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December 4, 2009

Vital Vittles for Your Guinea Pig

Use variety to make your piggy’s plate nutritious and appealing

The Humane Society of the United States

guinea pig with orange

istockphoto

If you had to eat oatmeal every day, three times a day, you'd get sick of it in no time. Your guinea pig's basic diet is made up of commercial pellets, but keep him coming back for more with a rotating mix of fruits and vegetables.

Pellets: building blocks of a balanced diet

To ensure that your guinea pig receives the proper balance of nutrients, choose a high-quality commercial guinea pig food.

Commercial feeds for small animals aren't interchangeable. For example, only guinea pig pellets are supplemented with vitamin C, and rabbit pellets may contain small amounts of antibiotics that could be harmful to your pig. So don't feed your guinea pig a chow meant for another species.

Go with timothy hay

Many guinea pig pellets are made from alfalfa hay, but your pig will do best with pellets made from timothy hay. If you're having trouble finding this type of pellet, purchase online through suppliers like Oxbow Hay Company or Kleenmama's Hayloft.

Give me a C

Choose pellets that have been fortified with vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The best option is to select pellets with stabilized vitamin C. It doesn't degrade as quickly during storage and is released only after it’s been activated by enzymes in the guinea pig's digestive system.

Keep it fresh, safe

Look for a recent milling date on the packaging. Because vitamin C in most pellets degrades quickly, guinea pig chow shouldn't be used more than three months after the milling date. Store pellets in a dark, dry place at room temperature or slightly cooler. They can also be kept in the freezer and thawed as needed.

What to avoid

Avoid pellet mixes that include seeds or nuts (choking hazard) or dried fruit (unnecessary calories).

Avoid pellets that contain artificial colors and sweeteners, cheap fillers such as corn products or beet pulp, or preservatives (look for words like ethoxyquin, sodium nitrite or potassium sorbate).

Pellets should never contain animal by-products since guinea pigs are herbivores.

Learn more about how much and how often to feed your guinea pig »

Hay: the overlooked staple

Your guinea pig needs fresh hay at all times. Hay provides a critical source of fiber and roughage and serves as both a food source and bedding material. Because guinea pigs are herbivores, they require hay to aid their digestion and to provide necessary wear on their continually growing teeth.

Grass hay comes in many varieties; you want timothy hay. Orchard hay is also a good option. Pet stores usually carry small bags of timothy hay, although you can often find fresher supplies available in bulk through feed stores or directly from farms. You can also order timothy hay online from companies that specialize in small animal supplies.

Good-quality timothy hay smells fresh and sweet, feels dry and is free of mold, and has a green color. Hay should be stored in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place at room temperature or slightly cooler. Too much sun or heat can leech nutrients, while moisture can cause mold.

A word about alfalfa

Avoid alfalfa hay, which is rich in calcium and protein but may cause diarrhea and can also lead to kidney and bladder stones. Alfalfa hay can be beneficial in small amounts for pregnant or nursing guinea pigs and for young pigs under four months old.

Your pig's salad bowl

Vegetables are an important source of vitamin C and round out your guinea pig's diet with additional nutrients. They also add diversity to your pig's meal plan since pellets and hay can get pretty boring. Offer a variety of vegetables to prevent mineral imbalances and wash fresh produce well before serving it to your guinea pig. 
 
Leafy greens: These veggies are a particularly good source of vitamin C and should comprise the bulk of your guinea pig's supplemental calories. Here are some options:

  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Parsley
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens

Fresh veggies: Your guinea pig will happily munch on a wide variety of fresh vegetables. Experiment to see what your pig likes best and don't be afraid to mix it up. This list isn't exhaustive but provides a good starting point.

  • Bell peppers (green, orange, red)
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Carrots (and carrot greens)
  • Celery (Cut into small pieces since the strings can be a choking hazard)
  • Cilantro
  • Corn on the cob (with husks and silk, cut into pieces since the silk can be a choking hazard)
  • Cucumbers
  • Escarole
  • Greens such as clover and dandelion; Harvest from a garden or purchase at a grocery store and wash well; don't pick from roadsides
  • Lettuces (e.g. Arugula, Bibb, Boston, Butterhead, Romaine, dark green leaf)
  • Snow peas, sugar peas, snap peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Turnip greens

A word of caution

Some vegetables can cause gas build-up in the digestive tract and should only be fed occasionally in small quantities:

  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens

Fruits: the occasional treat

Many guinea pigs love fruit, and cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, and papaya are especially high in vitamin C. Offer this treat in moderation (several times a week) because of its relatively high sugar content.

  • Apples: Acids in apples occasionally cause allergic reactions; don't feed if you notice any sores or scabs around your guinea pig's mouth
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Grapes (seedless)
  • Kiwi
  • Melon (e.g. cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon); Offer very sparingly because of high sugar and water content
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Pears
  • Strawberries

Foods to avoid

Guinea pigs may have robust appetites but they don't have iron stomachs, and the wrong type of food can wreak havoc on tiny digestive systems. Common signs that you're feeding the wrong foods include soft stool or diarrhea.

Never feed chewy or sticky foods like peanut butter that can present a choking hazard or sharp-edged foods like potato chips that can puncture the delicate lining of your guinea pig’s mouth. Junk foods such as chocolate and sugary or salty snacks are also off-limits.

Here’s an overview of foods to avoid:

  • Beans (raw or dried)
  • Chocolate and candy
  • Dairy products
  • Garlic
  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Lentils (raw or dried)
  • Nuts
  • Onions
  • Peanut butter 
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Rhubarb
  • Seeds

Commercial treats and supplements

If you're feeding your pig a balanced, high-quality diet, commercial treats and supplements are unnecessary. See feeding guidelines for more information »

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