Guinea pigs are curious, intelligent and playful creatures that are a pleasure to own and to interact with. They make wonderful pets for children and fascinating companions. Each breed, of which there are many, has their own unique quirks as well personalities.
Male and female cavies also differ in their temperament and behaviours but we thought it would be useful to put together a short guide on some of the behaviours common to most guinea pigs.
Let’s start with the most common behaviour associated with these guinea pigs: skittishness.
Freezing, running and hiding
In the wild, guinea pigs have lots of natural predators and it is a part of their makeup that they respond to loud noises and sudden movements with defensive manoeuvres. This evolutionary mechanism can explain many guinea pig behaviours such as running away, hiding and even ‘freezing’.
By standing still, your guinea pig is attempting to camouflage its movements from a predator while he assesses the threat. It is also a useful strategy when living in groups as it gives its companions a heads up that there might be danger lurking.
As part of their highly tuned defence mechanisms, guinea pigs don’t blink very much and you will rarely see them with their eyes closed. Often when sleeping guinea pigs will have their eyes open. So, don’t be fooled into believing your guinea pig is lost in thought and a deep-thinker, he’s probably catnapping. If you do happen to see them with their eyes closed, especially when you are handling them, then it is a sign they are relaxed and secure in their environment.
In much the same way as you see in meerkats, guinea pigs sometimes stand on their hind legs to get a better vantage (and sniff) of their surroundings. It’s an adorable stance and can often happen when they can hear the sound of food being prepared for them. It is almost as though they are begging!
You may notice your guinea pig crawling along with their hindquarters closer to the ground than usual or dragging their bottoms like dogs do. It’s easy to think that they may be doing this to scratch an itch or to loosen any clumps of debris on their fur but what they are actually doing is marking their territory. Your guinea pig will be laying down their scent to let other cavies (and animals) know that this is his spot.
Rearing their head
In guinea pig groups the higher a cavy holds its head the more dominant it is. If you have more than one guinea pig (guinea pigs should always be in pairs or more), you may notice head rearing occurring as part of their social interaction.
Guinea pigs, particularly babies and younger piggies, have this insanely cute dance move which is known as ‘popcorning’. Energetic cavies will blow off a little steam with this signature move; they run, jump up in the air, land on all four feet and then run off in a different direction. A popcorning guinea pig is a happy pet and they are great fun to watch. As they get older they don't popcorn quite so much or as energetically but you will still see them have the odd little bound of excitement.
Chattering and squeaking
The noises your guinea pig can make can be very alarming at first as it will be unclear as to why they are making the sounds they make. Often referred to as a ‘wheek’, their squeak is very clearly expressed when they are content, happy or want something, especially food! It is an entirely different noise to the louder, more high pitched squeak that they make when they are frightened or in pain. They will make this noise in response to a threat or if you have done something they didn’t like. Pay attention when they make this sound so you don’t repeat whatever it was that upset them.
In addition to the squeaking and squealing, they can also chatter their teeth. If your cavy is making this noise, then he almost certainly is unhappy about something. He may feel threatened or something is making him feel cross. Sometimes if a guinea pig is ill, the others will see a weakness and fight so be vigilant and see if you can work out why the chattering is happening. However, it is best not to pick them up until they have settled down.
It isn't just cats that purr! When you are stroking your guinea pig and they are contented, to show they are happy, they may start purring. However, they also make a similar short sudden purring sound when alarmed so don't mix the two! A contented purr tends to be long and the other much shorter.
Eating their own droppings
Although not something you see in the human world, this is a common behaviour in the animal kingdom. In guinea pigs specifically it is quite normal and provides them with additional nutrients that were not absorbed during the first digestion of their food as well as essential bacteria that can only be found in their droppings.
Though their stout little bodies don’t seem well adapted for running they are surprisingly fast little creatures and, to get the exercise they need, guinea pigs can be seen running laps around their pen. It’s very exciting to watch and they look hysterical doing it, particularly when they stop to pause and then take off again!
Though they will groom themselves using their tongues and licking their paws to reach the odd place, licking is also a sign that your guinea pig is exploring their environment. Animals like to use all of their senses when checking out a new object or person so licking can be a way to investigate something unusual in their environment. Other times it is simply because they like the taste of something, like your fingers!
Morning (and evening) people
Guinea pigs are most active around dawn and dusk. Again, due to their evolution, and to avoid predators, they have found the safest time of the day to be in the mornings and evenings. This is ideal for those people who work (or for children coming back from school) as your pet will appreciate handling in the evenings. A great way to unwind from all the stress of a busy day.
If you find that your guinea pig fidgets during handling, then it is usually a sign that they may need to use the toilet. They don’t like to urinate or defecate on their owners so it’s a good idea to return them to their cage for a short time before trying to handle them again.
Biting is a very unusual behaviour in guinea pigs and one that can indicate either a problem in the way you are handling them or with their health. They rarely bite so if they do it can be a cause for concern. First of all, eliminate the possibility that it was an accident. If you were feeding them then they may have been over enthusiastic for that tasty snack and bitten you instead. Always wash your hands before handling your guinea pig as you may still smell of that tasty cheese sandwich you had for lunch. You can avoid many accidental bites with good hygiene. Check your guinea pig gently to identify any health issues such as mites, injuries or other concerns to eliminate this as a cause. Lastly, if your guinea pig is still nippy when being handled then your timing may be off or you might not be being as gentle as you thought.
If the biting is associated with its cage then your guinea pig may be indicating he is bored, stressed or depressed. If he is living alone then you must consider getting him a companion. We always recommend housing guinea pigs in two's or more as they can be incredibly lonely and sad without a friend to share their space with. Also, look at how large his area to roam is and determine whether you can make his space more interesting. Lastly, are you spending enough time handling him daily? Guinea pigs are very sociable creatures and need regular attention and interaction.
Quite different to biting, nibbling is a subtle way for your guinea pig to get your attention and may be a sign that, if you are handling him, he wants to get down. Pay attention to this sign as you don’t want to annoy or frustrate your cavy so that he does bite you. Younger children can get quite skittish if their guinea pigs nibble as they afraid they are going to bite. Reassure them that it’s a friendly sign but that they want to return to their cage.
Stretching and yawning
It’s very cute when they do this as they make themselves very long like a slinky cat but it is a relaxed and happy guinea pig that does so. You may observe this behaviour after you have been holding them and grooming them for a long period. It is a sign of a contented cavy.
Most animals display this kind of behaviour and is a result of the desire to itch. However, excessive scratching can be a sign of parasites or other skin complaint so always check to make sure your pet is mite free and well-groomed.
It sounds very extreme but animals can suffer from the ‘blues’ just like humans. A guinea pig that is showing little interest in playtime, grooming and its food could be suffering from an underlying health complaint but may also be depressed. Try offering it some of its favourite snacks; if they show no interest then it is worth taking him to the vet to ensure there is nothing serious wrong.
Differences in the genders
If you don’t have your guinea pig neutered, then they can display different hormonal behaviours that vary by gender.
Between the age of 6 and 18 months a boy guinea pig (or boar) will start to develop ‘teenage’ tendencies and start to try and display dominance. When living with other cavies this can manifest itself as mild aggression, swaggering ‘nose-offs’ and displays of bottom wiggling, hip swaying and raised heckles. Alone or in a circle they will certainly be marking their territory more and perhaps engaging in some light teeth chattering. This normally subsides by the time they are 18 months old and (in social circles) will usually amount to nothing more than a small conflict. If you are concerned about fighting, then you may need to either separate your guinea pigs or consider neutering the male.
Unneutered girls (or sows) on the other hand come into season every 16 days and this can coincide with some ‘frisky’ behaviour such as mounting. There is nothing to worry about with this kind of activity but if you do keep unneutered sows and boars together there is a risk of them breeding. Breeding comes with very specific responsibilities and you should definitely know what you are doing. Failure to breed correctly can result in serious health problems for both the litter and the sow so it is always recommended that you don’t keep unneutered pets together.
Encouraging natural behaviours
All caged animals should be given as much of an opportunity as possible to replicate their behaviour in the wild. For this reason, your cage, hutch and pen should provide some essentials to help promote this. Firstly, guinea pigs are social animals and live in large groups in the wild. You should always keep at least two guinea pigs together as loneliness can cause depression in cavies. Guineas need somewhere to run to and hide when they feel threatened; this could be an upturned cardboard box, a tunnel or a pigloo but it is vital they know they can feel safe. They also enjoy foraging so if you have a space in your garden where the grass has grown longer then set up their pen there so they can enjoy hiding.
Lastly, with regard to all behaviours in your guinea pig, you will soon learn what is normal for your pet and any changes in behaviour including their appetite and overall condition should always be referred to a vet.