Guinea pigs are hystricomorph rodents (related to chinchillas and porcupines) that originated from the Andes Mountains region of South America. They were probably first domesticated by the Indians of Peru, who used them for food and as sacrificial offerings to their gods. In the 16th century Dutch explorers introduced guinea pigs to Europe, and selective breeding and captive rearing began in earnest. Guinea pigs are very popular pets because of their availability, docile temperaments, tendency not to bite or scratch when handled, and relatively clean habits. They are not long-lived, which can be disconcerting to owners (especially children). Many parents, however, believe that having their children experience the relatively short period of companionship and subsequent death is a meaningful way to expose children to the "ups and downs" of life.
In their natural habitat, guinea pigs live in open, grassy areas. They seek shelter in naturally protected areas or burrows deserted by other animals. Guinea pigs are sociable animals and tend to live in groups. They are strictly herbivorous (plant-eating) and do most of their foraging for grasses, roots, fruits and seeds in the late afternoon and early evening. For many years guinea pigs have been used in biomedical research laboratories. Consequently, their medical problems have been traditionally approached on a group basis, rather than on an individual basis. As a result, very little practical information exists on the medical care and treatment of individual pet guinea pigs. In this section we will provide you with some basic information about caring for guinea pigs, including general healthcare information and information concerning common types of guinea pig medical problems and diseases.
Through selective breeding efforts, guinea pigs are found in an array of colors and coat types from which to choose. Four primary varieties are commonly encountered in the pet industry. The Shorthair or English is characterized by having a uniformly short hair coat. The Abyssinian has whorls or rosettes in their short, rough, wiry coat. The Silky is a large variety distinguished by its medium length silky hair. The Peruvian is recognized by its very long silky hair. All types are commonly kept as pets.
Human Allergies to Guinea Pig Dander: Certain people are allergic to the hair and/or dander of guinea pigs. People working with guinea pigs in laboratory situations are more likely to develop such allergies because of their continual association with them. Signs include itchy eyes, sneezing, runny nose, persistent cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, a skin rash, and anaphylactic shock (a true medical emergency). Owners of pet guinea pigs may also be susceptible, and a medical doctor should be consulted about suspected allergy problems if a guinea pig is kept as a pet in the household. Guinea pig owners with such a suspected allergy may want to consult an allergist.