Q: My little cousin came to my house and he was a little bit rough with the guinea pigs, now all they want to do is hide and they don’t want to be handled. Should I leave them a few days without handling them?
A: Hand, hands, hands — whether large or small, hands can be very intimidating to a guinea pig. Any movement from above is not unlike a bird of prey’s approach (death from above) triggering their hard-wired instinct to flee. Fast moving hands just outside of their line of vision can also set off this natural reaction, and this is without any rough handling. Guinea pigs either flee or freeze in the face of danger. So they are already harboring this hard-wired behavior and are easily prone to having this natural reaction set off. With a little time and a bit of coaxing, it will subside. Being consistent in your behavior will turn the tide.
Perhaps for the first few days after the rough handling, address your guinea pigs in a low, soft voice that makes them have to stretch to hear you. But do not attempt to pick up your guinea pigs. Gently blow air toward the nose of your guinea pigs so that they can recognize your scent and associate it with you. This is something that is done with horses when they are in the process of breaking them for a saddle. I have seen guinea pigs blow at each other as if to say, “I’m a friend” or it can also mean “Back off” when it is a short puff of air.
After the gentle air blowing, offer your guinea pigs a bit of food, something that is their favorite — a bit of fruit, a strawberry or melon, a well-loved vegetable, a bit of carrot or cilantro. A day of this should be enough to warm them up. Then as they come around, use your soft voice and gently place your hand in a favorite spot for petting. Ideally, under the chin if they will permit it. This is a mannerism in which I have seen guinea pigs greet each other. If the guinea pig permits this touch under the chin from another guinea pig, then he is saying, “Hey I am friendly toward you.” If he rolls his head away or tries to flip the greeter’s nose up with his own, blocking the touch under the chin, it can mean, “Hey there buddy, not so fast!”
Other spots to try include the top of the head, behind an ear or gently across the nose. Always approach a guinea pig in his line of sight and move low and slow. It should not take very long to win him or her back over, and you should be able to pick them up.
Teaching a child of any age how to handle the guinea pig will help to prevent this problem from happening in future encounters. Children cannot help their curiosity and are so anxious to experience the things they see other people doing that they are usually quick to learn how to hold a guinea pig properly. This too is a way for your guinea pig to become accustomed to little hands.
First, get down at the child’s level, holding the guinea pig for them at first, and asking them to use two fingers and run those along the ridge of the guinea pig’s nose, then down the back. You can see if the guinea pig will permit touching under the chin. When the child seems ready to hold the guinea pig, have him or her sit cross-legged on floor. If sitting on the floor isn’t possible, sit on something stable that is only inches from the floor rather than a couple feet. That way if guinea pig decides to “exit, stage right,” it is a very short drop to the floor. Guinea pigs can be fidgety, especially if they are young themselves, and will leap out of hands. This can lead to broken front teeth if they are too far from the floor.
Speaking low and slow, show and tell the child how the guinea pig likes to be petted and handled, and how the guinea pig sees the world, hears the world.
Something else to consider is having the child read a book about guinea pigs. There are lots of children’s books, no matter the reading level, about guinea pigs. These are available at school libraries, public libraries, secondhand bookstores, bookstores or online. It is then a success for everyone all around, but most especially the guinea pig.
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And check out:
Life With Your First Pet Guinea Pig, click here>>
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Pros and Cons Of Getting A Small Animal Pet For Your Child, click here>>