Scientific Name: Cavia porcellus
The guinea pig, commonly called the Cavy after its scientific name Cavia porcellus, is actually not a pig but a species of rodent.
It originated in the Andes mountains in South America and DNA studies indicate that it is a domesticated descendent of wild members of the family Caviidae. The guinea pig plays an important role in the culture of indigenous South American groups in folk medicine, religious ceremonies and as a food source. The guinea pig has become popular in America as a household pet since it was introduced by European traders in the 16th century.
STATUS: The guinea pig is a common household pet and is therefore not considered threatened.
HABITAT: Guinea pigs are not found naturally in the wild. However, the cavy, from which it descended, is still found in South America. In fact, some species of cavy living in the wild may be domestic guinea pigs that have become feral by reintroduction into the wild. Wild cavies live on grassy plains and are said to occupy an ecological niche similar to that of the cow.
DIET: Guinea pigs eat grass or other vegetation. They eat alfalfa as well as fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, cabbage, carrots, celery and spinach. It is important for them to ingest vitamin C and minerals as well. Like rabbits, guinea pigs produce special soft pellets as part of their feces. These pellets are called cecotropes and are eaten to recycle B vitamins, fiber and the bacteria required for proper digestion.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Like other rodents, guinea pigs have ever-growing teeth. The back side of their incisors is not enameled, so when they gnaw on fibrous substances, their incisors are sharpened like a chisel. Guinea pigs weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds and grow to 8-10 inches in length. Their average life span is 4-8 years. Newborn pups are well-developed with hair, teeth, claws and partial eyesight. The pups are active and begin eating solid food immediately. Males reach sexual maturity at 3-5 weeks and females can become pregnant 6-48 hours after birth. Gestation is approximately 65 days.
A Long History
The guinea pig was domesticated for food by tribes in the Andes as early as 5,000 BC. Guinea pig statues and artwork have been found in archaeological digs in Peru and Ecuador. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped animals and the guinea pig is depicted in their art. In addition to being a food source, guinea pigs are exchanged as gifts and they play a role in folk medicine. The folk doctors, or curanderos, rub the guinea pigs against the bodies of the sick for diagnosis because they are seen as a supernatural medium. The name “guinea pig” is used as metaphor in English for a subject of experimentation.