Guinea Pigs and Pups

No matter how old your guinea pig is, we at Atlas Animal Hospital can help take care of it with relative ease. You can relax knowing that they are in good hands with our medical staff.

The guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), also called the cavy, is a species of rodent belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia. Despite their common name, these animals are not in the pig family, nor are they from Guinea. They originated in the Andes, and earlier studies based on biochemistry and hybridization suggested they are domesticated descendants of a closely related species of cavy such as Cavia aperea, C. fulgida, or C. tschudii and, therefore, do not exist naturally in the wild. Recent studies applying molecular markers, in addition to studying the skull and skeletal morphology of current and mummified animals, revealed that the ancestor is most likely Cavia tschudii.

The guinea pig plays an important role in the folk culture of many Indigenous South American groups, especially as a food source, but also in folk medicine and in community religious ceremonies. Since the 1960s, efforts have been made to increase consumption of the animal outside South America.

In Western societies, the guinea pig has enjoyed widespread popularity as a household pet since its introduction by European traders in the 16th century. Their docile nature, their responsiveness to handling and feeding, and the relative ease of caring for them, continue to make the guinea pig a popular pet. Organizations devoted to competitive breeding of guinea pigs have been formed worldwide, and many specialized breeds of guinea pig, with varying coat colors and compositions, are cultivated by breeders.

Biological experimentation on guinea pigs has been carried out since the 17th century. The animals were frequently used as a model organism in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the epithet “guinea pig” for a test subject, but have since been largely replaced by other rodents such as mice and rats. They are still used in research, primarily as models for human medical conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, scurvy, and pregnancy complications.

The common guinea pig was first domesticated as early as 5000 BC for food by tribes in the Andean region of South America (present-day the southern part of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), some thousands of years after the domestication of the South American camelids. Statues dating from ca. 500 BC to 500 AD that depict guinea pigs have been unearthed in archaeological digs in Peru and Ecuador. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped animals and often depicted the guinea pig in their art. From ca. 1200 AD to the Spanish conquest in 1532, selective breeding resulted in many varieties of domestic guinea pigs, which form the basis for some of the modern domestic breeds. They continue to be a food source in the region; many households in the Andean highlands raise the animal, which subsists off the family’s vegetable scraps. Folklore traditions involving guinea pigs are numerous; they are exchanged as gifts, used in customary social and religious ceremonies, and frequently referenced in spoken metaphors. They also play a role in traditional healing rituals by folk doctors, or curanderos, who use the animals to diagnose diseases such as jaundice, rheumatism, arthritis, and typhus. They are rubbed against the bodies of the sick, and are seen as a supernatural medium. Black guinea pigs are considered especially useful for diagnoses. The animal also may be cut open and its entrails examined to determine whether the cure was effective. These methods are widely accepted in many parts of the Andes, where Western medicine is either unavailable or distrusted.

Spanish, Dutch, and English traders brought guinea pigs to Europe, where they quickly became popular as exotic pets among the upper classes and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I. The earliest known written account of the guinea pig dates from 1547, in a description of the animal from Santo Domingo; because cavies are not native to Hispaniola, it was earlier believed that the animal was likely introduced there by Spanish travelers. However, based on more recent excavations on West Indian islands, it has become known that the animal must have been introduced by ceramic-making horticulturalists from South America to the Caribbean around 500 BC, and it was present in the Ostionoid period, for example, on Puerto Rico, long before the advent of the Spaniards. The guinea pig was first described in the West in 1554 by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner. Its binomial scientific name was first used by Erxleben in 1777; it is an amalgam of Pallas’ generic designation (1766) and Linnaeus’ specific conferral (1758). The earliest known illustration of a domestic guinea pig is a painting (artist unknown) in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, dated to 1580, which shows a girl in typical Elizabethan dress holding a tortoise-shell guinea pig in her hands; she is flanked by her two brothers, one of whom holds a pet bird. The picture dates from the same period as the oldest recorded guinea pig remains in England, which are a partial cavy skeleton found at Hill Hall (Essex), an Elizabethan manor house, and dated to around 1575