The guinea pig is a species of rodent belonging to the genus Cavia in the family Caviidae and their scientific name is ‘Cavia porcellus’. The word ‘porcellus’ is latin for ‘little pig’ - in fact, male guinea pigs are called 'boars' and female guinea pigs are called 'sows'. However, they're not actually related to pigs at all! If you ever have the chance to be around them, you might notice they make cute little squeaking noises reminiscent of pig-like squeals.
Guinea pigs are also not from Guinea! They originate from the Andes Mountains in South America. Some historians theorise that they were introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century via the Guinea region in Africa, leading people to link the area to their origin story - but this will always be a mystery.
If you hear someone refer to a guinea pig as a 'cavy', they are most likely a breeder. You may also hear someone use the idiom 'guinea pig' in casual conversation. For example, "I need to test out a new recipe, can you be my guinea pig?" Popularised in the 1920s, unfortunately, this term exists because guinea pigs have been used in animal testing for decades. Initially seen in experiments by the German doctor Robert Koch (most famous for the discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium) in the late 1800s, guinea pigs are still experimented on today; namely in tests investigating various allergies and respiratory diseases as well as hearing and nutritional research.
However, a lot of people simply enjoy these furry little fluff balls for who they are! In fact, as of 2021, it is estimated that over 1.5 million families have guinea pigs as pets in the USA alone and that a whopping 3.8 million guinea pigs live in the USA. Why is this figure more than doubled? Because apart from being small and relatively low maintenance to take care of, guinea pig lovers are made aware that these amazing creatures are incredibly social. Although they are known to have a natural nemesis in rabbits, they do enjoy human affection and they need to be with their own kind. At least in pairs but ideally in small groups, they actually communicate with each other! The most well-known sound, a type of 'wheek-wheek', is a call they use to find one of their furry friends or show excitement. Like cats, they also purr when they are relaxed and content. And if they're exploring, you can hear them make little 'putt-putt' noises. Super cute!
On 16th July 2019, Guinea Pig Appreciation Day (founded by Piggles Guinea Pig Rescue), Dr Jane Tyson, a rabbit and rodent expert for RSPCA, stated: "Guinea pigs are sociable, active animals. They need to live with at least one other friendly guinea pig and benefit from enrichment so it’s important to give them a large space where they can play and explore together..."
Knowing this, it would seem unnaturally cruel, almost like animal abuse, to keep one on its own - don't you think? Luckily, Switzerland's trusty lawmakers agree! They are the first country to recognise that animals have what we can describe as 'social rights'. Since 2008, it has been officially illegal in Switzerland to have just one guinea pig at a time. Although guinea pigs can live quite long lives, in the event one guinea pig outlives another, there are rent-a-guinea-pig places you can foster one until your pet does pass, avoiding a potentially problematic never-ending cycle of guinea pig purchasing.
Switzerland's animal welfare policies regarding social rights extend to other awesome creatures too! Just as guinea pigs move around in herds in the wild, goldfish also swim in shoals in their natural habitat. Therefore, Swiss law mandates that you cannot keep one goldfish alone in a tank.
Several particularly social species of birds (e.g. Japanese quails, macaws, cockatoos, parakeets, parrots, canaries, lovebirds etc.) must also be kept with a companion or be allowed to at least interact with other birds regularly. And if you have a cat who doesn't socialise with other cats, for instance, if they are a housecat, you must ensure they have access to a window they can use to see other cats.
Switzerland is known as an extremely innovative country for many reasons, but its stance on animal welfare is my personal favourite. Let's hope their forward-thinking spreads to the rest of the globe..!
What do you think of Switzerland’s animal welfare policies? Share your thoughts in the comments below!