Keeping Rabbits & Guinea Pigs as Pets

by Dr Heather Johnston

Rabbits (Lagomorphs) and Guinea Pigs (Cavies) are smaller pets with lots of personality.  Although rabbits tend to be more solitary and G. Pigs more social within their own species both of these pets can make excellent family pets. Both species can be litter box trained and because of this are frequently given free roam in a . Because of the natural curiosity and urge to chew we recommend that your pet be confined when not being immediately supervised. Although it is wonderful to allow your pet so much opportunity for exercise, there are many life threatening and costly dangers in our homes. To keep it safe we recommend confining your rabbit or G. pig to a small pet proofed room or a suitable cage while they are not being supervised. Rabbits in particular like to chew on electric cords often with deadly outcomes.

            For most pets a suitable cage is constructed of a sheet metal or hard plastic tray on the bottom with open wire bars or mesh on the sides and top. If you must keep your pet on a wire grate, the feet must be checked daily for injuries or signs of wear from the wire. Most often it is better to keep your pet on shavings (aspen, pine, or paper. DO NOT USE CEDAR as it can aggravate respiratory conditions). Because most animals will flip or quickly soil water bowls, water bottles are more practical. Finally because rabbits and G. pigs in the wild were prey animals, you pet should have an area to hide in. Do not forget to clean this area daily as humidity will build up more quickly due to decreased airflow. This can lead to frequent urinary tract infections, bladder stones, or skin infections.


            Two of the most common health problems in these pets are obesity and dental disease. Both can be prevented or controlled through proper diet. Feeding hay as a large portion of the diet helps to wear teeth appropriately and provides a low calorie and high fiber diet to support healthy digestion. We recommend the following guidelines for your pet rabbit or g. pig:     

            75% HAY: timothy or mixed/orchard grass. Alfalfa is ok for growing animals but is too high in calcium and protein for most adults.          

            15% PELLET (specific for the species) timothy is preferred to alfalfa.

            10% TREATS: including fruits, vegetables, and seeds or nuts.

  1. pigs must receive vitamin C from their diet because their body is unable to make this vitamin. They must be feed pellet designed for g. pigs (vitamin C added). We also recommend supplementing your g. pig with 125 mg of vitamin C daily (½ of pediatric vitamin C chewable tablet daily).

Health Concerns

            Because of the high risk of false pregnancy and uterine cancer we recommend spaying your female rabbit. This can be done anytime after four months of age.  Spaying female and castrating male rabbits frequently decreases undesirable hormone related behavior such as urine marking, mounting, and some biting. Unfortunately these procedures do not always influence rabbit fighting with other rabbits. Because g. pigs are often housed in groups males are routinely castrated if they are to be kept with females. This can be done anytime after four months. Female g. pigs should never be bred for the first time after they are seven months old because their pelvis becomes too rigid to deliver the large giglets (baby g. pigs) safely.  If pregnancy occurs after seven months the g. pig will need a cesarean section to deliver the giglets.

            Both rabbits and g. pigs are prone to develop urinary/bladder stones because of the large amount of calcium normally found in their urine. If an animal is seen straining and not passing urine or feces please contact your veterinarian immediately as this is a medical emergency.

            Because of the unique digestive system found in rabbits and g. pigs avoid giving them milk products (except yogurt sometimes used for its live bacterial cultures) and large amounts of nuts, seeds and foods high in sugars). These foods can cause bloating which  can be a life threatening condition. Owners should recognize bloated animal. An animal suffering from bloat will have a distended stomach (often bulging behind the rib cage), will sit with its neck and head extended up, will push its elbows away from its body (this helps the animal breath easier), and will often teeth grind. It maybe helpful to have pediatric simethacone (a brand name such as gas EX) in your first aid kit to give to a bloating animal after talking to your veterinarian.

            A final health concern for both species is heat stroke. Because neither animal sweat and both animals have large abdomens compared to their surface area they have more trouble cooling themselves. High heat and humidity of south Florida can be difficult for these species to deal with. If your pet accidentally becomes over heated remove them to  cool area immediately. If they are showing signs of loss of consciousness  or bloating go immediately to your veterinarian.

More Information

Owning rabbits and guinea pigs can be a rewarding experience with a little special care on your part. Following is a list of helpful websites:           The American House Rabbit Society  The American Cavy Breeders Association  Guinea Health Linx on line  Oxbow Company a list of many rabbit sites