The life of a guinea pig revolves around their stomach, and I bet that statement is bringing up the soundscape of ravenous wheeking for all you piggy owners! Our piggies do have the right idea though - because of their specialized digestive systems, an optimal diet is key to supporting healthy guinea pigs.
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Guinea pigs have a couple of special digestive quirks that require dietary consideration.
Guinea pigs (like us) cannot make their own vitamin C. This is unusual in the animal kingdom as most other animals can make this vital vitamin. Vitamin C is important for keeping skin, mucous membranes, and gums healthy. Without vitamin C, open sores start to form on skin, gums start to bleed, and nails can even fall off! Guinea pigs need vitamin C in their food, and the best source is fresh vegetables and occasional fruit. Parsley and capsicum/sweet peppers are a great source of vitamin C.
The caecum is a special fermenting chamber in the digestive tract of guinea pigs that helps them convert tough plant fiber into nutrition, such as volatile fatty acids, proteins, and other vitamins. Guinea pigs rely on special microbes that live in the caecum to do this for them, and it is crucial that those microbes be kept healthy and happy. How do we do that? A diet that is at least 80% hay!
So, if our pigs need 80% hay in their diet, and a good amount of vitamin C from fresh veggies (10-15%), that only leaves 5-10% of the diet which can be made up of a quality guinea pig pellet. However, just like human children, we can't trust our piggies to make that decision for themselves! Think about giving a child a big bowl of salad (hay) and a big bowl of candy (pellets). No way they're going to even touch the salad!
That's why it is important to limit pellets (1 tbs per pig per day) and treats (1 cm piece every 2-3 days) to ensure that your pig eats their healthy food.