Guinea Pig

Cavia porcellus

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Guinea pigs are also known as cavies which have been derived from their Latin genus. They typically live an average of 4-5 years but may live as long as eight years. One theory for the origin of its name is that the animals were brought to Europe by way of Guinea, leading people to think they had originated there. “Guinea” was also frequently used in English to refer generally to any far-off, unknown country, and so the name may simply be a colorful reference to the animal’s foreignness. Despite their common name, these animals are not pigs, nor do they come from Guinea. In their native range they have been used as a food source and are common pets all over the world. The common guinea pig was first domesticated as early as 5000 BC for food by tribes in the Andean region of South America. Peruvians consume an estimated 65 million guinea pigs each year, and the animal is so entrenched in the culture that one famous painting of the Last Supper in the main cathedral in Cusco shows Christ and the twelve disciples dining on guinea pig. They are fried, boiled or roasted and can be used in soups. How the animals came to be thought of as “pigs” is not clear. They are built somewhat like pigs, with large heads relative to their bodies, stout necks, and rounded rumps with no tail of any consequence; some of the sounds they emit are very similar to those made by pigs, and they also spend a large amount of time eating. They can survive for long periods in small quarters, like a ‘pig pen’, and were thus easily transported on ships to Europe. They are native to the Andes, and while no longer existing in the wild, they are closely related to several species that are commonly found in the grassy plains and plateaus of the region. The Spanish introduced the Guinea Pig to Europe in the 1500’s.

Breeding

The guinea pig is able to breed year-round, with birth peaks usually in the spring. As many as 5 litters can be produced per year. The gestation period lasts from 59–72 days. Because of the long gestation period and the large size of the pups, pregnant females may become large and eggplant-shaped. Newborn pups are well-developed with hair, teeth, claws and partial eyesight; they are immediately mobile and begin eating solid food immediately, though they continue to suckle. Litters yield 1–6 pups, with an average of 3. Females can become pregnant 6–48 hours after giving birth, but it is not healthy for a female to be thus constantly pregnant.

Behaviour

Wild cavies are found on grassy plains and occupy an ecological niche similar to that of the cow. They are social, living in the wild in small groups which consist of several females (sows), a male (boar), and the young (pups). They move together in groups (herds) eating grass or other vegetation and do not store food. While they do not burrow or build nests, they frequently seek shelter in the burrows of other animals, as well as in crevices and tunnels formed by vegetation. They are crepuscular, tending to be most active during dawn and dusk when it is harder for predators to spot them. They are also exceedingly good swimmers. Domesticated guinea pigs thrive in groups of two or more.

Diet

Guinea Pigs are herbivores and will feed on any plant matter or grain.

Status

Common pet, extinct in their native habitat.

Small AnimalsLuke