The guinea-pig will accept a great many different foods and these may be grouped into two sorts. Dry food and green stuff of various descriptions. Both kinds of food are essential and, in this respect, both guinea-pigs and rabbits differ from most other pet rodents who can live on a dry diet with a bare minimum (or none) of green food or roots. The idea is to feed a quantity of each per day although not necessarily at every meal. The majority of rodents are nibblers and the guinea-pig is no exception.
One meal a day would be sufficient but is not ideal. In fact, it has a severe practical drawback, for it is not always easy to judge the animal’s appetite and he may go hungry before the next meal arrives. Two meals a day is better or even three if you have the time. After a while, it becomes easy to assess the quantity of food to give, which should be just enough for only a small amount to be uneaten by the time of the next meal. Normally, more food will have to be given for the evening meal as compared with the morning. However many meals are given, do try to make these about the same time each day. It is remarkable how the guinea-pig appreciates regular feeding and how he advertises the fact by shrill whistles.
The dry food consists of cereal grains and their products. Bread scraps and left-overs are good food, whether fed soft or baked hard in an oven. Remember that husks of hard bread are beneficial for the teeth. All grains can be fed, such as oats (whole or crushed), wheat, rabbit pellets and other mixtures which are being marketed for hamsters and rabbits. These may be given in a fairly heavy shallow dish, to prevent the animal from tipping it over, with consequent wastage.
Many other grain foods are available in the form of meals, such as barley, maize or middlings (sharps) and the particularly useful bran. Meals and bran are not palatable when fed dry—in fact, many animals may refuse to eat any quantity. However, they make appetising mashes, well worth the extra work which this involves. There is no hard and fast rule for the composition of mashes except possibly one. This is that about 50 per cent (by bulk) of all mashes should consist of bran. Be guided in the other constituents by what is available. It is advisable to vary the mashes at first because not all guinea-pigs like all mashes. All of the consti tuents should be thoroughly mixed before water is added to make the mash.
Either warm or cold water may be used for mashes and just enough should be added to make a crumbly consistency. Too wet a mash should be avoided. A small amount of crushed oats or rabbit pellets can be added for variety. Properly stored in a dry atmosphere, all meals will keep for months, hence a quantity can be ready-mixed dry, but only sufficient mash for one meal should be made at a time. Mashes should not stand over from day to day, and any mash left uneaten by the guinea-pig should be thrown away.
The kinds of green food (”green stuff”) which may be offered is legion. Some of the easiest to obtain are cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli trimmings and the outside leaves from the cabbage for the family dinner are ideal. A polite request of your local greengrocer will often result in a bundle of waste leaves. This sort of green stuff should always be looked over and dirty or badly damaged leaves discarded. If the green stuff is only a little dirty or is difficult to obtain, the leaves may be rinsed in clean water and laid out to dry. One can always buy cabbage or spring greens, of course, if trimmings cannot be obtained. Never on any account feed leaves of cabbage which have become yellow. These have lost their nutritional value and this is one of the reasons why we, ourselves, do not eat them.
Other kitchen waste should not be overlooked, such as outside leaves of lettuce, carrot tops or green tops of celery. Apple and pear peelings, as well as fruit which is not quite up to standard for human consumption, can be fed. If you have a kitchen garden, a few extra cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts or lettuce may be grown specially for the guinea-pig. An excellent leafy vegetable to grow is chicory. This gives masses of green foliage which can be plucked especially in the second year of growth.
If you are lucky enough to have access to waste ground, there are many weeds which can be safely given. These include clover, chickweed, coltsfoot, dandelion, groundsel, hedge parsley, plantain, shep herd’s purse and sow thistle, and they will usually be eaten with great delight. Unfortunately, there are a few poisonous wild plants which must be avoided. These include, especially, blue-bells (and all bulbs in general), buttercups, rag-wort and hemlock.
Hemlock resembles hedge parsley but has a smooth stem often spotted with purple, whereas hedge parsley has a slightly hairy grooved stem. It is best to feed wild green stuff as a mixture, in which case should a poisonous weed be included by accident, the guinea-pig can, and often does, reject it. A mixture also means that he cannot eat too much of the poison weed if he does not sense that it is noxious. This, itself, will prevent harm coming to the little chap. One important warning : do not collect wild green stuff from ground fouled by dogs.
Very wet green stuff should never be fed. Green stuff in this condition has a tendency to cause loos( ness of the bowels and diarrhoea, perhaps because the animal takes in more water than he would normally. Wet green stuff can always be dried, hence the risk of stomach upset is not worth taking. If no dry green food is available, it is better to either give extra mash or pieces of swede or carrot. A guinea-pig is too tough to be hurt by a few days without green stuff. On the other hand, he cannot be deprived of it for too long because guinea-pigs have a high requirement of vitamin C which is present in fresh green stuff and fruit.
The winter months are a trying time for all animals which consume green food. Be particularly careful not to feed frosty green stuff or green stuff which has thawed out after being badly frozen. This is usually of a darker green than normal, limp and sometimes smelly. Feeding this will almost certainly result in diarrhoea.
Should the winter be severe, green stuff may be impossible or difficult to obtain or expensive if available. During this period vegetable roots may be fed instead, namely, swede, carrot, beetroot and turnips. Swedes are particularly good since these contain a high vitamin C content. In fact, it is a good plan to start giving small quantities in the autumn. This adds variety to the diet and accustoms the guinea-pig to roots, so that a change to all roots will not upset him. The roots should be cut into slices or diced and fed as a mixture. A few potatoes (cooked rather than raw) can be included but in moderation and never give any which are green. Take care that no frosted roots are given. It is wise policy to store all green stuff and roots in the house where they cannot freeze.
Meadow hay, straw or woodwool may be used for bedding and, of these, hay is the best for guinea-pigs The main reason is that hay (forage, as it is termed is part of the animal’s diet. Hay is bulk food and shoul( always be freely available.
The guinea-pig will sit and steadily munch hay to keep his tummy filled even when other food is present. More to the point, a supply of hay will keep the little fellow going should his feeding time be delayed for any reason. Always feed fresh hay, never that which has become mouldy or damp A good sniff will soon tell the difference. Mouldy hay can produce stomach upsets. Straw will also be eaten but not with the same enthusiasm as hay and it is not so nutritious. In fact, straw is more usually chewed into short lengths rather than eaten.
Woodwool has little nutritional value and is used mainly as nesting material Some people argue that, if plenty of green stuff is fed, provision of water is unnecessary. To do away with the bother of filling water dishes or bottles is a temptation, one must admit, but water should be provided. If dishes are used, these should be shallow and heavy, otherwise they may be tipped over and make the hutch damp. The smallest sized water dishes for dogs can be pressed into service. The water bottles designed for rabbits are also suitable for guinea-pigs and are superior to dishes. These are fixed on the outside of the hutch, with the water spout protruding through the wire. This arrangement may look untidy but is efficient and the bottle does not require refill ing so often as a dish.
Unlike smaller rodents, it is rarely practical to leave a guinea-pig unattended, if all of the family are away from home for more than a short period. For a few days, ample dry grain or bread, roots and hay should seep the little chap going. Beyond this, the roots will lot keep in good condition or the water bottle may run dry. If you cannot take your pet with you on holiday, the best plan is to ask a friendly neighbour to feed him. Perhaps a school chum may do this for you, either visiting your home, or the guinea-pig and nitch may be transported to your friend’s house. Should our chum have pets of his or her own, you could offer to feed these in return. Alternatively, some pet shops take in pets for short periods.