What makes satin cavies shine?

23 Jun

To newcomers, one of the most confusing aspects of the cavy hobby is the inclusion of five satin breeds that, to outsiders, may seem essentially the same as similar non-satin cavies. Just ask my husband–he still struggles to determine whether a particular cavy is a silkie or a silkie satin.

But when you understand the underlying physiological changes that make cavies satin, you begin to realize that the differences are far from remote.

The Abyssinian, American, teddy, Peruvian and silkie breeds are all accompanied by a satin counterpart that under today’s standard is considered a seperate and distinct breed–the Abyssinian satins, American satins, teddy satins, Peruvian satins and silkie satins. Generally speaking, these breeds are unique in that they carry a recessive satin gene that modifies the underlying structure of the coat and gives it a distinctive sheen that makes the hair appear to shine or sparkle. Understanding exactly how that happens requires a little more in-depth scientific explanation.

One of the most common misconceptions I have heard is that this sheen is the result of a satin’s hollow hair shaft. This is false.

Fundamentals of hair shaft structure

Let’s just start at the beginning. Your basic hair shaft is composed of three main layers. The outermost, called the cuticle, is thin and scalely. Below the cuticle, the cortex is a slightly larger, spongy layer that gives hair its variable colors. At the very center of the hair is the medulla. (See below image, but note that it is not drawn to scale.)

The medulla, which is a mostly hollow tube filled with pockets of air, is like the spine of the hair shaft. It provides most of the hair’s structure and comprises the bulk of the hair’s shape and size.

What this means is that all hair is fundamentally hollow. My hair is hollow. Your hair is most likely hollow. Your cavies’ hair is hollow.

Unless, that is, your cavy is satin.

See, satin hair is actually comprised of just two layers, the cuticle and the cortex. The medulla doesn’t exist as an organized structure the way it does in regular hair. This may not sound like a big deal, but when you make such a radical change to the composition of each individual hair shaft, it changes the overall presentation of the coat in some pretty remarkable ways.

Differences in showing and judging satin cavies

The first change, and the most immediately apparent, is sheen. Though satin hair does not have a medulla, the large, air-filled cells that make up an organized medulla in most hair are still present, scattered throughout the cortex. This means that satin hair becomes semi-transparent, like thick stained glass. When light hits this hair at the right angle, the light refracts off the hair (instead of reflecting directly away from the hair, which would render the hair opaque), causing the hair to appear to glow from the inside out and producing what we know as sheen.

But this isn’t the only way in which satin hair is unique. Because there is no organized medulla, and because the medulla is generally the largest of the hair shaft’s three distinct layers, satin hair is dramatically finer. One scientific study I read found that in mice, the diameter of the hair shaft in satin-type mice was one-third the diameter of regular mouse hair.

Because the hair is so fine, satins often struggle to present density of coat the same way regular animals present it on the show table. The way we currently judge it, density of coat is basically related to two factors–the number of hairs on the animal, and the width of those hairs. Assuming the one-third ratio, a satin cavy would need three times as many individual hairs as a regular cavy in order to present the same apparent density.

Unmedullated hair is also more fragile than regular hair, because it does not have a medulla to lend structure and strength to the hair shaft. This is why many breeders report greater difficulty in groom satin cavies for show purposes.

In fact, the satin coat is so fragle that satin genotypes are of extreme concern to the textile industry, particularly where wool is concerned. Sheepherders are generally avoid satin modifiers at all costs and regard it as an extreme defect in their animals both because the wool is so fragile it cannot be spun into fabric, and because the hair cannot be dyed. It is forever white.

You read that correctly. When hair is dyed, the dye actually fills in the spaces in the medulla, thereby modifying the color of the hair (this is why you have to bleach your hair and remove some of the natural color if you want to make it lighter instead of darker). In cavies, I have observed that the satins are essentially immune to cage stain, probably for the same reason.

Varying degrees of medullation

One final thing I would like to address. I understand that among rabbit breeders, sheen is regarded as something as an on-off switch–that is, that the animal either has sheen or does not. Therefore, their logic goes, satin sheen is actually a non-issue.

Disregarding the diferences discussed above, and disregarding a wide range of factors that impact the presentation of sheen (more on that later), there is still a range of potential for sheen in satin cavies.

Multiple scientific studies I have read indicate that they observed varying degrees of medullation within satin animals of the same species. Remember how I said that, while satins lack a distinct, organized medulla, they still have cells that contain pockets of air dispersed within the cortex? Well, some satins have more of those pockets, and others have less. As these pockets become more infrequent and more diffuse, the degree of medullation is said to decrease.

I can’t explain at this point how this would work on a genetic basis. But the scientific evidence is there to support a case for, if nothing else, varying degrees of medullation. While, in theory, decreased medullation would increase the presentation of sheen, it also increases the presentation of the side-effects I just discussed–namely, the hair shaft becomes increasingly smaller and more fragile. So as breeders, we must walk a fine line between creating beautiful sheeny animals, and animals with coats so fragile they become unworkable.

Guineas Gone Viral: The rising prevalence of cavies in internet culture

16 Mar

Perhaps some of you have seen this hilariously awkward video making the rounds in recent months.

The video — which was released in Canada last November for “Movember,” the international month-long campaign dedicated to raising awareness of men’s health issues — has snowballed around the internet for the last several months until, in February, it started showing up in Facebook feeds everywhere. BuzzFeed, the news site that could be considered something like the Entertainment Weekly of cat videos and dress controversies, picked up on the video, and pretty soon, traditional media outlets all over the world were on the story, too.

But this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, national media carried reports last week of a woman who decided to quit her job to make videos of her guinea pigs after a clip she posted to YouTube went viral. Dominant websites like WikiHow have launched entire sections devoted to guinea pigs, and even BuzzFeed itself has created a special “tag” for web articles, especially photo essays, dedicated to guinea pigs — though, I’ll be honest, most of these articles just reappropriate the same half-dozen or so images to illustrate BuzzFeed’s usual brand of universally relatable humor.

But, with BuzzFeed calling guinea pigs “the new cats of the internet,” we may be moving away from that ever-persistent stereotype of guinea pigs as classroom pets or unusual companions for the socially impaired. This increasing online awareness of guinea pigs also appears to have translated into a real-world growing interest in showing cavies.

According to Mary Lou Eisel, the current president of the American Cavy Breeders Association, the number of guinea pigs entered in shows throughout the U.S. has increased by 14,000 in the last five years. For comparison, the number of rabbits entered in similar shows over the same time period grew by just 1,000 entries. For BuzzFeed author Matt Bellassai, the sudden popularity of guinea pigs is easy to explain.

“Their popularity rose, I suspect, because guinea pigs have a novelty (more so than cats), but also a familiarity (not so wild as, say, a chinchilla), and of course an undeniable adorableness (more than any other rodent),” Bellassai said. “Also, they’re just funny. It’s far funnier to put a tiny wig and straw hat on a guinea pig than it is to put one on a rat or a mouse or a cat. I don’t know why, it just is. It’s a combination, I think, of guinea pigs being cute and chubby and small, but also different and unexpected. Maybe one day, the internet will reach guinea pig saturation, like we have with cats. Until then, I think guinea pigs will keep rising.”

But there may be more to it than that. It’s not just that the internet has highlighted the fact that guinea pigs are cute, it’s that the internet has made information about guinea pigs, and guinea pig-related things, much more accessible than they once were. Consequently, whether cavy breeders have seen a recent spike in purchases of show- or pet-quality stock varies from one state or person to the next. But many breeders say they have found recent buyers to be more educated and more specific in their requests.

For the first time in decades, even the average first-time pet owner has access to the information they need to know there are alternatives to buying small animals at large chain pet stores. While this doesn’t always lead directly to growth within the cavy fancy — some breeders are quick to point out that the online culture growing up around guinea pigs has created a fetish for hairless guinea pigs, such as the skinny and the baldwin, which are not accepted as official breeds under the ACBA and cannot participate in official cavy shows — it may, in a roundabout way, bring more potential cavy fanciers into the world of cavy shows than did recruitment efforts in the past.

To recruit a new member into the ACBA once required that someone who was at least somewhat familiar with guinea pigs or animal husbandry, such as a pet owner with cavies or a breeder already raising dogs or rabbits, rub shoulders with a cavy breeder and take an interest in the hobby. Nowadays, all it takes is a spark of interest and enough curiosity to search “pure bred guinea pigs” on Google.

The cavy’s online presence has also allowed for added growth within the ACBA as well.

“I have purchased everything I have via either meeting the person online, or a completely online purchase — I have never met some of my cavies’ breeders in person,” said Tonya Slack, a cavy breeder from Minnesota. “If not for the internet, I would be purchasing pet store cavies and mixing breeds.”

Can my guinea pig make me sick?

16 Jan

A little while back I noticed this article about people getting strep from guinea pigs start making the rounds on the internet. Now, this article is done pretty tastefully and tries to explain that there’s really nothing to worry about, but you know how it is — some people panicked anyway and started telling others to never let their kids near a guinea pig, etc.

I was already well aware of the fact that there are certain diseases that can move from cavies to people from time to time, but I hadn’t heard about the strep connection. Furthermore, I suspected that it was far more common for guinea pigs to catch ill when handled by their people, not the other way around. After all, most guinea pigs stay home in their pens all day. It’s us humans that wander around, interact with one another and bring our germs home with us.

To get to the bottom of the issue, I decided to go to the experts — in this case, my friend Cynthia Bishop, a research veterinarian who studies guinea pigs.

According to Bishop, while it is possible for some diseases to move from people to guinea pigs, it’s not as common as you might thing. In fact, she said you’re more likely to catch something from a dog, cat or rat than you are from your guinea pig.

Bishop said whether a disease can spread from one species to another depends largely on what causes the disease. Parasites, for example, are usually species-specific, which is why humans don’t get lice or mites from guinea pigs, even though guinea pigs do on occasion get lice and mites from one another. Cavy lice is actually a different species that the stuff that makes humans itch, and while this particular kind of lice can make guinea pigs miserable, it can’t live off human blood. Mites can get on humans, but they won’t stay for more than a few hours and you’ll only notice if you have an allergic reaction to them.

Likewise, viruses usually can’t infect a species they weren’t originally designed to target. So your guinea pig isn’t likely to develop something like, say, the chicken pox, and consequently you’re not likely to catch chicken pox from your guinea pig. However, there are a few viruses that may be common to both guinea pigs and humans: the jury is still out on whether the flu and the common cold can spread to guinea pigs. Cavies are used in scientific labs to study the flu, but it’s uncertain whether the flu will spread to guinea pigs without scientific aid. Some studies, however, found native populations of guinea pigs in Peru carried antibodies for common human strains of the flu, so it is possible that transmission may occur from time to time.

Bacteria, on the other hand, adapt to different species more easily. So it is possible that bacterial infections, such as strep, could spread from guinea pigs to humans. Humans and guinea pigs are also known to share certain types of eye infections, Bishop said.

Fungi are the most likely disease-causing agent to move from one species to the next. Ringworm, for example, can be especially problematic because it likes both humans and guinea pigs and will move from one species relatively easily.

But note that I say relatively. Bishop said zoonosis, that is, the spread of a disease from one animal to the next, really isn’t all that common. Even with something like strep, if a colony of strep is already used to living in a guinea pig, it would much prefer to stay in a guinea pig. In most cases, Bishop said the people who catch diseases from their pets are immunosuppressed . That is, they had an elevated risk of getting sick to begin with.

In general, Bishop said, basic precautions such as hand washing should be enough to prevent sharing diseases with your guinea pig and vice versa, even among people who are, say, taking drugs that make them more susceptible to infection. If you’re feeling paranoid, extra care can be taken if you know you have something that might make your pet sick (like the flu) or if you know your pet has something you could catch (like ringworm).  But even in those circumstances, basic precautions such as wearing a face mask (like the kind you can buy at the hardware store) or gloves and making regular use of soap should be sufficient to keep you, your family, and your pets safe, Bishop said.

Three easy ways to be more organized about breeding cavies

9 Jan

I know I’m a little late to this ballgame, but I noticed the other week a post on Facebook where one breeder asked others she knew whether they had a cavy-related New Year’s resolution. As I watched the responses come in, I noticed a common theme: many people wanted to get more organized about breeding and record keeping.

We at Legacy Caviary have been pretty diligent about records keeping from the beginning. And it’s not just pedigrees, although we’re pretty particular about those as well — we have pedigrees going back to our very first cavies, probably ten generations or more at this point. But we also keep detailed records on health, lifespan, show winnings, breeding, miscarriages and deliveries. At one point I even used the records we’ve kept to conduct a small scientific study for one of my senior-level college classes.

That’s probably more record keeping than the average breeder wants or needs to undertake. But just in case you’re looking to get started with some basic record keeping and organization this year, here are a few breeding-related ideas you might try. Of course, you’re always welcome to modify these techniques so that they suit your own methods and desires.

The index card method

This is what my dad has done for years to keep track of who is bred to who, when they’re due to deliver, how many babies were born and at what weight. It works pretty well because it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, and because you can clip the cards to the front of most cages to prevent yourself from losing track of your own records, though it does have a downside (in my opinion) in that the records are not easily digitized and therefore are difficult to analyze en mass.

Here’s something quick and easy to try: buy your standard index cards and fill them with any identifying information you deem pertinent. We list the cavy’s name, birthdate and ear number a the top of each card for quick identification, but you can obviously choose to use more or less information. Make one card for each of your cavies, then clip the cards to the cage containing the cavy to which each card corresponds. You can do this easily with those tiny binder clips you can buy at most office stores. When you’re finished, each cage in your caviary should have a small collection of cards attached to it identifying each cavy in the cage.

Now, pick one of the female cavy’s cards and write an X (our symbol for “crossed to” or “bred to”) on one of the blank lines on the body of the index card. Next to the X, write the name and/or ear number of the boar to which the sow in question was bred. Then write the date they were paired together and, if you like, the date of their anticipated due date (roughly 72 days in the future). That’s all there is to it! Now, when you clean pens or go to check on your cavies, you have an automatic record of when to expect your next litters. And as time goes on and you repeat this process for new crosses, you’ll have a running record of who you bred to who, and what the results looked like.

The Calendar Method

This is essentially a simplified version of the index card method. It requires a lot less maintenance, but lacks the benefits of being attached to each individual cavies’ pen, and so doesn’t put the information at your fingertips quite as effectively. It may, however, help you better track the big picture of what needs to happen when in your caviary.

Here’s the basic idea: Buy a standard 12-month calendar for the current year (you can even get one of those fun cavy-themed calendars if you like!). Hang it up in or near your caviary, so you remember to use it and mark it up. Fill in the calendar with pertinent information such as “bred Fuzzy Wuzzy to Sister Sue” or “Cutie Pie due” on the appropriate days. If you stay up on it, this should not only help you keep track of when your upcoming litters are due, but over time it will also create a year-long record of who was bred and born when.

This method is also helpful if you include the dates of important shows on your calendar. If you do this, you can count backward from the date of those shows to determine when you need to put cavies in breeding to have mature stock at the year’s biggest shows (this is especially important to breeders who raise long-haired cavies).

The MS Excel Method

This is what I personally use, because I prefer digitized records and because I need to have access to my records on multiple computers. But while it has the advantage of making it possible to easily view and analyze lots of data, it requires a little more effort that the previous two methods and it doesn’t put the information at your fingertips in quite the same way.

Here’s what I do: I have a version of Microsoft Excel that I have downloaded for free on my smartphone called “Sheets.” Sheets interfaces with GoogleDocs, so I am able to view my breeding records on my phone, on my laptop, or on any other computer where I can gain internet access.

On sheets, I have created a single spreadsheet called “breeding plan.” I created the document with the following headers across the top: sow’s name, last litter born, current status, next breeding, breed to, and litter due. I fill in the suggested information below each header in descending order. So, for example, when Cindy delivered her last litter, I create a new row at the top in which I fill in her name, the date of her last litter, her current status (“Resting,” in this case) the date on which I next plan to breed her, the boar I will breed her to, and the expected date that litter will arrive. I might also input her daughter’s record on the line above her own. Her daughter would appear as follows: Wendy, no litters, still growing, the date of her first anticipated breeding (roughly 3-5 months in the future), the name of the boar I plan to breed her to, and the expected due date for that future litter.

Obviously, this method requires a good deal of regular maintenance. But if you stick to it, you will end up with a long running list of past litters and pairings, and one that you can sort, search and analyze at your leisure with all the data tools available to you in Microsoft Excel. Not to mention instant access to all of those records anywhere in the world.

These are of course just three methods for tracking, recording and organizing your breeding efforts. There’s plenty of other methods out there. What method do you prefer?

A short report on the 2014 ARBA Convention

7 Nov

This last week marked the annual convention of the American Rabbit Breeders Association in Fort Worth, Texas. The national cavy club is a subsidiary of ARBA, so the Convention includes a massive guinea pig show in addition to the obvious rabbit-related festivities. And by massive I mean it’s probably the single largest cavy- and rabbit-related event in the nation.

Unfortunately, this year I was unable to attend, because Fort Worth is a long way from my house, and I’m broke-ish at the moment. So no Convention for me. Fortunately I have friends who Facebooked the entire event, so I can update you all on some of the Convention’s most important happenings.

Of course, the show itself trumps all other Convention-related business, in my opinion. In the open show, Best in Show went to a white American, and Reserve in Show went to a satin Abyssinian. Youth Best in Show went to the texel, and Reserve in Show went to an American.

I know everyone loves pictures, so I will try to get a slide show of the winners as soon as the official photos are released.

Additionally, the results of the annual ARBA and ACBA elections were announced during the Convention. Congratulations to Mary Lou Eisel, returning ACBA president, Michael Welsh, District 2 representative, Lisa Pordon, District 4 representative, Karen DeHaven, District 6 representative, and Laurie Norman, District 8 representative. The new standard for the Tan Abyssinian, which makes the tan an official variety of that breed, also passed with a vote of 194 to 8.

Those of you who did attend the Convention: Did I miss anything important?

The next big upcoming show is the American Cavy Breeder’s Specialty show, which is a smaller annual convention dedicated exclusively to cavies. The 2015 Specialty will take place April 10-12 in Berea, Ohio. Unfortunately, Ohio is an even longer way from home, so I doubt I will be able to attend. After Specialty, the 2015 ARBA Convention will be held next fall in Oregon.

Correction: The mail-in vote taken for the tan Aby was to ask the ACBA membership if it should be advanced towards the entire process of getting accepted into the ARBA standard.  Just one step on this journey.  It is not an officially accepted variety.

The Tan Abyssinians and also the Otter Americans were there for viewing by the cavy subcommittee the ARBA Standards Committee Chair. These were development/informational presentations only.  Later would start the official presentations.