Domesticated (pet) guinea pigs cannot survive in the wild. Wild guinea pigs (similar to pet guinea pigs) survive in the wild by sticking together as a group. In the presence of predators, they will find a hiding spot by burrowing or climbing. Like our pet guinea pigs, they love eating fruits and veggies.
When we think of guinea pigs, we often think of the squeaky, fuzzy little things toppling over one another in their pen and nibbling on veggies. What probably doesn’t come to mind are the guinea pigs who live in nature, fending for themselves and surviving in the wild, but they’re out there! They might be different from the guinea pigs at home that we call pets, but they have a lot in common.
The Differences Between a Pet Guinea Pig and a Wild One
Before we get into how they survive in the wild, it’s important to note that a pet guinea pig and a wild one are not the same animal. A pet guinea pig would not survive in the wild and should never be subjected to nature without supervision, nor should they be “released” indefinitely.
The guinea pigs we find in the wild are actually close genetic cousins to those we keep as pets.
Despite their name, they are neither from Guinea nor genetically related to pigs.
Our pet guinea pigs are a domesticated species that originated from a species of rodents native to South America. More specifically, areas such as Argentine, Brazil, and Uruguay, where they were originally domesticated as far back as sometime between 5000-2000 B.C.
At the time, their domestication was less about companionship and, unfortunately for the guinea pigs, more for food and even ritualistic sacrifice.
It wasn’t until the 16th century, when European colonists invaded South America, that guinea pigs were shipped to Europe and found their place as cuddly pets rather than small meals.
By the 17th century, they were bred to have different colored coats and were considered upper-class pets. Even Queen Elizabeth I had a pet guinea pig!
How Wild Guinea Pigs Survive in the World
Unlike their domesticated counterparts, who will live an average of four to eight years, wild guinea pigs, with their many predators, will live an average of one to four years.
In the wild, guinea pigs have many natural predators. While they can be aggressive toward one another, they do not have the ability to fight away their predators. Instead, they are burrowers, hiders, and (perhaps surprisingly) agile climbers.
Clan animals by nature, guinea pigs live in groups that vary in size from about three to ten. They spend very little time out in open spaces as they are natural prey for many other animals.
When they are threatened and cannot readily find a place to hide, they will burrow and create a hiding place for themselves. They may be fairly defenseless, but they are highly adaptive animals.
While they are on the move, the majority of their time is spent in search of food, together with their group.
Consistent with their tendency to hide from predators, they are typically most active at night. This is the reason you might hear your guinea pig rustling around late into the night! It’s perfectly natural and part of their nature.
Social Behaviors, Interactions, and Reproduction
Guinea pig groups in the wild have a tendency to form a hierarchy. You might be surprised to learn that domesticated guinea pigs do this as well!
Groups that are found in nature will usually consist of a boar (male guinea pig), two or three sows (female guinea pigs), and a small group of pups (babies).
These groups are the result of male guinea pigs’ aggression toward one another until a group is formed by the dominance of a boar.
Once that happens, the boar will breed with between one and three sows and have babies, forming the group. The gestation period for wild and domesticated sows is around sixty days on average. As the pups age, the process will repeat.
This is distinct from domesticated guinea pig hierarchies where there are usually more males and females of similar age. In these cases, a hierarchy will develop based on the aggressiveness of the males in the group, where some will become more dominant than others. This will carry implications for breeding and even grooming, as guinea pigs also view grooming as social behavior.
Like other clan animals, Guinea pigs have evolved to require socialization for their health. This is true for your guinea pig at home too! They are genetically predisposed to requiring social interaction, but that is not necessarily limited to your interaction as an owner.
They have an inherent and natural need to socialize with other guinea pigs. The best-case scenario for the social health of a guinea pig is if you were to own at least two of them, but this isn’t possible for all guinea pig owners.
If you own a single guinea pig, try to meet another owner to allow your guinea pig to socialize whenever possible!
The Wild Guinea Pig Diet
Feeding, both in the wild and in domesticated guinea pigs, is also a social behavior. Meals are a sort of get-together and share occasion between the group.
Unsurprisingly, guinea pigs in the wild are not munching on the same store bought pellets that your pet guinea pig finds in their bowl — they love their veggies, though!
As you probably know, guinea pigs are natural herbivores, feeding only on plants. High-fiber diets packed with vitamin C are critical to the health of any guinea pig, both wild and domestic.
Wild guinea pigs will eat a variety of foods to satiate their needs. Their diets consist mostly of hay, grass, herbs, and seeds, but they eat more widely when available.
They enjoy getting their paws on fruits and veggies when they can as well. In this way, among others, they’re not so different from your guinea pig at home!