As supremely social creatures, guinea pigs need at least one cavy chum to chat to
If guinea pigs are your pet of choice, always get a pair, or even a trio. In fact, in Switzerland, an animal rights law was introduced in 2008 making it illegal to own just one guinea pig at a time as it was considered an act of cruelty to deny these animals the chance to have a companion of their own species.
Are guinea pigs friendly? Yes!
Highly sociable, friendly and chatty, guinea pigs originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. In the wild, they live in close family groups of five to 10 individuals, though several groups may live near to each other, forming a colony.
Do guinea pigs need a companion? Yes!
The RSPCA advises: “You should keep your guinea pig with at least one other friendly guinea pig, unless you’re advised otherwise by a vet or clinical animal behaviourist. If they’re left on their own for long periods, guinea pigs can develop abnormal behaviour and may suffer.”
Blue Cross adds: “Guinea pigs are social pets and are therefore best kept in groups of two or more. This enables them to express their natural behaviour and allows for all of their social needs to be met.”
So, as much as guinea pigs can learn to trust and bond with their human, they really need companionship of their own kind to be truly happy. Keep reading to find out more about bonding guinea pigs…
What makes a good guinea pig group?
Females tend to get on very well together in pairs or groups. A pair of neutered male guinea pigs can get on well if they are siblings, or if introduced when young – guinea pig bonding has to be done very carefully. A mixed pairing works very well, and a neutered male can also live harmoniously with a group of females.
Blue Cross says: “If you would like to keep a group of three or more guinea pigs it’s not advisable to have more than one male as any more can cause a conflict over resources.”
Neutering males is also important. Blue Cross adds: “Neutering the male guinea pig removes the potential for any unwanted litters and avoids the likely problems that can be caused by hormones. But it’s essential to wait four to six weeks after neutering before introducing a male guinea pig to any females as he might still be able to reproduce during this time.”
Samantha, a small pet behaviour and training specialist at Wood Green says: “If you do have to get your guinea pigs neutered, choose a vet who specialises in small pets and has lots of experience in neutering guinea pigs to ensure a swift recovery.”
If one guinea pig dies, how do you go about finding a new friend?
Losing a beloved guinea pig is always a very sad time – and of course, there’s the worry about how your remaining guinea pig will cope.
Finding a new guinea pig companion can help. However, before you start looking at potential partners, make sure you know the sex of your guinea pig (ask your vet to check if you’re not sure).
If you have a male, it’s best to get a neutered female to be his roommate. In the wild, guinea pigs would have just one mature male in a group and putting two boys together who are not from the same litter will likely result in a fight.
If you have a female guinea pig, a neutered male may be better than another female – girls can be just as territorial with each other as boys. In fact, sometimes, if you have two or more females who aren’t getting along too well, introducing a male piggy can help balance the situation.
A good place to find a new friend is from a rescue centre such as Blue Cross RSPCA and Wood Green as the staff will be able to tell you a bit about different guinea pigs’ personalities and check they are in good health. If your piggy is a confident sort, they may prefer a quieter friend, and vice versa.
How do you introduce a new guinea pig?
The first rule of guinea pig introductions is to never put them together straight away. Building a good relationship takes time and it’s really important that things get off on the right foot. Here’s what to do:
- Put your guinea pigs’ homes and runs close enough so that they can see each other but are still separate. Keep this arrangement for at least three days.
- During this time, try some ‘scent swapping’ by letting them have each other’s toys, a bit of bedding and other items so they get used to each other’s scent.
- Next, move their accommodation closer. This allows your piggies to see, smell and sit with each other, but with a safety barrier between them. When they are close to each other, feed them both a few tasty guinea pig treats so they associate this arrangement with good things happening.
Once your guinea pigs seem comfortable hanging out together either side of the barrier, pick a neutral area for their first proper meet and greet. This is essential because if one feels the other is intruding on their territory, they may get really protective, and sparks could fly!
- Set the scene by putting out tunnels to hide in, lots of toys and some of their favourite nosh – such as a few dandelion leaves scattered about and some yummy nuggets – along with a few piles of sweet smelling hay to hide in and munch on.
- Blue Cross advises: “Provide items in the run such as open-ended boxes, open beds and tubes that the guinea pigs can hide in or behind, as this will ensure they have the space to move away and avoid the other individual should they feel the need to. Items that allow for a guinea pig to be cornered or become territorial, such as a carrier, shouldn’t be used.”
- Once you’ve got everything ready, let them in the special area you’ve created and give them some time to introduce themselves. There should be lots of interaction and chattering – but keep a close on eye on proceedings. Some guinea pigs will become firm friends quite quickly, others will need several meetings on neutral ground before they feel happy hanging out together permanently.
- If a scuffle breaks out, you’ll need to separate them (a piece of thin board you can slide between them can be helpful here – but be careful not to cause any injuries) and go back to the scent swapping stage. Try another face-to-face meeting again after a few more days.
Blue Cross says: “End the session on a positive note if possible. Several introductions set up in this way should build a relationship between the two and help get them ready to move in together.”
Once you’re sure your guineas have become pals and are showing all positive behaviours, they’re ready to be roomies.
- PDSA recommends allowing your new piggy pals to live in neutral territory together before moving them into their permanent home. Provide the largest space possible.
- You’ll also need to set out different sleeping spots so they can choose to snuggle up together or enjoy some ‘me’ time alone.
- Also ensure there are enough resources – nuggets, healthy treats, fresh greens, water and hay – so they have everything they need without any squabbling.
Samantha, a small pet behaviour and training specialist at Wood Green says: “If you find yourself with a single guinea pig, or you’d like to expand your herd, we can help! Woodgreen’s onsite mixing service is a lifeline for owners looking for support with finding their single guinea pigs a lasting companion. This could involve mixing onsite or providing you with advice on how to mix them at home.”
How can I tell if my guinea pigs are happy with the new arrangement?
Happy, positive guinea pig behaviours reveal things are working out just fine. Look out for these, outlined by PDSA:
- ‘Popcorning’ (jumping suddenly in the air like popcorn)
- Loud squeaks or ‘wheeks’ (different from louder, high-pitched squeaks made if frightened or in pain)
- Wanting to be close to each other (following one another or lying next to each other)
- Feeding close together
- Grooming each other
Signs that the relationship is still a work in progress include:
- Teeth chattering (revealing they are threatened or angry)
- Hiding from each other
- Chasing (rather than following)
- Often opening their mouths at each other
- Constant fighting and trying to injure each other
If you start to see more negative behaviours, such as signs of stress or aggression, then go back a step. Sometimes, building a good relationship takes work!
DID YOU KNOW?
The RSPCA says that, unlike other social animals, guinea pigs tend not to engage in rough and tumble play but instead their play is based around movement. Guinea pigs will leap, run and chase each other and you may also spot them suddenly jumping in the air, with all four feet off the ground, often turning 90° in mid-air. This is ‘pop-corning’ and will be seen when your piggies are excited.
If introducing another guinea pig is not successful, how can I help my solo guinea pig?
The RSPCA advises: “Guinea pigs who’ve been well handled by people from a young age can learn that humans are friends and companions. If your guinea pig has to be kept alone, it’s vital to give them companionship by interacting with them every day.”
The best way to form a bond between yourself and your guinea pigs is to take things slowly and build up trust over time. These wary rodents think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might) but crouch down to meet them at their level. When your guinea pigs come forward in their enclosure, don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat, so your pets learn to come to your hand. Once your guinea pigs are confidently taking treats and allowing you to stroke them, you can try gently handling them.
Can you keep guinea pigs with rabbits or other pets?
It’s a popular myth that you can happily keep guinea pigs and rabbits together. These two different species can’t communicate well and have very different needs. Rabbits are likely to bully guinea pigs and can also carry diseases which can be very harmful to piggies. Guinea pigs should only be kept with other guinea pigs.
The RSPCA advises: “Always keep a constant eye on your guinea pigs when they’re with another animal, even if you know they’re good friends. Guinea pigs will usually be scared of cats and dogs because they’re natural predators, but if they’re introduced carefully early in life, they can develop friendships.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Guinea pigs use around 11 different noises to communicate how they’re feeling including the well-known ‘wheek-wheek’ call – a sign of excitement or to find a friend – and a low ‘purring’ sound, which they make when they are feeling content and chilled out. They also emit a series of short ‘putt-putt’ noises when they are exploring stuff and a disgruntled ‘chutt’ sound when they’re annoyed about something. In fact, guinea pigs use sounds as a primary means of communication and, since they are herd animals, sounds are also their means of maintaining social rank.