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Guinea Pig Cavia porcellus

or Cavy

Our ancestors referred to this gentle, timid animal as guinea-pig, believing it to come from a British colony overseas, probably in the East Indies. As we all now know it is widespread throughout the mountainous spine of South America, enthusiasts prefer the name cavy, believing this to be more accurate - doubly so, as the animal is a rodent, and definitely not a pig of any sort.

In South America, cavies were food animals and a fundamental source of domestically reared protein. They were maintained in social groups in the bottoms of terracotta jars or urns.

Their domesticated history probably spans many thousands of years, so it is little wonder they are available in so many coat colours and types. The basic coat is smooth, with rough or Abyssinian (in wiry rosettes) and Peruvian (long-haired) being common. Cavies are unusual in their lengthy gestation - ten weeks - with the young being born fully furred, with their eyes open, rather like European hares. Initially, they remain huddled in a tuft of grass, but start to nibble solid foods at about five days of age. They become independent at five or six weeks and may even breed at three months. There is a school of thought that all female cavies should breed when young, as fist and subsequent births are much easier if the pelvis is still flexible. Cavies are happiest in small family groups. When kept like this the female invariably becomes pregnant again - actively seeking out the male - within a few hours of giving birth.

The wild ancestor is likely to be the agouti-coloured cuis.