A simple line-art sketch of a guinea pig (a.k.a. cavy) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’m unexpectedly guinea pig sitting for the next couple of days. Twinkles is not any guinea pig, he’s Timmy’s classroom pig. However, it was discovered one of the girls in Timmy’s class is allergic to Twinkles which means he has to find a new home. Timmy volunteered to take home Twinkles for this week, and both he and his mom forgot about going out of town for Thanksgiving. So here I am petting this fuzzy bit of squeak for a couple of days.
I have never had a pet before. It would complicate our nomadic lifestyle to have to worry about finding places that allowed pets. This apartment complex doesn’t mind contained pets like goldfish, parakeets, or guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are amazing. I decided to find out what I could about them. I know I should go to the library for my research, but it’s closed due to Thanksgiving, which means I’m checking out Wikipedia instead–how wrong could information be on guinea pigs? And so, for NaNo word count, my science report, and because I’m bored:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The guinea pig is not really a pig at all. It is called a cavy. It is a domesticated animal, of the kingdom Animalia, of the phylum chordata, of the class Mammalia, of the order Rodentia, of the suborder Hystricomorpha, of the family Caviidae, of the genus Cavia, of the species C. porellus (Wait-is that why Bugs Bunny’s friend is called Porky Pig?)
That’s all the scientific stuff. Basically I learned guinea pigs are mammals, meaning they give live birth and are warm-blooded. I have been paying attention in biology. They are rodents. That I find disturbing since I don’t like mice or rats. I can’t stand that we have a rat in our science room. Rats are creepy. Doesn’t anyone remember how the bubonic plague started? Cavia threw me.
Guinea pigs come from the Andes and not New Guinea. They are a food source and part of the folk medicine in that area. The guinea pig became popular as a pet due to the introduction of the animal by European traders in the 16th century. One reason they are popular pet choices is because they are mellow little animals. They don’t mind being handled and it’s easy to feed and care for them. Over the years guinea pig organizations developed and breeding guinea pigs was cultivated. They are even guinea pig shows like people show dogs.
Beyond being a food source and pets, guinea pigs are used for experimentation purposes and experimenting on them began in the 17th century. Being used as test subjects for various experiments happened mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Guinea pigs have since then been largely replaced by mice and rats; however, guinea pigs are still used in research in tests for human conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, scurvy and pregnancy complications.
Okay, I’m grossed out. People eat these cute little creatures? And they experiment on them? Now I know what people mean when they say things like, “I’m not a guinea pig.” I thought they were talking about not wanting to be referred to as a squeaky little animal. How can anyone eat a guinea pig? I guess some countries eat dogs, cats, and even monkeys. Lizards and grubs I hear too. I’m not going to those countries if I can help it.
Guinea pigs became domesticated around 5000 BC in the Andean area of South America, which is known today as Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. They have been found in art in archaeological digs in Peru and Ecuador. Beginning in 1200 AD to 1532, guinea pigs were bred and that is why there are so many different varieties of guinea pigs today. They are still a large part of the Andean highlands culture for food and are used in folk medicine cures. The folk doctor will take the animal and rub it against the patient. Black guinea pigs are especially sought for the diagnosing of diseases like jaundice, rheumatism, arthritis, and typhus. After rubbing against the patient the animal may be cut open to determine if the cure was effective. Guinea pig medicine is practiced in many parts of the Andes where Western medicines are unavailable or mistrusted.
Here take two guinea pigs and call me in the morning. Poor little guys, the life of a South American guinea pig is not one to be envied. Either end up on the dinner plate or be used like a furry leech. I look down at Twinkles who is currently my roommate. He is really, really cute. He borders on being adorable. I am amazed at all the sounds he can make for such a tiny creature. He creates these sounds without barely opening his mouth either. What makes them a pig if not really a pig? And what’s with the guinea?
Spanish, Dutch, and English sailor or traders took guinea pigs from South America and introduced them to Europe. They became popular pets among the upper classes and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth the first. The first written account of the guinea pig is dated at 1547.
Guinea pigs are pets fit for a queen. I like that. I’m going to find out if Queen Elizabeth really did keep guinea pigs for a pet, because I have never seen her petting one in any the history books I’ve studied.
The scientific name of guinea pig is Cavia porcellus. The porcellus portion means “little pig” in Latin, and Cavia is new Latin, and the derivation is from cabiai, the animal’s name in the Galibi language of tribes once found in French Guiana. It’s thought Cabiai might come from the Portugese word cavia which comes form the the Tupii word saujá, which means rat. Guinea pigs are known as quwi or jaca in Quechua and cuy or cuyo (pl. cuyes, cuyos) in the Spanish part of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Breeders refer to guinea pigs as cavies, yet scientific communities still use the more common term of guinea pigs.
Guinea pigs must be confused. They are known as guinea pigs by some, cavies by another, and cuyes by their homeland. As I see it they are guinea pigs if pets or experiments, cavies if show animals, and cuyes if dinner. I’ll keep calling my new roomie Twinkles. I promised him that I would not eat him or run any experiments on him. When I talk to him he kind of “wheeks” at me. I don’t know if that means he likes what I have to say or if it is ticking him off.
How the animals came to be guinea pigs is not totally understood. The fact that they resemble pigs with their large heads, stout necks, rounded backsides and no tails to speak of could be one idea. There is also the thought that the animals make similar noises with the range of squeaks and pitched grunting they make. They also like to spend most of their time eating. They also do well in small enclosures (pig pens). Guinea pigs have different pig-related names in other languages. The German word for them is Meerschweinchen literally “little sea pig”. This translates into Polish as świnka morska, into Hungarian as tengerimalac , which all mean something as “sea pig”. This all can be traced back to how guinea pigs were transported on ships traveling to different parts of the world. They were easy to transport and an easy source of fresh meat. There are a couple of misconceptions about the name, one being that the animals were brought to Europe by way Guinea, yet “Guinea” was a term used in English referring to any far away, unknown country. There is also the thought the guinea pig refers to Guiana, an area in South America, although the animal is not native to that area. A common misconception is that the animal‘s name referred to them being sold for a guinea coin. That theory proved untrue due to fact that the guinea began its use in 1663 and there is a reference to the “Ginny-pig” as early as 1653.
It’s hard to believe there is such a concern over what to call the animals. Why not stick with the original South American name of cuy? It’s not as cute as guinea pig, that’s why.
Guinea pigs can weigh anywhere from one pound to almost three pounds, and they are about eight to ten inches in length. They can live from four to five years, although they can live as long as eight years. According to the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records there is a record of a guinea pig living to the age of fourteen years and ten and a half months old.
Guinea pigs are not naturally found in the wild, and thought to be a descendant of other cavie species that are still found in parts of South America. Wild cavies live on grassy plains, living much like cows by living in small groups where there is a male (boar) for several females (sows). They band together in herds, eating grass and other vegetation. They do not store up any food. They do not create their own nests or build burrows, but will borrow living areas of other animals or find crevices or niches to use. They tend to be most active during dawn and dusk, when predators are not as prevalent.
Guinea pigs prefer living in groups since they are social animals. Domesticated guinea pigs will do well in groups of two or more. Combinations that work together are one or more sows or boars, if they have enough room. Domestic guinea pigs have longer periods of activity than those living in the wild. They sleep in short periods in between activity periods. They don’t like intense light. They can live in cages, although wire mesh floors can create a condition known as bumble foot. Guinea pigs can live in plastic bins with wood shavings for their bedding material. They tend to be messy, jumping in their food bowls, mixing up their feces with their food and indiscriminately urinating and defecating throughout their cage. Males tend to mark their territory after the cage is cleaned.
I hadn’t thought about needing to clean out Twinkles’ cage. Timmy didn’t say anything about that. All his mom handed me was a sack of guinea pig food, a bag of timothy hay, and told me to make sure he had clean water. She told me he loves carrots.. Nothing about changing him. I hope he won’t need changing for the two days I have him. He’s not that smelly. Yet.
Guinea pigs can be trained to find their food, and will remember this food path for months. They cannot climb, yet can jump small obstacles. They are not very agile, and don’t use wheels or tubes or other diversions like hamster or mice use. They do frighten easily, and will freeze in one place or dart around in random patterns. Both tactics are used if the guinea pig thinks it is in danger, and will use these tactics to confuse its predator. Sometimes when excited guinea pigs will hop about, which is known as “popcorning.” Apparently guinea pigs can swim well. Guinea pigs, like other rodents, will groom one another in their social groups. They have poor eyesight and depend on their well-developed sense of hearing, smell and touch. They communicate by means of different pitched sounds. Some sounds include:
- Wheek – the noise they primarily make when excited, usually in response to their owner’s presence or food. If lost, the guinea pig might wheek for help. The wheek is also known as a whistle. The wheek is onomatopoeic, resembling the sound the guinea pig utters.
- Bubbling or Purring – this sound is one when the guinea pig is happy, as when it is being petted or held. Sometimes this sound is made when grooming, or investigating, or being given food.
- Rumbling – a noise made when dominance is being assertive, although the sound is also associated with the boar wanting to mate with a sow.
- Chutting and Whining – a sound made when the guinea pig is being chased, or is doing the chasing.
- Chattering – a warning sound made by rapidly gnashing the teeth together, and will have the head down, but a relaxed chattering means the guinea pig wants a treat and can’t reach it.
- Squealing or Shrieking – a high-pitched sound in response to pain or danger.
- Chirping – not a common sound, it is related to stress or when a baby guinea pig wants to be fed, and almost sounds like a bird song.
I have only heard the wheeking, although Twinkles did a bit of chattering when I first tried to pet him. I wonder if he is lonely, since it sounds like he should have another guinea pig to keep him company. I try to pet him a lot so he won’t feel so stressed out. I wonder if it is confusing being traded around so much. I hope he gets a home soon. I’ve only had him for a few hours and I am attached. But that would really mess up any moving plans we might have for the future. What if the guinea pig lived fourteen years! I would be out of high school, out of college, probably married and might even have kids by then. That is a long time for one pet.
I skip over breeding and the photos of guinea pigs on platters. Gross! I like reading about how guinea pigs have been in kids’ books and even in a couple of movies. I didn’t realize the guinea pig played an important role in the Narnia books, being the first animal to be transported to that country. Ha, ha, that’s because it was an experiment and it was used as guinea pig.
Never mind, the joke doesn’t translate well on paper. Maybe when Timmy gets back we will watch that guinea pig movie that came out, the one where they are super spies.
Mom is on the phone with Gran the third time in the last two days. Something’s up. We always manage to go to Gran’s for Thanksgiving, but I’m getting the feeling that might not be happening this year. I wonder what’s going on.