A complete guide to handling guinea pigs

We can all agree how difficult it can be to catch a cute little guinea pig in order to groom, stroke and move it. Guinea pigs are timid creatures and surprisingly fast runners! Since guinea pigs are prey animals they are more likely to run and hide than other pets, plus with most guinea pigs weighing no more than two to four pounds they are pretty speedy once they start to run!

It can be tempting to simply reach in and grab or pin your piggy in order to pick them up but this is very dangerous since they have delicate bones. If you fail to pick up your guinea pig correctly they could get seriously hurt plus it makes the whole experience for your furry little guinea pig friend rather terrifying.

How you should pick up a guinea pig

The correct way to pick up a guinea pig is to place one of your hands underneath its middle, around the stomach region. Ensure you approach your guinea pig from the front and are talking to them calmly throughout the picking up process.Then you support its back or hind legs with your other hand.

Guinea pigs do not like to have their feet left unsupported plus dangling legs can easily be injured due to being caught or bumped against other objects. Guinea pigs that are picked up correctly feel safe and happy. If you have an extra wriggly guinea pig, then its important to ensure you don’t squeeze your piggie around the tummy region.

Reluctant piggies that really don’t want to be picked up can be persuaded with some of their favorite food. Our guinea pig Orange is rather fast and defiant when it comes to being picked up and even she can’t resist some tasty spinach. Remember to always hold your guinea pig with two hands to ensure they are correctly supported and can’t attempt to wriggle free or jump as they will injure themselves.

Walking when holding a guinea pig

In a perfect world, everything we need for our guinea pigs would be located in close proximity to each other! Since these items aren’t, then its possible you will have to walk whilst carrying your guinea pig especially if they live outside and come indoors for lap time. In order to help your guinea pig feel safe and secure whilst your walking with them, pick them up as described above but instead of cradling them in your arms similar to how you would a baby, instead hold them upright against your body.

Still keep one hand under their legs and then other can be moved to their back. This ensures they don’t fall backwards plus its a great way to sneak a few extra strokes in! Ensure you walk slowly and avoid making any sudden movements. The majority of guinea pigs will happily snuggle into your body when held in this position and will feel safe and secure.  The upright position in which you carry your guinea pig whilst walking will often mimic the one your piggie climbs into during laptime!

Children and handling guinea pigs

Guinea pigs make excellent pets for children however its important to teach them how to hold the guinea pigs correctly to ensure the guinea pig and the child do not get injured. Very young children should not be tasked with picking up or walking with guinea pigs. The guinea pigs should instead be brought over to the child who should be sitting down comfortably on a comfy chair or coach. The guinea pig can then be placed safely on the child’s knee without any harm coming to the guinea pig or child. We always put a thick towel or blanket on our children’s knee so they don’t complain about feeling the claws through their clothes. Ensure you stay with the child and supervise the interactions to ensure they child isn’t being too rough. It can be rather difficult to teach a very young child about being gentle especially if they haven’t fully developed their cognitive skills.

How to deal with really reluctant guinea pigs

If you have a really reluctant guinea pig that just wont be caught don’t chase it around the cage. The majority of guinea pigs will have a quick dash for cover and then eventually slow down enough to be caught. If you have a guinea pig that is especially timid and stays in its hideout, then resist the urge to remove all the places it has to hide. Instead ensure you have a box or tunnel with a top and bottom and transport your guinea pig inside that. Simply place one hand either at each end or over the one opening with the other hand holding the bottom. Ensure your transportation container isn’t flimsy or will break under the weight of a guinea pig. You can then transport the guinea pig to either its hutch, cage or run. You can use this same technique for lap time. Just transport your guinea pig inside the container and place it on your lap and a treat a little further away. This will help encourage the little piggie to come out and play! Remember not to take it personally as well! Guinea pigs are timid and cautious by nature.

Handling pregnant guinea pigs

If one of your guinea pigs are pregnant then its important to avoid handling her. Lap time is pretty much out for a pregnant guinea pig since they are very prone to stress plus the added risk of injuring mummy and babies through holding. She should only be handled if you feel there is something wrong with her. Obviously you will need to move the mummy piggy in order to clean her bedding and the best way to do this is using the transportation method detailed above. The only difference is to ensure you have a very sturdy container for transporting. A shoes box or other sturdy structure works well for supporting the addition weight of the mummy and babies.

How long should lap time be

It is recommended that you hold your guinea pig for a maximum of ten to fifteen minutes at a time. Ensure you have a blanket or towel on your lap or nearby since guinea pigs naturally need to go to the bathroom. Our guinea pigs always seem to need the bathroom after ten minutes. If your guinea pig leaves droppings or urine on you, be calm and clean it up without making sudden movements. Its fairly common for guinea pigs to leave droppings on you and less common for urine although it does happen! Its easy to tell when your guinea pig is ready to go back inside its cage since it will start getting restless, nibbling at clothes and make a whining sound.

When guinea pigs shouldn’t be handled.

We’ve already covered pregnancy (above)  as a time when guinea pigs shouldn’t be held above. Other circumstances when you shouldn’t hold your guinea pigs are if they are unwell or injured. Your vet will be able to advise when your able to start holding them again. Another time they shouldn’t be held is when they have just been born as they are too fragile.

Where to touch and not touch on guinea pigs

Every guinea pig is different however its common that most guinea pigs do not like their bottom or tummy to be touched! They all seem to love having their head in between their ears stroked. In fact this is a common technique used by vets to calm scared guinea pigs down. Several guinea pigs also like to have their neck rubbed, just under the chin.

Know your guinea pig head to tail!

Bringing home a new pet can be exciting and scary at the same time! We’ve all been there. I remember bring home our little piggy bundles and just watching them in their new home hoping they would be ok. One of the best places to start, be it before or after bringing your guinea pigs home is getting to know them from head to tail!

Our guinea pig friends have been kept as companions in household since the 16th Century when they were introduced by European traders.

Brain

Although domestic guinea pigs have a reduced brain size then their wild relatives, they are still just as smart if not smarter! A study in the journal of Animal Cognition suggests that although they do have a reduction in brain size over their bolder and more aggressive wild cousins they may actually be quicker learners! In the study, three tests were carried out to see the differences between the domesticated guinea pig and the wild cavies.

Boldness and aggression.

A wild cavy via zoochat.com

In the boldness test, Guinea pigs and wild cavies were observed whilst approaching an unfamiliar guinea pig and a strange object in the form of a yellow rubber duck. Cavies were quicker to approach the duck and adopted aggressive behaviours such as teeth chattering and curved body language when approaching the unfamiliar guinea pig. Whilst the guinea pigs were more timid and took longer to approach. In this case the wild cavies were deemed more bold and aggressive.

Learning

This test is when the guinea pigs excelled over their wild counterparts. Cucumber was placed inside plastic containters and the challenge was to see who figured it out the guinea pigs or cavies. The domesticated guinea pigs grasped this concept and figured out how to get the cumber much quicker than the wild cavies. Usually domestication of pets produces less intelligent animals and they experience cognitive decline, broadly speaking.

Furthermore, the average guinea pig can learn complex maze tasks using symbols as sign posts. They also have an excellent memory and can remember the times at which certain things happen such as feeding and cleaning out of cages! If your memory isn’t as good at feeding times as your guinea pig’s then try an automatic feeder! 

You can also feed their skill for learning by creating a maze out of a vairety of carboard tubes or buy plastic tubes which are more hard wearing like this one that we use for our little piggies.

Eyes

One of our guinea pigs!

Guinea pigs are able to see predators coming at them from all directions thanks to their large eyes being on the sides of their heads. This also unfortunately means they cant see what is right in front of them which is often why they startle relatively easily. A normal guinea pigs eyes are both the same size,clear, bright and should protrude slightly. Guinea pigs usually keep their eyes open all the time even when sleeping! Only a small few close their eyes fully when they sleep.

An experiment was carried out by Horst Bielfeld in his book Guinea Pigs — A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual where he uses coloured food bowls to distinguish whether a guinea pig could see colours and it concluded that they can.

Additionally you will notice a milky liquid coming from your guinea pigs eyes. This is completely normal and is used to wash the face. Your guinea pig will leave this liquid to build up and then will use it to clean their face using their front paws several times a day.

Ears

Guinea pigs have excellent hearing to help them identify predators before they come into view. There ears are soft and folded over to protect the delicate tissue inside. They are prone to different types of ear aliments and the jury is still out over whether the owner should clean their ears for them as part of the grooming routine. We have never cleaned our guinea pigs ears and I regularly check them as part of their grooming routine and none of ours have ever suffered with ear conditions. If your unsure then speak to your local vets. The usual ear cleaning kit of water and cotton buds is also useful to have in on standby just incase they develop any ear aliments.

Its normal for the outer ear to sustain a little damage such as a slight rip or tear as unfortunately the hierarchy battle is ongoing for piggies. As long as they aren’t huge rips or infected / swollen / bleeding then its best to just monitor the situation.

Nose

A guinea pigs sense of smell is highly developed and is likened to in between a human and a dog. They are able to recognise companions and owners through scent. A guinea pigs nose is small and should be clean and dry. Guinea pigs sneeze frequently throughout the day but anything excessive is a cause for concern. Guinea pigs expel air from their nose and it creates a high pitched sound but is unmistakably a sneeze. Guinea pigs that begin to sneeze constantly may also just be allergic to their bedding. If you think this may be the case then slowly start to swap out each type of bedding you use to discover which one was creating the allergy. We have always used Timothy Hay without having any problems plus its great for wearing down teeth!

Legs

Guinea pig legs aren’t very strong and can break really easily. They also cant jump very high so don’t let them fall or jump from any height. Even though your piggy has little legs, they will do a fair bit of standing up on two feet to get a better view of outside their cage or even just to see whats happening. Ours are always standing on two legs when they know they are about to get fed! This stance also helps to lift them up so they can give their excellent sense of smell a chance to help discover whats going on. If your lucky you may also spot your little piggy running. jumping in the air and landing on all fours – they they will do it again. This amazing dance is called “popcorning” and shows that your piggy is perfectly content. This is more common in younger piggies so enjoy it whilst you can!

Feet and Claws

Most guinea pigs are born with four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet. A guinea pigs claws grow constantly and in the wild this helps them climb the mountainsides and walk on hard or difficult ground. Guinea pigs kept as pets require their claws to be clipped regularly and you can do this by either taking them to a grooming center or buy purchasing some specially designed nail clippers. A young guinea pigs claws start out short, sharp and pointy and as the guinea pig ages they become thicker, more brittle and unfortunately grow for irregularly. This is why its important to decide on how your guinea pigs claws will be trimmed (either by you or a professional) and then stick to that routine.

A guinea pigs feet are soft on the underside and should be regularly examined as part of your grooming routine. Due to the soft underside of their feet, guinea pigs should be kept on a soft surface especially since they have no fur on the under sole of them either. Guinea pigs feet are prone to a condition called bumblefoot which is a bacterial infection of the feet. It is common in other rodents and even birds. Its is more likely to occur in domesticated animals due to housing conditions. They are caused due to poor living conditions such as not changing the bedding regularly or being kept in damp living conditions.There are several ways to prevent bunmblefoot such as by using specially designed guinea pig disinfectant when cleaning out the cage along with using good quality hay and bedding.

Whilst there is a lot of information here and it may seem overwhelming, caring for your guinea pigs becomes part of your daily routine and you get the best reward – a loving, kind and affectionate pet.