05 May 2021
Vets and their pets: Going ga-ga for guinea pigs
04 Apr 2022 | Malcolm Morley
As National Pet Month kicks off, equine vet and BVA Junior Vice President Malcolm Morley talks about how owning guinea pigs as a child helped spark his interest in – and respect for – the veterinary profession.
I’m unusual as a vet - I come from a family where neither of my parents were particularly interested in animals and we never had a cat or dog. My brother was allergic to many things and could react badly to a lick from a dog, so it was never going to happen. However, one day we managed to persuade my parents to allow us to have guinea pigs. It was the start of a life-long love of these gentle herbivores and one of the things that inspired me to become interested in animals and ultimately to become a vet.
Childhood guinea pigs
It all began with these two male guinea pigs who lived in a wire mesh run and hutch on the lawn. Inevitably they escaped, as guinea pigs do, but we were fortunate to have a garden surrounded by brick wall on all sides. They took up residence in an old shed and within days the shed was entirely turned to guinea pig accommodation while they fed themselves on assorted plants from my mum’s prized herbaceous border. Guinea pigs are very good at knowing what they like, and it was only a matter of weeks before the lupins were no more.
I don’t know how we managed the next move, which was to persuade mum to allow us to get some female guinea pigs. The inevitable happened and before long there were new additions to the group. Guinea pig babies are born relatively mature with their eyes open, running about and picking on solid food from day one and so they are wonderful for children to enjoy. We soon learnt about coat colours and textures, incredibly managing to persuade mum, once again, to get us some different types of guinea pigs to add to the ones we already had.
Looking back, it was actually a great opportunity. We learnt so much about caring for animals and I think the guinea pigs, many of whom were rehomed in our village, also had a great quality of life. I developed a deep love and affection for them, and I think the things we love as kids tend to stay with us for life. They certainly triggered my interest in being a vet.
A greater understanding
Fast forward a few decades and when my own children said they wanted pets it was a very natural step to think back to my own childhood memories and soon, once again, we had guinea pigs. It was probably no coincidence that the first two even looked like the favourite guinea pigs of my childhood.
This photo with my daughter shows guinea pigs at their best.
They can become so tame with handling and are just great for a cuddle when you’ve had a hard day. Let’s be frank, the guinea pigs are obviously there for the mixed salad, but there is a symbiotic relationship, and the human benefits are enormous. My kids also enjoyed guinea pig breeding and it was wonderful to have three litters of babies, but I learnt from my mum’s laissez faire approach, and it never became a full-scale operation!
Nowadays my day job is 100% equine practice, so my vet knowledge of guinea pigs remains low, or perhaps it's the old thing about the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. In the last few years, we have been hugely grateful to other colleagues for helping us when our small furry friends became unwell. There is something about being on the other side of the table that really makes you appreciate the enormity and importance of what our profession does for both animals and their loving owners.
There is also something very special about a love shared within a family and to some extent the Morleys will always be guinea-pig-people, whatever other pet comes along.
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