When you think of guinea pigs you might think of cute, cuddly little pets. But for the highland people of South America, and people in parts of Africa and Asia, guinea pigs mean extra food and income. Maybe you would like to try raising guinea pigs.
First of all, the meat is delicious. You can provide enough meat for your family for one year starting with only 22 guinea pigs. And you don’t have to be a farmer. You can raise guinea pigs even if you live in the city!
Guinea pig meat has a lot of protein (21%) and less fat (8%)than pork, mutton, or beef. And very little of the guinea pig goes to waste; you can eat the skin, some bones, and organ meat. If you skin guinea pigs, you can sell the fur and skin for making hand‑bags, feedbags, knap‑sacks and slippers. Also, you can use guinea pigs feces as fertilizer, or as a part of feed for cattle.
Raising guinea pigs is simple. If you start with only 7 to 10 females and one male, they will reproduce quickly and give you about 160 to 200 more guinea pigs in one year. Two males and twenty females can produce enough meat for a family of six, year‑round.
There are different types of guinea pigs. Their fur may be white, brown, yellow, red, or a combination of these colours. For best results, choose big ones with short hair, large heads, and short snouts. This type adapts well to most climates but cannot take extreme heat or cold. It is also calm, reproduces easily, and gains weight quickly. In only three months, the pigs are ready to eat or sell.
You will find that guinea pigs are easy to feed, house and care for. Many people let guinea pigs run freely, but it’s better to build proper housing if you want them to be clean and healthy. You can make pens cheaply from adobe or cement brick, or stone. If you have a little more money, you can build cages out of wire. If possible, avoid using wood to build pens because wood is difficult to clean and guinea pigs might chew through it. Wire mesh flooring can also be a problem. Although wire mesh allows urine and most fecal pellets to drop through, which keeps pens cleaner, guinea pigs can injure their feet on wire that has large holes. Some may even break a leg if they get tangled in the mesh. So, avoid wire mesh flooring if possible, or use mesh with small holes.
Cover the floor of the pen with a deep litter to catch droppings and protect the feet of your guinea pigs. You can use dried grass, shredded paper, or chopped corn cobs as bedding. Don’t use sawdust because it can stick to the genitalia of males which may cause breeding problems. Change the bedding every two weeks to avoid disease and dampness.
Place the pens or boxes on the floor of your house, or in a simple shed near the house. Or make rain‑proof cages which you can keep outdoors during the day, then take them back in at night. Keep breeding animals separate from the younger ones. A pen that is 70 cm by 90 cm by 40 cm high can hold one male and six females.
Guinea pigs need fresh water every day. You can make feeders and drinking troughs from clay. Clean out the water trough or bowl each time you change the water. You will find guinea pigs do not eat dirty food, so keep their food off the ground ‑ tie it in bunches or use a feeding trough.
Taking care of guinea pigs is easy. It is possible for one person to tend many at one time.
Guinea pigs might nip, but rarely bite when you handle them so even children can look after them. They don’t climb or jump high so they won’t easily get out of their pens.
Guinea pigs are afraid of loud noises, people, and other animals. When they get frightened they may climb on top of each other and get hurt. So keep them in a quiet place, safe from dogs, cats, rats, snakes, or other animals which may frighten or eat them.
A healthy guinea pig lives on a simple diet of green leaves, fruits, vegetables, and grasses. Feed your guinea pigs kitchen scraps such as cabbage, lettuce, kale, potato peels, and carrot pieces. They can also live on pelleted rabbit feed that has Vitamin C added. As treats give them banana leaves, apples, and cucumbers. Guinea pigs love vetch (Aescgynomene americana L.), and clover (Trifolium spp.).
They will need some fresh grass or green foliage every day. Some of the grasses that you can feed them regularly are: ryegrass (Lolium spp.) which is one of their favourite grasses, alfalfa (Medicago sativa), chaff‑flower (Achyranthes spp.), sorghum, ramie (Boehmeria nivea), or elephant grass (Pennisetum purpurium). You can also give your guinea pigs leaves of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) and ditch reed (Paspalum scrobiculatum). Mix in a portion of wheat (Triticum aestivum), oats (Avena sativa), rice hulls, or corn stalks regularly. In some places, barley (Hordeum vulgare) is grown specifically for guinea pig food: it is cut green and sold in small bundles in the markets.
Some plants are poisonous to guinea pigs. Examples of some of these are: parsley (Petroselinum crispum), wild mustard, hemlock (Conium maculatum), “horse tail” dandelion, blackberry (Rubus spp.) or coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Also, do not give them green potato peels.
To stay healthy, guinea pigs need the vitamin C found in many fruits and vegetables. Feed them vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes, a handful of kale or cabbage, or give them a quarter of an orange daily.
Guinea pigs will start breeding when they are only one month old. However, it is much better to wait until females are three months old and males are three to four months old. Only large, healthy animals should be used for breeding.
Use one male for up to 12 females. Pregnancy lasts about sixty‑five days. The female may have as many as six babies but a litter of two to three is most common. Newborn guinea pigs are born with fur, and their eyes are open. They can walk around immediately and eat solid food by about their fourth day of life. It is best not to wean them until at least two weeks after birth. Waiting a full twenty‑five days is even better.
After giving birth, the female comes back into heat again within 3 to 15 hours. You can breed her again right away. She can be nursing her young and pregnant at the same time! But remember, she must have a nutritious diet to have a healthy pregnancy. Also, within five days of weaning her young (remember, wait at least two weeks after the babies are born before weaning), she can get pregnant again. If you take advantage of the proper breeding times, your female guinea pigs can give birth four to five times a year. Starting with only two males and twenty females, you can have nearly 6000 guinea pigs to sell or eat in two years.
This script was prepared by Belinda Bruce, a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada. It was reviewed by Dan Gudahl and Jim Hoey of Heifer Project International. It was published with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.
“Guinea Pigs” in Harvest, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1984. Department of Primary Industry, P.O. Box 417, Konedobu, Papua Region, New Guinea.
“Guinea Pig: A potential source of meat in Papua New Guinea” in Harvest, Vol. 13, No. 1‑4, 1991. Department of Agriculture and Livestock, Port Moresby, Papua, New Guinea.
“The guinea pig as meat producer” in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 1, April 1989. Information for Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture, Kastanjelaan 5, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands.
“Livestock for the landless” in Ceres 98. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Vialle delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.
“Let’s eat what we raise – guinea pigs.” Brochure (9 pages) available from Heifer Project International, 1015 South Louisiana, P.O. Box 808, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203, USA.
“Information and care of guinea pigs”, a report by Rita Rushing. For further information, she can be contacted at: EE’s Cavies, Rt. 20, Box 1251B, Conroe, TX 77301, USA. Or look for this article on the Internet.