Grieving the loss of a guinea pig

If you’ve come to The Ralph Site and our blog because you’re grieving the loss of a guinea pig, let us first say how sorry we are for your loss.

As you will have no doubt experienced first-hand, guinea pigs are wonderful animals who are packed full of personality, especially with their delightful language of ‘wheeks’ and whistles and propensity for ‘popcorning’ when they’re happy.

Losing a guinea pig is never easy.

The sudden loss of a guinea pig

Like rabbits (which we talked about in our last blog), guinea pigs are so-called ‘prey’ animals, which means that they’re hard-wired to be wary of predators. Prey species are usually highly reliant on the protection of their herd when it comes to keeping safe.

Because of this, guinea pigs will hide illness for as long as physically possible. They just can’t risk being left behind by the herd or showing their vulnerability. Sadly, this means that, by the time a guinea pig shows signs that he/she is poorly, it is often too late to save them.

While guinea pigs can live for seven or eight years, many tragically die before this. Guinea pigs are particularly vulnerable to upper respiratory infections (URIs) and pneumonia, as well as dental problems, scurvy (caused by a vitamin C deficiency) and gastrointestinal bloat.

Guilt that you missed the signs

If your guinea pig’s health deteriorated suddenly, you may be struggling with feelings of guilt. Is there anything you could have done to save them? Could you have spotted the signs sooner? Did you do something wrong? These are all questions that may be playing on your mind.

But as we’ve seen above, guinea pigs instinctively hide their illnesses. You can do everything right in terms of care and husbandry and still find yourself unable to save a precious piggy. Please be kind to yourself. Guilt seems to be a natural part of pet loss – maybe because our pets can’t tell us how they feel so they are completely reliant on us – but it can prolong the intense feelings of grief. The fact that you are grieving shows how loved your guinea pig was and that you would have saved them if you could.

Even elderly guinea pigs can decline quickly, so the loss almost invariably comes as a huge shock. Their little lives are never long enough.

Feeling unseen in your grief

It’s estimated that there are currently 400,000 pet guinea pigs in UK. Sadly, many of these live in woefully inadequate conditions where there are potential welfare issues. People often see guinea pigs as a ‘starter pet’ for their children and quickly lose interest when they realise these quirky rodents can live for the best part of a decade. This sort of attitude lends itself to seeing guinea pigs as ‘throwaway’.

For those of us who love our guinea pigs with care and devotion, losing one can be devastating. And it can be hard to express our grief due to the wider, prevailing attitudes towards guinea pigs mentioned above. You may well have had people say to you, “Can’t you just get another one?” or ‘It was only a guinea pig”. This can be hurtful. You know only too well that every guinea pig has a unique, irreplaceable personality.

Pet loss is often described as a disenfranchised grief because it isn’t necessarily recognised across our society, other than by people who have experienced their own bereavement. The Ralph Site was created to give bereaved pet carers a safe space to talk freely about their grief, whatever the species of their animal companion. Within The Ralph Site community, you’ll find plenty of people who have experienced the loss of a guinea pig and felt it keenly.

Practice self-care

At this difficult time, it’s important that you look after yourself and find space to grieve, instead of feeling like you have to pretend everything is fine.

If you have a sympathetic friend or family member, reach out to them and let them know that you’re in pain. If you don’t feel you can talk to anyone in your circle, know that The Ralph Site is here for you. You can also call the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service if you want to talk to someone about your loss.

You might find other blog articles on The Ralph Site helpful. We have written about everything from pet loss memorials and grief analogies to feeling angry or depressed when a pet dies and much, much more. Many people find these resources helpful. Sometimes, it’s comforting just to know that you’re not alone.

Do you still have a surviving guinea pig?

Guinea pigs are hugely social creatures who get much of their enrichment in life from living in a bonded pair or as part of a larger group. As you will have experienced if you care for multiple guinea pigs, they have an expressive language of wheeks, squeaks, whistles and purrs and will often play with each other throughout the day.

There’s no doubt that when a guinea pig dies, their surviving companion will grieve deeply. Guinea pigs have even been known to die from grief, so it’s crucial that you keep an eye on your surviving pig(s), especially if they were half of a pair.

What can you do to help them?

  1. Give them a chance to say goodbye

If one of your guinea pigs has just passed away, you may want to leave their surviving companion with them for a little while so that they can understand their friend has gone. Some guinea pigs will move away from their deceased mate, while others will nudge, nibble and vocalise to try to encourage their companion to move. Both responses are completely normal. Just 30 minutes or so can help a guinea pig to process what has happened.

Please don’t worry though if you aren’t able to do this. In time, your surviving guinea pig should adjust to their loss.

  1. Keep an eye on your guinea pig

You may notice that your guinea pig is subdued for a while. They may seem more lethargic, lose their appetite or be less active than usual.

If your other guinea pig died of something infectious, you will need to speak to a vet about treating their cage mate. Upper respiratory infections, for example, can be easily spread between guinea pigs that share a living space.

If you’re confident that your surviving guinea pig is not unwell, the best thing you can do is give them plenty of attention. They will be used to sleeping next to their bonded friend and may feel lost without the comfort of their presence. You can help to fill this void.

Some guinea pigs benefit from being given a cuddly toy to sleep next to.

  1. Think about giving your guinea pig a new companion

If your surviving guinea pig still has years of life ahead of them or seems to be struggling alone, you may want to consider finding them a new friend. As much as we can love a guinea pig and give them attention, we can never quite live up to time spent with their own species.

There are lots of myths about keeping guinea pigs. One of the most prevalent is that boars (males) fight or can’t be bonded to someone new.

In reality, there is lots that you can do to help your surviving guinea pig find a friend. A good starting point is to find a local, reputable guinea pig rescue. They will often let potential pairs meet and help you assess the initial meeting.

If you do decide to bring a new guinea pig home, it is recommended that you quarantine them for two weeks before introducing them to your existing pig. This is to make sure that they don’t have a URI, mites or a fungal infection that might threaten your resident guinea pig’s health.

Ideally, guinea pigs should be introduced on neutral territory. If you have a guinea pig run outside of your usual cage, for example, this is perfect. Alternatively, you could shut off your kitchen or other room in your house and let your resident guinea pig meet their new friend while running around in there.

Put a huge pile of hay in the enclosure with the two guinea pigs and try to ensure that there are at least two hides, two food bowls and two water bottles – that way they won’t have to fight for resources while they get to know each other. Providing enough hay to eat, hide in and play with is often the perfect distraction.

You may notice the guinea pigs chasing, rumbling, teeth chattering or trying to mount one another; this is a typical display of dominance but doesn’t mean the friendship is doomed before it’s begun. The more space you can give the guinea pigs during their introduction, the better. Scuffles are normal, even between bonded guinea pigs, so try not to panic.

Many people find that introducing boars can be trickier than introducing sows. One of the most successful approaches is to choose a young, pre-pubescent male to join your older resident male guinea pig. The adult male will usually accept a young companion without much fuss and will have bonded with them by the time their hormones hit peak teenage attitude somewhere between six and twelve months old! 

Will your resident guinea pig be OK on their own?

One of the risks of pairing an older guinea pig with a young companion is that you can end up in a cycle where the younger pig is bereaved at a time when they still have years of life ahead of them.

For this reason, you may decide that adopting another guinea pig isn’t the right course of action. You can help your guinea pig to cope with this by giving them plenty of time and opportunities for enrichment (especially space to run about and plenty of interesting chances to forage).

If you do decide to go ahead and adopt another guinea pig, please don’t feel guilty. You are just prioritising the welfare of your resident guinea pig. The love you had for the pig you have lost remains the same, whatever the circumstances.

Whatever you decide and however you feel, know that you are not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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