Top Tips for Guinea Pig Winter Care
Winter can bring a range of problems to our much loved guinea pigs, these can include health problems such as skin and respiratory conditions. Behaviour can also be affected greatly so it is important to be fully set to care for your guinea pigs in winter.
Companionship & Behaviour
Guinea pigs should never be housed on their own; they are social creatures that depend on the companionship of their own kind, especially for comfort and communication. Living in pairs/small groups will help comfort them all year round, not just the winter. The best matches are a pair of males, a castrated male to one or more females or two or more females. Contact your local rescue centre for more advice on pairing. Guinea pigs should never be housed with rabbits despite traditional beliefs and practices.
During the winter months guinea pigs are confined in their outdoor hutches or indoor cages for longer periods. Guinea pigs, both male and females, can become territorial and fighting/behaviour problems are often more common during this time. Behaviour such as teeth chattering, open mouths whilst rearing up and biting are all possible signs of a bond break down, the answer… space is key!
Housing them in large spacious hutches/indoor cages with regular enrichment changes will help. Wooden bendy huts and tunnels help prevent territorial behaviour and also help them demonstrate natural behaviour of running through long grassy tunnels as their wild relations would do.
Housing & Bedding
Housing your guinea pigs indoors during winter, or all year round (access to grass still required), is a fantastic way of keeping them warm and happy. It also aids your ability to spot any signs of ill health or behaviour problems.
There are many indoor cages for guinea pigs available, however sadly many are far too small. The absolute minimum for two guinea pigs should be 4ft by 2ft. Ideally 5-6ft would be more suitable. Some of the best indoor housing is home made! C&C cages are brilliant and are quickly becoming exceptionally popular as they enable you to provide a spacious cage which fits in any room and thus is more practical and is half the cost! The picture demonstrates another lovely indoor set up.
If you are unable to house them indoors then it is vital your hutch is winter ready, predator secure and well maintained all year round (kept clean and dry weekly and replace swivel latches with bolts). Ideally bring the hutch into a shed or outdoor building that has a window with natural day light and isn’t used to keep chemicals or fume producing machines.
Keeping the hutch dry is key to your guinea pigs health – damp/mouldy conditions can cause respiratory and fungal conditions which can prove fatal to your guinea pigs. Heat pads such as snuggle safes are ideal for winter. 1 to 3 of these can be placed in the hutch during the night to keep the chill off and provide a warm spot for them to rest on. Exposed hutches and a lack or hides with poor bedding can cause your guinea pigs to suffer frost bite, or even die from the cold.
Hutch huggers and covers are also available, but care must be taken when using plastic ones to ensure that ventilation is still plentiful. Placing old carpet on the outside of the hutch can also insulate it. Providing your guinea pigs with several hides and houses for them to snuggle in is very important. Hedgehog boxes make great insulated huts to put inside the hutch/indoor cage, cardboard boxes and even plastic cat carriers with fleece blanket or towels make lovely cosy spots. Or why not treat your guinea pigs to some fleece snuggle beds? They love them!
Bedding is also exceptionally important. Wood shavings are one of the worse products you can use for your guinea pigs, despite traditional beliefs and practices, as this can become damp and cause fungal problems and cause respiratory problems when either dry or wet. They also often contain parasites such as fur mites which will cause a lot of discomfort to your guinea pigs. A thick layer of newspaper covered by a thick layer of good quality green meadow hay is perfect as it will enable them to eat the healthiest diet and snuggle in a safe bedding. Other base options such as Megazorb, care fresh or fleece/vet bed/towels are also lovely for keeping your guinea pigs dry, warm, and skin issue free. Please note that ample amounts of hay must still be available in the cage daily if one of these beddings are used.
Feeding Your Guinea Pigs & Water Management
To help keep your guinea pigs healthy in the winter it is important that they maintain a healthy diet. Good quality green meadow hay should make up 85% of their diet – they should eat their body weight in hay every day!
A good quality dry feed is very important. Avoid muesli styles that are packed with sugary items or colours – a good quality pellet feed is best and a small handful per guinea pig each day is plenty. Fresh food is also very important, they should receive a mixture daily. Vegetables such as cabbage (red & green), corn on the cob (leaves included), banana (skin included), Brussels sprouts and broccoli are all great winter feeds. Also think safe garden plants – roses (leaves and pettles), bramble leaves, apple twig prunings, raspberry cane leaves, and even dried out stinging nettles are all great and can be dried and given as treats throughout the winter.
If fed a natural and healthy diet such as the above, vitamin drops, mineral blocks or chew sticks can be completely avoided.
During the really cold, wet or snowy weather, your piggies won’t be able to go out on the grass in their run. If this is the case, bring the outdoors…indoors! Grow pots or herbs such as mint and tyme, strawberry leaves or grass trays to keep them healthy and happy.
Make sure feed and hay is safely stored away from mice and rats who may take winter refuge in your sheds, as these can pass on health issues. Also make sure old food is removed and damp patches are cleaned daily to avoid health issues and attracting slugs.
Guinea pigs often prefer drinking from a water bowl than a bottle. If you use a bowl place it securely on a snuggle safe pad to keep the water from freezing during the winter. Bottle covers are also available but often it is the metal spout that starts the freezing process so they don’t always work as well as hoped. Make sure you check the water before you go to bed and first thing in the morning to prevent your guinea pigs being with out water if it freezes, and also in case the bottle or bowl has leaked/spilt causing damp frozen bed.