Guinea Pig, a short, stocky rodent often kept as a pet. It was domesticated by South American peoples before the arrival of Europeans in the 1500's. The “guinea” in the name may be a corruption of Guiana, part of its natural range. It is also found from Colombia south to Argentina.

An adult guinea pig is 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm) long and weighs about two to three pounds (.9 to 1.4 kg). It may be solid black, brown, red, or tan, or a mixture of these colors with white spotting. The hair ranges from short to long, and is coarse or smooth. The guinea pig has short legs, short ears, and a blunt nose. It uses its sharp claws to dig burrows, which it rests in during the day. At night, it feeds on vegetation. Guinea pigs live in groups of 5 to 10 individuals. The female bears four or five litters every year, each with three or four young. In some parts of South America guinea pigs are raised for meat. Guinea pigs have been used in medical research for many years, particularly in studying diseases and the effects of vaccines and serums.

Are Guinea Pigs Really Pigs?

Some people shorten the name for their pet guinea pigs to just “pigs.” Guinea pigs, however, are not related to pigs at all. Guinea pigs are rodents.

No one is sure why this animal is called a guinea pig. Some people think the name came from traders who brought the animals to Europe on ships returning from the African country of Guinea.

Other people think the name comes from a British coin called a guinea, which may have been the amount of money that the guinea pigs were sold for when they were first taken to England from South America.

It is possible that guinea pigs got the last part of their name because they are short and plump and squeal and grunt like pigs.

Where Did Guinea Pigs First Live?

The kind of guinea pig most often kept as a pet is descended from wild guinea pigs that still live in South America today. These wild guinea pigs live in the mountains and the flat grasslands of South America, as well as at the edges of forests and in marshes and rocky areas.

For thousands of years, people in South America used guinea pigs for food. In the 1500's, travelers from other parts of the world explored Peru and took guinea pigs back to their homelands. After this, people began keeping guinea pigs as pets.

Pet guinea pigs live in many countries today, but all guinea pigs can be traced back to the guinea pigs of South America.

What Are Wild Guinea Pigs Like?

Guinea pigs in the wild usually live in small groups of between 5 and 10 animals. This group of guinea pigs will usually eat, sleep, and rest together. The group shares a territory and acts as a community, warning members within the group of danger. When they become frightened, guinea pigs produce loud, whistlelike screams.

Wild guinea pigs make their homes in the crevices of rocks, in shrubbery, or in burrows (holes dug in the ground) left by other animals. Sometimes wild guinea pigs live in fields of tall grass.

Wild guinea pigs spend much of their time eating, grooming themselves, resting, and playing. Guinea pigs are most active at night.

What Are Those Long Teeth For?

Like all rodents, guinea pigs have two top and two bottom front teeth, which are called incisors (ihn SY zuhrz). Incisors keep growing throughout a guinea pig's life. These teeth do, however, wear away at the tips, and they wear faster in the back than in front. As a result, incisors have a chisellike edge, well suited to gnawing. By eating coarse foods like grass, the guinea pig keeps its teeth worn down to the height that is best for chewing. Behind the incisors, other teeth called premolars and molars are used to crush and grind food.

A guinea pig has a large head, small ears, short legs, and a small, plump body.

Most guinea pigs that live in their natural surroundings have long, coarse, brown or gray fur. Guinea pigs bred by people may have long or short fur of varying texture. The animals may be black, brown, red, white, or a combination of colors.