New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2002



By Ardeth Baxter

Would you like to adopt a warm, furry creature, but your landlord won't allow a dog or cat? Here are two popular candidates from the rodent family who might appeal to your companionship needs.


Also known as guinea pigs, or Cavia porcellus, cavies originated in Latin America. They were first domesticated around 5000 BC and used as food. Cavies became popular household pets in Europe after the Spanish brought them back from the New World. The name "guinea pig" may be a corruption of Guiana in South America or Guinea in West Africa, where they could have passed through on their way to Europe with the slave trade. Another possibility is that they're named after the guinea, a gold coin said to have been the cost of a cavy. Sadly, guinea pigs have been so widely used in scientific research that their name has become synonymous with any object of experimentation.

Cavies are gentle and rarely bite. They're social animals, so it's best to get at least two for companionship. Be forewarned that they are messy and enjoy scattering their food and bedding. They also "imprint" on a food very early, making it difficult to change their diet later. They're strict herbivores and cannot produce their own vitamin C. You must provide them with vitamin C through supplements, commercial pellets (check the expiration date to make sure they're fresh), and fresh foods such as red and green bell pepper, kale, leaf lettuces, oranges, carrots, and yams. Signs of vitamin C deficiency are stiffness, difficulty walking, and even paralysis.

Guinea pigs can live an average of 4 years, reach a weight of 2 pounds and a length of 14 inches. You can choose from short-hair and long-hair breeds as well as mixed breeds.

You can't always tell when cavies are ill, because they like to hide it as long as they can. One common ailment is diarrhea, caused by bacteria, antibiotics, too many fruits and veggies, or a change of feed (which should always be done gradually). One of the best treatments for diarrhea is Timothy hay, which provides roughage.

Cavies need a constant supply of water, which should be supplied through sipper tubes suspended on the cage wall. But make sure they haven't chewed on the tube or plugged it with food.

Healthy cavies have bright eyes, are very alert and a bit "skittish." They will attempt to avoid being caught and will probably whistle or "wheek" when they are. Their coats are soft with no bare spots and smooth skin underneath. Incisors are intact and meet smoothly in the middle of the mouth. There are no broken or missing nails, "extra" toes (cavies have 4 on each front foot and 3 on each rear foot), or pad inflammation or calluses (bumblefoot).

Runny nose, cough, lung congestion, and open sores on the feet or body indicate illness. Other signs of illness are a dry or brittle coat (stress), bald patches with scabs or small grey bumps (fungus or mites), short grey moving bugs near the base of the hairs (lice), slobbering, drooling, poor eating habits (teeth problems), blood in the urine (kidney or bladder stones), lumps under the skin (abscess, tumor), or head tilting (ear infection or ear mites).

A cavy is clean and odorless and needs little grooming if a short-hair breed. However, the nails continue to grow and must be worn down with a stone or brick in the cage or trimmed with nail clippers.

Determine the sex of cavies by turning them belly up and pushing on either side of the genitals. If male, a penis will appear. Female guinea pigs produce a litter of 2 to 4 in 60 to 70 days.

Many guinea pigs are abandoned; we recommend that you check on the Internet for cavy rescue and shelter sites, or call your local animal shelter for help in obtaining one. Spay or neuter your cavy to prevent unwanted pregnancies.


The Syrian Golden Hamster, or Cricetus auratus, is the most popular of all hamster breeds. In 1930 a zoologist in the Syrian Desert discovered a mother and twelve young hamsters. Three lived and produced the first litters born in captivity. Unfortunately, because hamsters are relatively disease-free, breed rapidly, and are easy to handle, like cavies, they have been heavily exploited as laboratory animals. Their name is derived from an old German word associated with storing food ("hamper" comes from the same root) because they stuff their cheeks with food.

Hamsters can be feisty, but if handled gently they will respond in kind. They are escape artists, with the ability to chew through plastic and aluminum cages. They are curious by nature and enjoy toys and other diversions such as the wheel, plastic balls and tree trunks. A drawback may be that they're nocturnal (more active at night). They hibernate when their body temperature drops below 41° F, but can be roused by gentle stimulation and application of warmth.

Their need for water is variable; they can tolerate long periods without it. But you should always provide fresh water by gravity bottle or a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. They also enjoy nuts and cereals and will eat commercial feed. Unlike cavies, they have no need for supplemental vitamin C.

Hamsters reach a length of 6-7 inches and a weight of 3-5 ounces. They live an average of 2 or 3 years. These animals are very clean and odor free with little urine or feces. Buy a hamster late in the afternoon (they sleep during the day), and make sure her age is from 3 weeks to 3 months old; young hamsters are easier to tame. The eyes should be clear and the hair dry. Hamsters fight when they're in groups, so don't get more than one. Check for 4 toes on each front foot and 5 on each back foot.

If your hamster is coughing, wheezing, shaking, has sores or calluses, is walking oddly, or displays any other abnormal behavior, see your vet immediately. A common ailment is wet tail, a bacterial infection or imbalance in the digestive tract that causes severe diarrhea which makes the top of the tail wet and/or dirty with a strong, unpleasant smell. Wet tail is often fatal.

A hamster can be sexed by looking at the gap between the anus and the urinary vent, which is much smaller in the female than the male. Hamsters can produce a litter of 8 to 26 in 16 days, so it's better to leave breeding to the experts!

Nutritionist and animal guardian Gary Null suggests that no matter what kind of rodents you have, make sure they have a cage large enough for comfort, with safe litter on the bottom such as shredded newspaper, rabbit pellets, and nothing with a strong aroma because the mix of urine and wood vapors can cause respiratory problems. In addition, cedar or chlorophyll vapors mixed with urine can rot feet. Don't forget to change the litter at least every other day. Check on your pets regularly to make sure they’re OK. Rotate fresh foods because rodents get into "food ruts" just like people. A commercial probiotic, yogurt or buttermilk might work for loose stools or constipation, but take them to the vet if you suspect parasites or bacterial infections.

For more information, check out the following web sites, as well others devoted to the care and feeding of cavies and hamsters:

American Hamster Association:
Cavy Care Inc. (An Aurora, Colorado cavy rescue shelter and educational organization):

Ardeth Baxter is a Lone Butte wordsmith and multi-animal guardian who has learned from two gentle guinea pigs named Rusty and Sydney.

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