Patagonian Cavy

Patagonian Mara (Cavy)

Dolichotis patagonum

Order: Rodentia Family: Caviidae

Although guests often mistake them as being rabbits or deer, Patagonian cavies are in the same family as the guinea pig. They are also known as Patagonian mara or Patagonian hare. 


As with any species, variation in individual temperament must be taken into account when selecting ambassador animals. However, when desensitized to humans at an early age, these large, charismatic rodents can be excellent program animals. They have many interesting adaptations and teaching facts that can be tied to conservation messaging; and they are generally food motivated, which allows for positive, choice-based presentations. 

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Patagonian cavies can be found only in central and southern Argentina. They typically reside in arid desert and scrubland habitats. 


They can live up to 14 years in human care. 

Ecosystem Role

As grazing herbivores, Patagonian cavies play a role in shaping their habitat. They also eat fruit and thus disperse seeds through their feces. Birds of prey, foxes, and felids benefit from cavies as a food source. 

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information 

  • These rodents are diurnal. 


  • Binder Park Zoo houses a single male in an indoor enclosure with concrete floors. He is given regular exercise time in a large classroom or playpen outdoors. 

Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles

  • Temperature: Should stay indoors or be given a heat lamp if temperatures are below 40° F
  • Light: This species needs a diurnal light cycle. 


Binder Park Zoo provides a bed of hay for rest and grazing. 

Social Housing/Colony Management

  • Patagonian cavies often live in large warrens in the wild. Mating pairs are monogamous, and young are housed in a communal burrow with up to 15 litters. In the wild, females usually only produce one litter per year, although in zoos they are known to have more up to four litters annually. 
  • Binder Park Zoo houses a single male as an ambassador animal. Animal Care and Education staff members interact with him regularly to provide his social needs. 

Diet Requirements

Diet in the Wild 

  • In the wild, Patagonian cavies primarily forage for grasses, although they do consume cacti and fruit

Diet under human care

  • Guinea pig pellets, produce, and leafy greens, 1/8 cup of Lab Blocks as training treats, and a pile of hay for grazing are given daily. 
  • At Binder Park Zoo, our cavy really responds to Lab Blocks, but doesn’t show much interest in leafy greens during training. 

Veterinary Concerns

  •  Food and treats that are high in starch and sugar should be avoided to reduce the risk of colic and GI upsets.  

Enrichment & Training


Behavioral Relevant Information

  • Patagonian cavies are natural grazers and would ordinarily spend a lot of time foraging for food. 

Environmental Enrichment 

  • Scatter feeding, boxes or puzzle feeders with diet inside, toys, scents and spices, and browse are all commonly used for enrichment. 
  • Time spent in an outdoor pen or large classroom for exercise can also be very effective. 

Behavioral Enrichment 

  • Cavies respond well to positive reinforcement training when started at a young age.  


Behaviors Trained

  • Binder Park Zoo: our cavy is trained on the following behaviors- 
    • Cavies can be trained to crate voluntarily, which gives them the opportunity to opt out of programming. 
    • Target
    • Touch
    • Station (on an up-side down water tub) 
    • Harness 
    • Sit 
    • Up (on hind legs) 
    • We are currently working on getting more comfortable walking on a leash and staying on the station when the trainer walks away
  • Binder Park Zoo: An eventual goal is to have the public able to touch our mara when he is on his station. 

Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement 

  • We use a clicker as a bridge when training and presenting. 
  • Food rewards such as produce and Lab Blocks are used as primary reinforcers. We do bring food to programs for demonstrating trained behaviors and helping to keep the animal focused in front of a group. 

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Responsible zoos and aquariums aim to give animals the best possible welfare. One of the ways we accomplish this is through behavioral training with positive reinforcement. Trained behaviors can be demonstrated for a group while teaching about animal training and behavioral husbandry.  
  • Cavies have a number of interesting adaptations such as their stotting behavior to escape predators. 
  • Climate change: Desert and Dryland species have specific adaptations for the temperature and water availability in their natural habitat and may not be able to adjust to the drying effects of climate change. Hotter conditions promote wildfires. More extreme drought conditions kill plants that hold the soil in place and occasional extreme rain events wash that soil away preventing them from growing back in a process called desertification. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Please ask guests to walk, bike, or take public transportation when possible and to reduce their use of fossil fuels when they do drive by buying a fuel economic car, carpooling, combining errands, and keeping vehicles properly tuned up and their tires properly inflated. At home and work, purchase Energy Star appliances, turn off lights when they are not in use, and use heaters and air conditioners sparingly. The principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle will also help by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions involved with the manufacture and disposal of unnecessary goods.
  • Habitat loss: In tropical climates like those where Patagonian cavies are native are facing habitat destruction for agriculture. Zoo guests can help animals that live in these habitats by shopping at local farmers markets, looking for Rainforest Alliance or RSPO certified products, and eating less beef. 
  • Choose your pets wisely: Especially when presenting animals on a harness and leash, it is important to address that wild animals don’t make good pets. If someone is interested in keeping a non-domesticated animal in their home, they should do their research before acquiring the animal. Research should include: diet, temperature, space, and social requirements, lifespan, availability of veterinary care in their area, local laws regarding pets. 

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Patagonian cavies are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with a decreasing population trend. 
  • Threats to the Patagonian cavy population include: habitat destruction, climate change, and hunting. 

Handling & Presentation Tips

  • As a prey animal, cavies can be skittish at times and generally shy away from being touched. While their comfort level can be improved with training, they should nevertheless be presented on the ground. A harness or pen can be used to maintain control of the animal. 
  • Patagonian cavies will sometimes urinate on their handlers, particularly people they are bonded with.
    • Binder Park Zoo: neutering our male helped to reduce this behavior. When his body language suggests that he might urinate, he is redirected with a targeting behavior. 
  • Binder Park Zoo: Our mara is trained to wear a harness-The first step to using our mara in a program is to put on his harness. This is done by laying the harness on his back and clipping around his neck and abdomen. If he moves away when the harness is placed on his back, then we take that as a sign that he is opting out of putting on the harness. If after 3 attempts he refuses the harness, we stop and choose a different animal for the program. 

Use Guidelines

  • Binder Park Zoo: our mara is currently utilized on grounds only, although we are working towards improving his comfort level with a leash so as to enable off-grounds use. While the handler always brings the leash along to programs just in case the animal needs to be quickly restrained, it is not required for him to wear it as long as he is in an enclosed area (classroom or playpen). While he sometimes wanders a room for a minute or two, it is generally easy to get him focused on the presenter with a target.  

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • This species can be aversive to touch, but the can be desensitized with training. 
  • Binder Park Zoo: our mara is touchable only in small group settings. He has a station on which he must be standing in order for touching to occur.

Crating Techniques

  • A large crate can be lined with hay for comfort and grazing during transportation. 
  • Cavies can be trained to crate voluntarily, which gives them the opportunity to opt out of programming. 
    • This means that the animal has two chances to opt out of the program before even leaving the building; once when putting on the harness, and again when crating. 
  • At Binder Park Zoo, our mara is always transported in the crate. This is mainly to keep consistency between summer and winter months, as it is not warm enough to walk the animal outdoors for much of the year in Michigan. 

Temperature Guidelines

  • Binder Park Zoo: Temperatures must be at least 70°F for outdoor presentations. 
    • Crates should be covered with a blanket if temperatures are below 60°F, and animals should be transported in a heated vehicle if temperatures drop below 45°F. 

Acquisition Information

Rodent, Insectivore, Lagomorph TAG


Contributors and Citations

Top Photo Credit: 

Binder Park Zoo