Squeals of delight

Guinea pigs and other Latin American rodents

source: David Alderton
Guardian, Weekend March 16 2002 p69

There are 1,500 species of rodent world wide, and only some dozen rodents have become popular as pets. Many of these pets originate from the Andean region of Latin America. They include guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs’ ancestors were domesticated in Peru several centuries prior to Europeans arriving there. They were initially kept to be eaten, not as pets. The earliest mention of guinea pigs by Europeans was in 1554. Sailors then started to bring guinea pigs to Europe during the 16th century. It’s not known how they got their name, though it may have come from Dutch Guiana, now called Surinam, where they were first found by the Europeans who brought them back. The ‘guinea’ in their names may derive from their having cost one guinea, or there could be a link with Guinea in Africa. They do look and squeal like pigs. They are also called cavies, and their scientific name is ‘Cavia’.

Guinea pigs can be found in all sorts of colours, with both smooth and rosetted coats. There are also long-haired guinea pigs that need a lot of grooming, called Peruvians.

Other Latin American rodents include chinchillas, which have very dense coast to help them survive cold weather in the Andes. These dense coats mean that they don’t get fleas easily. Wild chinchillas almost became extinct at the start of the 20th century, and are still endangered.

Degus are also rodents from the Andes. They were used for medical research during the 1950s. They look like large gerbils, and have faces like squirrels, They are also active and gnaw a lot, like chinchillas, so need metal-framed enclosures.