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Owning... guinea pigs

Food and housing

The Hutch

You will need to get a hutch for your guinea pigs to live in at night. Ideally it should have two compartments, a smaller sleeping compartment and a larger living compartment. Hutches should be as large as possible and no smaller than 120x60x45 cm (48x24x18 in) for two small guinea pigs. The living quarters should have a strong mesh front to prevent escape. It is safest to put the hutch in a stout shed with a locking door. This not only keeps the guinea pigs sheltered from rain and cold, but it also prevents foxes getting to them. If the hutch can't be put in a shed, it should have an overhanging, backward slanting roof to let rain run off, and must stand several feet off the ground to make it safe from foxes and other animals. You should have an old blanket or towel to cover the front of the hutch at night. This keeps drafts out and warmth in.

The hutch should be lined with lino. This helps to protect the wooden base from damp and mess, so that it will last longer and be easier to clean. On top of this, put a layer of newspaper to soak up urine, then wood shavings. Fresh hay should be provided at all times. It not only acts as bedding material but is an important source of fibre. The hutch should have a supply of fresh water at all times. This can either be provided in a bowl or a water bottle. The bowl should be heavy so that it doesn't get knocked over, but overall a bottle is better. The water is kept clean and can never spill. Make sure your guinea pig knows how to use a bottle before you leave it as the only water source. There should also be a food pot, which again should be heavy so it doesn't get knocked over.

The Run

During the day, your guinea pigs will need an outdoor run. This must be secure - if your guinea pigs get out (which mine have done in the past) it will be hard to catch them, and stressful for the animals. Also, if they get out while you are not watching, they could escape from your garden completely...

The run should have an inside area, either a proper bedroom with a floor and bedding, or just a closed in area. This is vital to provide shade in summer, a windbreak in windy weather and shelter for when it rains. There must be a supply of fresh water in the run - you may not be able to attach a bottle to the slanting wire of a triangular run, so use a heavy bowl instead. Put the food pot into the run while the pigs are in it. The run should be quite big - to allow the guinea pigs to run around and get some exercise. While in the run, the guinea pigs will graze most of the time, so it may need moving to a fresh patch of grass after several hours. Be very careful if your lawn is uneven - the run must sit securely on the ground with no gaps, or your pets will get out.

Food

Guinea pigs are grazing animals, so will spend most of their time munching grass outside. However, all guinea pigs will need to be fed a dried mix of some kind. When you buy your guinea pig, find out what it is used to eating. If you want to change its food, for any reason, it must be a gradual change so as not to upset the animal's stomach. Guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C, so it important that the dried food you choose contains some. You should feed a good handful a day (42g/1.5oz) but if your guineas are still hungry, feed extra. Foods on the market include:-

Supreme "Gerty Guinea Pig" - Rich in protein and vitamin C, this is a good all-round food which my pigs love. The downside is that guinea pigs can pick and choose which bits to eat, so may not get all the nutrients they need. £3.79 for 3kg, rated 9/10. Check out the site here.

Wagg "Hamster, Gerbil and Guinea Pig Munch" - Contains essential vitamins and minerals, and is a good calcium source. Haven't tried this one - it seems a little strange that it is a food for three different animals. Although they would all three have a similar diet, I would opt for a specific guinea pig food. £1.49, rated 6/10.

Burgess "Supa Guinea" - Specially formulated to provide all that a guinea pig needs, with added vitamin C. £3.49 for 3kg, rated 9/10. See the Burgess website for more details.

Burgess "Supa Guinea Pig Excel" - These pellets prevent selective feeding, contain up to three times more vitamin C than other foods, plus minerals and Profeed to aid gut fermentation. An excellent, if expensive, choice. Shame mine won't eat it! £3.79 for 2kg, rated 10/10.

Friendly Pure Dried Grass - This is a lifesaver for my two guineas, who both have problems with spurs on their back teeth. It's dried grass, like hay but with more nutritional value. Mine love it, its excellent in winter when grass is low in nutrients, and helps wear teeth down. Around £2 for 1kg. Rated 11/10! Visit the site here.

There is also a molasses mix available. This is basically normal dried food coated in molasses, which is very tasty for guinea pigs! Don't only feed molasses mix though, it should be fed as a treat since it could cause tooth decay if fed too frequently.

Apart from dried food, your guinea pig needs a selection of fresh greens every day. This provides his main source of vitamin C. Foods your guinea pig will love include carrots, lettuce (not too much, it is very watery and can cause tummy upsets), tomato, cabbage, raw beetroot, cucumber, cauliflower, broccoli, runner beans, swede, apples, orange segments, melon, grapes. These should always be clean and fresh - if you wouldn't eat it, don't feed it to your guinea pig!

It is a good idea to get your guinea pigs a salt lick. They are very cheap (around 40p each) and can be clipped onto the wire mesh of the hutch/run. There are also mineral licks available.

Poisonous plants

IMPORTANT! Many garden plants are poisonous to guinea pigs. Please read this and note any plants that are in your garden and keep your guinea pigs away from them.

The following are harmful garden plants: anemone, azaelea, bittersweet, bryony, caladium, cyclamen, columbine, dog mercury, figwort, deadly nightshade (fatal), woody nightshade (fatal), poppies, ragwort, buttercups, daffodils, bluebells, foxgloves, hemlock, spurges, kingcup, marsh marigold, monkshood, meadow saffron, mistletoe, St. John's wort, Leyland cypress, fools parsley and hellebore.

Cultivated garden plants that may cause illness: dahlias, lupins, chrysanthemums, delphinium, lilly of the valley, tulips, iris, morning glory, antirrhinums, lobelia, fig, Jerusalem cherry, juniper, hyacinth, privet, yew (fatal), laburnum, lords and ladies, ivy, philodendron, rhododendron, wisteria, clematis, holly and most evergreen trees.

From left to right, yew, deadly nightshade and woody nightshade

If your guinea pig becomes ill after being in the garden or eating a plant and you suspect poisoning, consult a vet immediately. If you know what the guinea pig has been eating, take a sample to the vet with you for identification.

Guinea Main