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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.”

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.

Cavy Champions: Victors’ photos from the 2014 Specialty shows

12 Sep

This is perhaps a little behind the curve, but I figure it’s always better late than never. The following gallery includes 22 photos of some of the best show cavies in the nation — the Best of Breed animals from the 2014 ACBA Specialty shows in Monroe, Washington. You can think of Specialty as a sort of national championship for guinea pigs. Although it is smaller than the ARBA National show — the official national championship for both guinea pigs and rabbits — Specialty is the largest single event dedicated exclusively to cavies. The 2015 Specialty will take place in Berea, Ohio on April 10-12.

All photos included in the gallery below are credited to the Journal of the American Cavy Breeders Association. The gallery includes photos from both the open show and the youth show, but you might notice that there are only 22 photographs, where there should be a total of 26. Unfortunately, we’re missing a couple of photos. We did have all 13 breeds represented in the open show, and all breeds but the Peruvian satin were represented in the youth show. However, for the open show, the Best of Breed silkie and teddy satin are not pictured; for the youth show, the Best of Breed silkie satin and white crested are not pictured.


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The 2014 election is upon us

5 Sep

It’s that time of year again — time for filling out and mailing in ballots for the national ACBA election. This being an even-numbered year, we have some major decisions that need to be made and a club president to select.

For ACBA members, your ballots should have already arrived in the mail. You also should have seen the candidates’ personal statements in this month’s copy of the Journal of the American Cavy Breeders Association. This is just a friendly reminder to review the statements, make you selections, and send in your ballots in a timely fashion so your vote is counted. As with just about every other organization, votes and other similar activities may seem mundane, but they are essential to the functioning of the ACBA.

This year we have multiple nominees for ACBA president, and for district directors for districts two (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah, as well as Mexico) and eight (Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Manitoba and Ontario in Canada). Districts four (Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) and six (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as Puerto Rico) must also select a director this year, but currently there is a single candidate for each position. Of course, write-in campaigns are always a possibility.

Officers within the ACBA are responsible for managing the club’s day-to-day functions — which mostly means they set up and attend meetings where they make decisions regarding how this or that ought to be run. But current candidates said they have discovered that the club’s officers take on a leadership role beyond the narrow scope defined by the ACBA constitution.

“Personally, as a member of ACBA and a cavy lover, I have helped to educate the general public with fairs, clinics, flyers and handouts, pet shows, the internet, and other means to further interest in and correct knowledge of cavies, whether for pets or show animals,” said Rosalie Beard, a candidate for district two director.

Beard said the ACBA also works closely with the American Rabbit Breeders Association to create a merged lobbying force that currently works “on a national level for the protection of pet owners and breeders rights. They are in the process of banding together with other animal groups to inform the government agencies on the practicalities of some of the laws that are being considered.”

And the influence of the ACBA is currently growing, on account of the increasing worldwide interest in cavies, said Mary Lou Eisel, who is running for a second term as ACBA president.

“The cavy fancy is growing in leaps and bounds, not just in North America but worldwide,” Eisel said, adding that it takes her nearly an hour every day to review correspondence related to the cavy fancy.

For those who wish to further the educational and political missions of the ACBA, running for a national office within the club allows them to become more deeply involved. Laurie Norman, a first-time national candidate who is running to represent district eight, said she felt running for office would allow her to become more involved with the ACBA while she waited for the right time to apply to become a cavy judge.

“I wanted to get involved within ACBA somehow because I attend a lot of shows within my district and I get approached by a lot of people with questions about the fancy and ACBA,” Norman said. “So when I found out that the district eight rep spot was opening up I figured that would be a great opportunity to represent my district.”

Only current ACBA members are eligible to vote in ACBA elections. If you’re not currently a member, but you want a part of the action, you are always welcome to join. There’s even an online application form now! If you’re a cavy lover, we’d love to have you.

Also, if you are a candidate or currently serving in an elected position and would like to address the national cavy community via the Wheekly Reader, please feel free to contact us at