By Kevin Wright, DVM, DABPV
Guinea pigs are wonderful pets. Most enjoy being petted and spending time outside their cages with their families. If a guinea pig has been gently handled since birth, he is more likely to be calm and enjoy being handled. Older guinea pigs may learn to enjoy time with their owners, but it takes gentle, persistent handling together with rewards, such as a favored treat, for good behavior.
Many guinea pigs don’t like being picked up and are frightened when they are carried. Scoop up a guinea pig so that his hind legs and rump are cradled and his front legs are supported. If a guinea pig is nervous or jumpy, hook a finger over one of his front legs to prevent him from leaping forward. Never dangle a guinea pig by the scruff of the neck or his “armpits,” as this can cause serious injury.
Small children should not try to lift or carry guinea pigs until their hands and arms are large enough to encircle the guinea pig. Only older, experienced children and adults should lift guinea pigs out of their cages and return them to reduce the chance of injury.
Guinea pigs learn to enjoy being stroked in the direction of the fur along the back or sides. Most guinea pigs do not enjoy petting on their nose or around their eyes, which is where young children often target. Guinea pigs vary in how long they wish to be out of their cage and petted. Be careful holding a guinea pig on furniture, as a sudden leap off a couch can cause injury or death. Some may spend hours happily on a lap being petted, with occasional breaks to urinate, while others start to complain after 10 to 20 minutes. Some guinea pigs prefer to be petted in their cages or on the floor and may never enjoy being lifted onto laps or being carried.
Nips And Bites
Some guinea pigs use their mouths to explore, and this gentle chewing has to be distinguished from biting. Other guinea pigs are nippy at first but calm down within a few weeks, while some never completely outgrow this behavior and are not suitable for homes with children. Biting is more common in intact boars and sows, in guinea pigs that were raised alone rather than with companions, or in guinea pigs that were surrendered to rescues from troubled homes.
Biting is common when a guinea pig is afraid; most guinea pigs do not enjoy being carried and may nip at this time, but they are otherwise well-behaved when on a lap or laying down with you.
Biting may be a signal that a guinea pig has to urinate (about every 15 to 20 minutes) or is hungry or thirsty.
Biting may indicate a guinea pig is in pain, which can be caused by such things as back pain, arthritis, bladder stone, mites or other medical conditions. If a normally calm guinea pig suddenly starts biting, seek veterinary care.
How is biting discouraged in healthy guinea pigs? Do not put a guinea pig back into his cage when he bites, or he will learn that a bite will make you leave him alone. Use a towel to wrap your guinea pig securely until he calms down, and give him gentle hugs until he stops wiggling. Once he calms down, unwrap the towel and pet him with firm strokes that become softer if he stays relaxed. Reward quiet, relaxed behavior with a small food treat. Some biters may learn good behavior if they are paired with a guinea pig that likes handling.
Guinea pigs tend to be crepuscular, active at dusk and dawn, but adjust to what happens around them. You may notice your guinea pig is grumpy, and more prone to nipping, if he is woken up for handling. If that’s the case, try to work with him and only pick him up when he’s already awake. After all, how do you like someone waking you up in the middle of the night to go for a walk?
Handling For Good Health
Guinea pigs need grooming in order to stay healthy. Foot care is particularly important. Overgrown toenails lead to deformities of the toes, which in turn creates arthritis, calluses (spurs), and swelling and infection of the foot (pododermatitis). Weekly toenail trims are needed.
Longhaired breeds need daily combing and brushing, while shorthaired breeds need brushing weekly to remove dead skin and hair. Bathing should be kept to a minimum, and only gentle, hypoallergenic pet shampoo used unless a medical condition requires something else. Some guinea pigs need to have their perineal region cleaned to prevent urine scalding or fecal soiling (particularly with overweight pigs or longhaired breeds).
The above is an excerpt from an article originally published in the 2012 issue of the former magazine Critters USA.