Whenever the topic of my unusual hobby comes up among my friends outside the cavy fancy (Yes, I have friends, and not all of them have guinea pigs. Just most.) one question will inevitably arise: You show guinea pigs? Can they jump through hoops or something?
Most of the time, I do everything in my power to avoid this question, seeing as the answer is often long and involved, generally provokes additional questions with long, involved answers, and because it has a bad habit of coming up whenever I’m in a hurry to get someplace — like a cavy show. But, for the sake of establishing what portion of my sanity remains, I will here explain, to the best of my ability, what exactly a guinea pig show entails.
We’ll start with what a guinea pig show is not: an agility contest. Guinea pigs do not jump through hoops or navigate teeter-totters at shows. That’s not to say a guinea pig can’t — there are people who have successfully organized various agility events for cavies — but generally when I say “guinea pig show,” that’s not what I’m referring to.
Sanctioned ACBA cavy shows are much like any other traditional animal show, be it for livestock or for dogs or cats. If you’re not familiar with any type of animal show, think of it like a sort of beauty pageant for guinea pigs. Judges evaluate the animals not according to abilities they have acquired through training, but according to the appeal of their appearance. But decisions aren’t necessarily made according to the judge’s personal preference; the quality of an animal is determined by comparing the cavy to its standard, a set of rules that defines the ideal individual of each accepted breed. In America, the breed standards are set forth and maintained by the combined ACBA and ARBA Standard of Perfection.
Because the standard functions on a per-breed basis, the specific requirements for showing any individual cavy varies slightly according to each breed. For example, long-haired breeds are typically judged according to the quality of their coat, and are trained to stand still on top of raised platforms called show boards to better display their hair for the judge. Breeds with shorter hair, such as the Abyssinain, are instead taught to run the length of the table so that the judge can get a better idea of the overall shape of the cavy. Breeds not presented on show boards are temporarily placed in small coops while waiting their turn for comments from the judge.
Some requirements remain the same across all breeds. To be eligible for show, all cavies must be in good health — the presence of recent injuries, parasites, illness, or disfigurements will disqualify the animal from show. While small or blind animals can make wonderful pets, they are disallowed in shows. The purpose of the shows is to identify and recognize quality animals that can substantially improve the gene pool if introduced into breeding. Animals with known health conditions that may be genetic do not improve the overall quality of the species and, therefore, are not permitted in shows.
In America, there is also a strong emphasis on showing the cavy in a natural condition. The animal may not be modified by clipping or plucking hairs, by using hair products or dyes, or by any other means. Water, mild soap and a brush are, of course, encouraged on a regular basis.
Cavies that are eligible for show entry compete in bracket-like arrangement. In the first round, cavies compete within their own class, a grouping of animals that are all of the same age, sex, variety, and breed. The top animals from each class go on to compete against all others within their breed and variety. Here, the best of variety and best opposite sex of variety are chosen. Of these, the judge then chooses the best of breed and the best opposite sex of breed.
At the end of the show, the best animal from each breed is called back to the judge’s table for a final best of show round. The judge then re-evaluates each animal to determine which among them comes closest to the perfect animal described in the breed’s standard. The best is named best in show, and the runner up is named reserve in show. In some shows, the judge may name a third animal, which may be called the second reserve, or the honorable mention.
Substantial wins at any level — defined as a victory over any class, variety or breed with more than five animals presented by three separate exhibitors — will result in the animal winning a “leg.” These legs can be thought of as points toward grand champion status. A grand champion must win at least three legs, and then be re-evaluated and documented by an official registrar before it can be recognized by the ACBA.