Pet guinea pigs, also known as cavies, have been caught eating shoelaces, paper bags, and latex gloves; but household items are only the beginning of this list of “do nots.” Guinea pigs are naturally herbivorous animals, so many foods are off limits to them. The guinea pig’s digestive system is very specialized, so foods that are not a part of their natural diet can cause them harm. So What Can’t Guinea Pigs Eat? Well processed foods, beans, raw grains, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and even certain vegetables are all harmful to our small herbivorous friends.
Guinea pigs eat primarily grass when found in their natural habitat; this means that their diet should be rich in fiber and nutrients, without very many calories at all. This means processed snacks intended for people are not goods treat for a cavy. Things such as cookies, cakes, candy, and chips will overload a guinea pig’s system very quickly. Processed foods can cause diarrhea and weight gain in small quantities. If a pet cavy manages to eat a lot of processed foods, they should be taken to the veterinarian immediately. It is best if these little guys stick to fruits and vegetables for treats because a treat for a human is just too much for their systems to handle.
Beans, such as those of the kidney, cacao and pinto varieties, should also be kept away from cavies. They contain a toxin named phytohaemagglutinin that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and even death in guinea pigs. Releasing this toxin is a mechanism that beans employ to prevent animals from consuming them. It certainly works well in this case. Cooking beans denatures this toxin considerably, but it is still present in large enough amounts to be harmful to pet cavies.
Many raw grains contain similar toxins as beans, but in lesser quantities. They do not pose any threat to guinea pigs in small quantities. Grains are also very calorie-dense and may cause weight gain in guinea pigs. A cavy can happily consume grains as an occasional treat, but not too frequently.
Guinea pigs should not eat meat or dairy, even in very small quantities. Cavies do not posses mechanisms for digesting meat and dairy; they can become very sick if fed these foods. Pet cavies would love to give these foods a try; but in order to keep them healthy, they must be avoided. If a cavy wants to try something new, vegetables are a good choice.
Nuts and seeds can be found in some commercial guinea pig foods, but they are not good treats for a cavy. Nuts and seeds, such as pistachios, peanuts, and cashews, are almost entirely fat; which is seldom found in a guinea pig’s natural diet. The fat from these foods may cause weight gain or diarrhea, and may even prevent a cavy from absorbing nutrients from other foods consumed at the same time. Since guinea pigs cannot digest large amounts of fat, their body attempts to flush it out; and any foods eaten in the same meal will go right along with it.
Veggies are a nutritious and flavorful treat for pet guinea pigs, but there are many that should be avoided. Sulfurous vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower can be troublesome. The sulfur in these vegetables causes gas and digestive upset. Nutritionally poor vegetables such as iceberg lettuce should not be fed because they can displace more nutritious items. If a pet cavy fills up on iceberg lettuce, then he or she may not have room left for a healthy dinner. Vegetables that produce toxins as a natural defense are also a bad choice for guinea pig food. Items such as rhubarb, potatoes, spicy peppers, and cinnamon are all toxic to some degree. For example, potatoes and peppers contain solanine, a toxin specific to the nightshade family of plants, which can suppress breathing and heart rate. Tomatoes also contain solanine in smaller doses, so they should be given in small quantities. While humans may be able to consume these items with relative impunity, cavies weigh substantially less than people; so even a small dose of these toxins is too much for them.
Guinea pigs eat anything put in their food dish, so owners must be very carful to avoid these foods. Processed snacks, beans, raw grains, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and even certain veggies can all be harmful to a pet cavy; so, remember to watch out for these. Cavies have many healthy options available to them; and they will never grow tired of hay, veggies, and the occasional fruit treat.