Choosing a guinea pig cage is an important decision, and one that should be given plenty of thought. It will most likely provide your animals with a home for several years, so it is essential to choose one that suits both their needs and your own. You should make sure you have a cage and all the associated accessories before buying your pet guinea pigs; otherwise you will end up rushing the decision, and may end up with something which isn't suitable.
Indoors or Outdoors?
The first thing to decide is whether you want your pets to live indoors or outdoors. Experts agree that keeping your cavies inside is far superior, and will give them a better quality of life, so you should choose this option if at all possible. Depending on what you decide, you will need to buy either an indoor cage or an outdoor hutch - each is built specifically for its environment, so be sure to get the appropriate type. You certainly shouldn't use a normal cage outside, as it won't provide enough shelter for your pigs.
Pets kept inside your house won't need as much protection from the elements as animals living outside, so you can choose from the range of wire-wall, solid-base cages. Because these are largely 'open', you can easily see your guinea pigs and, just as importantly, they can easily see you, making them feel more involved in family life. However, that's not to say that all cages are created equal - some are much more suitable than others.
Many owners, particularly first-timers, will buy a cage from the pet store or breeder where they get their cavies. Although this may seem like a good idea, the sad truth is that most of these cages are inadequate for your animals. Specifically, they are not large enough. Guinea pigs love to run around at full speed, and need to be able to do so at any time of day, not just during times when you let them out of their cage. The vast majority of these shop-bought cages don't give them enough space to do this, which can leave your guinea pigs unhealthy and unhappy.
Additionally, shop-bought cages can often have quite intricate designs, with lots of creases and crevices around the point where the cage meets the base. This can make them difficult to clean, meaning more work for you.
In recent years, a new type of cage has sprung up among enthusiasts, which provides your pets with much more space. These 'C&C' ('Cubes and Coroplast') cages are assembled from readily-available materials which you can buy in hardware and home-furnishing stores. They are ideal because they are cheap to make, simple to assemble, and can easily be extended or reconfigured to give your pets even more space. Guinea pig owners have found that their animals absolutely love them, and are more active, alert, and contented than they are living in cramped enclosures.
Cages for Other Animals
Some people try to provide their guinea pigs with more cage space by using a cage designed for other, larger animals, such as a rabbit cage. Although these can solve the size problem, they can cause other issues. For example, some rabbit cages have a wire floor. This is fine for a rabbit's large feet, but can be very painful for guinea pigs to walk on, and can even cause broken bones if they get a leg trapped. Additionally, the spacing of the bars can be wider, so you might come down one morning to find that your pigs have escaped through the gap! Although these cages can be made to work, the work involved in modifying them to make them suitable usually means it would be cheaper and easier to build a C&C cage.
For guinea pigs living outdoors, a standard indoor cage won't suffice, as they provide little or no protection from wind, rain, and predators. Instead you will need to buy a proper hutch. These are constructed from wood to provide a solid barrier against the elements, helping to keep your pets warm, dry, and away from draughts. During the winter months, they will need extra protection from the elements in the form of a hutch cover.
The main reason that experts recommend against letting your pets live outdoors is that guinea pigs are very sociable animals, and love to be involved in family life. When they live outside, they can feel isolated and ignored, and they are also more prone to catching illnesses. If at all possible, bring your cavies inside with you; if this isn't possible, make sure you play with them at least once a day, and visit them periodically throughout the day to pet them.
As well as their regular cage or hutch, your cavies will also need a larger area that they can use to run around and play in. While some people simply let their pets scamper around on the floor of a large room, it can be a better idea to buy or make a dedicated run or playpen. These do a much better job of containing your animals, reducing the risk of them getting lost, injured, or attacked by other animals.
In the past, it was thought that guinea pigs were happy in a relatively small cage. Some people even suggested that they preferred this, as their poor eyesight meant they were uncomfortable in a large cage. However, recent studies and experience have shown this to be completely untrue; because they grow to be quite big, guinea pigs like to have a large cage with plenty of room to run around in, and space to spend time alone when they want to get away from their cagemates.
Many modern cages offer two or more levels to increase the floorspace without making the cage any larger. Unfortunately this is often not adequate, as guinea pigs require a single large area so that they can build up plenty of speed when running. That's not to say that having more than one floor is a bad thing, just that at least one of those floors needs to meet the recommended minimum size on its own.
Current cage size recommendations suggest aiming for around 10 sq ft (1 sq m), but bigger is better. This applies to both indoor cages and outside hutches. If you do decide to buy a guinea pig cage from a shop, remember to check the cage's internal dimensions, which can be significantly smaller than the manufacturer's quoted external dimensions.
Whether you are keeping your cage inside or out, the same basic principles apply when choosing exactly where to put it. Firstly, you should place it in an area that gets plenty of natural light, but out of direct sunlight. You should also avoid spots which are susceptible to wind and breezes. With an outdoor cage this is more difficult, but try to choose a sheltered corner which faces away from any prevailing winds. You may also need to use a hutch cover for extra protection.
Where possible, put your guinea pigs in a busy family area. As sociable animals they love to feel part of the hustle and bustle, and you are also more likely to stop and pet them if you walk past them several times a day. Similarly, try to raise their cage up off the floor. Putting in on a stand or table at waist height is considered ideal, and also makes it much easier to change their food and water, and to clean them out.
You should line the floor of your guinea pigs' cage with a soft layer of bedding. There are various types of wood chips and synthetic materials available, but you need to be sure to choose one which is designed specifically for small animals; some types contain oils which can be dangerous, and the dust from wood can cause respiratory problems. A popular alternative is simple black and white newspaper. This is also much easier to clean up - simply lift it out, roll it up, and throw it away!
On top of this base layer you should put a generous helping of hay. Cavies eat this to aid digestion, and they will use any leftovers to provide a soft cushion to sleep on. On the subject of sleeping, guinea pigs do not require any sort of special bedding material to sleep on, as they do not make nests like some rodents do, they just sleep in the open.
The only accessories your guinea pig cage really needs are a food bowl and water bottle. The food bowl should be sturdy and heavy enough that it is not easily tipped over. The water bottle should be large enough for the number of animals in the cage, and you should check it regularly to make sure it has plenty of fresh water, is working properly, and all of your pets know how to operate it. If you have any problems you can use a water dish instead, although these aren't as good because they can easily become filled with hay and food, and be tipped over, requiring the entire cage to be cleaned out.
Guinea pigs like plenty of stimulation. They get most of this from contact with other pigs and humans, but it can also be a good idea to provide a few toys such as tunnels, houses, balls, ramps, and so on, for them to entertain themselves with. Be careful not to add so many that their living quarters become cramped - if you have a large selection of toys, consider putting just a few in their cage, and change them each time you clean the cage.
Your guinea pigs' cage needs to be cleaned out once a week, or more often if there's a specific reason to do so, such as the water bottle leaking and making the floor wet. This is generally quite quick and easy to do - simply remove your pigs and put them somewhere safe, then lift out the bedding and throw it away. Give the cage a good clean round, and wash the food bowl and water bottle (these can also be sterilised using animal-friendly sterilising kits). Replace everything with new material and put your animals back in - simple! At the same time, you might want to rearrange the layout of the cage, moving ramps, accessories and toys to provide your pets with a bit of variety.
By following the guidelines above you can be sure to give your pets a suitable, safe environment to live in. Their cage is a large part of their life, so it's important to get it right. By doing so, your pets will be happier, more active, and ultimately more enjoyable to own.