How much veg is “enough”? How much is “too much”?
I see all the time pictures and videos of a single piggy being given a full carrot to eat, a length of cucumber almost as long as they are, or a pile of veg the size of their body.
It’s become the norm, and it’s a sign of the times moving on from the days where piggies were chucked leftovers, or just given carrot and apple to eat in their hutch at the bottom of the garden.
I’m not shaming anyone by any means. I used to do just the same and did for many, many years, as evidenced in the photos supplied. They would get a very generous plateful of a few different veg every day. I figured I had small hands so my version of a handful was maybe a bit too little.
That was ok, I’m not ashamed and I don’t regret it. My pigs from those days lived a fantastic, happy life. What I’d like to do with this article though is invoke some thought and discussion about whether we can hone the fresh food aspect of their diet to something a little more physiologically appropriate. I don’t expect everyone to agree…and believe it or not I’m going to leave the really controversial bit for another time!
Today, as you probably realise by now, I want to talk portion sizes. We are told – indeed I myself have spent years advising – that a handful of 3-4 different veg fed once or maybe twice a day is adequate. I’ve known plenty of people to feed veg three times a day, typically giving 3 “meals”.
While this is still correct and is a big improvement from days gone by, I do believe there is too much disparity in what people consider to be “a handful” – and in potentially overloading the digestive system with large amounts of significantly different types of fresh foods that all ferment at different rates.
The photo below shows the full meal my boys each had one night. It looks like nothing, but it contains more than enough of the nutrients they need out of their diet. The rest of course they acquire from hay, grass, forages (dried and fresh) and daily vitamin-c-fortified nuggets.
Now: the piece of carrot I’m holding on its own in the palm of my hand, and isolated on the chopping board from the portion served, is roughly the diameter of the guinea pig’s stomach. Piggies are physically small creatures… their tummies are proportionally small too. Yes they have a massive digestive system, but it’s almost all intestinal, dedicated to digesting little bits of food on a continual basis. It does move fast, their metabolic rate is through the roof, but the cost of that is that all nutrients might not be extracted first time round – hence guineas are corprophagic (they eat their own poo). If you overload the system with veg, give them a “healthy, hearty” dinner every day, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re giving them more nutrition. Most of it will go through them unabsorbed as their tummies can’t take it all in fast enough before it has no choice but to move it on.
It might not seem like they have small stomachs as anyone who knows guinea pigs know they live to eat and always seem to be eating.
But that in and of itself backs up my point… they are designed to graze and consume very small amounts of food continuously.
Being served large meals according to our timetable and convenience – once a day – could be seen as disrupting the natural rhythm of the gut. This is where those who feed veg 3x a day are actually accommodating their pigs better on a biological level – provided that fresh produce is given in very small amounts. 3 meals a day would definitely be too much, but scattering one veg meal throughout the day, breaking it into little and often, is surely a more natural way of doing it.
If you’re anything like me, this is where you really start to think and question. Are those giant pieces of veg we see or maybe even feed our piggies logical or sensible when we know their tummies are so small and designed to be ‘drip fed’?
As inconvenient or impossible as it might be to feed 3x a day, is it good to think about cutting your piggies’ veg diet right down to almost nothing (our perception) and instead of serving meals, scattering or handfeeding small amounts of one, two or three high nutrient items (“superfoods”) twice or three times a day?
It is true that guineas will stop eating when they have had enough and that maybe I’m overthinking things too much. I hear you. I also know you think this is seriously drastic stuff and going too far the other way.
But…but. That’s just one reason I’ve sat on this for a few years and said nothing. I know I’m not the only one with these thoughts and beliefs. And I know I’m not the only one who is seriously looking at changing up the advice they give out because the chronic overfeeding of veg has become something of a pandemic in its own right. I feel that perhaps we have moved just a shade too far in the direction we have been trying to drive people in, and we’ve taken this idea and run with it at 100mph without quite taking into account the factors I’ve brought up here.
By no means am I saying we’re doing badly – not at all, guinea pig health and welfare remains the best it has ever been. Part of my job though, to continue to drive us forwards, is to provoke thoughts, ideas and discussions that will lead owners to provide much more thoughtful, actively conscientious and educated care – rather than following something that many of us (me included) standardised 15 years ago and thousands still stick to today – just because it did so much good in rapidly and so effectively improving care and welfare. Learning, growing, expanding, questioning our perceived beliefs as owners is a responsibility we bear. We don’t all have to agree, but if we can all think about various viewpoints, we have the opportunity to make better informed decisions and to make changes that in the future we could say changed the welfare of guinea pigs everywhere, for the better.
So where do we go from here? A few points to consider…
SCATTER FEEDING – COULD IT BE THE SOLUTION?
Both in terms of time (spreading their serving throughout the day) and physically scattering their veg extensively around their cage or floor time to encourage them to move and forage, it is not only natural for them but stimulating mentally and physically, and excellent to ensure healthy digestion.
DON’T DO ANYTHING DRASTIC!
Don’t suddenly start dieting your pigs. No need to put them onto a diet – the point of this post is to make you think and be conscious about avoiding going too far either way. They really do not need a quarter of an apple, or a whole carrot, or half a cucumber.
TRY THE 1-ONLY RULE. SERIOUSLY. GIVE IT A GO.
Forget dieting, and forget about whether you will scatter the food around or not. To get portion sizing more reasonable, work towards reducing the amount if you do tend to feed big: consider using the “1 only” rule. Cut everything to 1 inch long or only feed 1 of something e.g. 1 inch of carrot, a 1 inch slice of cucumber, 1 green bean, 1 piece of babycorn etc.
Obviously there needs to be an alternative easy measurement for leafy veg, and that will be provided as soon as it has been considered and trialled fully.
Please bear in mind that this article is about exercising common sense and mainly encouraging you to think consciously and logically about how small our guinea pigs’ tummies are, how their tummies work best, and how you can best work with that.