All guinea pigs should be allowed to express natural behaviours. Behaviour refers to the way that an animal acts. An important type of behaviour that an animal expresses are those that are instinctive (what they would typically do in the wild). Enough space, proper shelter and housing, as well as company of the animal's own kind, encourages the expression of natural behaviours.
This law is called the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Act outlines how people must take care of and act towards animals in New Zealand. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Police and SPCA work together to make sure people in New Zealand follow these laws.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, all animal guardians (owners) are responsible for making sure the welfare needs of animals in their care are met. Learning about the Five Domains helps us to understand these welfare needs and how we can make sure we provide these. One of the Five Domains is Behaviour. In this section you will learn about this domain and how you can make sure your guinea pigs receive the exercise and enrichment they need to express their natural behaviours.
Guinea pigs are sociable animals and must have company of their own kind. It is very unfair to keep a guinea pig on its own. In the wild, they live in large communities called ‘herds.’ They raise their young together and travel around the grasslands, seeking out other animal's old burrows for protection from their enemies.
Watching guinea pig behaviour in herds is fascinating! Guinea pigs are very vocal animals and have a whole language for themselves. The language includes various gestures and body movements to illustrate their point. The most common sound is the ‘wheek, wheek’ at feeding time. Two guinea pigs meeting for the first time may chatter their teeth at one another. Mother sows will often ‘coo’ to their pups. This low purr is also a sign of satisfaction, maybe when a guinea pig is being stroked in their favourite place.
If you do not already have a friend for your guinea pig, SPCA or one of the many guinea pig rescues are happy to help with bonding your guinea pig with a new friend.
You may not be able to recreate your guinea pigs’ exact natural habitat and environment; however, it is easy to mimic it using hay, paper bags and cardboard boxes! Paper bags are ideal for stuffing with hay for guinea pigs to forage in, hide in or just shred! Different guinea pigs will use them in different ways.
Recyclable houses can be made from cardboard boxes. The more playful guinea pig will tip the box over or may even attempt to sit on top of it.
By planting an area of your garden with longer growing grasses, an area for tunnelling and creating burrows can be made. Cereal, Orchard or Timothy grass types are the best for this. These grasses are also ideal for eating too. Guinea pigs seem to feel secure in longer grass and a secure guinea pig is, in general, a happy guinea pig.
Guinea pigs are prey animals - they need to hide from things that scare them. Providing hiding places allows them to do this, helping them feel safe.
Guinea pigs tend to hide if feeling afraid, stressed, unwell or when they are wanting to have a break from social contact with other guinea pigs or people.
It is really important that you provide constant access to hiding places within your guinea pigs’ home. This allows your guinea pigs to escape and hide (natural behaviour) and feel safe and reassured.
Hiding places should be provided in addition to your guinea pigs' main shelter.
Remember – hiding places are your guinea pigs’ safe places. It’s where they will go to escape and feel calmer so never trap or remove your guinea pigs from them.
Provide at least one hiding place for each of your guinea pigs so all of them can hide at the same time if they want to. You could also provide at least one bigger hiding place large enough for all guinea pigs to rest together.
Some options include plastic “igloos,” cardboard boxes, or wooden houses. Wooden houses can also serve as hiding places, but they are not as easily sterilized as plastic. Cardboard boxes turned upside down or shoe boxes with doorway and window cutouts can be an amusing toy for guinea pigs. Large tubes can be used as tunnels. Many small businesses sell handmade fabric guinea pig beds, hammocks, sleeping bags, tunnels, hiding houses, and other cage accessories in online shops.
Provide your guinea pigs with safe toys to play with and chew. Give them regular opportunities to play with other friendly guinea pigs and/or people. Guinea pigs tend to love the simple (and cheap!) things in life – here are a few suggestions for toys and objects that could be a hit with your guinea pigs . . .
Chew Toys: unlimited grass hay is the most effective “chew toy” you can offer your guinea pigs. Wooden sticks from apple or pear trees that are dry and untreated can offer an additional chew toy but may be ignored by some guinea pigs. Cardboard rolls or brown paper bags stuffed with hay can provide an interesting toy.
Exercise Toys: adding ramps, tunnels, boxes and plenty of toys to your guinea pig’s home are a must! So too are hide-outs like cardboard boxes (open or closed with entrance hole) or untreated wicker baskets filled with hay. They also love to climb and a couple of bricks would be much appreciated. Providing hidey-holes and toys means that your guinea pig will feel much safer and happier.
Other Toys: Plastic, dried grass, or willow toy balls are other toy options for your guinea pigs to push around and throw. Cat toys with bells are often enjoyed by guinea pigs as well. Some guinea pigs become attached to small stuffed toys and enjoy pushing them around as well as snuggling with them. Fleece “forests” can be made by tying strips of fleece to the cage top. The strips dangle down and provide an exciting hiding area to explore and run through.
Make sure any items you give your guinea pigs are safe and be sure to inspect them regularly to check for potential injury points. Repair, throw away or replace any items that become damaged or dangerous.
If you have more than one guinea pig, check that there are enough items for each guinea pig. Always ensure your guinea pigs can move away from a new object and keep a close eye on your guinea pigs when first giving them new items. If they do appear stressed or frightened by a new item, remove it and watch their behaviour – talk to your veterinarian if you’re worried.
The way a guinea pig behaves will depend on their age, personality and past experiences. If one of your guinea pigs changes their behaviour, they could be distressed, bored, ill or injured. Guinea pigs that are frightened or in pain may change their behaviour or develop unwanted habits.
Be observant. If your guinea pig’s behaviour changes or they show regular signs of stress or fear, ask your parents or caregivers to talk to your veterinarian.
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