There Is No Such Thing As a Starter Pet

With the gift-giving season approaching, please don’t make this mistake.

“I got my kids two guinea pigs,” an acquaintance recently told me. “They wanted a dog, but I thought guinea pigs would be better as a starter pet.”

“They just sit in their cage, though,” he went on to say. “They just eat and sleep.”

No. No, no, no.

There is no such thing as a starter pet. There are only pets, period.

Whatever animal you get instantly becomes someone in your care. A living, breathing, substantial being that is wholly dependent on your brains, your empathy, and your ability and desire to keep striving to be the best person you can in regard to its care and well-being.

A starter pet implies you can make mistakes with impunity. That this is an animal where it won’t matter so much if the kids handle it roughly or lapse on the feeding schedule. They’re learning! They have to practice on something!


All the while it’s expected that the next pet, typically a dog or cat, will be the real pet once the child or children of the household graduate from the starter pet. And if the starter pet is still alive, it’s often shunted to an overlooked corner of the house, remembered enough to feed and clean its cage, but very often no more than that. Its usefulness is done.

Sure: #NotAllStarterPets. #NotMyStarterPet. But enough of them. Enough to make the holiday gift-giving season fill me with dread on behalf of all the hopeful animals looking for a caring, compassionate home.

My experience is with guinea pigs, so that’s what I’ll be talking about today. I truly don’t think any animal should be considered a “starter pet.”

Here’s Why Guinea Pigs Shouldn’t Be Starter Pets

They need you to come to them.

Unlike a dog or cat, guinea pigs are typically housed in a structure in a specific room. Guinea pigs love having their own lair and dedicated spot–that’s generally not the problem. The problem is if you are looking for a more mobile pet: One who comes to you when it needs something. Or one who’s more visible and makes it easy to claim your attention.

What can you do? You have to be the one actively getting up and going to them. This goes beyond the importance of feeding and cleaning the cage. Socializing is huge with guinea pigs. They get lonely easily with no one to talk to. That’s why it’s recommended you have at least two. But even a multiple-pig household needs care and attention beyond the basics.

And a guinea pig isn’t necessarily going to tell you when something’s wrong. In the prey-world, that’s something to hide! You have to get good at detecting the signs when somebody’s not feeling well, or there’s an altercation going on.

They are prey animals.

Loud noises, disruptive households, lack of adequate coverage in their cage, sudden grabbing–any of the above make for a nervous if not outright terrified guinea pig. Years of domestication hasn’t changed that. Feeling like a big hand of doom is coming over you is a very real thing for your guinea pig.

What can you do? Cultivate empathy. Teach yourself and the other members of your family to respect the animal’s rights. Yes, they have rights! This means no sudden grabbing, no rushing up, no shouting, no petting their fur backward and laughing while the poor animal squeals in protest.

Be soothing. Be friendly. Come with food (seriously). Realize that building trust takes time, and that it’s on you to develop that.

They are often considered “less than.”

Guinea pigs are too often an afterthought in the pet world. Tons of money and marketing go to dogs and cats. Guinea pigs, not so much. So it’s common for people to think they aren’t as worthy as a dog or cat, as loving, as intelligent. They’re unfortunately still referred to as lab creatures, which comes with a corollary of being discarded once their “usefulness”—to humans, of course—is over.

What if I told you that a guinea pig is as intelligent as the time, care, and attention you give to it?

Yep, it’s on you again! Congratulations for being considered evolved. Seriously: The more you interact and play with your guinea pig, the more that guinea pig will respond to you and delight you in so many ways. Rather like human beings.

I’ve had guinea pigs all my life. They are intelligent, vivacious, discerning, and joyous animals, and each has their own distinct personality, even in the same litter. But you have to believe they are “just as” important as a dog or cat.

Story time: Did you know that guinea pigs develop a whole set of sounds just for humans, to try to get us to understand them? I witnessed this with our Teddy. He was a rescue and possibly taken too young from his mother. At first, he was squeaking for her. But then after he got used to us, the tone of the squeaks changed. We had become his mother instead, and he was adapting to our differences.

It’s a proud feeling, becoming a guinea pig’s person.

They depend on you for exercise.

Even the bigger cages won’t provide enough stimulation and exercise. Get those little dears out of the cage and on the floor!

How to do it: Create a safe space for them to run and explore. Cordon off cords, crawlspaces, and doorways. Put out fun obstacles to encourage play and ingenuity. This harkens back to the intelligence you’re cultivating.

And get down on the floor with them! They love knowing you’re nearby, and will use you as a tunnel or come over to see what you’re doing.

Be sure to provide a few hiding places that are still easy for humans to find the guinea pigs under. Pigloos are a great option.

There are scads more reasons, but I think this is a good start. There’s also a subtext to all this that I’ll call out here. Please consider these:

  • Animals are not here for your entertainment.
  • Neglect is abuse.
  • If you were your pet, would you feel lucky?

So. If you and your household aren’t ready for the level of care and maintenance a guinea pig (or any other pet) needs, that’s okay! It’s better to realize this up front. There are tons of resources out there to get yourself in the know, from the need to provide foods with adequate Vitamin C but low calcium, to space and cage requirements.

And then you’ll be ready to open your heart and home to a happy companion!



If you’ve made it this far, please check out my children’s picture books (and more)!

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