***Please Note: It's always safest, and kindest NOT to breed your sow. Non-breeding guinea pigs will live long, happy lives if cared for properly - they certainly don't 'need' to be mated. In fact, after taking into consideration the risks faced by a pregnant guinea pig, even in the hands of someone with experience, non-breeding girls will likely live longer due to the reduced risk imposed on them throughout their lives.
Every mammal pregnancy risks the life of the mother - none so much as a guinea pig with their incredibly well developed young. Obviously if all breeding of guinea pigs stopped the species would become extinct and we definitely do not want that. But all I'm asking is for a bit of mindfulness around any deliberate pairing of cavies. Have a plan for the offspring, do your research, know the risks. ***
This is just a run down on some of the most important information you'll need to know if you plan to breed your pet guinea pigs, or if you find yourself with a pregnant sow. My advice is to learn AS MUCH as you can now - before the 'big day' arrives, or before you make the move to house male and female guinea pigs together. It can be as straightforward as 'finding some new babies in the cage one morning', or it can be as devastating as loosing the bubs and/or mum for a variety of reasons...
1. Guinea pigs DO NOT change sex. They are born male or female. The 'changing sex' myth has only come about through many mistaken gender incidents!
2.It is possible to determine gender at birth if you are practised. Girl's have a more 'sectioned' and flatter look with a 'Y' shape, boys have a line with a penis bud at the top - kind of like an 'i' shape. You will also be able to feel the ridge of the penis just along the top of the genitals if you run your finger over the area gently. In older males, gentle pressure above the genitals will protrude the penis - pretty hard proof that you have a boy on your hands! Cavy Spirit have an excellent page on determining gender as well - lots of very clear photos. If you are still ever unsure, please get your guinea pig checked by an experienced vet or a breeder. I am also more than happy to sex guinea pigs of any age.
3. Male and female guinea pigs can become fertile between 4-10weeks of age. This is why it is so important to have gender correct from the beginning.
4. Females are safest not bred before 4 months (or before they reach 500-600g). Assess your sow and retire her before she gets too elderly/frail. We tend to retire our girls at about 2yrs of age. This way they will have delivered approx 2-3 litters over the course of those years, we've been able to keep the best offspring for continuing her genetic lines, and we wont tax her body any further.
5. Pregnancy can be fatal for a female who is allowed to get pregnant for the first time after the age of 12months (the ligaments surrounding the pelvic bone can become rigid, meaning that the babies have no way to be born. In this situation she will need a c-section, which has a very poor survival rate for her and her babies). Please note that NOT all older females will have trouble, but there is an increased risk simply due to the physiology of getting older. Some girls have been known to have their first litter at 3yrs old, and do fine - you would have to have a long think about knowingly putting an older sow at risk like this though. I have personally had to watch one of my 16month old females (born at our caviary - but returned from her previous home pregnant), try to deliver her first litter with a 'fused' pelvis. She was rushed to the vet where she underwent a C-section. All 4 babies were dead, and she too passed about 2hrs post op. It often ends up being a costly, and traumatic exercise, and an unnesessary death for the poor sow.
6. A female who has just delivered a litter is fertile again immediately following birth, so should not be left anywhere a male could get access to her. Back to back litters are incredibly stressful on their little bodies. It is best to allow at least 3-4 months rest between birth and re-introduction to a male if you wish to breed your female again. This will allow the female time to re-gain some condition. This will also give you a maximum of two litters per year. More than enough for one little guinea pig! If your guinea pig has not handled pregnancy, birth or nursing very well then it is best not to place her in that situation again. Next time you may not get such a good result.
7. It is possible to have a healthy litter of babies, only to loose the mum due to blood loss, infection, toxaemia, or a variety of other complications. If you can, try and time pregnancies so that you have two females due at the same time. If something happens to one mum, the other may be able to foster the orphans. If a mother dies within the first 24-48hrs,there are no other recently delivered mothers available to foster, and the babies are very small, you will need to supplement their diet with a suitable small mammal milk formula (Divetalact). ***Please note that babies who don't get the first colostrum from mum due to complications at birth/being too weak to suckle/mum passing away etc don't have a very good prognosis. The most experienced guinea pig owners may be able to keep a baby alive through hand-feeding for a few days, but inevitably most of these babies will pass away. It's impossible not to want to help though, and I'm not saying give up on the baby - but you will need to be prepared that the chances aren't great. NOTHING compares to mothers milk.
If you do need to hand-feed, most vets should be able to point you in the right direction, or even sell you a suitable milk mix. In the past I have successfully used a kangaroo milk formula (this does not have the right balance of proteins/fats etc, but did keep the baby alive until he was old enough to survive on solids instead).
I have actually had the best results using human breast milk, though this will be hard for most people to come by! Now adays there is actually a guinea pig specific milk formula you can purchase (wombaroo), though it may be a bit hard to source and still isn't perfect. You will also need to mimic the mother's cleaning of the baby's bottom by gently wiping the bottom with a wet cotton ball to encourage the baby to defecate. This routine will need to continue until the baby is strong enough to survive on solids alone - usually at about 1 week old. I did have a litter of four sisters loose their mother suddenly at 4 days old though, and they thrived despite her absence - but they were already nibbling solid foods and had been able to drink her colostrum.
7. Something about the smell/hormones from a birthing guinea pig can prematurely bring on the labour of other pregnant guinea pigs if they are housed in close proximity to the birth-in-progress. This is not so much of a problem if you have mothers due very close together, but can be devastating if the other mum's are not near their due date. For the reason, I remove my pregnant females from the main group before I expect delivery. If you do have two sows due at the same time and living in the same cage, they will likely help each other deliver/clean the babies, and the babies will feed from either mum. It will be impossible for you to know which baby came from which mum unless you witness the birth though.
8. A guinea pig's pelvic bone (just above her genitals) will open to approx 2-fingers width when she is about to have her babies. For most guinea pigs, this full dilation will occur about a day before birth. The pelvic bone will usually start to slowly open from 1-2weeks before full dilation. This is your best indication that her body is responding well, and she should be ok to deliver her babies. If she goes beyond 72days gestation, or appears to be in labour (hunched over, hiccup like movements), and her pelvic bone has not started to open - you will need to get her to a cavy savvy vet asap.
7. Guinea pigs can miscarry their babies in some stressful situations or cases of poor mother/foetal health. In this instance, it is not uncommon for the mum to eat all/part of the foetus. This is a controversial topic in the guinea pig world with many denying it happens, but I have witnessed it first hand. Quite a few times. It is gruesome, but also an evolutionary behaviour, and occurs for similar reasons to the eating of the placenta after normal delivery. The guinea pig is trying to keep the area as clean and odour-free as possible so as not to alert predators that she has just given birth. It also helps her to regain lost energy from the pregnancy/birth.
8. Guinea pigs can also accidentally injure their young when giving birth. If the baby gets stuck they use their teeth to help pull it out. If they panic or grab an ear/limb/body, they can seriously harm their baby. It is always worth trying to be present for a birth if possible. I've witnesed torn ears, damaged toes, and the worst case was a serious umbilical hernia that resulted in the death of the pup at only hours old despite bandaging and pressure treatment. For physical damage to pups there is not a lot you can do besides cleaning the wound/s and getting the pup to a vet. Lost body parts will not grow back.
9. Many perfectly healthy babies can die because a mother is inexperienced or distracted when cleaning her babies following delivery, and doesn't remove the sack membrane from the baby's face quickly enough. If you are present for a birth, and the mother hasn't made an attempt to break the sack then you will need to intervene. Give her space to do it herself first, but if you feel it has been too long, or she has chosen to continue to clean an older baby - gently pick the new baby up, break the membrane with your finger nail or rub it away with a clean towel. Pay attention to the face/nose. Gently rub the little body to help encourage the first breath. Once the baby is breathing, return it to it's mother so she can finish cleaning it and recognise it as one of her litter.
10. Be VERY careful about pairing up male and female guinea pigs with any roan hair in their coat. If you suspect roan colouring, my best advice is do not breed the animal unless you are certain their partner is roan-genetics-free. Roan x roan matings frequently produce genetically deformed pink-eyed white offspring called 'lethals'. If they are not born dead, or die shortly after birth then they are usually sentenced to a short, difficult existence. Information and knowledge is the key to stopping the unnecessary/accidental breeding of these poor creatures.
(Please note this is not my image - just one found on google. A search for 'roan guinea pig images' will give you an idea of all the different ways this gene can manifest in a coat)
In general, guinea pig pregnancy and birth come with some significant risks. Birth for mammals is a dangerous, but necessary event. None more so than for guinea pigs, who carry their young until they are very developed and exceptionally large (comparable to the average woman giving birth to a 3-yr old!). Breeding guinea pigs can be an incredibly magical experience, but more often than not it can also be heartbreakingly tragic. Please don't knowingly place a male and female together unless you feel competent to handle any of the very common pregnancy/birth/newborn complications, have a responsible plan for the resulting offspring and are able to do so with the utmost respect for your animals:
- Allow your female to get to an appropriate age.
- Keep her well fed, with lots of extra good quality food and vitamin c.
- Separate her from any males well before birth.
- Separate her from other pregnant females.
- Try and be present, but unobtrusive for the birth.
- Get any resulting babies sexed correctly as soon as you can.
- Separate baby boys from 3-4 weeks, depending on how quickly they start practising their 'horny dance'!
- Allow her a decent break (3-4months) before further litters, if any more at all.
If you have ANY questions at all about anything I've written on this page, don't hesitate to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). This information has been compiled from my own experience and research over many many years! Also, if you think there is something I've have left out - please let me know! It's hard to choose what is the most important information!