Guinea pigs (cavies) are a useful permaculture animal because they can be a zero-input, multi-functioning addition to rooftop, backyard and homestead gardens.
They keep grass down, provide manure, recycle your food scraps and don’t need much space or make any noise, unlike our clucky friends the chickens. They also make great pets for kids. Guinea pigs are social animals and can also form close bonds with their carers.
Guinea pigs are voracious eating machines! They eat grass, weeds, vegetables and also mixed grains. Avoiding grains is completely possible and doesn’t seem to have any negative consequences. Food waste in the form of vegetable and fruit scraps mean another fertility cycling opportunity (that waste could be from a local cafe or restaurant). 15 guinea pigs will convert 20 kgs a week into hundreds of fertiliser pellets—a lovely landfill reduction for your local community, and fertility for your landscape!
Two common ways of keeping them are either tractored in an easy to move cage on grassy areas, or free-ranging in a caged-in enclosed area (either a small backyard, an orchard or a food forest).
Tractoring them involves a secure cage with 40 mm or less chicken mesh type wire. At least half of the cage needs a waterproof and preferably insulated roof that will keep them dry and shaded. This should be easy to move by one person and can just be pulled along the ground. Perfect for keeping grass down on lawns.
Free-ranging them involves securing an area so they stay where you want them. This is easily accomplished with 40 mm or less chicken mesh type wire attached to an existing fence or erected especially for them. Any kind of salvaged netting works well too. Whatever the little fence is made of, it needs to be well pinned to the ground otherwise the little critters will tunnel under.
Guinea pigs like somewhere to hide. This can be as simple as a flattened cardboard box, thick hay, sections of PVC pipe, timber or a plastic box. They are sensitive to temperature changes, so insulation is an important consideration. Putting old carpet or a blanket over their house will help.
Preventing drafts and of course rain is essential, however ventilation is also necessary to avoid moulds on bedding materials. We use open bottoms so that cleaning is avoided by simply moving the house to another location and adding fresh hay or other bedding material. We only use hay and shredded paper as they are very cheap or free. Old towels work well but will need ongoing washing. There are commercially available alternatives with higher embodied energy, such as kiln-dried wood shavings or high absorbency pellets. These alternatives are aimed at the pet market, as are the pelletised feed materials sold in pet shops or agriculture supply stores.
Getting Your Guinea Pigs
Your local Facebook buy and sell or animal pages may advertise animals for sale. The going rate is about $10 per guinea pig. Another commendable option is to adopt guinea pigs from a rescue organisation. You most likely will pay an adoption fee, but this will mean the animals have been assessed, sexed and so on. Rescues and shelters will offer ongoing support and knowledge, and love to receive updates on the animals they’ve rehomed.
Get one male and several females to start off. Sexing young ones can be tricky, so even if you avoid getting a male, don’t be surprised if you spot babies after two or three months.
Females can breed as young as four weeks with a gestation of around two months. Usually there are one to four babies, but more are possible. Guinea pigs will breed prolifically, so make sure you’re set up for lots of furry friends. It’s a good idea to add new genetics every two or three years.
Babies appear fully furred and are able to eat greens straight away. They stick close to their mother and can be seen suckling frequently. They are very cute!
Guinea pigs are eaten in some countries, most notably Peru and surrounding areas. In Australia it’s less common as they are seen more as pets.
There are at least 25 different breeds of guinea pigs. The Guinea Pigs Australia website has an extensive list with photos and descriptions. Breeds are distinguished according to whether they have a smooth, long or rough coat, if they’re hairless, and by their colourations. Mixed breeds are generally more resilient than purebreds that may have weaker genetics.