Pet 411: Providing the proper care for a guinea pig

When many people think of pets, they automatically picture a cat or a dog. But there are a variety of other domesticated animals who can make terrific companions.ST Meeks Blog Logo Image 2016 01 28

I was reminded of this after receiving an email from a reader who recently acquired a guinea pig. His name is Cosmo, and apparently he’s quite the character. Cosmo loves pushing a ball with his nose and will even come when his owner, Phyllis, snaps her fingers. Phyllis was concerned because Cosmo wouldn’t eat the fruit or veggies she was offering, sticking exclusively to his guinea pig pellets. She also wanted to know if she should be taking him to the veterinarian for regular vaccinations.

While I love animals of all shapes and sizes, I’m not really an expert on guinea pig care. But thankfully I work with someone who is. Dr. Peter Helmer is the head of BluePearl’s exotic animal medicine service in Florida. He provides expert care for a wide variety of animals, including birds, rabbits, snakes and, yes, guinea pigs.

Dr. Helmer’s first piece of advice to Phyllis is to be sure Cosmo is eating plenty of hay. In fact, hay should be the primary element in a guinea pig’s diet. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, guinea pigs have molars and incisors that grow continuously throughout their lives. Chewing the hay keeps the teeth ground down so they don’t cause problems. Secondly, hay is an excellent source of roughage that keeps the guinea pig’s gastrointestinal tract working properly.

Dr. Helmer also advised Phyllis to be cautious feeding Cosmo vegetables and to avoid giving him fruit. That’s because guinea pigs were built to eat things like grass, roots and leaves. Food with a higher sugar content, like veggies and fruit, can mess up their sensitive digestive systems, Helmer added.

Go easy when it comes to changing a guinea pig’s diet, he cautioned. Make slow adjustments. And Cosmo might need a trip to the veterinarian to ensure his teeth aren’t causing him any problems. A sore mouth might be the reason he was avoiding fruits and vegetables in the first place, Dr. Helmer said.

When it comes to additional veterinary care, Dr. Helmer said all pets – regardless of species – require regular wellness exams by a veterinarian, at least once a year. While guinea pigs don’t need vaccinations, it’s not a bad idea to keep tabs on their weight. “Prey species,” such as guinea pigs, are genetically programmed to hide any illnesses or injuries, Dr. Helmer said. That means their weight gives us the best insight into their well-being. Weigh your guinea pig every few months on a kitchen scale. If you see any fluctuations, it’s time for a trip to the vet.

A big thank you to Dr. Helmer for all of his insight. And thanks also to Phyllis. We hope you and Cosmo have many wonderful years together!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.