Guinea pigs and humans share a history of more than 10,000 years. The cavy originated in Central and South America. In the wild, their domain extended through Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The cavy was domesticated by the Inca Indians somewhere around 7,000 or 8,000 years ago. They were used as not only a food source but also as a sacrificial animal – sacrificed to the sun god – in religious ceremonies.

In the wild, guinea pigs lived in small groups or herds. For this reason, they are inherently social creatures and do not do well if kept in solitude. It is recommended that they be kept at least in pairs.

Cavies first made their way back to Europe on the ships of Spanish conquistadores during the 1500’s. They eventually also came to Holland, England and France. At first, these pets were reserved only for the wealthy and elite. They were much too expensive for anyone but the rich. But their ability to reproduce so quickly soon made the European supply of guinea pigs swell. As the price fell, popularity of the little beast increased as they became affordable to the common people of Europe. It was not until the 1800’s – more than 300 years after it landed in Europe – that the cavy finally made its way to the United States.

Sadly, in the mid 1800s, the cavy was put to use in laboratories as a research test subject. In fact, it was used so extensively for this purpose that its name eventually became synonymous with this function. Fortunately for the guinea pig, this usage has dropped off in recent years as laboratories turn to other rodent species for these purposes.

In any event, it is not known for certain how the guinea pig received its name. It is obviously not a pig, nor is it from Guinea. People have speculated that perhaps roasted guinea pigs reminded Europeans of suckling pigs (piglets). Others suggest that the cavy may have been transported to Europe on ships from the port of Guiana. Others feel that the guinea pig’s squeal may have reminded people of a pig’s squeal. In the end, the origin of the guinea pig’s unusual name has most likely been lost to us forever.

The proper name for the guinea pig is the cavy (pronounced kay-vee). This name is derived from the scientific name: Cavia porcellus. Technically speaking, guinea pigs are caviomorphs. Caviomorphs are South American rodents who share the following characteristics: a single pair of mammary glands, four toes on each front foot and three toes on each back foot.

The history of the guinea pig has been intertwined with that of humans for thousands of years. The cavy was first domesticated as early as 5,000 B.C. by the Inca Indians of South America. They were brought to Europe in the sixteenth century and they made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America in the 1800s. And today they have taken their place, here in North America, as one of our most favorite pets.

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