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A Practical and Sensitive Guide to Dying, Terminal Illness and Euthanasia in Guinea Pigs

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Wiebke

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Overview
1 Your mental health, sensitivities and work commitments

- Mental health and support resources
- Sensitivity aspects
- When work and other commitments clash
2 Life or death emergency – Can my piggy be saved?
- Contacting a vet clinic at all times and link to life and death emergencies list
- What to do if I cannot access vet care instantly?
- The need to save up for emergency vet access
3 Is my guinea pig dying?
- Be honest with yourself
- Multiple organ failure
- List of signs that your guinea pig could be dying
- What can I do for a dying guinea pig?
4 Caring for a terminally ill guinea pig
- Digesting the shock diagnosis
- When is the right time to say goodbye?
- Precious shared time – The great hidden gift
5 Euthanasia / Putting to sleep (pts)
- Some reasons for emergency euthanasia
- What happens during euthanasia?
- Different ways to pts
(potential trigger warning)
- What happens afterwards?
- What are my options with my piggy?
6 Resources and further information




It is always a punch to the gut when you realise that your guinea pig could be dying or has only limited time left. This guide is here to help you through this difficult time in combination with any necessary medical vet care to keep any discomfort and suffering as minimal as possible.

You are of course always welcome to open an ongoing support thread in our Health and Illness section, but as we are mainly UK based, we may not be around when you need prompt help and information.


1 Your mental health, sensitivity aspects and work commitments

Mental health and support resources

If you suffer from major mental health issues with trigger aspects, please stop reading NOW, alert a trusted person and let them take over from here!

There is no shame or guilt attached if you cannot cope with the physical passing and the loss of a beloved one. Your emotional distress can make the journey more fraught for your dying piggy as well, so you are not acting selfishly in any way!
Respecting your own limits is important – for both your piggy and yourself. It is in fact a sign of the depth of your enduring love if you put your piggy’s needs for a gentle journey before your own inner turmoil and your fears of loss.

Concentrate on sending your piggy loving but gentle thoughts or practise Mindfulness exercises if possible during that time.
You can also call a mental health crisis line or a pet bereavement service of you feel that talking to somebody can help you during that difficult time.

Links to available services in the UK
- This link here gives you an overview of available services for the UK: SupportLine - Problems: Pet Bereavement: Advice, support and information
- The Blue Cross runs both an email service as well as free phone line manned by trained volunteers: Pet loss

Helpful links for the US
- Humane Society US: Coping with the death of your pet
- Pet loss support page: Ten Tips on Coping with Pet Loss


Sensitivity aspects
Contrary to our vague concept of drifting gently away in one’s sleep, dying is usually a much more physical process that can be rather distressing to witness; especially if you have never experienced it before, if fear of loss or panic is taking over at any point or if you suffer from mental health problems.

There is no shame or guilt attached if you cannot be with your piggy or if you find the dying process too much to bear.
If possible, ask another person to look after them and/or take them for you to the vet’s to be put to sleep gently and with care and respect.

Some veterinary clinics will also look after critically ill or dying piggies if you cannot attend to them round the clock and don’t have anybody to take over from you.
It can however be rather expensive; any decent vet or clinic staff will help you to make any necessary decisions when you ask them for an honest discussion in order to work out what is best for your beloved pet in your individual situation and under your personal constraints.

As long as you ensure that your ill piggy is not suffering and that their passing is as easy and light on them as you can make it in whatever way, you are doing the right thing and are not failing one you love in any way.
It doesn’t have to be in person as long as you leave your piggy in caring and competent hands!


When work and other commitments clash
Not everybody has the option to take time off to be with their critically ill or dying guinea pig round the clock for days on end; or have the understanding and support of their workplace. And not everybody can afford expensive boarding of critically or terminally ill guinea pigs at their vet clinic (provided that they offer this service).

If you decide to opt having your guinea pig euthanized/put to sleep (pts) a bit earlier instead of letting them make their inevitable journey on their own and sparing them any unnecessary suffering this way, then there is no guilt or shame attached to this.

You are still putting your piggy’s wellbeing first, as any loving and caring owner should. We can only ever do the best within the constraints of our own lives, of what support we can access and based on our own financial abilities.
 

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2 Life or death emergency – Can my piggy be saved?

Contacting a vet clinic at all times and link for life and death emergencies list

Please always contact your vet clinic as quickly as possible and follow their advice. Reception staff is trained to deal with emergency advice.

The UK has got round the clock vet cover; you can find out of hours contact numbers for your area either by listening to the message on your regular vet’s phone number or by googling for out of hours vets in your area.
How to contact a vet out of hours

If you have got a guinea pig with any issues that are listed in this link here, you need to see a vet as a life or death emergency, as quicky as possible. This can potentially save your piggy’s life: List Of Life And Death Out-of-hours Emergencies

For other health issues you are unsure about, please see this link ,which tells you how soon you should see a vet: How Soon Should My Guinea Pig See A Vet? - A Quick Guide


What to do if I cannot access vet care instantly?
If you cannot access instant vet care since other countries don’t necessarily have out of hours vet care and you may have to wait several days for a regular appointment, then please follow the advice in the guide link below, which is bundling together all necessary information for emergency, crisis and bridging care at home (plus useful resources) to help you keep your guinea pig going as much as possible until you can access vet care at the soonest possible: Emergency, Crisis and Bridging Care until a Vet Appointment

Please keep in mind that seeing a general vet for basic medication can save lives until you can access exotics vets care! The sooner you can access vet care, the better your chance to get your piggy through any crisis.


The need to save up for emergency vet access
Make sure that you always save up for a vet fund right from the start as part of the normal living cost and that you have got enough money accessible at all times for an emergency visit in order to spare your guinea pig any unnecessary suffering and distress. This is one of the internationally recognised Five Animal Welfare Freedoms (including the UK and the USA).

Emergencies and severe illness have unfortunately a bad habit of happening at the most inconvenient of times. It is very often a battle against circumstances, but you do not want to fall at the first hurdle if at all possible!

Many UK clinics have a payment plan if fees are running higher than expected. You are still required to pay part of the consultation and treatment cost immediately, though. Other countries, notably the USA, demand up-front payment.

There is now a range of insurances for guinea pigs available in the UK, the USA and Australia (sadly not yet in Canada).

There are also charities that will support pet owners on benefits or unable to cope with vet bills in the UK, in the US and in Australia.

You can find more information on accessing insurance or charities via this guide here: A guide to vets fees, insurance and payment support.

Please show any legal guardian of yours this guide if they refuse vet care for a minor in their care. In the UK this is unlawful.

However, if you can at all, please make sure that you can afford to put a very ill piggy out of its misery at all times and that you have access that money at all times.
 

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3 Is my guinea pig dying?

If in any doubt whatsoever, please contact a vet clinic if possible before starting a thread in our Health and Illness section!

As an online forum and without handling or seeing your piggy, we cannot tell you for sure whether your piggy is dying; we can only tell you to whether it is likely or not. In any case, our first advice will be to contact a vet as quickly as you can anyway!


Be honest with yourself!
The dying process is in most cases not a gentle drifting away in one’s sleep as we vaguely assume in this age of death being pushed out of our daily lives behind closed doors. In fact, is a much more physical and often rather distressing process than you would expect.

If you feel that it is too much for you to cope with at any stage, please ask somebody else to take over or contact your vet clinic if you are on your own. There is not shame or guilt attached for not being there. Because the dying process is very much a taboo subject, the death of a beloved pet is often the first time we come into contact with death without any preparation or social structures in place to help us cope.

All that any caring owner is asked to do is that their pet’s welfare comes first, before our own fears, panic and personal limitations. As long as you accept that you have limitations but ensure that your piggy is not suffering because of them, then you are doing exactly the right thing and are neither failing your piggy nor yourself!

The same goes if the dying process of your guinea pigs brings up any previous traumas and losses.

If you haven't got anybody at home who can help you, we will do our best to talk you through it as much as possible.


Multiple organ failure
Heart attacks, strokes or genetically determined sudden acute heart failure can occur at any age.

Most natural deaths happen however by the body closing down (multiple organ failure). This is a very physical process.
It can be a gentle and fairly quick fading away but it can also be a drawn out process that can be painful, distressing to watch, include fitting and last several days (although I personally prefer to cut a drawn out process short with a last vet trip, especially when I see one of my piggies in discomfort at some stage).
It all depends which organ gives first, in which order the organs close down and how robust they are.

You have to be prepared to race your piggy to your closest vet if they are in any major pain or distress at any stage.

The last hour or half hour can be very uncomfortable if a strong organ is making a last stand. ‘Running to the Rainbow Bridge’ (Fitting with flailing limbs) is a fairly common experience in the very last stages when oxygen deprivation hits the body. It should however not last any longer than 15-20 minutes and your piggy should be no longer fully with it by that time.
If that is not the case, then please speak to your vet clinic asap.

Please keep in mind that any refusal of your piggy to accept food/drink once the body has stopped being able to process it, also applies to any oral medication, including painkillers.


List of signs that your guinea pig could be dying
Please note that you won’t necessarily see all signs or see them in the order listed as the natural dying process can vary widely. Some of these symptoms can also apply to guinea pigs fighting for their lives where our persistence can make all the difference so the line is not always quite as clear cut as we would like! However, a steady deterioration along the list despite your best efforts is usually a sign that you are losing the battle.

  • Removing itself from the group and facing a corner. This is a signal that your guinea pig is feeling very, very ill.
  • Fighting syringe feed well in excess to its weakness is often a sign that your guinea pig is no longer able to process any food.
  • Decrease in the amount of syringe feed it can process.
  • Not able to move or scrabbling around.
  • Apathy and difficulty to raise the head.
  • Too weak/unable to swallow.
  • Salivating from a blockage somewhere in the digestive tract (back of the mouth to anus) or from advanced pregnancy toxaemia (sudden onset metabolic disease that is curable in the early stages) in combination with being very unwell/apathetic/hunched up with pain.
  • Heaving breathing from the sides where every breath is a real struggle means that there is a dangerous fluid build-up in the chest or lungs and that the heart is straining.
  • Feeling cold to the touch means that the blood circulation is no longer working properly and that the body has likely started to close down.
  • No longer being quite fully aware of the surroundings and trying blindly to get away.
  • Fitting in combination with any of the above signs.

What can I do for a dying guinea pig?
  • Make sure that the surroundings are calm and quiet.
  • Make sure that your guinea pig is warm but not hot; give it a chance to move away from any source of heat if it wishes to. A half heated snuggle safe is much better than a fully heated one.
  • Keep your piggy as much as possible in their familiar surroundings as long as they are aware where they are.
  • Respect the need to of any companions wanting to be with their friend and to keep an eye on them, even if they are staying at a respectful distance. How closely they will attend depends on the nature of the illness and whether a very ill piggy has removed itself from a group or not.
  • You can hold a dying piggy in a cosy if it is a single or the companion is acting very distressed; otherwise make sure that the companion is not left out and have them with you and their dying friend on your lap.
    It is my own repeated experience that piggies I have been holding have died as soon as I set the cosy down to go to the toilet or get out of the car at the vet clinic; please try to not hold a beloved piggy back for longer than necessary with your own feelings and fears.
  • Be strong and concentrate on your piggy’s needs first and foremost!
    You can cry as much as you need afterwards but try not to transmit any panic, sorrow, fierce love or other strong emotions onto your piggy. The dying can still feel your touch and your emotions, and can still hear even when they are no longer reacting to outward stimuli.
  • Try to keep your thoughts and emotions as calm, loving and caring, but at the same time as light and gentle to make your piggy’s journey easier.
    Imagine that you are floating your piggy gently on a small inflatable mattress across a pond of pleasantly warm water. Let your caring feelings be that mattress that cushions your piggy’s journey to the Bridge!
    You do not have to be in the presence of your piggy to do this for your little beloved one!
 

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4 Caring for a terminally ill guinea pig

The grieving dynamics are different to those of a sudden death but no less intense if you are told that your guinea pig has a terminal illness.


Digesting the shock diagnosis
Your grieving process starts the moment you realise that you have only limited time left with your guinea pig. The upset and intense emotions at this moment mirror those you experience after an unexpected death. It is in fact the second-worst low point of the whole grieving process, apart from death itself.

Please give yourself some time to digest the news if circumstances allow, but if possible try to avoid denial. If you face up to your loss, you will actually work through a good deal of the grieving process by accompanying your guinea pig on its way and will have a somewhat easier time after your guinea pig has died. The actual pain of the loss is never any less because that is determined by the closeness of your individual bond. But if you do it right, you won't be left with regrets.


When is the right time to say goodbye?
Dealing with the constant ups and downs of terminal illness and the worry about recognising the right time for saying goodbye can be very stressful. In between your guinea pig gradually deteriorating and losing their quality of life and the point where you are keeping your guinea pig alive because of your own bereavement fears, there is a grey zone in which you are free when to call the shots.

You can't go wrong if you keep your guinea pig's quality of life and welfare upmost in mind well before your own fears of loss. Mounting vet and medication cost can also play a legitimate role in how long you can support a guinea pig. Please ask yourself at every stage whether any further treatment or tests are still really needed and can really bring you rewards in proportion to expenses.

Generally it is normal that you are trying to hang on a bit longer with your first guinea pigs than when you are a long term owner for whom euthanasia is no less heart-breaking but no longer as frightening.

However, especially when you have mental health issues or suffer from anxiety, it will be easier for you to go to any length to battle a terminal illness by sheer power of will rather than facing the dreaded loss of a beloved one.
It is also all too easy to find online support that is egging on you past any reasonable point because they are often sharing the same fears and anxieties and get confirmation of their own attitude by encouraging others doing the same. There are sadly also some vets that will happily help you to ever more expensive tests and medication while vets mentioning euthanasia are usually decried as 'useless' practioners - the same as any voice of reason is usually jumped on on these kind of threads.

The big problem is that the dynamic in these cases focuses actually mostly on your human fears and not necessarily on your guinea pig's welfare and wishes - how much treatment does your piggy really want to be put through?
And when the end comes, it is going to absolutely, totally devastate you because you haven't been able to brace for it and haven't tackled the grieving process in a constructive way. When you are doing your very best to face away from the cliff, you will fall much more badly when you inevitably step over it blindly. That is always my biggest concern and my sorrow when I come across cases like these.

A good way of avoiding to fall into the trap of keeping a piggy going past the time they are ready to leave themself is to support feed them only from a bowl or with a spoon. The moment they are no longer interested in their food is the time to let them make their way to the Rainbow Bridge. The instinct to eat is one of the best indicators as to whether your piggy still has enough quality of life and the zest to want to live.

In most cases you will know when your guinea pig is too ill to want to live, anyway, but it is very normal (and we all do it, however experienced) to constantly question yourself when you are coming close to or are already in the grey zone.

Please be aware that even though you are caring for a guinea pig that won’t recover, a very quick final downturn or a sudden death can often come very unexpectedly; not rarely after a period of your piggy being stable or even improving to a degree. It is going to catch you out no less painfully than finding a healthy piggy dying out of the blue.


Precious shared time: The great hidden gift
But there is one huge gift hidden in the devastating news: You have still the opportunity to say and do everything you want and need to. You can really make the remaining time count! Love transcends time, and you can pack a lifetime's worth into just a moment.

As bitter-sweet as the experience is, it is very much in your own control just how bitter or how sweet you make this period; so that when the time comes you can avoid feeling like you have failed your beloved one - because you KNOW for sure that you haven't!
Concentrate on enrichment and providing little joys that the two of you can share together for as long as your piggy is able to.

Please be courageous and make the best of this opportunity for both your guinea pig and yourself!

You are welcome to run a support thread on our forum where we try keep a constructive balance between addressing your sorrow and fears but also trying encourage you to take as many special moments from your limited time so you can come out of it with a sore heart (that never changes) but also with some valuable positives and some happy memories that will help you a lot during your grieving process.

If you struggle at any point, you are also welcome to make use of bereavement phone lines, forums and groups, which also cover terminal illness.
 

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5 Euthanasia / Putting to sleep (pts)

The reasons for pts can vary widely. We have to distinguish between an emergency euthanasia when a guinea pig is in clear distress and recovery is not possible and between a considered end to life as the result of a slow decline or a previously diagnosed terminal illness.
In the first case, it is very often a rush to the vet’s in order to spare your piggy any extra minute of unnecessary suffering while in the second case there is a certain grey zone in which you are free to decide depending on how you are weighing up various factors against each other. There is a point where you can go too far in your own desire to keep your piggy alive against the odds, though.


When do I need to emergency pts /euthanize?
In my own long term experience I have ended up at the vets with about a rough half of my dying piggies; mostly for an emergency pts because of a pain issue that was caused by a not curable problem or a runaway illness.
In some cases I have made the decision when a combination of several factors added up to a very unhappy total in terms of quality of life and in view of a lack of reasonable recovery expectations.

You have to weigh up each case on its own merits together with your vet, who should be willing to discuss any pros and cons with you if ask politely so you can make as in informed a decision as possible. This is important because it will help you massively during the grieving process when your heart has to catch up with your head at some point.

The ultimate decision always lies with you as the owner. Your vet can only recommend although if they are voicing their opinion rather forcefully (and especially when every vet you see tells you the same unpalatable news), then they have generally a very good reason for it that concerns the welfare of your pet.


Some reasons for emergency euthanasia
This is not an exhaustive list but it may help you with your decision making process.
  • Pain or major distress
    Basically you need to pts if your guinea pig is showing any sign of major pain (grunting, moaning, screaming with pain, twisting, heaving or jerking from pain), if it is fitting longer than 15 minutes or fitting repeatedly.
    Also if you find that your bloating guinea pig is grunting and has a belly that feels like concrete. Salivating (not from dental problems but an inability to process food or a blockage somewhere in the digestive tract including the throat), or a bladder stone that is blocking urine flow (very painful) and that cannot be operated also come under this heading.
  • Runaway infections/illnesses
    Especially in the very young or very old with weaker immune system, infections or illness can blow up very quickly. Sometimes they progress too fast for any antibiotics to have a chance to kick and stop them in their track.
  • Accidents or injuries that are too bad to allow your guinea pig to ever be free of pain and have enough quality of life.
  • Incurable advanced progressing health issues
    Advanced tumours or cancer; overgrown teeth without access to a vet that can deal with dental problems etc.
    This can be especially hard if the diagnosis comes as a shock for you.
  • If a make or break emergency operation is not an option (age, other underlying health problems, financial constraints) in those cases where pain/discomfort is already a big factor and any medication cannot buy quality of life for much longer.
  • When an existing health problem under treatment is taking a sudden turn for the worst but the end is not coming gently.
    It can be often very hard to accept this when you are totally focussed on keeping your guinea pig alive.
    Please always take a step back and question yourself whether what you are doing is still in the interest of your piggy or whether you have been caught up in the kind of spiral of adding more and more medications and extra treatments. There are sadly some vets that support this. The end can come as terrible shock in those cases. When the chips are down, guinea pigs are small animals that can take only so much and that can’t survive everything just by your sheer determination.

What happens during euthanasia?
Firstly, you need to make a vet appointment.

If you have a partner, family member or friend who can take you there and be with you for moral support, this will leave you free to give room to your strong emotions and your grief.
If you are on your own and can afford it, please consider taking a taxi; especially when you are very upset, in tears and struggle to concentrate or a shake like a leaf from the reaction.

The vet will examine your piggy and then discuss your options with you; especially when euthanizing is more of a weighing up of various aspects. The ultimate decision lies always with you, and you alone. You will have to sign a consent form for this reason.

Some clinics light a candle in the waiting room during the process in order to alert other people to observe a respectful silence and not upset you with untimely laughter or loud chatter.


Ways to pts (Warning: potential trigger content!)
Methods for pts can vary.

In most cases a piggy is gently put in a sleep from which they never wake up by using the gassing chamber for GA in the operating room while you are staying in the consultation room; having company through this time is really helpful!

However, if you want to be present, you are within your rights to ask your vet for alternative ways before you make a decision which way you are happiest with as in most cases you won’t be allowed into the operating area for obvious reasons.
Injections (the first one a strong GA drug so your piggy won't be conscious anymore), which can be given in the consultation room, can control the process better in some ways but it can be more distressing for you to witness them being administered.
It is also not for everybody to see their piggy gradually and very gently drift away even if it enables you to hold them and stroke them during this time.

If you are living in a country where vet standards are not yet as developed, please make sure/insist that your guinea pig is anaesthetized before they get a lethal injection. I have had piggies in my life for long enough to not want to put any of my own piggies through a conscious lethal injection ever again!

There is also no shame or guilt if you ask another person to take your piggy to the vets because you are bound to be overwhelmed by your strong emotions or may suffer a full-on panic/anxiety attack. You aren’t failing your piggy in any way if you are not upsetting it by being unable to control yourself. After all, it is always an extreme situation, and we have to get through it in the way that suits the way we are wired. It is never a question of love or lack thereof - if you can't go, then it is very often the case of rather too much love being in play!

We all react differently, so there is no right or wrong; it is very much a matter of preference for your vet and for you. All your piggy is experiencing in whichever way the euthanasia is handled is becoming very, very tired and then falling deeply asleep...

Personally, I prefer to not take a piggy companion with me for pts as they usually know that their friend is very ill anyway but I prefer to bring the body home again for a final goodbye.
However, in a very closely bonded pair where the companion is still fully supporting their friend and depending on the vet you are using (best ask when you make the appointment), they can be present if you feel that it would be better for your piggies.


What happens afterwards?
Down to earth with a hard bump: You will have to pay the bill. Ideally you ask your companion to please do it for you.
Some clinics have a separate exit so you do not have to come back via the waiting room if you are badly upset and crying hard.

Staff in the UK has nowadays got special training so you should find the experience in that respect not at all upsetting but rather supportive and sympathetic.

Some clinics will take the footprints of your piggy for you and hand it to you when you leave.
Sending you a sympathy card is something else that an increasing number of clinics are doing.


What are my options with my piggy?
Most vet clinics offer to have your piggy cremated for you. You can choose between a cheaper mass cremation or a more expensive personal burial where the ashes are returned to you.
You are of course free to bring your piggy back for burial in your garden or in a suitable large plant pot.

However, if you prefer, you can always bring home your piggy first if you want to allow their companions to take leave or if you want to personalise the send-off in any way.
In this case, you can return the body wrapped up well in kitchen paper, an old towel or in a personalised cardboard box later on (please no metal or plastic - including any fleece or soft toys that contain plastic).
Our grieving guide in the resources chapter contains further ideas on that aspect in chapter II.

You can also contact a pet crematorium directly or, if you wish, have your piggy buried in a pet cemetery.

In any case, feel free to mark the passing, burial or return of a cremation urn in any way that is meaningful for you, whether that is materially or spiritually and whenever you feel that it is right for you, first and foremost!
There is now a wide range of personalised memorabilia available when you google.
 

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