Since the pandemic, like many pets, guinea pigs have gained popularity in American homes.
Samantha Vincent, operations director at Chattanooga's Humane Educational Society, says the number of guinea pigs they've seen come through their care has grown exponentially over the last few years.
"In 2020, we only cared for four guinea pigs total," Vincent says. "By contrast, we cared for 28 guinea pigs in 2022."
Vincent clarifies that most guinea pigs brought to HES were not surrendered due to the pandemic but for a variety of reasons. The animals stay at HES for slightly more than a month on average before being adopted, she says.
"Guinea pigs may be surrendered by someone who takes great care of their pets, but things happen out of their control like family health issues, unexpected housing changes or financial hardship," Vincent says. "Other times, folks may not be prepared to handle their care needs."
Caitlin Jarvis, HES animal care specialist, thinks social media may partly be behind the pet guinea pig trend.
"I think a lot of people see cute internet videos of [guinea pigs], and that makes them want to have some of their own as pets," Jarvis says. "It's very fun to watch them interact and munch on veggies."
Although the small, fuzzy rodents are cute, they are social creatures, and Vincent and Jarvis both stress that guinea pigs aren't as easy to care for as many think. They require a moderately high level of care to thrive in captivity.
"They are actually fairly high maintenance, just as much work as a dog," Jarvis says, "but a different kind of work."
To thrive, guinea pigs need a buddy -- a member of their own species. In the wild, they can live in up to groups of 10. They also require large cages, spot cleaned daily and deep cleaned weekly, with proper bedding to burrow in and enrichment objects such as hide boxes, ladders and tunnels. Supervised play outside of their enclosure is also a must. Vincent recommends playpens as a secondary space for play.
Moreover, guinea pigs require monthly nail trims and chew toys to promote oral health. Long-haired breeds must be brushed a few times a week to avoid matting or tangles. The animals require a specialized diet of high-quality pellets containing vitamin C, timothy hay and leafy greens.
"Most health problems are a result of diet issues," Vincent says.
When guinea pigs are well cared for, they exhibit a behavior called "popcorning."
"Sometimes a happy guinea pig will run, hop and give a little twist," Jarvis says. "This means they are very happy."
Like any pet, regularly scheduled visits with a licensed veterinarian is an important part of keeping up with their care. It would be beneficial to find a vet that has previous experience with guinea pigs, which have an average lifespan of 5-7 years.
If you're considering adding a couple of guinea pigs to your family, remember: Adopt, don't shop.
"There are always local rescues and shelters that have guinea pigs to rescue. Check online pet listings before going to the pet store to buy any critter pets," Vincent says.
All adoptable pets from the Chattanooga Humane Educational Society are available to view at hes.org.