- Mar 16, 2005
- Mar 16, 2005
The Fleece Project: The Study
Fleece is not a bedding commonly associated with guinea pigs, but once you learn the ins-and-outs of using the fabric you will understand why so many people are learning the benefits of this unusual option. First of all, you want to know the basics about fleece - what exactly it is, where you can buy it from, and how much it costs.
Before You Buy
The dictionary definition of fleece is stated as:
“Fleece: n. Any fabric with a soft deep pile.”
This might be a pretty vague explanation to the average guinea pig carer who has never heard of using fleece as bedding, so you need to know what type of fleece is recommended. The fleece you want is not the type of material you would often associate with wool. You are looking for 100% polyester. While there are a few different types of fleece, polar or anti-pill are usually the ones to opt for. Polar is the most common fleece you will find, and anti-pill encourages the prevention of the fabric bunching up when washed, encouraging it to look newer for longer. Anti-pill is also a softer fleece, almost like velour in texture.
Sherpa fleece is thicker and has slightly different feels to the sides of the blanket, but is also suitable to try if you are unable to find polar or anti-pill.
You can purchase fleece for a good price from various places. You probably won’t find any fleece in pet stores as it’s not a common animal bedding, so aim to search through homeware and fabric stores.
Fabric stores will often charge you by the yard or metre, and can cut you off the amount of fleece you need. You will need to cut the fleece to the shape you need yourself; polar and anti-pill are easy fleeces to cut with strong scissors so it doesn’t take long.
Homeware departments and stores often sell fleece blankets (or throws) rolled or folded up, sometimes in packaging. The dimensions of the fleece should be clearly written on the packaging, and there may be an opened blanket nearby to show you the size and shape without you needing to break the seal of any packaging to see if it’s what you are looking for. Homeware-bought fleeces are purchased just as they are, so you cut it to the exact size and shape yourself.
Wherever you buy your fleece from, the chances are you will have a range of colours and patterns to choose from. Homeware stores can be limited in their colour and pattern selection, but fabric stores can have a very wide variety, ranging from the bright and bold images and colours, to the calming pastel stripes or shapes. Solid colours are also available if you don’t want to have anything too adventurous; you can find a variety of different colours to suit you and your own setup.
Whether the guinea pigs prefer different colours and patterns is down to the individual. Some pigs love the funky orange spirals and yellow-and-pink polka-dot fleece you bought, while others enjoy the simple cream fleece with the occasional pastel strawberry image scattered around. Most piggies tend to just be excited at the comfort provided by the fleece; then it is simply a case of buying the fleece which suits your own tastes and budget.
Speaking of a budget, you might expect fleece to cost a small fortune. This is not the case. Unlike traditional beddings (wood-shavings, hay, CareFresh), fleece is reusable, so you don’t go out and buy dozens of blankets to last you just a few months. It is, however, a good idea to buy a minimum of two full cages worth of fleece, so that you don’t have to wait while you clean up the other fleece to put fresh in.
The average UK cost of a 4ft x 4ft polar fleece blanket is anything from £3 to £12. This varies greatly from county to county and store to store, so only take this as a (very) rough guide.
In the US, prices can be a little more varying as fabric stores who charge by the yard/metre are usually the place of choice, plus there are so many different states things can change greatly in different places. For a 4ft x 4ft cut-off blanket of polar fleece, you could be looking at $10 - $30. Often US fabric wholesalers work in yards; 1 yard is equal to 3ft, so 4ft is around 1.3 yards.
The safety of fleece is a common concern with non-fleece users. What if my guinea pig eats the fleece? What are the health dangers? Can guinea pigs get tangled up in or get feet stuck in fleece? What if they dig under it and overheat?
Thousands of cavy carers worldwide have discovered very little risk in using fleece regularly. It is uncommon to hear of a guinea pig who has choked on a thread or suffered life-threatening complications as a result of fleece. It is not possible for a guinea pig to get tangled in fleece unless there are loose threads - not a common problem - so cases such as these are mostly unheard of. Similarly with getting the feet stuck in fleece, it just isn’t possible unless there is a loose thread or loop in an area the piggies can access. If piggies dig under and try and nibble the underbedding (towel / newspaper / puppy training pads) or snuggle under the fleece, you put obstacles around the edges of the cage to physically stop your guineas causing themselves any trouble or you clip/velcro the bedding to the side of the cage.
Remember, the risk is very low, and there can be worse dangers with “traditional” beddings, i.e. wood-shavings can irritate the skin and respiratory system; Megazorb or CareFresh may swell when wet, so if ingested it can cause a problem blockage or choking etc.
Despite all this, as a carer you want to be sure it’s safe to your precious pigs, so you’ll want to see with your own eyes any dangers there may be before you go out and buy all the material. It is very wise to test out a small corner of fleece in your guinea pigs’ environment, as a few piggies are just not fleece-friendly.
If you have tested out a small zone of fleece with no problems, you are willing to try fleece, and you know where to go, how much it’ll cost, what to expect and so on, there is little left to consider before you go ahead and buy the material. There is one more thing though - how long will it last? Fleece is reusable so it is very cost-effective. It might cost more to begin with than your traditional bedding, but in the long run you save hundreds and hundreds of pounds (or dollars). Many fleeces last well over a year and remain near-perfect. Often you will find that you don’t need to buy fresh fleece for 2 or more years, making the savings on bedding costs very high.
I’ve Got My Fleece!
So, you have now arrived home with your new fleece. You want to throw out all your traditional bedding and fit the lovely new, soft fleece right away. Stop right there. It’s simple getting started, but having a bit of patience and commitment to the project comes right at the beginning. Before you fit your fleece or begin cutting it to size, wash it. Washing your fleece a few times before you begin even think about snipping and sizing serves two purposes:
1) Encouraging the fleece to begin working with moisture;
2) Allowing it to shrink - which it does not do much of (even after 100+ washes) - before you fit everything to the millimetre.
Aim to do two 40 - 60 degree spin cycles with your regular detergent to achieve these objectives.
This is what Marsha, a knowledgeable and long-term fleece user who lives in the US, says:
“I ideally like to wash and dry the fleece three times before using, four is even better. You are trying to slightly break down the water barer that fleece tends to have when it is brand-new. Once washed and dried several times it will wick the moisture away, instead of repelling the moisture (leaving the urine to stay on top of the fleece).
While drying your fleece you do not want to use any fabric softener as that will put a barer back onto the fleece and not allow the moisture to penetrate through the fleece properly, keeping your fleece feeling wet after your piggy urinates.”
Marsha suggests you do the following, in the order shown, to get the most out of your fleece before you start using it:
*Wash and dry fleece at least three times;
*Wash on warm water / dry on a med-low setting;
*Do not add fabric softener of any kind in washer or dryer.
Working with Fleece
One of the first things people who have started using fleece ask is:
“Does it absorb urine?”
The answer is no.
“Why do you say fleece is so good then, if it doesn’t absorb all the pee that pigs eliminate? Surely good absorption is a key consideration when it comes to all beddings!”
Fleece wicks liquid away from the surface to the underneath, meaning the surface remains dry and the urine is absorbed by the underbedding.
Quite a few people find fleece to be very poor at doing this job, but this tends to be only because they have got a number of factors wrong:
1) Skipping the first step of washing the fleece 2-4 times before the first use can be one cause of the fleece not wicking pee through;
2) You have too many - or not enough - layers of fleece;
3) You have no - or poor - underbedding which is not doing it’s job
4) You are using fabric softener in the wash, which can prevent fleece from wicking moisture through.
For the fleece to wick urine properly, you should ideally aim to have 1-2 layers of fleece and 1-2 layers of towel. You can use fleece without towel, but there are problems with choosing to go this way as is explained shortly.
The underbedding is a key factor in just how well your fleece is working. There are a number of beddings you can use under the fleece, each with their own pros and cons:
Pros: Easily available, cheap, quick to fit.
Cons: Doesn’t absorb very much urine at all, smells very quickly, needs replacing at between fleece washes, non-reusable.
Puppy training pads
Pros: Easily available, quick to fit, good absorbency.
Cons: Expensive, needs replacing between fleece washes, plastic edges can be dangerous if ingested, non-reusable.
Pros: Easily available, cheap, can be cut to size, excellent absorbency, reusable.
Cons: Gets heavy when very wet, can smell a little after 3-4 days if lots of urine is absorbed.
It’s recommended you use a combination of underbeddings to achieve top results. The most successful combination is towels with one - or both - of the others. The problem you may have if you don’t use the towel is sticking. The most common “stickers” are Newspaper to Fleece and sometimes Puppy Pads to Fleece. Notice how towel doesn’t come into either of those instances. Towel absorbs so well that, unless it is left in the cage for more than a week, it does not get wet enough to stick to anything. Newspaper is a real sticky bedding and it can be very tough to get off fleece, yet with a setup of newspaper, towel then fleece these issues are eliminated - and you have the added bonus of the great absorbency thus reduced smell too.
Talking of smell, so many fleece enquirers are determined that the smell must be bad, but this is not true. If you use fleece correctly, with the underbeddings and the pre-washing, the risks of smell are low already. To keep it that way, you should aim to vacuum (or sweep) the poops out of the cage on a daily basis. Some users vacuum twice daily, but unless you have more than 3 or 4 pigs and the cage does not meet the minimum recommend sizes (www.guineapigcages.com) this may not be necessary.
If you can train your guinea pig to urinate in a litter tray, the fleece can last days longer. Just clean the litter tray out 1-2 times a day and fill with a good absorbent bedding (non-material is best in trays) and you shouldn’t be able to smell any ammonia. Perform a full cage clean at least once weekly to ensure good hygiene and to ensure the fleece is nice and fresh.
What else is there to smell now that we have taken away the poops and (in some cases) removed the slight ammonia odour?
How soon stains and marks are visible on the fleece is different for every user. It depends on the colour and pattern of fleece, how often the fleece is washed, the number of pigs and the health of the animals. Just about all stains come out in the wash, including veggie and urine stains. Extreme white deposits (a result of too much calcium-rich foods in the diet) may not wash out, as the calcium may be too set to get rid of. These will cause no problems though individuals may consider them unsightly. (You just need to alter that pigs’ diet PDQ!)
Small marks, for example from crushed poop (sorry!) or veggie dribble, can be visible after a day or two, but these don’t matter to the pigs - again, it the carers tastes which determine how these are handled! Often these marks will fade as the days pass by, and when it comes to washing the fleece you may not see those marks there at all.
Cleaning Fleece & Related Matters
Preparing the fleece for the wash is sometimes the most laborious part of using fleece, and is often where may fleece-testers back out. Fleece is a high maintenance bedding so does take some getting used to, and the highest maintenance part is getting it ready to be washed.
Now, we all know that hay is an essential dietary need for piggies, but if you use fleece then you may find problems with hay sticking to the bedding. This is easily reduced - although not 100% guaranteed - by:
Using a hay rack:- this keeps the majority of hay off the fleece as well as keeping it nice and fresh for the piggies;
Having a hay tray:- much like a litter tray, you can place their hay in a litter box or low sided box can keep the worst of the hay off the bedding.
Using a mat or tray under a hay rack:- a combination of the above two suggestions. This tends to be the most effective without needing to alter the cage or fleece plans.
Having a special hay loft or zone:- an area which the hay is kept away from the fleece as much as possible. A hay loft is a small second level with just hay on - and no fleece - so there are minimal problems with hay on fleece. With a hay zone, you could build a ledge and/or just have a small doorway into a hay zone, so it is more difficult to spread hay over the fleece.
The chances are you won’t be able to keep all hay off the fleece. You can get the worst of it off before washing, but you are often left with small (<1cm) strands, of which most are very difficult to brush off.
The best way to go about removing hay (and other solid matters, such as poops) is to follow the Vacuum-Shake-Brush-Beat cycle. Vacuuming can only remove so much hay, but in most cases it does remove all the poops, so your job is quicker if you have a quick vacuum around the cage first. You can also use a dustpan-and-brush to sweep up as much solid matter as possible, but this takes longer.
Usually after vacuuming/sweeping it’s still in no state to be washed, so once you’ve rolled the fleece up and taken it outdoors, give it a real good shake. You might get a little pee on you, but if you clean the cage regularly enough and you use a good underbedding, there shouldn’t be much pee, if any, sitting on the fleece to be sprinkled on you! Shaking is very effective at getting rid of any considerable solid matters and quite a few hairs, but often this still may not be enough.
So your next step is to use a brush (such as from a dustpan-and-brush set) and use it to brush the fleece as much as you can. Brush both vertically and horizontally to have more of an effect.
Lastly, use the brush (or something similar) to beat the fleece. Beating forces as much of the loose hairs and hay off as possible, and after this there isn’t really anything more you can do to prepare it for the wash. Normally, these stages are more than enough to prepare it though!
If you notice a considerable amount of hair on the fleece which just will not come off through any of the Vacuum-Shake-Brush-Beat routine, use a lint roller to get a little more hair off. This can be a long process though so don’t expect to get the bedding completely hairless.
Once the bedding has been prepared, it’s time to look at ways of washing it.
The easiest way is to use a washing machine.
You can use your regular detergent (unless it is very strongly scented), but softener isn’t advised as it can reduce the performance of the fleece. If you do wish to use softener, set a low limit on how much you use. The most recommended temperatures for fleece can be anything from 30* - 60*. The higher of the figures can make fleece shrink a little.
You can put in a full load of fleece, but if you have particularly dirty blankets it’s better to put in less with each cycle so that each fleece washes and rinses more thoroughly.
A lot of non-fleece users ask whether the machine clogs up as a result of washing piggie blankets. The reality is, it’s unlikely. If you Vacuum-Shake-Brush-Beat before washing, there shouldn’t be enough matter to build up and block the machine. If you are concerned about how washing piggie blankets will affect the machine, perform a Rinse & Spin Cycle once all the blankets have been removed. It helps to flush out the machine and clean it up a little ready for normal use again. Even without the extra Rinse & Spin, it’s unlikely there will be any piggie smells, hairs or hay affecting any later loads.
Hand washing is also possible, but be prepared for the weight of soaking fleece. It’s hard work but, as with the general maintenance of fleece, you can get used to it when you start doing it regularly.
Line-drying and tumble-drying are both suitable options for drying your clean fleece. Line-drying does not make the blankets stiff, but it can make towels stiff. Drying the blankets naturally outdoors allows them to really be freshened up; for any warm smells to be blown away and replaced by a cleaner, fresher, cooler scent.
Tumble-drying fleece doesn’t usually take more than 20 minutes; if you are drying towels it can take over 30 minutes. There can be a warm “piggie” smell “sealed” in the blankets as the heat has dried them. This is fine and isn’t so strong when the fleece has cooled down.
In some cases you may find that the fleece has shrunk, but it is rarely by more than a few centimetres. The cooler the wash and the cooler the drying, the less likely they are to shrink. Washing before the first use allows the material to shrink a little so you can fit it a little better, but also be sure to have some excess around the edges so that if it does shrink, it won’t affect how it fits the cage.
The pigs love fleece. It’s comfy, cool in summer and warm in winter, interestingly colourful, and dry. The first time Laura’s pigs went on the fleece, they popcorned like there was no tomorrow - and that’s just the senior of the group! The pigs don’t mind if it’s dirty, as long as there isn’t more than a couple of days worth of poops in there, and they don’t end up wet even after 5-7 days of the same fleece.
Visitors are aware that it is a 'strange' bedding to use, but most comment on how lucky the pigs are, and how it’s nice to see them living in such luxury as opposed to the “traditional” ways.
It’s becoming an ever more popular bedding among cavy carers now, and that is one reason for completing this study. Based on surveys across 5 guinea pig forums, approximately 30% of the 269 voters use fleece regularly and successfully.
So many people ask so many questions about fleece as it is an unusual bedding choice, so I hope I have managed to answer the majority of your questions.
As far as it being "unnuatural" - guinea pigs might not live on fleece in the wild, but our pigs are domesticated guinea pigs. It’s not natural for our guinea pigs’ wild cousins over in Peru to live on fleece, that is true. But our guinea pigs are not those guinea pigs.
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