Despite the perception that guinea pigs are simple and primitive creatures, their behavior actually suggests the presence of very complex psychological make-ups. Experienced handlers have seen and documented tangible demonstrations of a wide variety of issues ranging from depression to aggression. In this article, we’ll briefly explore the four most frequently encountered problems.
In terms of guinea pigs’ emotional health, perhaps the problem that develops fastest is depression. Depression can be set off by a number of factors, including isolation (never had a roommate), grief (lost a roommate), poor living conditions and dealing with an overly dominant roommate. If left unchecked, depression inevitably sets off a domino effect of physical health problems as the guinea pig “gives up on life.”
A solo guinea pig is invariably a depressed guinea pig. Social creatures by nature, guinea pigs live in big colonies in the wild; in our homes, they need at least one roommate with which they can romp, talk, sleep and “break bread.” More cuddle time with you as an interim measure while you search for a roommate will help—but understand that a human (or another species of pet) cannot be a replacement for one of their own kind.
While a solo pig is always a bored pig, even pairs, trios, and larger colonies can demonstrate signs of listlessness in uninspired cage setups. The problem is easily solved with a little creativity and money.
Remember that guinea pigs tunnel and hide by nature (they are not climbers), so get things that support that instinct, such as large cardboard tubes; grass tunnels and bungalows; paper bags; family-size oatmeal containers (sans label and plastic ring); and clean dishpans (turned upside down with holes cut in the sides).
It helps to keep different things in the cage and the play area, and to change up objects (particularly in the play area) every couple of months.
Occurring when an alpha pig goes too far with their dominance, males and females are equally susceptible to this behavior. These pigs will chase, nip, and mount their roommates (regardless of their sex) so often that the victim will resort to hiding in a corner most of the time. When they do venture out, they do so when their roommate is asleep or distracted. You often see the victims traveling around the edges of the cage, and you can feel their apprehension when they stretch out to snatch a piece of fresh vegetable.
This is an unhappy existence for both pigs. Temporarily separating the pigs sometimes adjusts dominant attitudes, as does neutering a dominant male. In most cases, the pair has to be permanently separated. These quarters can be side-by-side, giving the pigs the benefit of companionship and socialization without the agitation and stress they experienced with cohabitation.
Territorialism & Possessiveness
Occasionally, you find a guinea pig that lives by a very adamant Toddler’s Creed: “Everyone and everything I see in my space is mine.” This behavior manifests in both males and females most strongly in two ways: the first is the “house possessive” pig, which commandeers the only hidey house in the cage, then strikes out at roommates who try to come in. The solution is to double-up on the cage accessories that are sources of conflict.
The second is the “space possessive” pig, which rules the cage and the play area and is extremely finicky about who they’ll allow in. In this case, resign yourself to a patient process of trial and error to find a roommate they’ll accept. If they already have a roommate, you might want to abandon your plan to create a larger colony rather than continue to stress pets out with the drama that has ensued with new introductions.
None of this is meant to suggest that guinea pigs are categorically basket cases in need of pet psychotherapy. On the whole, this species is playful, social, resilient, and quite frequently even-keeled. But it is important to know how things can go out of balance and why. Knowing how to respond, and being able to respond quickly, can make a world of difference to your little charges.