Big fur balls with crumpled ears and wee, claw-like hands and feet. The guinea pig is an adorable critter that begs for an audience.
Disney provided with the 2009 release of "G-Force," a fun flick that made guinea pig characters the stars of an espionage plot. Insurance giant Geico banked in on the pets' adorable nature too, with clips that show hard-working rodents busily rowing boats.
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All laughs aside, the guinea pig is neither a pig nor from New Guinea. It is a species of rodent, belonging to the cavia porcellus family. On average, it grows to 8 to 11 inches long and can live up to eight years. Their fuzzy fur ranges from black to white to brown or a combination of the three. Some have fuzzy tufts on top, too.
Strict vegetarians, guinea pigs like to munch on pellets, Timothy hay and some fruits and leafy vegetables. They need fresh water daily, and like humans, cannot create Vitamin C for their bodies. To avoid diseases like scurvy that can lead to bleeding gums and open sores, they must get Vitamin C from supplements and select food sources.
Owners often rave about their guinea pigs' personalities, as they are known to sit, wobble, hide, pop up and even squeak (to convey their needs and wants). While most are sedentary, guinea pigs do like to have room to roam. A cage measuring about 30-by-15 inches at 15 inches tall should do the trick. Cages must include bedding, too.
At Arlington Park Veterinarian Hospital, veterinarian Donald Ernat sees his fair share of guinea pigs.
"They're fun to have," says Ernat, who himself has owned a guinea pig or two. "They're easy to handle and more sturdy than a lot of little rodents. The guinea pig might nip a bit, but it is never vicious. They're good-natured and make interesting noises."
Ernat says guinea pigs are relatively healthy pets but they can get respiratory infections or sores on their feet (known as bubble feet) if they don't have properly cleaned bedding or cages.
When it comes to bedding, he suggests opting for cotton fluff over cedar shavings that can irritate skin.
Ernat says pet owners for guinea pigs (the ones responsible for providing daily food, water and cage maintenance) should be at least age 10, although they could be younger if monitored by an adult.
Nate Wicks of Palatine got his first guinea pig as a child. Now, he and his wife Amy have two. "They're brothers," Wicks explains of Teddy (brown and reddish orange) and Reuben (mostly black).
He admits that friends are often surprised by their pet choice. "It's kind of weird. People don't have a lot of experience with them," he says. "They don't have the popularity that cats and dogs do."
But in defense of the guinea pig, Wicks says, "They develop their own personalities. They're very cute animals and we like the ones with the messed-up hairdos."
The Wicks family loves the time spent with their small pets, but they know it will someday end. "That's the sad part about it," Wicks says, having experienced the death of a guinea pig before. "You know they're not going to always be around."
Guinea pig rescue
Not everyone adopts a guinea pig for life. That reality keeps groups like Critter Corral Guinea Pig Rescue going strong. This organization takes in abandoned guinea pigs from various sources.
Chris Kolaczewski, a rescue volunteer, advises potential owners to learn as much as possible about the required care to keep guinea pigs healthy. "Research is the key to adopting any animal," she says. "Know what you're getting into."
Critter Corral will host a Pignic on June 3 from noon to 3 p.m. at Bemis Woods, Grove 5 in Western Springs. Find out more about the group at crittercorral.org.
"We'd love to have everyone to take all of our piggies," Kolaczewski says, "but we don't want them back."