The guinea-pig is larger than rats, mice and hamsters. A fully grown animal will weigh between two and three pounds and be about nine inches long. They have squat, tubby bodies and are surprisingly strong. Young people handling a guinea-pig for the first time may be astonished at an absence of tail (even the hamster has a stubby tail). Guinea-pigs have bones of a short tail but these do not protrude beyond the body and externally there is no tail ! They are clean and docile animals, with the most friendly of dispositions.
The guinea-pig is the more popularly known of the two names for the animal. The other name is “cavy” and seems to be preferred by fanciers and breeders. Just why he should be called the guinea-pig is not rightly known. The animal certainly is not related to a pig. Two explanations are generally offered. Guinea-pigs may have reached England from Guinea in West Africa and were originally thought to occur in that country. However, this is not so as they actually come from South America. The second explanation suggests that they were known as guiana-pigs when first introduced but the name was verbally corrupted to guinea-pig because Guiana was a relatively unknown place in those times. Be that as it may, the animal is still a delightful little beast whether one calls him a guinea-pig or a cavy.
It is always best to buy young guinea-pigs, say between the ages of one to three months, rather than older animals. Young animals learn to recognise their owner more quickly than the older. However, there is no rigid rule, and there is no reason why a guinea-pig as old as one year should not be taken as a pet if he is healthy and particularly attractive. The signs of good health are : bright eyes, a glossy, sleek coat, a solid muscular body and active, inquisitive behaviour. A single animal will make a fine pet and will live happily by itself. There is no difference between the sexes in this respect. If the intention is to keep several guinea-pigs together solely as pets (I.e., no breeding), then these must be all females. Adult males will not live together for any length of time without fighting. Even if breeding is intended, not more than one can be kept in the same hutch, although he can have one or several female companions. Incidentally, a male guinea-pig is known as a boar and, the female, a sow.
The guinea-pig is one of the earliest domesticated animals, being kept for food by the Inca Indians of South America. The little animal travels easily and the Spanish brought back specimens as part of the bounty from their conquests. It was known in England and Europe by the sixteenth century, probably as a novel and exotic pet. The great interest in breeding small animals which occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century produced the many exciting varieties of the present day.