This past year, we took a leap and added some cute little critters to our family. We adopted a pair of guinea pigs!
Sure, it may not be the conventional choice, but I can definitely say we’ve experienced the up’s and down’s of having a family pet.
Here’s the nitty gritty about our experience in owning guinea pigs…
When we originally considered a pet, we knew immediately that we didn’t want a dog or cat. Nothing against those pets. They’re just way too much work and commitment to handle right now. Our toddlers keep us plenty busy without the additional potty training, walks, and obedience lessons. We’d love a puppy in the future.. but key word here – *future.*
So, I got thinking about other options and remembered back to my teenage years. For the majority of that time, my sister and I cared for a pair of guinea pigs. Besides the hassle of weekly cage cleaning, I had very fond memories of cuddling and playing with my sweet guinea pig Charlie.
Fast forward to mom life, I started researching guinea pig care in depth and discovered there are alternative options for cage maintenance (which again, I considered the worst part of owning piggies). I’ll elaborate on that later.
But the point is, I thought, “hey! this would be a great, low maintenance, cuddly pet for our family. My toddlers would love guinea pigs!” Let’s go!
The prep work
Now, I’m a major researcher. On a regular basis, I spend hours reading product reviews and scrolling Pinterest for inspiration and tips. About multiple topics.
So, of course, I gathered up some information about guinea pig care, before we ever even brought our guinea pigs home.
Get ready, because I’m about to walk you through all of those specifics…
First things first, the guinea pigs. The stars of the show.
Did you know that guinea pigs are extremely social creatures? More often than not, they need a buddy. So, the first requirement was to find a bonded pair of either two females or two males. We didn’t have a preference for gender, but we knew that we wouldn’t adopt a singleton.
(Also, fun fact – some people love having a whole herd of piggies, but males only work in pairs. The fights for dominance get a little out-of-hand if there are more than two of them. Whereas females seem to do just fine in large numbers.)
We also didn’t want to purchase from a conventional pet store. Why? A few reasons…
1 – Often, in a pet store, the guinea pigs are either too young or the employees aren’t adequately trained to correctly identify gender. And we did not want to have an accidental litter. Guinea pigs multiple like bunnies! With two toddlers to already keep me busy, that’s a big nope from this mama!
2 – Guinea pigs are rehomed frequently. So like adopting a dog from the shelter, we knew there would be plenty of piggies needing a second chance at a home.
3 – And finally, if we found a pair of guinea pigs that needed rehoming, we could ask specific questions about their temperament/personality. And maybe even purchase their current cage and supplies to make the transition more seamless.
Great! So we knew what we were looking for in the guinea pigs themselves. Now moving along to their home and supplies…
The piggy palace (aka their home)
The cage setup is apparently a big deal. I had no idea. When I was a teenager, information like this wasn’t nearly as accessible, so we just went along with whatever the pet store employees told us. Unfortunately, those employees didn’t have the best advice. Our guinea pigs were fine and very well loved, but I’ve since learned there’s a better way to care for the critters.
Guinea pigs need a minimum cage size of either 2×4 feet for a pair of females or 2×5 feet for a pair of males. And that’s not including any loft space.
Most pet stores don’t sell that size. Instead, we’d need to either buy a larger cage online, make one out of cube grids and coroplast (called C&C cages), or hope that the piggies we adopted already came with a big cage.
And of course, we’d have to make sure there was space in our home for that large of a cage setup.
Along with size requirements, the cage needs open ventilation. These cute critters are extremely susceptible to respiratory illness. You can’t house guinea pigs in anything like a repurposed fish or reptile tank with solid sides. Plus, if you have other pets like cats or dogs, your cage will need a secure roof, as opposed to an open top, to keep the piggies safe from harm.
For our family, because we have toddlers, we didn’t want the cage on the floor. Our kids would most definitely see that as an opportunity for impromptu piggy playdates (as in, they’d constantly be trying to climb in).
We also wanted our pets in a central location, so they would get some socialization from us and not be forgotten, tucked away in another room.
Luckily, we had a large unused counter in our living room that measures 6×2 feet. Perfect! But without that lovely coincidence, I have no idea where we would have put the guinea pigs. So, something to keep in mind!
Other pet supplies & essential costs
As with any pet, there are additional costs.
Many people comment that guinea pigs make a good “starter pet.” But oh my goodness, that’s far from the truth! They might require less one-on-one attention than dogs, but the cost and maintenance add up! So, let’s talk costs…
The essential supplies, besides a good cage, include:
- food in the form of unlimited hay (they literally need piles of hay, always available to eat), and daily pellets and veggies
- water bottles, food dishes, treats
- bedding for the cage – which is either a large initial cost if you choose fleece/mats or a forever ongoing cost if you choose disposable paper/wood chips
- enrichment – tunnels, toys, structures for hiding, and possibly a play pen
- routine medical and cleanliness – many owners like to feed vitamin c “treats” to their piggies, since one of the biggest causes for guinea pig illness is a vitamin c deficiency. Purchasing first aid supplies isn’t a bad idea either. And guinea pigs require frequent nail clipping (nail clippers or file), and possibly a good brush. Also, guinea pigs are self cleaning animals, but if they become extremely filthy or have a medical necessary, it could be smart to keep guinea pig shampoo on hand.
- vet bills – most vets consider guinea pigs an “exotic pet.” Not every clinic is equipped to treat their illnesses or perform surgery. And when they are qualified, those vet bills are not cheap.
Other helpful products for maintenance are:
- If you choose the fleece/mat bedding option, you’ll want laundry bags that work well at containing fur and hay, to prevent build-up in your washer and dryer. And a little handheld vacuum or broom & dustpan for daily cleaning of those endless guinea pig poops. (I’m not kidding! Just one guinea pig can poop 100 times in a single day. That’s a lot of clean-up!)
- An air purifier! If you’re a busy parent like me, this one is an absolute must. The truth of the matter is that sometimes cage cleaning gets put on the back burner, at least for a day or two. And a good air purifier helps keep the odor under control in the meantime.
- A bug zapper. Personally, we don’t experience problems with this one. But I’ve read that depending on the climate you live and how bug-proof your home is, fruit flies and other little pests can become an issue. (Feeling brave? Google “guinea pig fly strike.” Spoiler alert: you’ll want to avoid fly strike at all costs!)
Bonus: Here’s a schedule/care guide that I made for our guinea pigs. This will look different for every family, depending on what you choose for cage setup and other details. But I highly recommend posting some sort of general guide in your home, so everyone in your family is on the same page (especially hubby, if he’s agreed to help with the workload ;)).
Go Time – What it actually looks like to own guinea pigs
If you’ve made it this far in the post and still think a guinea pig would make a good addition to your family, hooray! It’s go time! (And if you’re having second thoughts, no judgement whatsoever! I hope this has helped illuminate some of the lesser-known realities of guinea pig ownership.)
In our experience, after we’d completed our research, my husband and I still felt excited about adopting guinea pigs. Plus, I had talked about guinea pigs maybe once or twice, and my daughter became obsessed.
She wanted to constantly look up guinea pig videos on Youtube. She watched a silly series called “Molcars” on Netflix so many times I lost count. (It’s about guinea pigs that have evolved into cars and get into all sorts of mischief. Sounds really weird, I know. But it’s actually strangely kind of cute?) And her go-to game of make-believe was crawling around the house, “wheeking” at the top of her lungs and requesting veggies, because “I’m a guinea pig, mom!”
We knew our kids would be thrilled to have their own guinea pigs.
After compiling our big list of requirements, we finally found a pair of male guinea pigs who were only 1 year old. And they came with all of their supplies, with the exact C&C cage and fleece bedding set-up we were hoping for. In fact, these guinea pigs were obviously very well-loved and spoiled by their previous family. They had more supplies than we would have ever thought to purchase.
Surprising our kids
After a normal trip to see extended family, we picked up the guinea pigs and their belongings, and then we drove the rest of the way home. Without telling our kids. They had no idea they were about to receive the cutest surprise!
At home, the guinea pigs stayed in the pet carrier while we began setting up the cage. Still oblivious, our kids thought we were setting up a play home for their imaginary guinea pigs. Oh kids. Gotta love them.
Finally, I transferred our pets into their new home. … Our kiddos were shocked. And absolutely in love. The dream was coming true. They spent the next several days admiring their piggies, exclaiming how cute they were, and begging to hold them.
Even after the initial surprise wore off, our kids still LOVE helping feed and hold the guinea pigs, who we named Potato and Porkchop.
Now that it’s been a while – Pros and Cons, beyond the research
Our course, the beginning stages of owning a pet are the most exciting. Now that we’ve had guinea pigs for a while, we’ve discovered a couple more pros and cons, beyond what I had thought was the most thorough research. You live and you learn, right?
Cage set-up and cleaning
Figuring out the best method for cage setup/cleaning is a matter of trial and error.
In our experience, we started out by lining the entire cage with fleece (specifically Guinea Dad liners), but we quickly discovered that we were not fans of that method. We bought a little handheld vacuum to do a quick cleanup of the poops every time we walked by. That worked okay for a while.
But the problem was that these little critters produce so much poop, and it was hard to stay on top of that. So, more often than not, the cage looked really messy.
Also, the guinea pig fur would stick to the fleece like crazy. When it came time for a weekly cleaning, we could shake and scrape the liners, and put them in a laundry bag, but our washing machine would still be filled with piggy fur. Gross!
Next attempt, we tried lining the whole cage with wood chips. (This is the method I used when I was a teenager.) Overall, it looked considerably less messy and didn’t require constant vacuuming of the poop. Once-a-week clean up meant emptying the wood chips into a garbage bag and wiping out the whole cage. Easy enough, right? But… that’s a LOT of wood chips. And it means a bigger cost in the long run, since we’d have to replenish the wood chip supply to fill the entire cage every week.
What we finally decided on was a hybrid of both methods. We put a litter box on each end of the cage, lined with newspaper and wood chips. And in the middle, we laid out soft mats. (We discovered that bath mats are much nicer than fleece! They’re cheap and shake out super easily, reducing the gunk that gets caught in our washer. I’d say that’s a major win!)
The guinea pigs basically never pee outside of the litter boxes. And a few times a day, we sweep up any poop that has landed on the mats and toss it into the litter boxes too. (This actually helps the guinea pigs become more potty-trained. They learn to do the majority of their dirty business, including poops, in the litter boxes and keep other areas clean.)
Every few days, we empty the contents of the litter boxes into the garbage, and we do a load of laundry only as often as it seems necessary. (Maybe once every two weeks.)
So, that’s what we figured out to make cage maintenance and cleaning easier. But depending on preferences, it’ll be different for everyone. You really just have to find what works best for your family!
Going out of town
Fair warning, this section could be a little controversial. So, take it or leave it.
But we have found it pretty easy to arrange care for the guinea pigs when going out of town. Much easier than a cat or dog anyways.
For a longer trip, we left the guinea pigs with a friend. We took the piggies, the cage, and necessary supplies to our friend’s home, since our house was being sprayed for bugs while we were out of town. Otherwise, we would’ve just left care instructions and asked our friend to come over to the house to check in on and feed the guinea pigs once a day.
For a weekend trip, we didn’t see the need for a pet sitter. Instead, we completely filled both of the water bottles and gave them a hefty supply of hay.
We stuffed a cardboard box with hay, cut out multiple holes in the bottom (big enough so the piggies wouldn’t get stuck), and called it good. Since hay makes up 80% of the diet, we decided the guinea pigs would be okay without their pellets for just 2 days. And of course, we spoiled them with pellets and veggies as soon as we got home.
(Now, taking the guinea pigs with you – that’s a whole other story. I think that would be overly complicated, since they need their entire cage, food supplies, and cleaning products brought along.)
Fun ways to involve the kids
Now for the best part of owning guinea pigs (in my opinion anyways) – involving our kids!
For us, this was the whole purpose of adding guinea pigs to the fam. We wanted our kiddos to have a cute cuddly pet to enjoy.
Here are some ways in which our young kids have been involved in caring for and loving the guinea pigs:
- Daily feeding – Every morning, our kids run over to the cage to greet Potato and Porkchop with an enthusiastic “good morning piggies!” The guinea pigs run up to the bars because they know what’s coming – food! During this time, we refill their hay and water, and give them their daily serving of pellets. Then, each of our kids will give them a vitamin c cookie, which is their favorite! We also try to always involve our kids when giving the guinea pigs veggies. Our kids love holding the veggies out for Potato and Porkchop to grab, and the guinea pigs learn to associate their little voices with treat time!
- Handling – Granted, our guinea pigs aren’t the most cuddly. I wish we had known that beforehand, but I guess it’s kind of luck of the draw. Some guinea pigs love being held and will purr and snuggle in close. Ours will tolerate it for about 5 minutes at a time. Oh well. But, in those moments, our kids are over the moon with excitement. And it can be a great opportunity to teach our toddlers how to be gentle and calm and treat animals with kindness. (*Keep in mind- some guinea pigs can be taught to enjoy cuddle time. It may require daily exposure, gradually building up the enjoyment. Lots of time and effort and patience on your part. … But other guinea pigs will never care for it, no matter how much you try. So, just be aware of that.)
- Reading time – Occasionally, we’ll put the guinea pigs in a play pen, down on ground level. This makes them feel more up-close and personal to our kids. One of the favorite activities is to “read” books to Potato and Porkchop. It’s a calm and sweet activity that melts this mama’s heart.
- Guinea pig maze – I had seen this idea before on Pinterest and decided to give it a go. We had a bunch of leftover boxes from Amazon orders. The kids and I (mostly me, let’s be real. Haha.) taped the boxes together, cut out holes, and made a maze for the guinea pigs. At first, Potato and Porkchop had no idea what to do and just hid in a tunnel. But eventually, they started to wander out and search for treats. Our kids were excited to be involved in the maze construction and then watch the piggies explore.
- Showing guinea pigs – Did you know there are special competitions for showing guinea pigs? I didn’t! We haven’t done this particular activity with our kids. But apparently, many families enjoy entering their guinea pigs into competition, where they’re judged on grooming, handling, and other aspects. It provides children another level of learning proper pet care and responsibility.
- Floor time – Another activity that some families love, but personally, I’ve steered clear of this one. This is when you let your piggies roam free around the room (usually with boundaries, like a gate or closed door). I remember doing this with my guinea pigs as a teenager, and it was so fun! But with Potato and Porkchop, they’re not trained well enough to keep poops off the floor. And they’re more skittish, so I worry about them hiding under a couch and being difficult to get out. Maybe we’ll try letting them roam free in the yard and enjoy the grass, when it warms up outside.
Advice – a summary
There you have it! That’s our experience with guinea pigs as a family pet. If you’re considering adding these little critters to your own family, here are my biggest take-aways. Aka what you should keep in mind:
- Definitely do not expect guinea pigs to be your child’s responsibility! (If your child is under the age of like 10 or so. Even if they’re a bit older, you might have to help your kid with the bigger jobs like weekly cage cleaning.) You’re going to be the one doing the work. Trust me. If you go into this with any other expectation, you’ll set yourself up for disappointment and frustration. Remember, guinea pigs hardly qualify as starter pets, so little kids won’t be able to handle the responsibility on their own.
- Really dedicate time to research beforehand! And then, be ready to experience a lot of trial and error before you find the perfect system for guinea pig care.
- Probably the biggest adjustment is cage cleaning and feeding schedules. Initially, it’ll be a lot of work. Then, even once you get into a good routine, you’ll have to determine whether the upkeep is worth managing alongside your other responsibilities as a parent.
- These critters aren’t cheap. Depending on what kind of deal you do or don’t find (plus their health needs), I’d venture to say that guinea pigs may even cost more than other conventional pets like dogs or cats.
- Consider why you want guinea pigs. Really get down to the details. For example… Do you want a cuddly companion for your family? Or do you want a pet that’s kind of like a fish – fun to watch but with minimal interaction? Or do you not care either way and just want to give the guinea pig a nice home? Know the “why” before you go into guinea pig ownership, since it’ll really determine whether you can stick with the commitment long term. (Going back to my family, our biggest motivation was having that cuddly pet to hold and play with. Since our piggies are not huge cuddlers, it definitely makes it challenging to always love the experience. Sometimes, it feels like we’re making a huge effort, taking care of animals that don’t give much back in return.)
Guinea pigs as a family pet — My final *raw & truthful* opinion
If I could go back, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend guinea pigs as a family pet -specifically for families with young children. (Guinea pigs may be better suited for committed teens, single adults, or a married couple without kids. Just my opinion!)
I don’t regret the experience of having guinea pigs. They’re funny little critters, and I love how much joy they’ve brought to our kids. But… I’m just not sure that it’s been everything I hoped it would be. I wonder sometimes if continuing on with the commitment is going to be rewarding in the long run, or just one more thing for mama’s to-do list.
Like other pets, guinea pigs are a ton of work and a continuous cost. So, don’t make this decision lightly.
Do your research, weigh the pros and cons, and pinpoint exactly why you want to own guinea pigs. Then, if you’re still feeling excited for the prospect, awesome! Good luck with the upcoming change!
Let me know in the comments below if you’re hoping to adopt guinea pigs of your own or if you have any questions I can help answer. I love hearing from you!