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This little piggy; GUINEA PIGS HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE THE DAYS THEY WERE DESTINED FOR THE ANCIENT INCAS' DINNER TABLES. NICK MAYS EXPLAINS WHY THEY'RE THE IDEAL PET.

ost people call them guinea pigs. Fanciers call them cavies. The ancient Incas called them dinner. These little South American rodents were first domesticated many centuries ago by the Incas and kept penned near family homes to be eaten as required. When the Spanish Conquistadors invaded and subjugated the Incas in the 16th century, they were very taken with the cavies and named them Cochinillo das Indas - "Little Indian Pigs" and exported them to Europe as cheap meat animals. It is believed the cavy later gained its popular title of "guinea pig" after being brought into Europe via the Spanish dominion of New Guinea.

In Britain, the cavy became prized as a pet and exhibition animal during the 19th Century and, like the rabbit, was soon bred in a wide range of colours, markings and coat types. Guinea pigs are inexpensive to buy, either from a good pet shop or a breeder, and relatively easy to keep. They are bigger than most rodent pets, but smaller than the average rabbit, at about 20cm (8in) long and weighing 900g-1200g (2-31/2lb).

FOOD AND SHELTER

A wooden rabbit hutch will serve perfectly well as a home, situated

outdoors, although guinea pigs can make ideal indoor pets in special indoor cavy cages.

The best hutch or cage size for a single guinea pig is 45 x 30 x 30cm (18 x 18 x 18in).

Females - called sows - will happily co-exist together in a larger hutch or cage. Males - boars - are best housed singly, as they tend to fight. That said, guinea pigs will live quite contentedly with some breeds of rabbit. Wood shavings are an ideal floor covering for the hutch/cage (except for very long-haired guinea pigs), with plenty of hay for bedding. They will eat some of the hay, which provides essential roughage in their diet. Guinea pigs eat a dry food mix of corn and crushed oats, bought from a pet shop. Green food is very important, as they are the only small mammals which can't manufacture their own Vitamin C, so it must be derived from their food.

COATS OF MANY COLOURS

Guinea pigs come in a huge range of varieties. Colours include red, cream, black, lilac and chocolate. Various marked types include dalmatian (like the dog), Dutch (two-tone), Himalayan and tortoiseshell. The coat types include satin - a lovely glossy coat, Abyssinians whose fur is dotted with small "rosettes", cresteds, curly coated rexes and, most stunning of all, the Peruvian, which has a long, lustrous coat in top show specimens.

Sadly, the Peruvian needs specialist care, and will only develop its long fur if the fur is put up in rollers!

But if you're not fussy and just want a nice pet "piggy", there are plenty of cross-bred guinea pigs to be found in pet shops, while breeders always have plenty for sale which don't quite make the show grade.

For details of any local cavy clubs in your area, please write, enclosing a SAE to: The Secretary, National Cavy Club, Olney Park Cottage, Yardley Road, Olney, Bucks. M46 5EJ.

Can

you

offer a home?

Hundreds of unwanted dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are inundating rescue centres across the UK. Many were abandoned over the festive season, such as Jack Russell crossbreed Charlie. His owner brought him into the National Canine Defence League's shelter in Leeds, claiming she was "too busy" with her Christmas plans to look after her pet as well. This thoroughly loveable dog is only one year old and should have been celebrating his first Christmas with his family, but instead was left at the rescue centre to be found a new owner.

If you think you could offer Charlie a home - or any of the other unwanted dogs at various NCDL branches - please call NCDL Leeds on 0113 261 3194, or the NCDL headquarters on 0171 837 0006.

Dogs through

the ages

Leading canine columnist and dog enthusiast Frank Jackson, author of Crufts: The Official History, has come up with a belter of a book for the ardent dog lover. He has compiled a vast collection of profound observations about dogs and our relationship with them from figures throughout history - from Ancient Greece to the present day. Contributors include King Canute, Pliny, Scott of the Antarctic, Kipling, Martin Luther, Richard Nixon, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse.

This book makes fascinating reading for dog-lovers, chapter by chapter or as a "dip-in".

Faithful Friends - Dogs In Life And Literature, edited by Frank Jackson, is published by Robinson Publishing, pounds 20 hardback.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Mays, Nick
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 8, 1998
Words:756
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