Livestock Research for Rural Development

Volume 9, Number 5, November 1997

The current stage and future prospects of guinea pig production under smallholder conditions in West Africa; 1. Global overview

M Nuwanyakpa, S D Lukefahr*, D Gudahl** and J D Ngoupayou***

PLAN International, PO Box 25326, Messa, Yaounde, Republic of Cameroon, West Africa
* Department of Animal & Wildlife Sciences, Texas A&M University,
Kingsville, Campus Box 156, Kingsville, TX 78363, USA.
** HPI/ Africa Programs, PO Box 808, Little Rock, AR, 72203, USA.
*** Institute of Animal and Veterinary Research, PO Box 1457, Yaounde, Republic of Cameroon.



The Guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), a member of the rodent order, is considered a very promising "micro-livestock" species for rural development because it requires little capital, equipment, space and labor, and provides an inexpensive, readily available and high quality meat. From prehistoric times, it has been raised for food in the central highlands of the Andes region of Latin America. Guinea pigs (GP) are now also reared for meat in different countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Although GP contribute to the alleviation of protein deficiency in the diets of people in developing countries, they have largely been neglected as a livestock species. Most research reports have focused on the role of GP as laboratory specimens. Thus, their actual contributions to food production have been greatly ignored and/or underestimated by scientists, extension and other development workers, and policy makers in the agricultural sector in developing countries. Especially in Africa, there is little published information on their production, marketing and consumption under smallholder conditions in developing countries. In West Africa, much of the work on smallholder GP production has been done in Cameroon. This paper provides a global overview of GP production with a special focus on the traditional subsistence rearing system as practiced by limited-resource farmers.

Key words: Guinea pigs, smallholder, Africa, traditional systems



Origination of the name "Guinea Pigs"

The guinea pig, Cavia porcellus, a member of the rodent order, is related to the wild and semi-domesticated caviae as found in the mountains and grasslands of Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru (Chauca de Zaldivar 1995). The name "guinea pig" is generally thought to have originated some centuries ago as British sailors carried this curiosity specimen, resembling a young pig, from South America to Britain, through the Port of Guinea, West Africa. This may explain how this animal got the name "guinea pig" in English (Morales 1994).

Role of guinea pigs as an experimental specimen

The GP is well recognized worldwide for its contributions to science as an experimental or laboratory animal. It is a particularly valuable animal for nutritional research because of its unusually high requirement for certain vitamins and amino acids. For example, among mammals, only GP and primates require a dietary source of ascorbic acid (National Academy of Sciences 1972).

A large volume of international literature involving experimentation with GP has accumulated on the biology, care and management of the GP (Wagner and Manning 1976). However, as Quijandria et al. (1983b) stressed, much of the information in the international literature has very little applicability to the practical and economic problems of home and farm production of this "micro-livestock" species (Vietmeyer 1984).

Guinea pigs for meat production at smallholder level

Traditional value of guinea pigs in Latin America

For centuries in the Andes region, the GP has been a valuable source of animal protein and income (Morales 1994) for smallholder farmers. It has been estimated that there are 36 million GP in the Andean countries (Chauca de Zaldivar 1995). Emphasizing the traditional food value of guinea pigs, Vietmeyer (1984) reported that about 70 million guinea pigs are consumed each year in Peru alone. The rearing of GP on small farms in Latin America has even been shown to be more profitable than the rearing of either pigs or dairy cows (Huss and Roca 1982). With 20 breeding females and 2 males, a family of 6 can be provided with a year-round adequate supply of nutritious meat (National Research Council 1991). As farm animals for meat production, most of the research work on the breeding, feeding and other management techniques of GP has been carried out mainly in Latin America, especially in Peru.

In Latin America, mature GP weights vary from 0.4 to 0.5 kg for the "Criollo" types, and up to 2.0 kg for the "Giant" or improved types (Chauca de Zaldivar 1995). Although GP have been successfully raised in many rural communities, they, like other forms of livestock, cannot be universally recommended. Instead, an effort should be made to assess their suitability under different ecological and socio-cultural settings.

Quality of guinea pig meat

The meat of the GP is wholesome and delicious. It has a protein content of about 21%, which is higher than the protein content of poultry, pork, mutton or beef. Its fat content is about 8%, which is lower than that of each of the other meats mentioned above (Huss and Roca 1982).

In several countries, the traditional method of preparing GP meat is to roast the whole eviscerated carcass over a low-burning fire with singed hairs being scraped off the skin with a dull knife. Alternatively, the entire body of the GP can be submerged in water that has been brought to boiling for several minutes. With the use of a dull knife, the hair can be more easily scraped off. With this procedure, the intestines are then removed and may be discarded or scrubbed clean and cooked separately or with the meat. The carcass is then cut into several pieces for cooking.

Under either method, there is very little waste: the skin, head, bones, lungs, liver and intestines are all consumed with the meat. Huss and Roca (1982) also estimated dressing percentage for farm-raised GP at 65%, while under improved experimental conditions, Cicogna et al. (1992) reported average dressing percentage of 76% at 15 weeks of age.

In some countries, the skin of the guinea pig is not an important by-product because it is often eaten along with the other edible parts. The GP skins are sometimes used for the home manufacture of handbags, feed bags, knapsacks and house slippers (Huss and Roca 1982). The manure is useful as fertilizer or as a feed ingredient for other livestock. Regarding the latter, it is "naturally pelleted" and contains about 18% protein (Huss and Roca 1982).

Reproduction and breeding management

The female reaches sexual maturity more quickly than the male, and can be mated as early as 1 month of age, depending on the strain and nutritional backgrounds. However, mating at such an early age is not generally recommended because it often results in weak offspring, high death rate and stunted offspring. For optimum and sustained production, females should be at least 3 to 4 months, and males 5 to 7 months of age before breeding is initiated. While the guinea pig has a life span of 6 to 8 years, and some can remain fertile up to this age, the maximum productivity for females is between 3 and 18 months (Huss and Roca 1982).

Gestation length is about 70 days. In Latin America, litter size varies from 1 to 6 young, three being the norm (Loetz and Novoa 1983; Charbonneau 1988). The females have two teats. The female can conceive shortly after parturition. Therefore, with a gestation period of 65 to 70 days, 5 parturitions per year are possible. In Cameroon, Ngoupayou et al. (1995) reported an average farrowing interval of 65 days. However, it is generally recommended that breeding be delayed until after the young are weaned at around 3 to 4 weeks of age, thus reducing the possible number of parturitions to 4 to alleviate breeding stress.

The newborn GP offspring are fully developed and can consume plant materials almost immediately after birth. Because the mother's milk is rich in protein and fat, the piglets can double their birth weight by the weaning age of 1 month. Ideally, offspring should be weaned at one month of age and placed in separate pens according to sex. By three months of age, female replacements can be introduced as new members of the breeding colony, whereas young males should be grown out to mature size (approximately 6 to 8 months of age) for sale or for meat consumption purposes.

It is good practice to exchange breeding males among different farms about every six months to avoid unnecessary inbreeding. However, this practice is not commonplace among smallholder GP farmers. Traditionally, GP are raised in a colony or polygamous breeding system. As such, it is not possible to control fighting among adults, trampling of newborn or inbreeding. In general, the keeping of herd records (useful in monitoring breeding and production performances) is not undertaken.

Feeding of Guinea Pigs under smallholder conditions

Classified as a herbivorous mono-gastric or pseudo-ruminant, the GP can ingest and utilize large quantities of high-energy fibrous type foods such as freshly cut, palatable forages (eg: grasses, legumes, weeds and herbs). Caecal fermentation and coprophagy (auto-consumption of faeces) enable this animal to meet its requirements for vitamins B and K . The GP is thus an excellent re-cycler of wastes, including its own. Given the GP's requirement for Vitamin C, fruits and vegetables, or their by-products, should also be fed. The common kitchen rearing of GP improves the efficiency of family labor. This is because as the family meals are prepared, a variety of farm wastes (eg: peelings from yams, plantains and bananas, husks from maize, plant trimmings, spoiled farm produce and table refuse) are directly fed and readily devoured by the animals. Under most small farm conditions, the ration of GP consists of farm-produced agricultural by-products, green fodder and/or kitchen refuse. Supplementary feeding such as through the use of rabbit concentrates (Ngoupayou 1992), commercial poultry layer mash (Quijandria et al.1983b) or some concentrate mix specifically compounded for GP (Huss and Roca 1992) is normally needed in order to obtain maximum production potential.

Due to the high moisture content of most succulent feedstuffs which GP ingest, it is generally not necessary to provide a source of drinking water when GP are fed green forages. However, as the dry matter content of plant materials rises during the dry season time of the year, pure water should be made accessible. Depending on the level of feeding and the type of GP, weaners can be fattened up to slaughter weight in about 10 to 13 weeks, as reported in Peru where strains of large body size are utilized (Quijandria et al 1983a). This means that a GP is ready for consumption in about 5 to 5.5 months after conception or 3 to 3.5 months after birth. The feed conversion ratio of 2.8 kg of feed (on dry matter basis) per kg of meat can be achieved through feeding of green fodder alone (Huss and Roca 1982).

Genetic aspects

Previous reports (Vaccaro et al 1968; Dillard et al. 1972; Quijandria et al. 1983a) suggest that a genetic basis exists for vital production characters of GP, such as for body weight and litter size. This implies that a general improvement in these traits would occur when selection is practiced. Quijandria et al (1983a) reported that selection for 13 week body weight (market age) may simultaneously increase litter size (ie: the two traits were found to be positively genetically correlated). Quijandria et al (1983b) further determined that positive genetic correlations existed among body weights and litter size traits in GP. Wright (1960) and Dillard et al. (1972) reported phenotypic and genetic correlations among weights at different ages, weight gains and litter size in GP.

Guinea Pig health management

When GP receive a consistent, plentiful variety of palatable foods, and when their immediate surroundings are kept clean, disease outbreaks can be controlled. Good management practices include the regular sweeping of manure and feed wastes, and adding these materials as compost for later use in gardening and other crop production activities.

Guinea pigs do not thrive well under cold temperatures for prolonged lengths of time. As such, they derive much comfort from being kept in the kitchen ("their home within a home") and warmth from the fires. In addition to providing heat, kitchen fires are said to provide another important benefit for GP. It has been observed through the active habit of GP of self-dusting with wood ash that this may help in the control of external parasite infestation (Lukefahr 1984). The major causes of mortality include stillbirths, trampling, predation, pneumonia and cold-related stress, gastric and intestinal ailments (usually due to poor feeding), and general neglect (Lukefahr 1984). There are fewer disease problems and lower mortalities with GP than with rabbits. For example, Lukefahr (1984) reported that the birth to weaning survival was 100% for GP as compared to 67% for rabbits.

Requirements of Guinea Pigs for space and equipment

Elaborate and sophisticated facilities are not required for rearing GP. Under most small farm conditions, GP are raised in the "country kitchens" or bedrooms of family compounds where they depend almost exclusively on kitchen scraps for their sustenance. The term "indoor livestock" has thus been coined to describe GP. Given its small size, the GP is also often referred to as a "micro-livestock" (Vietmeyer 1984).

It has been found that GP yields (reproduction and production) are normally much higher with more intensified production systems, but elaborate facilities are still not needed to achieve such intensification, especially since GP require very little space. Such low-cost intensification may involve the use of supplementary feeds and cages or pens. In Cameroon, Ngoupayou (1992) placed 10 females and 1 male in colony pens each measuring 1*0.3 m. In Latin America, pens are more commonly used for GP rearing than cages (Huss and Roca 1982). Depending on the strain of GP, about 10 to 15 reproducing females and 1 male, along with the nursing young, can be raised in one cage or pen measuring 1.5*1 m (Huss and Roca 1982). A wide variety of materials can be used for constructing pens for rearing GP. Solid walled pens can be constructed of wood, mud and cement bricks, and with mud or cement plastering. Cages can be constructed of wood, wire, metal or a combination of these materials.

Labor and managerial requirements for rearing Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs are not labor intensive and it is possible for one person to attend to the daily requirements of 2,500 to 3,000 GP. Moreover, because GP production is not a labor intensive enterprise, it is women and children who usually care for them on small farms (Charbonneau 1988; Huss and Roca 1982). Ngoupayou (1992) reported that GP production in some semi-urban (and peri-urban) areas of Cameroon is a backyard or secondary activity carried out by women and their children. In some cases (60%), husbands also helped with the GP management. The assistance offered by husbands mostly concerned supplying fodder for the animals.


In conclusion, successful production of GP requires the development of specific managerial skills that relate to breeding, feeding, housing, and disease control practices. These skills can be readily taught to smallholder farmers or to their family members through short courses, extension activities, and other technical assistance programs.


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Received 18 August 1997


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