Are guinea pigs pigs and are they related to pigs at all?

Are guinea pigs pigs and are they related to pigs at all

Even if you’ve seen or owned one of these when you were a child, you’ve always wondered why they are called guinea pigs.

Well, to answer your question, NO, they’re not a subspecies of pigs, and surprisingly to most of the folks, they don’t come from Guinea. Wait, what?

Are they related to pigs at all?

That’s exactly how I felt when I found out, so I had to find the answer. When it comes to naming, these poor creatures suffered throughout the oral history, with French variation “Barbary rabbits” being the worst.

Germany is not far behind by calling them “small sea pigs.” The English version, however, is based on the scientific Latin name which translates as “small pig.”  The reasons for the “Guinea” part of the name brings even more discussion to the table.

Guinea pigs originally are found in South America, quite far away from Africa, so the origin of the name is not related to the country of origin. On the other side, there is a theory based on the price of these pets back in the 16th century, “one guinea.”

All of the theories differ, and it’s hard to say which one was the real reason behind the name. Well while guinea at least opens a discussion, why did they decide to name them pigs is way harder to tell.

To some, Guinea pigs have similarities with actual pigs, like the shape of the body, or grunting in a similar manner, but most of the folks would never relate this pet to a pig. Guinea pigs are domesticated animals, as the wild ones had been extinct for a long time now.

These pets enjoy eating way more than they should, which some compare to actual pig’s character as well. The truth is that, if you’re looking to find a similarity between two animals, you’ll eventually see it, but if you’re observing objectively, prepare to be disappointed.

The familiar tones of these two are merely a coincidence, and nothing to be taken seriously due to the number of other qualities which differ these pets from pigs. They might even share the same countries of origin, but they’re still a thousand year apart.

The most obvious difference lies in character, as Guinea pigs are born to enjoy the affection, and are simply irresistible. Apart from actual pigs, these pets are social creatures which cannot stand to be lonely, which makes them the perfect object of affection for kids and adults likewise.

While real pigs tend to eat meat, and even their young ones, Guinea pigs are herbivores, thriving on fruit and vegetables. These sweet creatures are diverse when it comes to breeds, so you’ll find a whole range of patterns and colors when deciding on one.

They’re active in sunrise and the evening, continually exploring and seeking attention. Often overweight, but cozy and fuzzy creatures, Guinea pigs will melt your heart in a whole new way.

So, what are Guinea pigs?

As we have cleared on the actual pig issue and explained a name, it’s time we unmask the creature behind the name.

It’s a rodent, a mammal known for sharp front teeth, and let’s say, not all of them are as equally as cute. So, before we spill the beans on the species, let’s take a look at the major questions people ask once they conclude their pet is not a pig after all.

You’ve encountered most of these questions before, and while you may know the answer, the truth is that you probably have no idea how to explain it thoroughly.

Are they related to rats?

Well, no matter how disappointing this is, the answer is YES, they are. Rodents include rats, even the disgusting brown mice. The difference is in a way obvious, given the size and the shape of Guinea pigs.

Still, many argue that the domestication of Guinea Pigs affected their genetics in a way that separated them from the long-tailed rodents like mice. The physical difference is evident, with the short limbs and the sharp incisors, these two have undoubtedly the same features.

Still, given the cultivation of Guinea pigs, the physical features also differ in few points. As an example, rats have shorter hair due to the evolution and survival in the different habitat. They’re much less interested in socializing and are usually considered invasive.

Rats show the signs of aggression, while Guinea pigs don’t, even though they possess the equal amount of energy as rats. They do share the same physique, but rats have a hard time adjusting to the human habitat, while Guinea pigs don’t, given they are domesticated for way too long to recall their initial setting.

Guinea pigs are maybe not the brightest of the rodents regarding intelligence, but they sure are the most lovable. Since they’re harmless, they are great to have for a pet. Guinea pigs are much cleaner, and they have a sense of grooming, as well as cleaning up within the perimeters of the cage.

Unfortunately, they are used in the experimental trials for the new medicines. In this particular matter, Guinea pigs receive better treatment, as rats are often considered replaceable and less important due to their nature. While there is a significant controversy in using Guinea pigs for lab trials, the truth is they still are used as lab rats just as much as actual rats, and if not more, given they’re domesticated.

If nothing, at least Guinea pigs avoid the hardship of the toxins, given they’re not found in the wilderness like regular rats. They are viewed as fortunate among the species, due to their beauty and the early domestication by the old tribes. It’s probably thanks to their fuzzy hair and overall feel.

Are they related to rabbits?

Well, this question has no simple answer to it. Even though most of the people put rabbits and Guinea pigs in the same category, the truth is much more complicated. Based on the assumption that had been around for ages, Guinea pigs are rodents, and rabbits are not.

This sounds simple, doesn’t it? It should, right?

Still, there is a large group of people supporting the theory which states rabbits are related to Guinea pigs. Before we dive into the science behind the argument, let’s take our time and observe these two. They do have a few things in common, especially concerning physical appearance, and, they’re as lovable.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, with Guinea pigs being rodents, there is a small chance of them sharing a genetic trait with rabbits. Still, a research done by Dr. Cecilia Saccone sparked controversy with her view on the matter, and now people have a reason to believe Guinea pigs are not rodents in the first place.

Well, while the theory cannot neglect the fact that Guinea pig still shares some similarities with rats and other rodent species, there is a strong argument that Guinea pig is an entirely different branch, which leaves the chance of rabbits being related to Guinea pigs after all.

The fuzziness, the physique, and the overall character of these two surely do fit in the description, even though some genetic traits of Guinea pigs may be as a result of evolution, as they were domesticated.

Given that there is a possibility of kinship between rabbits and rodents, the relation of Guinea pigs and rabbits does sound plausible. The question is whether it’s the DNA that needs to be analyzed or the common belief.

Well, no matter the side you chose, you still must agree on the fact that both rabbits and Guinea pigs share something in common, and we’re not talking about physique. It’s the fact that they remain favorite pet choice across the world and the fact that some of them can even coexist, if not spoiled individually before.

Are they related to hamsters?

The logical answer is YES, and not just because these two look like long-lost brothers, but also for the fact that they are still listed as one of the similar rodent species. You’ll find that porcupines areas closest as it gets to Guinea pigs in physical appearance, but when it comes to lifestyle and the food choices (apart from the fact hamsters do eat meat), hamsters and Guinea pigs are more alike than you’d think.

The primary classification was imposed upon everyone based on the need and the target market. Who buys a hamster will eventually come back for a Guinea pig as well, which is in general correct.

So, what is the significant difference?

Well, let’s say Guinea pigs are a bit chubbier, and a larger than hamsters, which makes them more attractive to the owners.

Joke aside, an actual difference lies in the facts such as that hamster are nocturnal pets, while Guinea pigs are not. Apart from that, hamsters are a bit possessive when it comes to the food or space. Guinea pigs share everything without a problem, which is why they are easily paired up with any species, from rabbits to rats.

Given they’re a lot heavier Guinea pigs, tend to stay on all four, while hamsters are usually seen with one paw in the air. This doesn’t mean that their kinship is to be neglected. Hamsters are more like distant relatives who have their own set of rules and refuse to change even when caged for quite a while.

Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are flexible, easy to care for, and easy to clean up after. They also eat a portion of their poop. They are tamed to the maximum level, completely adjusting to the owner, and changing the cycle they live in to please them.

Are they related to chipmunks?

The surprising fact is that Guinea pigs are related to chipmunks, at least most of the known species. Even though chipmunks had never been thoroughly domesticated, these cute little rodents are surely close relatives to Guinea pigs.

Most of the people don’t get the chance to inspect it for themselves, but once you put these two next to each other, you’ll realize that it’s not just the physical appearance that defines them.

These two are a whole new level, with one being domesticated and other becoming a forest rodent, yet both remaining as clean as possible.

The interesting fact is that chipmunk is a far more intelligent than a Guinea pig, which is most likely because Guinea pig was domesticated and used as a pet for a few centuries now. The lazy lifestyle changed the habits, and even though Guinea pigs still have energy spikes, compared to chipmunks, they are far less active.

They, however, don’t share all the traits, which is understandable. Another shocker is the fact that Guinea pigs have more in common with rats than they have with chipmunks at least when it comes to the physique. Due to their recognizable rodent features, chipmunks may not be undermined as mice, which is a plus.

Definitely an interesting perspective for anyone looking to observe domesticated and wild rodent species, as Guinea pigs unfortunately no longer exist in the wilderness.

If you decide to compare the two, you’ll see that the survival completely changed the appearance of a chipmunk. From the cheek pouches to the rapid movements, while Guinea pigs altered for the worse, decreasing the activity over the years.

With the newest cage designs, Guinea pigs somewhat maintain the activity, even though they still are changing, as a result of the treatment they endured over the course of the past few centuries. Viewing them as entertainment pets for younglings, the world made them more or less incompetent to keep up with the wild rodents, even rats.

So, while they do share a few genetic traits with the chipmunks, they still are unique for many features. After all, they are thoroughly domesticated which means they are adjusted to us, more than any other pet.


So, what have we learned?

They’re not pigs, that’s for sure. Guinea pigs have nothing in common with the actual pigs, other than few features which are common for most of the mammals. They’re far more intelligent than pigs, and indeed a better choice for a pet.

Even though they’re classified as rodents, they’re quite similar to rabbits, regarding behavior, sharing certain genetic traits with them. The turning point is the fact that they can comfortably live with a fellow rabbit, without making a fuss, even though they tend to be spoiled when left alone for a while.

It’s still to be proved whether they’re a different species or merely a diverse group of rodents, but it’s widely accepted they are somewhat rodents. This means that they may have all the genetics they need to share the boat with more than a few animals we know of.

They may not be that close to rats in general, but they do share a few physical traits with mice. Furthermore, they’re considered a close relative to certain rats. Mostly due to the fact they share the same bone structure.

In any case, they’re not rats, as they were domesticated a long time ago. So, even though they do share the genetic heritage, they still are a separate group, completely altered version or perhaps a new version altogether, a result of evolution.

When it comes to them being related to chipmunks and hamsters, I still firmly believe Guinea pigs incorporate the best of the worlds, from the adorable physical features to the vigorous activity, to the flexible intelligence, just the thing we all are looking for in a pet.

Certainly an option for anyone looking to start small, or a choice for someone who wants to get yet another pet, but wants a community.

Clarissa Moolbrock

Clarissa Moolbrock is one of the founders and editor at Guinea Pig Tube. She is also an author of "Complete Guinea Pig Care Guide: The Essential, Practical Guide To All Aspects of Caring for Your Guinea Pigs" (available on Amazon). Being a veterinary technician helping animals and sharing her experience and knowledge with other guinea pig owners is her passion. Her life goal is to popularise guinea pigs as pets and that is why she has started Guinea Pig Tube website.