Image via Jonathan Ball/Shutterstock
By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
When it comes to having small mammals as pets, guinea pigs are one of the animals I recommend most, especially for families with children. But many families are not able to have animals, so a child’s first exposure to a pet is often at school—in the classroom. Guinea pigs are one of my favorite class pets for several reasons.
Why Guinea Pigs Are Great for Kids
Guinea pigs generally interact well with children. Not as fragile as rabbits and usually less skittish than smaller rodents such as hamsters and gerbils, guinea pigs are terrific pets for elementary-school-age kids and older kids. They generally enjoy being around people, and they recognize and respond to their caretakers, squealing with excitement when they see them. Guinea pigs are as interactive and social as dogs and cats, and they can form strong bonds with humans.
These friendly creatures are also generally hardy animals and tend to live a long time. While most other small rodents, such as hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice, live only one to three years, guinea pigs generally live five to seven years or more. This longer lifespan is ideal for children who get deeply attached to pets they care for at school and who would be devastated at the sudden loss of a pet.
These small, furry mammals are also full of personality. Some guinea pigs are shy and gentle, while others are outgoing and entertaining. Just because two guinea pigs look the same doesn’t mean they’ll act the same. Also, just like cats, guinea pigs purr. They make a quiet, vibrating sound when they’re happy, often when they are petted gently. They also make several other sounds, including “wheeking” (squealing), “rumbling” (the noise made by a male courting a female) and teeth chattering (when they are angry). All of these sounds can be entertaining to hear.
Guinea pigs also like to “popcorn,” which is when they jump up straight into the air over and over from excitement—a behavior typically displayed in younger guinea pigs. Some popcorning guinea pigs run forward and backward quickly, while others alternately kick out their front and back legs and squeal simultaneously. This behavior is quite amusing to watch.
Although most guinea pigs can share similar characteristics, every guinea pig is unique. Short-haired, long-haired and even hairless, guinea pigs come in several different breeds with a variety of fur lengths, colors and patterns. Guinea pigs serve as a great example to children that we can all look different yet be unique and beautiful.
Basic Necessities for Keeping Guinea Pigs as Class Pets
Guinea pig care is considered to be fairly easy, though these pets do require daily care and attention. Every day, they require Timothy hay, fresh water in a sipper bottle, some chopped vegetables (such as leafy greens, like green- and red-leaf lettuce, Romaine lettuce, parsley, cilantro, chicory and bell peppers), and a small amount of pelleted guinea pig food.
They also require a daily vitamin C supplement in tablet or liquid form, given directly in their mouths rather than in their water, as guinea pigs don’t make vitamin C on their own. Fresh Timothy hay-based pellets should be purchased every 30 days, as vitamin C content in pellets dissipates quickly.
Alfalfa hay is not recommended for adult guinea pigs, as it is too high in calcium and calories, but it can be fed free-choice to young, growing or pregnant guinea pigs. Occasionally, guinea pigs may be offered small amounts of fruit, including apples, peaches, plums, pears and berries, but sugary fruits, such as bananas and grapes, should be avoided.
Guinea pigs should not be fed cereals, bread, oats, corn, seeds or nuts, as these foods may lead to gastrointestinal upset. Pellet mixtures with seeds and cereals should not be offered, as guinea pigs will pick out these foods and ignore the pellets.
Guinea pigs should be housed in fairly large cages (at least 1 foot wide and 2 feet long, with walls at least 1 foot high) with solid floors lined with paper-based guinea pig bedding (such as shredded newspaper, paper towel or commercially available recycled paper products sold for guinea pig bedding). Wire-bottom cages are not recommended, because they can lead to foot ulcers and entrapment of toes between wires. Guinea pig cages need to be spot cleaned daily and completely cleaned weekly.
As guinea pigs naturally live in cool climates, they don’t do well in hot, humid conditions. So they must be kept inside, ideally with air conditioning or a fan on them during hot weather so that they don’t overheat.
While they are social and may live with other guinea pigs in same-sex pairs or trios, they can live happily as solo class pets. They should not be housed with the opposite sex, unless one is neutered or you are prepared to have numerous baby pigs.
They don’t require vaccines, but they should receive an annual physical examination by a veterinarian to ensure that they are healthy and parasite-free, and they will need nail trims every few months.
Unique Guinea Pig Facts That Teachers Should Be Aware Of
While guinea pigs are straightforward pets, there are a few things teachers should let kids know about these animals if they’re going to keep them in the classroom:
Guinea pigs feed continuously, so they produce frequent, formed fecal pellets. Children holding guinea pigs should keep them in a towel on their laps or on a table so that their clothes don’t become soiled. Guinea pigs also normally produce and ingest softer stools, called cecotropes, throughout the day, which provide them with important proteins and vitamins. Kids should be informed about this behavior so that they are not surprised to see a guinea pig eating its stool.
Children in the classroom should also know that guinea pigs move quickly. Children holding guinea pigs should be supervised at all times so that the pig doesn’t jump away from the children and get injured. Children should be instructed to move slowly and calmly when holding guinea pigs, so as not to scare them. If they become frightened, guinea pigs may struggle to get away or even nip. If this happens, they should be gently returned to their cages and left alone for a while to calm down.
While most children are not allergic to guinea pig hair, there may be a few who are. People who are allergic to guinea pig fur may break out it an itchy red rash after handling these animals. Any child demonstrating these signs should be seen by a physician immediately.
And while guinea pigs don’t generally carry diseases that are commonly transmittable to people, children handling guinea pigs should always wash their hands immediately after returning these animals to their cage.
Guinea pigs can be great pets in the classroom that can teach children to be responsible and respectful pet owners. When teachers learn about these animals and prepare their students properly, both the pets and the kids can thrive in the classroom.