Guinea pigs come from Central and South America and live in extended family groups in areas of long grass. They make runs or pathways through the tall vegetation and eat as they go! In an ideal world, we would keep our guinea pigs in an uncut hay meadow, but then we’d never see them… and the average back garden is not a hay meadow!
It is really important to give guinea pigs a diet that is high in fibre, as it would be in the wild. This means making sure that they have an unlimited supply of hay whenever they can’t be outside grazing on grass. Because hay doesn’t contain all the nutrients they need, guinea pigs also need to be fed a specially formulated concentrate food as well.
Guinea pigs can also be offered pelleted complimentary feed; be careful not to overfeed this as it can cause obesity and dental problems.
Your guinea pig can also eat fresh vegetables, leafy greens and herbs are best as well as bell peppers which are high in vitamin C. Vegetables should not exceed 10-15% of your guinea pigs daily intake. Try to avoid too much of the very watery vegetables like lettuce, especially iceburg lettuce, and sugary fruits which can cause an imbalance in the guts and potentially lead to health concerns.
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The approximate amounts they need is 10 mg of vitamin C per kg of bodyweight a day, but when unwell or pregnant they can need up to 30 mg per kg of bodyweight a day.
Signs of a lack of vitamin C (deficiency) start to show within two weeks if the diet is not adequate. Young guinea pigs become unwilling to move and may go off their food, this is due to pain in their joints and around their teeth. Adult animals also get joint and tooth pain. It is important to remember that a lack of vitamin C (‘scurvy’) will also make the animal more susceptible to many other diseases such as chest infections and skin disease. Scurvy also slows the rate of healing, so wounds may not heal as they should.
Many vegetables are high in vitamin C so ensuring your feed fresh vegetables on a daily basis and offering guinea pig pellets should ensure they are receiving their daily amounts of vitamin C. Vegetables and fruits high in vitamin C include bell peppers, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, tomatoes and oranges.
Vitamin C is highly unstable in water and degrades in sunlight, so it is not advisable to add vitamin drops to water; it can also change the taste of the water and put your guinea pig off drinking it.
Guinea pig mixes generally contain about 1 g of vitamin C per kg. Even when the fresh mixes are properly stored in a cool, dry place, about half of the vitamin C content is degraded and lost within 6 weeks of manufacture. Ensure you buy smaller bags if you don’t have a large number of guinea pigs so that the bag is used up within a few weeks.
If you still wish to supplement with vitamin C it is advisable to purchase tablet forms of the vitamin and sprinkle this over your guinea pigs food daily.
Guinea pigs are constant grazers and you should see them eating throughout the day, they should be grazing on hay and grass.
Weight your guinea pigs on a regular basis to keep an eye on any weight loss or weight gain. Weight loss can be a sign of illness or a lack of nutrients and weight gain may mean you are overfeeding pellets or vegetables. If you are unsure of your guinea pigs body condition, then have them checked over by your vet.
In the wild some guinea pigs will chew on bark and twigs, however they do not need these to keep their front teeth worn down; a constant supply of hay and grass will keep teeth well worn.
Wooden logs and chews can be offered as enrichment in your guinea pigs home but are not essential.
Guinea pigs also enjoy chewing on branches from apple and pear trees.
When guinea pigs chew hair it is called ‘barbering’.
We are still unsure of the exact cause of this, but guinea pigs do mutually groom one another and it may stem from this, unless the barbering is severe then guinea pigs do need to be separated.
If a guinea pig is over grooming and barbering its own hair this may be a sign of stress, skin irritation or external parasites.