By Diana Bocco
Guinea pigs (also known as cavies) have been domesticated for over 3,000 years. In fact, statues and other archeological findings in the Andean region of South America, where they originate, date them as living side-by-side with humans even longer than that. We've had many years to learn about guinea pigs and their needs, especially when it comes to setting up a healthy living space for them.
The Basic Guinea Pig Cage Setup
From a health perspective, the perfect enclosure space needs to meet a few requirements to ensure your guinea pig can thrive. One is space. According to Javier Nevarez, DVM, PhD, DACZM, DECZM, and associate professor of zoological medicine at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, a cage should be at least two feet wide by three feet long. The cage’s floor space is important, because guinea pigs don't make as much use of vertical space as other small rodents do, according to the Humane Society. And take care not to use a wire bottom cage. “The cage should have a solid bottom to avoid damage to their feet,” Nevarez says.
While glass aquariums and plastic tubs might meet the size requirements, Nevarez says they are better avoided, as they limit ventilation. “The cage can be open top if there are no other pets in the house (dogs and cats), or it can have a solid plastic bottom with a wire cage top,” says Nevarez. “If open top, the cage should be at least 8-10 inches tall.”
Nevarez recommends keeping cages away from windows to avoid overheating and drafts. Because guinea pigs can't sweat, their enclosure should not be placed where there's a risk of overheating, such as a heat vent or direct sunlight, which could be fatal.
Stocking Up Your Guinea Pig's New Home
Once you have the right space for your guinea pig, your next goal is to make sure it feels like a home. Nevarez recommends adding a hideout so your guinea pig can hide and rest as needed.
Because guinea pigs produce large amounts of very strong urine that can soak into their skin on their feet and cause ulceration, Nevarez emphasizes the importance of keeping cages clean – which means cleaning the cage and removing waste daily.
You will also need safe bedding. “Cedar and pine bedding should be avoided because of the risk of respiratory tract irritation from inhaling dust and oils associated with wood bedding and/or impaction from ingesting it,” says Nevarez. “The best substrate is soft recycled paper products and newspaper.”
To avoid contamination and to make sure the water stays clean, water should be offered in a drinking bottle instead of a water dish. “The bottle must be monitored daily to ensure the pet is drinking and the water is not leaking, as guinea pigs are very prone to dehydration,” Nevarez says.
Avoiding Stress for Your Guinea Pig
“Avoid loud and sudden noises and anything else that seems to agitate them,” Nevarez says. “Most owners quickly learn to recognize the noises they make, including those associated with being scared.”
Guinea pigs can be stress prone, so the cage should be placed in an area where there isn't a lot of noise or traffic. One good option is placing the enclosure in a room that's visited regularly but that doesn't have constant traffic. A little hide box, such as an upside down cardboard box with a door cut in one side, in the cage will also help control stress, he said, as your guinea pig can then hide and feel safe.
Pet owner Matt Kovacs got two guinea pigs for his daughter, Audrey, two years ago. Dottie and Kathy, named after Audrey's grandmothers, live in a wire cage with a green hideout structure (see image).
“We put Kathy and Dottie in Audrey’s play room, so they would get views throughout the room and out the front window to the outside world,” says Kovacs. “The cage is on top of a desk to provide easy access when they are taken out to play, as well as to give them the best views.” Be sure that if you use a wire cage, however, that the floor is solid, so that the pets don’t develop sores on their feet from pressure on the wire, and that the wire doesn’t contain metals, such as zinc, which guinea pigs can become sick from chewing on.
Play Time for Guinea Pigs
Because guinea pigs are more sedate and less likely to run away than other rodents, they do really well during play time outside their cage — but that doesn't mean they can be left unsupervised. “Ours watch TV with my wife, Becky, and Audrey in the morning, along with our English Bulldog Lulu,” says Kovacs. “They also get to play on the carpet in the playroom, as well as on a wooden ramp structure that is movable.”
The Kovacs also created an outdoor enclosure for their guinea pigs, which is made of wire fencing that encloses the guinea pigs safely as they explore the grass and flower beds. If you let your guinea pigs outside, be sure that they have shade and water to prevent overheating and that they are protected from wild predators such as hawks, foxes, coyotes, and neighbor’s dogs and cats.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP