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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?

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Cavy Apgar: how to evaluate your baby cavy’s health

1 Aug

Since I’ve brought them up in earlier posts, I figured I’d report: Jazlyn’s babies are all thriving. They’re a week old, so at this point everyone is probably out of the woods.

The first week of life can be precarious for newborn cavy pups. But the fact of the matter is that cavies make better cavy moms than humans; you don’t want to interfere with the litter any more than necessary. However, determining whether a new pup needs life-saving assistance can be difficult. There’s really no fool-proof method, but here are a few things I look for to ensure the litter is progressing nicely.

Weight

Check the litter’s weight regularly for the first several days after birth. Some weight loss is normal, but the pups should not lose more than 10 percent of their weight at birth. If one does start losing weight rapidly, it could be in trouble.

Most healthy pups will begin gaining weight less than a week after birth.

Lactation

Check the mother 24 hours after the babies are born, to make sure she is producing milk for the pups. Her nipples should be slightly enlarged, and you should be able to get a little milk yourself if you press gently. Many newborn pups are fully capable of eating solid food on their own, but few foods are as high in the fat pups need as their mother’s milk. If their mother can’t feed them, you may need to intervene.

If something seems amiss with more than one of the pups and the mother is producing milk, you might consider checking the pups’ sucking reflex. If you press your fingers gently to the pup’s mouth, you should be able to trigger the reflex. If you can’t get a response, the pup may not be nursing properly. Of course, as the pups grow older and begin to rely less on reflex, it could also mean they just aren’t hungry.

Behavior

Cavy pups should be active and energetic shortly after birth. If you’ve just found the litter a few hours after delivery, check to make sure all the pups can stand and walk on their own. If not, ensure there aren’t bits of debris binding the pup’s legs.

The pups should be tottering around after mom within a day or two. It’s normal for the pups to stay close to mom for warmth and to facilitate frequent nursing during the first few days, but the pups should begin actively exploring their enclosure before too long.

Pups that are ill or otherwise failing to thrive may hunch up in a corner alone and fail to follow their mother. This is a definite sign of problems.

Visual Cues

Some of these may seem a little odd at first, but I have found that many times they are the most fail-proof methods of evaluating a pup’s health. I typically look for three things on a healthy pup: clear, bright eyes, clean hair, and a nursing spot. The eyes are somewhat obvious, but if the eyes seem cloudy and you see no other problems with the litter, you’re probably just looking at an eye infection. These are very common and easy enough to clear up with a dose or two of medication.

Checking your pup for cleanliness may not seem like the most obvious test of health, but I have found it is one of the most reliable indicators of trouble. If the pup is not washing itself, and the mother is likewise disinterested, you have problems. A healthy pup’s hair will be clean and free of matting and debris.

On nursing spots: this is an unreliable, but sometimes helpful, sign of health in some breeds. Cavies with hair reversal, such as Peruvians, may develop an irregularly shaped bald spot on the top of their heads where they rub against their mother’s belly when they nurse. The absence of a nursing spot may suggest one of two things: either your pup is not nursing frequently, or else it may lack hair reversal (and most breeds do). If this spot gets too large, and after a few litters you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is normal and what is not, that suggests the mother may not be making enough milk, forcing the pup to make more frequent attempts at nursing than normal.

None of these tests by itself is a sure-fire method of evaluating a pup’s chances of survival, but taken together, it should give you a pretty good idea of whether an intervention is necessary.

What to expect when your cavy is expecting

18 Jul

Because she is evidently more lucky than I am in these matters, one of my sister’s guinea pigs recently had an adorable litter. Mine, of course, is still expecting. This has left me with a horrible sense of unfulfilled anticipation.

My sister’s new adorable babies.

What do I do when waiting on a sow who is taking her own sweet time? Beside checking for babies every five minutes? Why, I write about baby guinea pigs, of course.

Silliness aside, I actually get a lot of questions about guinea pig young. Many people deduce what they think they know about cavy reproduction from what they have heard about hamsters or rabbits. This leads to a lot of misconceptions.

For example, one of my personal favorite misconceptions is that “guinea pigs breed like rabbits.” This is not true — cavies as a species are actually disadvantaged where reproduction is concerned, because healthy pups are born quite large, when compared to the size of the mother. In some circumstances, a sow who waits too long may end up with babies so large she cannot physically deliver them. If caught on time, a c-section might save the litter. If not — well, now you know why I say guinea pigs are at a disadvantage where reproduction is concerned.

Guinea pigs also have substantially smaller litters than many rodents. Two to three pups per litter is average. Sows only have two teats, so litters of three or more can struggle after birth. Pup fatalities in large litters are quite common.

Another question that comes up quite frequently: do guinea pigs eat their young? The short answer is that they do not. Hamsters might, but cavies aren’t especially related to hamsters. However, in some situations a sow might appear as though she is eating her newborn pups. Guinea pigs, like almost all mammals, eat the placenta after delivery. This is normal and healthy — no need to worry that your guinea pig might go gremlin on you should you catch her in the act. If there are complications during labor that lead to a stillbirth, you might also see your guinea pig biting or chewing lethargic or deceased pups. This is because the mother is trying to use pain to stimulate the pups. Sometimes a sow might get overzealous, and one of the pups might lose an ear or a toe, but in some cases, it also effectively saves the pup’s life.

Guinea pigs are not known to kill or eat pups that are born alert and healthy. If your sow does chew her young, it is likely because something is went wrong. You should be safe to handle the babies almost immediately after delivery, if you so choose. Handling the babies will not cause the mother to eat them — again, that’s a behavior sometimes seen in other rodents, but not in guinea pigs. You will want to check the babies for health within 24 hours of delivery, if possible. Healthy pups are born precocious. That is, they should be standing and walking on their own, they should be fully haired with open eyes and ears, and they should weigh somewhere in the range of 90 to 110 grams. Pups born without hair or substantially below a normal birth weight may be premature. If the pup has trouble walking, it may have suffered brain damage during delivery. This is not exceptionally uncommon, and the pup should recover within a few days.

Keep a close eye on your new litter for the first several days. Some weight loss is normal, however, weight loss exceeding ten percent of the pups’ birth weight indicates that pup or litter is failing to thrive on its own. It is possible to bring them around, but that’s a topic for another post.