Why are Guinea Pigs Called Guinea Pigs: A Comprehensive Guide to the History, Etymology, Evolution, and Significance of their Name

Historical Origins of the Guinea Pig

Guinea pigs, originally known as “Cuy” in South America, were domesticated by Native Americans and were primarily used for food and religious rituals. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought guinea pigs to Europe, where they quickly gained popularity as pets due to their gentle nature and easy care. The origin of the name “guinea pig” is not definitively known, but there are several theories.

One theory suggests that “guinea” is a corruption of “Guiana,” a region in South America where guinea pigs were first encountered by Europeans. Another theory is that guinea pigs were sold for one guinea in England in the 16th century. Regardless of its origins, the name “guinea pig” has endured and become the accepted common name for this beloved pet.

Etymology Breakdown

The name “guinea pig” is somewhat of a misnomer, as guinea pigs are not pigs and are not from Guinea. Rather, “guinea” likely comes from the same root as “Guyana,” which was an area in South America where guinea pigs were commonly found. In the 16th century, when guinea pigs were first brought to Europe, the word “pig” was used to denote a young animal of any kind, particularly one that was small and chubby.

Thus, the name “guinea pig” likely developed as a way to describe these small, chubby animals from the region of Guinea. However, it’s important to remember that guinea pigs are not actually related to pigs in any way and are actually more closely related to rabbits and chinchillas.

Evolution of the Name

While the name “guinea pig” has remained the standard name for this pet over time, it has evolved in its usage and meaning. In the 17th century, “guinea pig” was used to refer primarily to the wild cavy species, while the domesticated guinea pig was referred to as a “pig” or a “coney.”

However, by the 19th century, the domesticated guinea pig had become much more popular as a pet, and “guinea pig” became the most common name for them. In recent years, some people have started to use the term “cavy” instead of “guinea pig” to refer to this animal, as “cavy” more accurately reflects its scientific classification.

Comparing to Other Small Animals

While guinea pigs share some similarities with other small animals such as hamsters or rabbits, there are several key differences that might have influenced their name. For example, guinea pigs have a unique ability to synthesize their own vitamin C, while other small animals like hamsters cannot. Additionally, guinea pigs have a much larger and more complex digestive system than hamsters or mice, requiring more specialized care and feeding.

Furthermore, guinea pigs are known for their gentle nature and social behavior, making them much more amenable to being kept in groups or pairs. This social behavior might have influenced their name, as they were seen as a “herd” or “flock” animal and not just an individual pet.

Cultural Significance

Guinea pigs have become incredibly popular as pets in modern times, with their cute and cuddly appearance making them a favorite of children and adults alike. However, guinea pigs have a long history of cultural significance beyond just being a pet.

In South America, guinea pigs were considered a delicacy and were often served at special occasions like weddings or feasts. In some cultures, guinea pigs were also used in religious ceremonies or as symbols of fertility and prosperity.

In modern times, guinea pigs have become popular mascots for sports teams, advertising campaigns, and even online memes. Their cute and cuddly appearance has made them a beloved and recognizable icon in popular culture.

Animal Behavior

Despite their name, guinea pigs do not share many physical or behavioral traits with actual pigs from Guinea or elsewhere. Guinea pigs are social animals that thrive in groups and are relatively easy to care for compared to other small pets. They are also known for their curious and active nature, requiring plenty of space and mental stimulation to stay healthy and happy.

Guinea pigs are also very vocal animals, using a variety of sounds and gestures to communicate with each other and with their owners. They are capable of learning basic tricks and commands, and their gentle nature makes them great pets for children and adults alike.


Overall, the name “guinea pig” has a long and complex history that reflects the cultural and scientific significance of this beloved pet. While the origins of the name may be somewhat unclear, the evolution and cultural significance of the name are undeniable. Whether you call them guinea pigs, cavies, or something else entirely, these gentle and curious animals have captured the hearts of millions of people around the world.

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