Feeding Guinea Pigs

(Adapted from an article by Peter Fisher DVM)

Guinea pigs are well developed at birth and within a few months are able to eat an adult diet. They are strict herbivores i.e they only eat plants and, like rabbits, are hind-gut fermentors that practise coprophagy (ingestion of one’s own faeces). This coprophagy may be a source of B vitamins and a means of optimizing protein utilization. However, its precise contribution to the nutritional needs of guinea pigs is not fully known.

As hind gut fermentors, guinea pigs digest much of their food in the caecum and colon (large intestine) which are at the end of the digestive tract.The caecum, a large, thin-walled sac located at the junction of the small and large intestine, contains up to 65% of gastrointestinal (GI) contents. Within the caecum, bacteria and protozoa aid digestion of foods taken in by the guinea pig.

Fibre is needed for these bacteria and protozoa to stay in balance and function properly. Fibre also aids in maintaining normal GI motility or movement. Without fibre, the gastrointestinal tract slows down, resulting in subsequent changes in the caecum pH, fermentation and bacterial population. With time these changes in the intestinal tract environment can lead to indigestion and diarrhoea – which can be fatal to guinea pigs.

You can provide this essential fibre by feeding your guinea pig free-choice grass hay. We recommend feeding unlimited quantities of timothy or oat hay. Hay also helps prevent boredom by satisfying your guinea pig’s innate desire to chew, which is an important means of dental health maintenance.

In addition to hay, Oxbow’s Cavy Cuisine (www.oxbowaustralia.com) is a high-fibre pelleted diet which contains stabilized vitamin C and is designed to meet the specific nutritional needs of your guinea pig. Guinea pigs are unique in that they need Vitamin C in their diet – just like people. And, just like people, their health will suffer if their diet is deficient in Vitamin C.

Signs of vitamin C deficiency (scurvy) include:

  • Hind leg weakness
  • Gum inflammation (gingivitis) – which can lead to dental disease
  • Unkempt fur coat and mild itchiness; the hair is easily removed
  • Bleeding in the joints or under the skin, causing lameness and pain.

Daily requirements of vitamin C range from 20-50 mg per kg of body weight. In order to prevent vitamin C deficiency and subsequent scurvy, we recommend feeding your guinea pig Cavy Cuisine, a pelleted diet containing stabilized vitamin C, produced by Oxbow and available in Australia.

We also recommend feeding a wide variety of greens, fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, oranges have relatively low levels of Vitamin C (50mg/cup). On the other hand, greens such as brocoli leaf, parsley, dandelion, and brussel sprouts are very high in Vitamin C, as are tomatoes and capsicum.

How do the guinea pig diets sold in many pet shops stack up against your guinea pig’s nutritional and health requirements? These diets usually contain lucerne pellets, lucerne chaff and grain. They are:

  • too high in fat, leading to obesity
  • too low in fibre, leading to indigestion
  • too high in calcium, leading to kidney and bladder stones
  • too low in Vitamin C – and what is there deteriorates within a few week of manufacture

These diets are obviously unsuitable for the health and longevity of your pet.

The West Toowoomba Vet Surgery recommends and carries Oxbow Cavy Cuisine and Oxbow Timothy Hay. If you are unable to visit the Surgery, we are only too happy to post you your requirements. For more information on prices, please contact us (4636 2027). For more information on Oxbow products, and for a complete list of stockists throughout Australia, visit the Oxbow Australia website.