Guinea pigs may be exciting in the movies, but for Shannon Cauthen, the pleasure they give in real life is just the opposite.
"They're very soothing," says Cauthen, who runs the Cavy Care guinea pig shelter in Aurora, Colo. "They just seem to take the stress right out of you."
Unlike most other rodent pets, guinea pigs (also called cavies) are active during the day, so won't keep you awake with noises at night, and they're just not as busy. "Gerbils are super-smart -- they're industrious, they have things to do, places to go," Cauthen says. "Hamsters are the same way."
But guinea pigs are content to cuddle. "Out of the small pets, you can hold them in your lap for the longest time," says Jenny Bumgardner of Texas Rustlers Guinea Pig Rescue of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In fact, they're handleable enough that at the Rustlers' annual Guinea Pig Hoedown fundraiser, there's even a costume contest.
In between the cuddles, though, there's definitely some work involved. You'll want to consider the following:
* Guinea pigs drink more than other rodents. "Two piggies will drink most of a 16-ounce water bottle each day," Bumgardner warns. That means more frequent cleaning.
* They need more space, and not just because they're larger. People will put their pig in a small cage, Bumgardner says, "and then say, it doesn't do anything, it just sits there." They need room to run around in order to be contented, interesting pets.
* They are social animals, although "we do get some that are divas, that have learned that they don't want to compete and share," Cauthen says. But in most cases you will want to keep at least two, which means twice the mess.
* Some people have allergies to the hay that pigs need to eat, or the dust from wood shavings used for bedding. Never use pine or cedar shavings, which have oils that irritate the animals. Recycled paper bedding is best but also the most costly.
* Guinea pigs have been domesticated for many centuries, so they're not wild animals, but finding a vet that's experienced with them may mean going to an "exotics" specialist, which can be expensive.
* They're not ideal pets for small children because they're delicate. Cauthen says many pigs end up in rescue because in six months to a year, the kids get tired of them. So, she says, "Mom has to be in love with them."
* Guinea pigs are fairly long lived -- five to seven years is average but 12 to 15 is not unheard of. You may still be cleaning that cage when your kids leave for college.
If you do decide that a guinea pig is for you, the most crucial aspect of their care is proper diet, said Michelle Hawkins of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. Some tips:
* Like people but unlike most other animals, guinea pigs need vitamin C. Make sure you buy guinea pig pellets, which contain the vitamin; similar-looking diets for rabbits and other animals don't. Vitamin C is perishable, so make sure you use pellets within the expiration date. Don't use supplements that you add to water because they lose their potency in as little as 15 minutes.
* Guinea pigs should get a variety of fresh vegetables, but more than tiny quantities of fruit will cause serious digestive problems.
* Hay is essential, especially because the roughage keeps their constantly growing teeth in check. Use timothy, oat or grass hay, not alfalfa, which has a high calcium content that can cause health problems.
Hawkins also cautions never to keep your guinea pig in a wire-bottomed cage, which can cause serious foot and leg injuries. She also strongly recommends spaying even if you only keep pigs of one sex, since it will prevent common reproductive tract problems.
To find your new pet, a rescue organization is a great place to start. They can share their experience with hundreds of guinea pigs and help you find a pet that suits you.
"We have superstars whose personalities are very obvious, and those that are introverts," says Cauthen. "We can tell you this one's cuddly and this one's shy. We can definitely give you more background, and give you more support in the long run."
UC Davis guinea pig care sheet: http://bit.ly/l0SES
Texas Rustlers Guinea Pig Rescue: http://www.theguineapigrescue.com/index.htm
Cavy Care Inc. Guinea Pig Shelter: www.cavycareinc.org
Cages to build and buy: http://www.guineapigcages.com/