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Guinea pigs make excellent housepets because of their docile natures and natural curiosity. Because they are strictly vegetarians, they rarely bite the hand that feeds them, which makes them safe for even the youngest owners. Owning a guinea pig is akin to owning a combination of a cat and a very large hamster at the same time. They are also very close in temperament to a rabbit, but not quite as high-maintenance. Guineas are affectionate, in their own way, and will develop a definite bond with their owners. Guinea pigs reach full size by their first year, and are content to live in a caged environment throughout their entire lifespan.

But what is the average lifespan of a guinea pig, and what events can change that expectation? In the wild, a guinea pig could only hope to survive the slowest predator on the hunt. A wild guinea pig would be lucky to see his third birthday, which is why they are such prodigious reproducers by nature. A baby guinea pig grows up very quickly, to help keep it indistiguishable from its adult counterparts. Wild guineas travel in packs, to keep predators unable to concentrate on a single member. Even so, guinea pigs have few natural defenses except for the ability to run quickly. Guinea pigs in the wild tend to hide in burrows for protection, a habit the domesticated variety will still exhibit.

A domesticated guinea pig's lifespan, however, is generally 8 to 12 years. This is assuming that the guinea in question has led an exemplary life, free of disease and stress. The best thing that can happen to a guinea pig is to die of old age. If the animal's diet is strictly monitored and it gets the proper amount of exercise, most owners should see a guinea pig celebrate at least his eighth birthday. But there are some factors that can cut this life expectancy down to as little as a year or so. Some are environental in nature, while other can be caused by neglect or owner mistakes. Here are some factors that might keep your guinea pig from living a normal lifespan.

1. Mishandling This is the factor most likely to cause an early death in a very young guinea pig. Guinea pigs enjoy human contact, and will usually allow their owners to pick them up after a short 'fight'. Great care must be exercised when handling a guinea pig. Their limbs do not move in the same positions as a human, and can become dislocated easily. An undiagnosed and untreated broken bone can lead to more serious complications, such as infections and circulatory problems. Also, guinea pigs tend to jump when leaving an owner's grasp, which could lead to a serious fall or blow to the head. An injury from a fall could lead to internal bleeding and death. If a guinea pig is mishandled, this can reduce his life expectancy to under a year.

2. Dietary abnormalities Guinea pig diets are usually a combination of dried pellets and fresh produce. The food pellets do contain a certain amount of fat, which can lead to obesity if overdone. An obese pig can expect to live half as long as a normal weight pig. Conversely, guinea pigs often stop eating as a result of other illnesses or stresses. Anorexia is a common disorder among domestic guinea pigs, possibly associated with the stress of living in a caged environment for so long. Anorexia will cause a pig to die within a month of onset. Certain foods, primarily raw beans and potato skins, contain certain enzymes that are poisonous to guinea pigs. Although most owners will take the time to consult manuals before feeding any new food to a guinea pig, occasionally mistakes can be made. Food poisoning is difficult to treat, but easily avoided.

3. Environmental factors A guinea pig thrives on fairly warm, but not hot, room temperatures. They can easily become overheated and dehydrated in a room heated past 80 degrees. Dehydration is a major killer of guinea pigs, whatever the root cause. Conversely, guinea pigs are also susceptible to respiratory ailments caused by colds. Drafts and air conditioning can turn their cages into cold, damp disease centers. If a guinea pig is left to sleep in a cold, urine-soaked environment through owner neglect, it may contract a fatal case of pneumonia. Guinea pigs do not respond well to most traditional antibiotics, so treatment for a respiratory ailment is expensive and risky.

4. Internal factors Guinea pigs have their own set of problems that could shorten their lifespan considerably. Much like a rabbit, a guinea pig's teeth grow continuously. They must wear their teeth down through chewing. Occasionally, a guinea pig's teeth will suddenly grow uncontrollably. This can cause an inability to eat food properly, which leads to anorexia and eventual death. Surgery may correct the problem, but the overgrowth may return at any time. Guineas also may develop what is called a megacolon. Although not necessarily a fatal condition in and of itself, a megacolon can indicate a growing dependence on outside help for a guinea pig's health. Basically, a guinea pig's large intestine develops a bulge, which overtaxes the guinea's sphincter muscle. The result is an inability to force out solid feces that builds up in the intestines. The owner must gently squeeze the area surrounding the anal opening, which should encourage the expelling of feces. This task must be performed regularly while the condition exists. This may mean the rest of the guinea's life. Such dependence on outside help may lead to a more lethargic and depressed pig in general, which can mean a reduced lifespan due to emotional stress and depression.