For the Love of Guinea Pigs
How to Celebrate the First-Ever Guinea Pig Awareness Week
Discover 4 ways to celebrate the first-ever Guinea Pig Awareness Week. Start by learning what every human needs to know about interacting with these four-pawed friends.
On my desk sits a small clay sculpture depicting The Last Supper. Although it looks somewhat similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, one element is remarkably different. In the center of the table lies a small brown animal, laying on its back, with all four paws sticking straight up in the air.
When I came across the sculpture in a craft shop in Cusco, Peru, it confused me. My Christian upbringing taught that Jesus and the disciples partook of unleavened bread and wine, a precursor to the tradition of Communion. So, what was an animal doing on the table?
The shopkeeper informed me the critter was a guinea pig. Further, she noted, the piece was an homage to a painting hanging in a nearby Cathedral. Marcos Zapata, a Quechuan artist, had been trained by Spanish painters in the Roman Catholic artistic tradition. Yet, proud of his local culture, he rebelliously slipped a bit of “traditional food” onto his depiction of Jesus’s table.
After seeing Zapata’s painting, I began to notice guinea pigs on Peruvian menus and live ones in restaurant cages—much like we might see a lobster tank in the US. Each night, I dreamt of slipping out of my hotel to free these furry little ones. I thought of sneaking them onto our tour bus and flying them home to create my own guinea pig rescue facility. My compassion notwithstanding, I had little knowledge of what guinea pigs needed to thrive or how to help them.
Indeed, many people who purchase guinea pigs are sometimes in the dark about their needs as well. Most pets don’t automatically come with instruction manuals. Yet millions of guinea pigs live with humans around the world. A joint venture of one of the UK’s leading animal food manufacturers, the British Veterinary Association, British Small Animal Veterinary Association, and four animal welfare organizations just launched the first Guinea Pig Awareness Week (GPAW). GPAW provides activities “dedicated to improving the health and welfare of guinea pigs” via their website as well as myth-busting Instagram and Facebook posts.
So, if you’ve ever been curious about these little cuties—or share a home with some and want to learn more about how to help them thrive—check out the tips below.
1. Discover what every human needs to know about interacting with guinea pigs.
- Be gentle. We are much bigger than guinea pigs! Approach gently and quietly. If they look like they don’t want to socialize with you or be handled, come back later. Animals deserve privacy and the option to consent to be touched.
- Pop goes the piggie. When guinea pigs get excited, they can suddenly “pop” straight up in the air, often with a shake or twist. Rest assured, this is normal.
- It’s not all rainbows. Many guinea pigs are bred and housed in ways that do not allow for them to thrive. Consider adding some lovingkindness for them within your daily spiritual practices. Repeat these phrases with mindful intent: May they be free from fear. May they be free from exploitation. May they be happy, healthy, and at ease.
2. Learn before you rescue.
- Pets take work! Sometimes people presume that small animals are “easier” to take care of than dogs or cats, but that’s usually not the case. Ensure you have the time needed to care for and clean up after them. Read the GPAW guide or Human Society Guide to learn more about a guinea pig’s needs.
- If you can’t commit, just visit. If you love the idea of interacting with guinea pigs but can’t commit to the time and expenses needed to care for them long-term, contact your local animal shelter to see about being an onsite volunteer or short-term foster parent.
- Adopt don’t shop. Most animal lovers know that purchasing animals from pet stores is problematic when there are so many animals waiting for “forever homes.” If you’re interested in a guinea pig companion, check out the Guinea Pig Adoption Network to make a match.
- One is the loneliest number. Unlike cats―who can thrive on their own―it’s crucial to adopt guinea pigs in pairs or small groups. Solo piggies can become devastated by depression. It’s also preferable to stick to one gender, for reasons that should be obvious.
[Also read: “How Pets Alleviate Touch Deprivation.”]
3. If your home includes a guinea pig, review their needs for a healthy life.
- Plant-powered. Guinea pigs are herbivores who need the right proportions of digestible and indigestible fiber. Interestingly, they lack the enzyme needed to store Vitamin C long-term—so proper supplements are essential. Don’t try to save money by tossing them your extra citrus fruit, though, as it can upset their sensitive stomachs. Also, avoid chocolate, dairy, potatoes, nuts, seeds, onions, rhubarb, avocado, mushrooms, garlic, iceberg lettuce, and tomato leaves. The GPAW team also suggests avoiding muesli. Consult your small animal vet to plan the optimal diet.
- Watch the flowers. Similar to other animals, many flowers can be dangerous and toxic for guinea pigs. Avoid buttercups, daffodils, poppies, and tulips.
- Give them space. A tiny cage is not enough space for a healthy guinea pig. Each piggie needs a minimum of 4ft by 2ft and preferably much more. They also need time out of the cage daily for playing, roaming, and exercising. Don’t permanently cage a pet! Develop safe enrichment activities for them, including tunnels and runs.
- Be careful with cleaning products. Dirty cages can be deadly. Create a regular cleaning schedule, and avoid using traditional cleaners. Pick pet-friendly, scent-free ones that specifically say they are safe for small animals. Or just mix distilled white vinegar and water in a clean spray bottle using a 1:1 ratio, then rinse with water and dry thoroughly.
- About that poo-eating. Like many herbivores, guinea pigs digest their food twice, so it’s natural for them to eat something that recently came out of their backend.
- Learn more about guinea pig health. The HPAW website offers detailed resources to help people with guinea pig companions as well as the vets who support them.
4. Reconsider your diet, too.
- Auspiciously, the timing of Guinea Pig Awareness Week so close to Holy Week reinvigorates my dreams of rescuing these little cuties from Jesus’—and frankly every—dinner table. Ever wonder why an animal is a pet in one culture and dinner in another? If you eat animals, take a few minutes to reflect on why you love some and eat others. For more help sorting through this confusing topic, pick up Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy or Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals by Hal Herzog.
Keep reading about divine animals.