It might seem like the most natural thing in the world; to pick up a small animal, give them a cuddle and a stroke before returning them safely to their cage.However, handling a guinea pig requires a great deal of care in order to avoid dropping your pet and to ensure that he/she feels comfortable and secure.
Guinea pigs have delicate bones and a fall, particularly from a height, could cause serious injuries such as broken bones, internal damage and bruising. Not only this but accidents can make your pet feel vulnerable and nervous about being handled. In this respect, getting your handling technique sorted as early as possible will make for a better bonding experience and prevent any mishaps.
Guinea pigs can wriggle and jump and, however confident you feel, it is essential that you always support your guinea pig. Loud noises or sudden movements can make your pet feel alarmed and make them likely to make a break for it. If this were to happen when you were transporting them at height, then a fall could do some serious injury; so, always practice good handling techniques.
Good Practice Handling Techniques
Being carried is not a natural thing for a guinea pig so the first few times you do it they are likely to be nervous and they may avoid you next time you approach them. This is why it’s important to get your first few encounters well-practiced so that the both of you feel more comfortable and confident.
How to Approach Your Guinea Pig
Never approach your guinea pig from behind as this can startle them. In addition, swooping on them from a height can be equally as alarming. Remember, in the wild they are preyed upon by large birds so they are naturally prone to run from air attacks! Instead, get down to their level and reach to them slowly from the front. Talk to your guinea pig in a calm and quiet tone as you get nearer and extend a hand slowly to their face. They will most likely want to sniff you out first so let them have the time they need to get used to your scent. This is all a part of the bonding experience and, if they can associate your smell (and voice) with a relaxed petting then they will be more likely to want to be picked up in future. At this stage, we are aiming to reinforce a positive bond so go steady, be patient but be firm and consistent.
How to Hold Your Guinea Pig
Always support your guinea pig from the bottom up. It is essential that you give your pet a base feeling of security and hold its rear quarters with confidence. In addition, always make sure you have a secure grip around its torso to prevent any accidental ‘leaps of faith’. Ideally, and particularly with nervous guinea pigs, you should support them by restraining (at least) one of their front quarters. It’s good advice for the more nervous pets who have a tendency to nip and bite to give them a firm and safe feeling of security whilst preventing them the access to deliver an unexpected ‘chomp’.
Whilst you need to have a firm grip on your pet you should also make sure that you are not holding them too tightly. As with any small creatures, their insides are very delicate and too much pressure on their lungs and stomach can cause discomfort. It is precisely this reason why younger children should never be allowed to pick guinea pigs up. This is not to say that they cannot touch them just make sure your child is sitting at floor level and allow the guinea pig to settle on their lap. Letting small children carry guinea pigs can be dangerous so please heed this advice. Bring your guinea pig close in to your chest and hold them with both hands. The security of this hold will give your cavy confidence that you have them securely but also provide them with the warmth of your body, important scenting and give you an opportunity for a sneaky cuddle.
The first couple of times that you do this, it is likely that your guinea pig will struggle so try to keep this first handling down to just a few minutes until you can build up the time that they feel comfortable in your care. It is a good idea to do this whilst seated . Imagine the fear of looking down and seeing a drop many times your own body length! Again, be patient.
Whilst holding your pet you may find that they try to nuzzle their faces into your clothing. This is part of their natural behaviour to try and hide. The idea being if their head is hidden then no-one can see them. For this reason, the first couple of times you handle your pet, you might want to hold a small cloth as well. This way they have access to a ‘hiding’ place and may feel more comfortable as a result.
How to Put Your Guinea Pig Back in the Cage
When you put your guinea pig back in their housing or pen it is tempting to just ‘let them go’ when you are a few inches from the ground; however, it is an important part of handling for you to signify that you are finished and your pet hasn’t escaped. They should understand the importance of the release as much as the initial pick up in that you are in control. So, when you release your guinea pig, try to do so under absolute controlled conditions. If they squirm a few feet before the ground, don’t be tempted to let them drop but simply wait until they are calmer before releasing. The key is to gain their trust so that the next time they do not feel so nervous. It is far better practice to take control of your pet’s nerves and to release then only when they stop squirming and wriggling. This will instil in your guinea pig a feeling of security being key to release. Over time, your pet will realise that ‘resistance is futile’ and remain more calm when being released back into its environment. Another piece of advice is to return your guinea pig back to its cage backwards. If they can’t see that they are going home then they are less likely to try and make a dash for it.
Overall, handling a new guinea pig requires patience; your pet is adjusting to a new environment and new owners. It is not a normal thing and requires you to be reassuring, firm and consistent.
Things to Consider Before Picking Up Your Guinea Pig
You should always wash your hands before (and after) handling a guinea pig. This will ensure that you are not carrying any germs or bacteria which may be harmful to your pet but will also remove any scent of food. Cavies have an excellent sense of smell and if they can detect some delicious scent on your fingers then they may accidentally bite you, mistaking you for a treat. In addition, you should try not to smell of anything artificial as this will prevent your cavy from learning your unique scent. So, don’t try to handle your pet just after spraying your deodorant or using perfume.
Think about the area in which you are handling your guinea pig; you should make sure that dogs and cats are not in the room with you in case they are tempted to consider your small pet as a toy or tasty snack. You should be confident that the area is free of obstacles so you don’t trip whilst holding your cavy and you should always have clear access to return your pet back to safe environment if you need to do so in a hurry. Be particularly careful about any potential escape routes. If you accidentally drop your pet, you should be confident that they have nowhere they can disappear to such as gaps in fences, holes and ledges/drops; they can move pretty quickly for a small creature.
The environment should be free of potential, unexpected loud noises as this may frighten your cavy and cause it to struggle free. This is particularly important when they are quite young and during your first handling experiences together.
Very squirmy or skittish animals may benefit from being tempted into handling by using food as a ‘lure’ and a treat. Have some special fresh vegetable treats on hand to make this process as rewarding as possible.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to wear clothing that you don’t mind getting messy. As stated above, your pet is unlikely to urinate on you but you may get grease from their glands, dust, debris and hair as well as poop.
The Benefits of Handling Your Guinea Pig
With the correct technique, handling is a real pleasure for both you and your pet. Not only does physical interaction help with bonding but it also prevents guinea pigs from getting too skittish and nervous. With regular handling, essential grooming, maintenance and trips to the vets will be much less stressful for both you and your cavy.
Guinea pigs are social animals and they benefit from handling by getting important social interaction; this can help keep them happy as lonely cavies run the risk of serious health problems. A daily fifteen minutes of petting time will make your guinea pig relaxed and provide them with an enjoyable massage, groom and mental stimulation.
Signs to Watch for When Handling
When you are handling your guinea pig it is recommended that you do so for periods of no longer than about 15 minutes. Within this time they may need the toilet and will indicate they want to do so be becoming more restless. Some guinea pigs will lick you if they want to get down.
If you ignore these signs then you run the risk of being nipped. It is more common for a cavy to go for a number two whilst being handled that urinating on you. If your pet urinates on you then this is highly unusual and indicates that you probably missed those tell-tale signs.
Trips to the Vets
All guinea pigs should see a vet on an annual basis for a routine check-up and may require you to transport them in a carrier either on a walk, via car or public transport. It is essential that you are able to handle your cavy confidently in order to get them into their pet carrier.
Firstly, make sure your pet carrier is prepared in advance with a lining of newspaper, some hay and maybe a few small treats. Have the door of the carrier open, in readiness, before you attempt to pick up your guinea pig. Carefully pick them up and place them, rear end first, into the carrier before securing locking the cage door.
It is worth placing a cloth over the carrier so your guinea pig feels safe and hidden and prevents any exposure to other animals once you arrive at the vets.
Travelling with a guinea pig in a pet carrier should be done carefully and securely. If you are driving then secure the carrier into the passenger (or rear) seat using a seat belt firmly threaded through the handle of the carrier. This will prevent the cage from rolling around or being jettisoned in the event of an emergency stop.
When walking with the carrier, be mindful of your little pet inside the cage and don’t swing or jostle the carrier and try to avoid making any sudden jerking movements.
Allow your vet to take your guinea pig from the cage once you are in the examination room but give him any specific advice about handling if needed. Most vets are exceptionally confident with all types of animal but if your cavy is particularly nippy or nervous then don’t be afraid to say so.
What Not to Do When Handling Your Guinea Pig
Most guinea pigs do not like to be touched on their bellies or their bottoms. You will learn very quickly if there is a specific spot on your cavy that is a no-go zone but, generally, avoid the tummy. It is best to stroke your cavy from the head to the rump and maybe a gentle rub under the chin and around the neck.
We also wanted to include some advice on the subject of leashes for guinea pigs as there are many variants of these harnesses which are being advertised for cavies. It is not a safe or advisable thing to use with your pet guinea pig. Whilst they do enjoy exercise, walking them in a public place is a dangerous thing to do. For instance, having a guinea pig on a leash in a public park can mean loose dogs could attack, loud noises could frighten your pet and the additional exposure to nasty pollutants, things they shouldn’t eat (cigarette butts, pesticides, fertilisers etc.) and broken glass etc. could all be harmful. By all means, give your guinea pig some exercise in a safe outside environment but they are not dogs so please don't use a leash.
Special Requirements: Pregnant Guinea Pigs
If you are breeding your guinea pigs, a pregnant cavy can still be handled but extra care must be taken. Under no circumstances should you place your expectant guinea pig in a position where she could be dropped or squeezed too firmly. If needed, sit on the floor and gently lift her onto your lap for a stroke. In the later weeks of her pregnancy, handling should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Catching an Escapee
If you do accidentally drop or release your guinea pig too soon then don’t worry, they are catchable but it’s important that you don’t panic!
The first thing to do is to block any escape routes and to minimise the space he can roam. If you are indoors, close doors and place upturned books or other flat objects against any hidey holes (under the sofa, cupboards or behind shelving). Slowly corner your cavy and then approach him as you would do under normal handling circumstances. Be patient, be calm and try to lure him with food. If the escape was a result of a fall then you will need to be extra careful in case your pet has sustained any injuries. These may not be immediately obvious as the adrenalin for both of you might be running high. Once caught and returned to his cage, be watchful for any changes in physical behaviour or obvious signs of injury.
Perseverance is the Key
Despite all of our advice, tips and guidelines, your first handling may not go as well as you expected but don’t despair. Yes, your pet may have struggled, nipped, whined or even urinated on you and made you wary to try again. But the key is to persevere with your attempts at handling. Analyse what went wrong with any prior handling and try to adjust your technique to improve your skill. For example, if your guinea pig urinated on you then you probably held her for too long or too tightly. If they squirmed immediately and you put them down too quickly then try bringing them closer to your body to instil confidence in your handling. Maybe they nipped your fingers….so, did you wash your hands?
Petting a small animal is key to your enjoyment of their company and, with guinea pigs, essential for their well-being. If you are not able to handle them correctly then the important maintenance tasks such as grooming, health checks and visits to the vet will not go smoothly. Consider handling as the primary skill you need to being a responsible owner and get that technique down pat!