All About the Abyssinian Guinea Pig

Whether you just bought an Abyssinian guinea pig, are thinking about it, or are just curious, you have come to the right place. In this article, I will tell you all about the Abyssinian guinea pig, its history, origins, fun facts, and a heck of a lot more.

Where Did Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Come From?

Abyssinia is a geographic region in Africa that covers modern-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, but Abyssinian guinea pigs did not come from Africa.  Nor did they come from Guinea or New Guinea.  The first guinea pigs are believed to have originated in the Andean part of South America in the area that comprises modern-day Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru.

How Old Is the Breed?

As a whole, guinea pigs have been around for millennia.  There are records indicating that guinea pigs were domesticated as early as 5000 BC in South America.  They were brought to Europe by Spanish sailors to be used as exotic pets in the 1500s.  The earliest written record indicating their use as pets in Europe is dated from 1547 AD.  The earliest written documentation of guinea pigs in the West occurred in 1554 AD, although there are accounts of them in the Caribbean from about 500 BC.

As for the Abyssinian breed specifically, it’s difficult to determine exactly when the first appearance occurred.  Abyssinians are considered one of the oldest breeds, but pinpointing an actual date of their appearance is difficult.  It is possible that they first appeared in Europe between 1200-1550 AD when guinea pigs were first actively bred to produce new types that were suitable for exotic pets.  To read about other research trying to pinpoint the emergence of the Abyssinian breed, check out the British Cavy Council.

How Did Abyssinians Get Their Name?

Naming of the modern, common guinea pig breeds was done by the various breeding organizations that were formed by guinea pig fanciers.  Today, a couple of the organizing groups are the British Cavy Council in England, and in America, the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

The first Abyssinian guinea pig was identified in Europe, but the British Cavy Council wasn’t formed until 1977, so they were not responsible for giving it the name.  There was literature describing rosette-haired guinea pigs in the Victorian Era (1837-1901). So who actually assigned it the name the first time it appeared?  We don’t know.

So why call it an Abyssinian when it obviously did not come from Abyssinia? Well, that’s a matter for debate as well.

When guinea pigs were first being bred and marketed as exotic pets in Europe, exotic-sounding names seemed to make guinea pigs sell better.  It may be that the Abyssinian got its name because guinea pigs were brought to Europe on ships used in the Guinea Slave Trade, and as such, were marketed as coming from the Abyssinian region in Africa.  But that’s a matter of conjecture, and there is no proof or documentation to back up that claim.  It could just be that the name sounded exotic, so someone chose to use it in order to help boost interest and sales.

What Type of Coat Do They Have?

The coat of an Abyssinian is dense and coarse.  The hair measures one to one-and-a-half inches long, so it is considered a shorthair breed.  They usually have 4 rosettes (or whorls of hair) on their backs, a rosette on each hip, one on each shoulder, and two across their rump.  Of course, this can vary.

Courtesy of Warren Photographic.

The rosettes form ridges where they meet one another.  They also have hair around the mouth that forms a “mustache”. For show purposes, an Abyssinian needs to have a minimum of 8 rosettes, but 10 is ideal.  For showing standards, see the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

What Colors Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Come In?

There are many varieties of guinea pig colors, and Abyssinians can come in any of those colors. Click here to see a description of the various colors.  In addition to the normal Abyssinian coat, there are Satin Abyssinian guinea pigs whose coat has a sheen or gloss to it.

At What Age Can Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Breed?

A male Abyssinian guinea pig (boar) can successfully mate at 3 weeks of age.  A female (sow) can be sexually mature and be able to get pregnant at 4 weeks of age.

What is their Gestation Period?

The gestation period is about 2 months long, ranging from 59 -73 days.  Female guinea pigs have a high mortality rate due to pregnancy issues.  There are estimates that 20% of females will die during pregnancy.  The risk of death or complications increases as they get older.  Getting pregnant when they’re older than 8 months old presents more risk of problems or death than a younger pregnancy.

What is the Average Litter Size?

Litter size is anywhere from 1-6 babies, with 3 being the average.  The record for the largest litter is set at 17 babies, but that wasn’t an Abyssinian. (Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness World Records Ltd. 2007. p. 127).

How Do You Care for a Baby Abyssinian Guinea Pig?

Unlike a lot of other animal babies, guinea pig babies are not born helpless or with their eyes closed.  In fact, guinea pigs are born well developed, and because of that,  generally, don’t need specialized care. Baby guinea pigs are born ready to run.  They are born with fully developed teeth and can eat solid food after a couple of days (the Merck Veterinary Manual recommends eating solid food at 5 days).

They usually nurse from their mother for around 3 weeks, but if a guinea pig gets separated from his mother or his mother dies, you can feed them with regular food.  A brand-new newborn can be fed with mashed-up pellets or a recovery type of nutritional supplement powder (like the Critical Care brand) mixed with canned pumpkin.  They don’t absolutely need their mother’s milk, so there’s no need to supplement with milk or try to feed with a bottle.

How Long Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Live?

Abyssinian guinea pigs share the same lifespan as most other guinea pigs.  The average lifespan is 5-7 years.  But, as in all creatures, it’s just that – an average.  Lifespan depends on many factors – environment, diet, individual genetics, etc.  Some will not make it to 5 years of age, while others will live far longer.  A guinea pig from Nottinghamshire, England named Snowball lived to be 14 years, 10 months, and 2 weeks old. (Guinness World Records 2013 edited by Craig Glenday, p. 263)

What Are Their Specific Health Issues?

Like all guinea pigs, if Abyssinian guinea pigs don’t receive enough Vitamin C in their diet, they can develop scurvy. As for Abyssinians specifically, a study done by David Williams and Ann Sullivan in 2010 found that Abyssinians had a higher occurrence of eye problems than other breeds, specifically, microphthalmos (small eyes, often resulting in blindness) and cataracts.

In addition to the increased risk of ocular disease, Abyssinians as a breed have a higher predisposition to developing diabetes mellitus and ovarian cysts.

What is the Abyssinian Temperament Like?

Abyssinian guinea pigs are not very different from other breeds of guinea pigs in terms of temperament, but they are often regarded as being more “mischievous” than other breeds.  They tend to be a bit more spirited than other breeds, but they are not vicious.  Abyssinians tend to be a bit more vocal than other breeds, as well, chatting away throughout the day.  Of course, each guinea pig is an individual, so it’s difficult to group them all together and say “All Abyssinians are…”.  But as a general rule, Abyssinians are very social but don’t care to be cuddled and held as much as other breeds of guinea pigs.

Are Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Intelligent?

Well, there are lots of facets to “intelligence”, so there’s no one answer.  What we do know from various studies is that guinea pigs in general are fairly intelligent creatures.  They are good at associative learning – they easily learn to associate one thing with another (they hear a bag rustling and associate that with food, for example).  Studies have shown that they’re not good at solving abstract problems, but they are good at solving navigational and spatial problems.

What Kind of Personality do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Have?

Again, each guinea pig is an individual and has its own personality.  However, some of the words that Abyssinian guinea pig owners use to describe their Abyssinian guinea pig are “mischievous”, “vocal”, “lovable”, “gentle”, “curious”, “devoted”, “bold”, “independent”, and “lively”.

Are Abyssinians Suitable for Small Children?

Absolutely. Abyssinians are gentle and kind.  Of course, you need to teach small children how to properly handle an Abyssinians because if they feel pain or if they feel threatened or insecure, they could react with aggression.

What Kind of Housing Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Need?

Abyssinians do not differ from any other breed of guinea pig.  They need ample space to move around, a place to hide where they can feel secure.  They need a smooth-bottomed cage or living area so they don’t develop foot problems. At the very minimum, a single guinea pig should have a cage no smaller than 2 square feet, but many cavy organizations recommend no less than 7.5 square feet of space (30 in. x 36 in).  A larger area would be ideal.  For ideas on how to build your own guinea pig cage, see Make Your Own Guinea Pig Cage.

What do Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Need in Their Daily Diet?

Again, Abyssinians do not differ from other breeds.  They need an ample supply of grass hay that should always be available.  Ideally, they should get 75% of their diet from grass hay, such as Timothy hay.  They also need high-quality guinea pig pellets (1/8 – 1/4 cup per cavy per day), fresh, clean water (a minimum of 5 ounces per day), ample Vitamin C (30-50 mg per 2-pound animal per day), fresh vegetables (daily) and fresh fruit (at least 1-2 times per week).  See the infographic of What Do Guinea Pigs Eat for more details.

Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Need Grooming?

Unlike the long-haired breeds, Abyssinian guinea pigs do not need a lot of grooming.  You don’t usually need to bathe your Abyssinian, but some owners like to bathe them occasionally anyway.

Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Stink like Ferrets?

No.  They do not have scent glands as ferrets do, and they do not have any distinctive odor.  If your guinea pig stinks, take a close look at his cage and environment and make sure it’s clean.

Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Need Exercise?

Yes!  Never leave a guinea pig caged up in a small cage for long periods of time.  Give them time to run free, either in the house or in a safe, outdoor run.  They need daily exercise.

Can Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Live Alone?

By nature, guinea pigs are social animals, and the Abyssinian breed is no exception.  Even when you devote plenty of your day to giving him attention, it may not be enough. It’s often a good idea to keep at least two guinea pigs (just make absolutely sure they are the same sex!).  Sometimes having more than one is not possible, however, and if housed alone, you need to be sure to provide plenty of social interaction.

Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Need Toys?

While not absolutely necessary, some owners like to provide toys.  Toys serve to reduce boredom and provide stimulation.  You don’t have to spend money on toys, though.  You could take an old toilet paper roll or paper towel roll, stuff it with hay, and put it in the cage.  You could use other chew-friendly items, as well, like small paper bags or socks.  You can give them small balls to play with.  Just make sure they’re too big to swallow and are not made of poisonous material, since they will get chewed.

You can provide small rubber or plastic balls, just watch regularly for signs of chewing. If it gets chewed or worn, replace it.  You could take cardboard or wood and build them a maze.  Take an empty cardboard tube, like an oatmeal container, cut out the ends, and make tunnels.  There are endless options for homemade toys.  Just use your imagination.

What Are Their Sleeping Habits?

Abyssinian guinea pigs, like most guinea pigs, are active much of the day.  A guinea pig housed alone is active 20 hours of the day or more, with short periods of sleep.  Sometimes they will exhibit a sleep-walking activity where they’re walking around but are kind of zoned out.  Some owners will brush them 1-2 times a week with a soft brush, but they are pretty low-maintenance when it comes to grooming.

How Do I Show an Abyssinian Guinea Pig?

Contact the organizations that hold guinea pig shows.  For example, in America, one of the organizations is the American Cavy Breeders Association. See what they look for in judging an Abyssinian at their shows.  The ACBA has an article detailing its Abyssinian judging criteria here.  The American Rabbit Breeders Association keeps a list of all shows sanctioned by their organization here.  Sometimes local organizations will hold shows (for example, a 4H group or a county fair).  These tend to be less competitive and less strict than the regional, state, and national shows.  Contact the organizers and get the exact details of what is required for you to enter.

How Much Do Abyssinian Guinea Pigs Cost?

Sometimes you can get a free Abyssinian guinea pig, so regularly scan classified ad sites like Craiglist or Petfinder to find an owner looking to re-home their Abyssinian.  Other than that, you can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $75 for an Abyssinian guinea pig.  Of course, it all depends on where you live or where you get it from.  Pet stores in the Midwest sell them for around $35.  I’ve seen breeders selling them for $10-15.  You can get them from pet stores, breeders, classified ad sites, rescue centers, or local animal shelters.

What is the Monthly Cost of Taking Care of an Abyssinian Guinea Pig?

There is an initial set-up cost of about $100-200, on average.  For the initial setup, that means buying a cage, water bottle, hay, pellets, feed bowl, bedding, a house or something to hide in, vitamin C supplements, toys, and a brush or comb.  Of course, you can save money by building your own cage (see Make Your Own Cage for some cheap ideas!).

As for a monthly maintenance cost, you can expect to spend $20-$40 a month per guinea pig for pellets, veggies, hay, bedding, and vitamin supplements.  Toys and accessories are extra and not included in that calculation.  Vet visits will add more expense, and the cost of that is too varied to give a reliable estimation. To read what other owners say they spend on their guinea pigs, read the posts here.

Abyssinian Guinea Pigs in Literature

  • Tears Lilies An amazon Editors Favorite – Books of the Year 2014.  A story about one woman’s journey with her pets, including Squeakles, her beloved golden Abyssinian guinea pig.
  • Pete Through the Lens of Our Four-Legged Friends This book documents “A Day in the Life of” several pets, including Gus, an Abyssinian guinea pig with an artistic vision.  The author attaches cameras to the pets so we get a glimpse of what his pet’s daily life is like, as seen from the eyes of the pet.
  • The Pig Talked Written in 1963, this children’s story details the relationship between Cecile, a French girl, and Jean-Pierre, an Abyssinian guinea pig.
  • Then-Pierre the circus A continuation of the above story, written in 1970.
  • Thearavan is a book by Beatrix Potter written for older children about a miniature circus.  Features a band of Abyssinian guinea pigs.

7 thoughts on “All About the Abyssinian Guinea Pig”

  1. i loooooooooooooooooove guinea pigs! i have one, hes blonhde and hiss name is Waffles! hes just two years old!

  2. you mean they may bite if held too often or long enough? =(
    “But as a general rule, Abyssinians are very social but don’t care to be cuddled and held as much as other breeds of guinea pigs”

  3. My Abyssinian guinea pig just gave birth so now we have 4,they are the best, loving and caring pigs EVER!!

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