Guinea pigs – we’re all familiar with this small rodent. We know what they look like and what they’re used for. They’re cute little rodents and they are pets. As far as most of us in the western world are concerned, that’s the complete story. But there is much more to the tale of the guinea pig’s history and its contribution to human society across the globe.

 In the United States and Europe guinea pigs have become popular pets. Known and revered for their docile and friendly nature and for their cute demeanor, guinea pigs are adored by children and adults alike in the west. They have become the family pet of choice in thousands of households. They are relatively easy to care for and inexpensive to own. They are generally good natured and rarely bite.

Guinea pigs live an average of about five years and may even live to seven years. They are best kept indoors in a temperature-controlled environment.  They do best in a standard “room temperature” setting (65 to 75 degrees).

In addition, serious cavy breeders raise these animals as show animals. Guinea pigs are exhibited in sanctioned events across the nation. The American Rabbit Breeders Association is the official registry for cavies in the United States.

Unfortunately, the common usage of the “guinea pig” label in our English language is derived from one of our poor cavy’s more unpleasant roles – that of the laboratory test subject. They were used extensively in the 1800’s and 1900’s as research test animals. So much so that the name guinea pig gradually became a popular idiom denoting a test or sacrificial subject. Fortunately for the guinea pig, this usage is decreasing as laboratories turn increasingly more to other rodents – most notably rats and mice.

In South America, the story is very much different and bleaker for our furry little friend. The cavy has a completely different history in this area of the world. The guinea pig originated in South America. Today there are no guinea pigs left in the wild. However, in years past when they did live in the wild – South America was their stomping ground. The originally came from in the Andean region of South America. Nowadays this region is made up of modern day Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

The Inca Indians domesticated this little beast around 5000 B.C. and raised it for food. Because of this unfortunate precedent, the cavy is still eaten today in this region of the world. In small Indian villages, people still raise the little rodent for food just as western farmers raise and eat barnyard animals.

Yes, we think of the guinea pig as only a pet – as a companion for our children and for us. But this creature has other roles – some familiar and some extremely foreign to us. They are raised and sold by breeders to be used as show animals. Some guinea pigs are specially bred and sold to research companies to be used as laboratory test subjects. And in South America, they are a food source. We should be grateful for the guinea pig. Over the years, this seemingly insignificant little rodent has contributed to the human race in many ways.

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