The Guinea Pig Wore Black: The Love & Grief of Guinea Pigs
By Katherine Mead-Brewer
My fiancé and I were road-tripping to our first family vacation together last summer – his parents, my parents, their dogs, and our guinea pigs, Margo and Nancy. We had only recently adopted them from a local guinea pig rescue society and had been thrilled with just how quickly we’d all taken to each other. I had kept guinea pigs as a kid but Margo and Nancy were my fiancé’s first. They’d surprised us both with how much happiness they brought to our home, these two mature and lovely ladies with, supposedly, at least a good two to three years left ahead of them. However, by the time we reached the beach house and had their cage set up in their private little room, we discovered that Margo had passed away. Her passing was shocking for many reasons, chief among them that we had worked to check on them multiple times throughout the trip and found nothing wrong. And, while it hit us both very hard, what we hadn’t considered was just how hard it would impact Nancy.
At first we wondered if we hadn’t missed something huge, wondered if, despite the credentials of the rescue agency or our recent check-up at the veterinarian office, they had developed some sort of disease or worms or heart problem. Then we began to worry and wonder if Nancy wouldn’t follow Margo before long. The first couple of days after Margo’s death, Nancy’s behavior seemed to support this idea: she didn’t move, she didn’t drink, and she didn’t eat. No matter what we did, she wouldn’t move from her twig hovel; we couldn’t even get her interested in her favorite treats of spinach and bell pepper.
Then, on day three, though she wouldn’t come out while anyone was in the room with her, we noticed that some water had been drunk and some of the hay had been munched. We realized, in other words, that Nancy wasn’t dying – Nancy was grieving. Nancy had, in effect, become a widow of sorts, having lost her best and oldest friend.
I’ve heard every excuse in the book from other guinea pig owners about why they don’t want more than one guinea pig. Yet, from those same owners, I also tend to hear the same set of complaints: I can’t get my guinea pig to lose weight; I can’t get my guinea pig to play or exercise; I can’t get my guinea pig to stop crying. And, while guinea pigs certainly aren’t human beings, these signs should sound eerily similar to those of humans deprived of friendship and love. The ASPCA is also clear on this front, explaining that “Guinea pigs are social animals who prefer to live in small groups” and, if you give your guinea pig company, they are certain to “become great friends.”[i] The Humane Society has also recognized this vital trait within guinea pigs and asks all potential guinea pig owners to remember that guinea pigs “do best with the companionship of another pig.” Keeping “a solitary guinea pig from becoming lonely and bored is a tall order,” the Humane Society explains, if not simply impossible for human beings to accomplish regardless of how much attention and interaction they may give.[ii] As also reported by Guinea Pig Today in 2011, the guinea pig’s need for others to socialize with others is so real and deep that it is actually illegal in Switzerland to only own a single guinea pig. To address issues such as the one Nancy and we were suddenly in – that of a lonely, grief-stricken guinea pig and a pair of owners uncertain if they wanted to commit to a young, single guinea pig as a new partner for her – Priska Küng, an active Swiss guinea pig advocate, has instituted a “‘rent-a-guinea pig’ service” wherein guinea pig owners can rent guinea pigs to serve as partners for their widowed, senior guinea pigs.[iii] In other words, while it may sound funny at first to say so, it is an act of animal cruelty to leave a guinea pig to live alone.
Upon cursory research and realizing the continued stagnation of Nancy’s behavior and lifestyle, my fiancé and I eventually decided to go ahead and commit to a new, young guinea pig by the name of Theodosia. And, upon Theo’s introduction to Nancy, the change in Nancy’s health was stunning in its immediacy. She went from almost complete motionlessness throughout the day to playing tag, rearranging the position of her twig hovel almost hourly, bucking and wheeking for food, and even, rather impressively, showing Theo the ways of the world (such as who gets to eat first, where the water is, when to run and hide, and who gets first pick of the spinach leaves).
Though it may sound incredible – though its incredibility only stems from a larger, social misunderstanding of the richness of the lives of guinea pigs and other small pets – guinea pigs are clearly creatures with a full spectrum of emotions from deep depression and dissatisfaction to joy and excitement and which are all directly tied to their ability to socialize with other guinea pigs. As I sit here and listen to Nancy hum about the cage and play with a now mature Theodosia, I am reminded of just how impressive her transformation truly was from her reaction to the death of Margo. We had underestimated her ability to feel deeply and even further underestimated the extent to which her happiness depended upon her access to a friend. Guinea pigs, unlike dogs, cannot bond with humans in such a way as to effectively substitute them for friends of their own species, for friends who speak their own unique language and who feel the same fears, desires, and quirks as they do.
If you’re a guinea pig owner who only has one guinea pig, I would urge you to invest in a slightly larger cage and the addition of at least one other cavy. The additional expense of adding another guinea pig is comparatively little to the impact it will have upon the health and happiness of your current guinea pig. I can all but guarantee you that it will well exceed your expectations. And if you’re a guinea pig owner who has recently felt the loss of one of your guinea pigs but doesn’t want to invest in another long-term guinea pig commitment, start up an online group to meet other guinea pig owners in your area and see about arranging play dates; contact a small pet rescue agency near you and see if they might have a home for yours or even a young cavy that you might be able to foster. There are plenty of creative ways that you can continue to show your guinea pigs the care and love that they so need and deserve.
Remember, just because they’re small, doesn’t mean that they don’t love big.
[i] “Guinea Pig Care,” ASPCA, 2013, Web, <http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/small-pet-care/guinea-pig-care.aspx>.
[ii] “Guinea Pigs: The Right Pet for You?,” The Humane Society of the United States, 21 April 2010, Web, <http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/guinea_pigs/tips/guinea_pigs_as_pets.html>.
[iii] Angela, Editor-in-Chief, “Rent-A-Cavy Wins in Switzerland,” Guinea Pig Today, 20 Sept. 2011, Web, <http://www.guineapigtoday.com/2011/09/20/rent-a-cavy-wins-in-switzerland/>.