Myth 2: Smaller pets, like guinea pigs, are less expensive to care for

The cost of caring for a pet can vary greatly depending on the type of pet you have. Certainly it is cheaper to feed a guinea pig than it is to feed a great dane! That being said, guinea pigs have special needs that do cost money to look after. In terms of food, guinea pigs require a diet of hay, guinea pig pellets and fresh vegetables and this food must be changed out regularly. In addition to this, guinea pigs also need a source of vitamin C, so you may need to purchase special drops if the pellets you buy are not enriched with vitamin C.

In terms of toys/housing supplies, guinea pigs require environmental enrichment just like any other animal. Hidey huts, chew toys and puzzle toys are all excellent ideas for a guinea pig. Because chewing is a vital part of a guinea pig’s well being (to wear down their teeth) you can expect to have to replace your guinea pig’s toys and chewing items regularly.

Finally, vet care. Unfortunately guinea pigs and other small animals are often neglected when it comes to veterinary care, but these little critters need regular check-ups just like cats and dogs! Guinea pigs are a prey species, so they will typically hide any signs of illness until it is severe. Regular check-ups will help to monitor the health of your guinea pig, especially as it ages.

Unlike a cat or a dog, guinea pigs will usually need to be seen at an exotics veterinarian as most cat and dog practices will not have the specialized equipment or training required to treat your guinea pig. This means that you could have to drive a long distance to bring your guinea pig to the vet. Exotic veterinary pricing can also be different from cat or dog pricing, so prior to committing to a guinea pig we always recommend calling around to find out what your vet costs will be!

Myth 3: Guinea pigs only live for a year or two, so they don’t require a lot of commitment

This is another myth that sometimes carries tragic consequences. The life span for a guinea pig is around 5-10 years depending on type… but 6-8 years is a good average for a well cared for guinea pig. Sadly, one of the reasons for this underestimation of guinea pig life span is often due to a lack of veterinary care and neglect.

What does this mean? A guinea pig is a long-term commitment for a child! A child that receives a guinea pig at age 8 could very well still have the same guinea pig when they start driving! While this may not seem like a huge problem, keep in mind that children’s lives and priorities tend to change rapidly as they develop. While your child may be devoted to spending 2-3 hours per day caring for a guinea pig right now, that same child will likely develop different extracurricular and social interests in the future. To ensure proper care for your little cavy it will be important to create a family plan to address these future changes.

Myth 4: Guinea pigs are bigger so they are easier for children to handle

Guinea pigs are fragile animals that can be easily injured if handled improperly. Spinal injuries can result from guinea pigs being picked up incorrectly. Rough handling can also lead to broken bones and other injuries. That being said, guinea pigs are significantly larger than hamsters or mice, so they are less likely to fall victim to accidental injury due to someone not seeing them.

A guinea pig’s larger size does have some other advantages as well. First, the larger size provides a larger safe petting area for children without resorting to petting the guinea pig’s face. Also, it can be easier to read the body language of a guinea pig because of their larger size.

Guinea pigs as children’s pets

Now that we have busted some common guinea pig myths, it’s decision time! Is the noble cavy a good choice for a child?

Guinea pigs are one of the most sturdy pocket pets available and generally have calm and friendly demeanors. Well-socialized guinea pigs are agreeable with gentle petting, but usually prefer to keep all four feet firmly on the ground, so they should be handled sparingly. Children who are able to understand and respect the guinea pig’s boundaries can enjoy petting, watching and even creating fun toys for a pet guinea pig.

Guinea pigs are also an excellent choice for families that have size limits on pets. While a guinea pig will need a sizeable cage and a safe area to enjoy out of cage time they can be a great choice for families in condominiums or rental properties that have limitations on the size of pet. Guinea pigs are also a great choice for families that do not have a yard or those that have limited access to green space.

One thing that can be a challenge with guinea pigs is allergies. If you or someone in the family is allergic to fur-bearing animals like cats, dogs or rabbits you will want to do plenty of research in advance to make sure guinea pigs do not also pose an allergy issue. Many people who are allergic to rabbits, mice, gerbils or other rodents will also have issues with guinea pigs. If you are considering a guinea pig as a pet for a child with known allergies, we highly recommend visiting your potential cavy adoptee a few times to make sure the allergies do not flare up from exposure to guinea pigs.

Another very appealing fact about guinea pigs for many families is the vegetarian nature of these gentle animals. Guinea pigs are vegetarians, enjoying a diet of mostly hay with pellets and fresh vegetables. This means that the guinea pig’s food not only has a pleasant smell, but it is very safe for children of all ages to handle the guinea pig’s food. With the exception of old vegetables, guinea pig food is unlikely to harbor harmful bacteria.

All in all, guinea pigs are lovely pets that can be well-suited to a wide variety of families. Guinea pigs require daily love and attention, as well as some special care, but daily care is a requirement for any pet. As with all pets, children need to be set up for success by establishing boundaries, supervising interactions between the animal and child and teaching the child about the most appropriate way to interact with the pet. Guinea pigs may not be the most appropriate pet for a very young child, but for a child in the middle to late elementary years providing care to a guinea pig can be a great experience!

Pets and kids: Is my child ready for a pet?

Any time a pet is being considered for a child it is important to do careful research and determine if the child is ready for a pet. Regardless of the child’s maturity, the responsibility (including both care and financial responsibilities) for the pet rests with the adult in the household. We repeat, the ultimate responsibility for the pet rests with the adult, not the child. While many children are able to participate in caring for a pet it is not appropriate for a child to be expected to take total responsibility for an animal. This means that it is the adult’s responsibility to ensure that the animal is cared for appropriately and receives adequate amounts of attention, even if the child is unable or unwilling to provide care.

At Calgary Humane Society, we believe adopting a pet is a full-family decision. We expect every member of the family to be equally committed to caring for the pet. We also recognize that being involved in the care of a family pet can be a richly rewarding experience for a child of any age when done appropriately. As an parent you are an expert on your child and are the best judge of your child’s ability to be engaged in caring for a pet. As a general rule, very young children are best involved in tasks that occur at a distance from the animal (like preparing the animal’s meals or choosing toys to put in the animal’s cage) with any direct interactions being highly supervised. Older children are often more able to complete daily care tasks like cleaning and grooming and may find taking on a special job or a ‘lead’ role in caring for a family pet rewarding.