Moody guinea pigs: Depression, Bullying, Aggression, Stress, Fear and Antisocial Behaviour

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Wiebke

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This text is part of an article series I have written for Guinea Pig Magazine issues 44 and 46 (May and September2018).
It is the propriety of GPM and is being shared on here with the magazine's permission.


Overwiew
I Depression
- Acute Pining
- Loneliness
II Bullying

III Hormones and Aggression
- Boars: the teenage months
- Sows: ovarian cysts
IV Fear and Stress
- Prey animal default setting
- Fear-aggression
V Antisocial and disabled guinea pigs



It is impossible to compare human and cavy mental health directly, firstly because guinea pigs are a different species with different behaviours and social needs and secondly because they cannot speak directly about their feelings and issues to us.
Nevertheless, this article addresses some areas where guinea pigs can struggle and that can impinge on their social interaction and health.


Part I: Depression

Depression can only ever be a diagnosis by default after you have seen a vet and have excluded a medical issue; be aware that some problems can not cause any visible symptoms until very late!
Here are some aspects that can cause or contribute to depression in guinea pigs.


Acute pining
Acute pining is thankfully rare; but especially in long term closely bonded pairs it can happen that when one of them dies, the other gives up on life, too.
We speak of acute pining when a freshly bereaved guinea pig turns its face away from the world and stops eating and drinking. This especially when a death has happened suddenly and unexpectedly.
Sometimes it can help if you step in with syringe feed and watering to kick start the survival instinct in order to encourage a bereaved guinea pig to eat on its own again.

The shock of the loss of their mate does impact on the immune system and can cause underlying issues to suddenly come to the fore. It is important that you see a vet promptly to make sure that your remaining guinea pig is not ill, even more so when a guinea pig has died from an infectious illness.

Apart from syringe feeding support, new company in this case can be literally a life saver, irrespective of your own feelings. Just a new face in an adjoining cage can make all the difference while you sort things out as quickly as possible. If you have more guinea pigs, placing your bereaved piggy next to another cage can help. It is perfectly OK to put a single boar next to sows since he hasn’t got anybody to fall out with.

Normally I strongly recommend quarantining any new arrivals that have not undergone a mandatory quarantine/health care at a good rescue for 2-3 weeks in another room, but you have to waive this in the case of acute pining. The sooner you can introduce your piggies on neutral ground, the better. Acceptance is generally very high in the case of acute pining even if your bereaved piggy is complaining – but it is definitely no longer depressed and giving up on life!


Loneliness in single or bereaved guinea pigs
Most guinea pig will be withdrawn for a few days, but still eat and drink before they pick up their life again; just without their usual sparkle. The survival instinct in guinea pigs is much stronger than in us humans; guinea pigs don’t feel any less deeply, but they have to get on with life again much sooner than us.

Some guinea pigs can however be seemingly unaffected by the loss of their mate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they would not appreciate company, whether it is a new mate or at least some next door company for ongoing stimulation.
The other way that loneliness can manifest, not just in bereaved but also in single guinea pigs is clinginess as a result of their round the clock need of companionship.

This can then develop into annoying attention seeking behaviours, like nightly bar chewing for instance – basically anything that gets a reaction and anything that keeps your attention focused on them for that bit longer. Guinea pigs are very good at working out which buttons to push!
They are also quite good at stopping any shenanigans you do not react to fairly quickly; so the best way is to stay tough and sit it out. But keep in mind that attention seeking behaviour is a result of your guinea pig being starved for companionship in the first place!

Very unhappy single guinea pigs can just close down in themselves and refuse any interaction with a human.

Practical tips in this guide here: Looking After A Bereaved Guinea Pig
 

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Part II: Bullying

The signs of bullying are usually very similar to those of illness or a depression – weight loss and becoming quiet or withdrawn. In fact, a bullied guinea pig can become depressed over time, especially if it has no way of getting away from a bully as it would do if it had the option.

There is a very fine line between dominance behaviour and bullying that is not always necessarily obvious. By far not all dominance behaviour is bullying; especially not during the bonding process and the first weeks after.

Like with depression it is vital when you are confronted with bullying issues to make sure that there is not an underlying health problem. Bullying has several times alerted me to a guinea pig developing a health problem before it became obvious.
I have had the case of Ffowlyn who the vet could not find any obvious symptoms for her weight loss and concluded that it was due to bullying when an emergency trip and an x-ray a week later (after she continued to deteriorate after separation) that she had in fact a massively bloated stomach, but normal gut.

Bullying can take many forms and happen in a number of circumstances. Generally boars, especially hormonal teenagers, are more upfront and open about it than sows, whether that is bullying a boar or a sow companion.
My second Tribe patriarch Hywel went through about five wives that I needed to remove when his attentions became a bit too systematic over the course of four years; but then he had been neutered in the first place because he bullied any boar companion he’d been paired up with. He only lost the habit in his old age when he mellowed considerably and was just happy to cuddle up with his last pair of sows…

Sows can be a lot sneakier and subtle, and not as easy to catch at bullying. They are wired to live in groups, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are happy with all their sow mates. A sow that loses her position in the ranks either through illness or old age will be demoted to the bottom of the hierarchy, especially in the case of the First Lady.

Failed bids for the top spot can also end with the loser being bullied. I made that experience with my Caron, who went on to live with her sister (?) Cupcake at Alison, the magazine editor’s because I failed to bond her into any of my other groups. Being the victim of group bullying didn’t mean that she wasn’t a sneaky bully herself! Then there are the piggies that just rub everpig the wrong way...

The best way of working out whether a piggy is indeed being bullied is by overnight separation, ideally with just a divider. If your piggy perks up noticeably when away from a bully, then you know that the bond is dysfunctional. If it wants nothing more than to join its friend/friends and is trying to break back into the other cage, then you also have your answer! But in either case, you are not looking at the potential bully (who won't like being separated), but at the bullied piggy and let it have its say. Please conduct any re-introductions on neutral ground and not in the cage and remove any huts with just one exit.

There are some piggies that simply cannot stand up for themselves.
In that case, it is better to keep a casual eye on them during their lives as social interaction is a dynamic process and not a static one. Relationships evolve, and sometimes not to the better. I have had several times situations where a non-friendship has ended in open bullying a year or two down the line.

Hormonal changes in either gender can also cause bullying behaviour, but I am going to look at this aspect in the next part that deals with aggression, anti-social behaviours and hormone based problems.
Bonds In Trouble
 

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Part III: Hormones and aggression

Hormone spikes and high output is likely the largest source of disruptive behaviour in guinea pigs. Boars and sows suffer from differient hormones in different ways and at different times.

Boars: The teenage months
While baby boars can mate from 3 weeks onwards, the testicles won’t start descending until around 4 months. You can usually not miss it – it is the moment when your cute babies suddenly turn into humping, rumbling, teeth chattering and chasing boars. If your little boys are both very much on the dominant sides, fights and fall-outs can happen as a result, even more so in a small cage.

The next big hormone hit typically happens around 6 months when testosterone is at an all-time high and the majority of fall-outs between teenage boars happen. This is the time when the testicles have fully descended and your boys are literally buzzing with manly feelings! It is also by far the most difficult age to bond or re-bond boars, for the same reason.

Around 8-10 months, there is another difficult stage that can keep you on the edge of your seat for several weeks. Fall-outs during this time are actually fairly rare as the most badly matched pairs have long clashed before that. But during these weeks, your boys are constant testing the limits and – annoying teenagers that they are – will annoy each other right up to the limits of endurance, again and again.

While most teenage pairs are out of the worst after that, it is the quiet ones that haven’t given you any headaches so far that can suddenly wake up and get going.

Testosterone spikes can occur even in adults, but they are generally short-lived and can be got over with a temporary two day separation (to allow the hormones to die down) and re-induction on the roaming ground. No bonding baths needed; well bonded boy will simply go back together as if nothing has happened.
Boars: Teenage, Bullying, Fighting, Fall-outs And What Next?

Neutering/de-sexing however will not curb aggression, change behaviour or personalities; all it does is to take away the ability to sire babies – an even that only after a 6 weeks post-op wait.
Any boars that have been neutered as teenagers will still go through the typical phases, as my Nye (neutered at 6 months of age) has amply proved. Neutering is definitely NOT the way to keep two feuding boars living together.
It is also worth noting that – while they are not quite as stink as full boars - neutered boars can still crank out an incredibly stinky testosterone cloud when meeting the girls – the testosterone is in the pee!
Neutered / De-sexed Boars And Neutering Operations: Myths And Facts

But it is one of the more endearing features of boars that as their testosterone output decreases and eventually pretty much runs out that they become a lot more laid back and tolerant and sociable as they age. In fact, pensioner groups are a possibility that is not something to be considered with sub-adults!


Sows: ovarian cysts
Sows also go through their teenage hormones; it is much more noticeable in some sows than in others. Strong, wild seasons and weeks of dominance behaviour can happen as a result. These rarely lead to fights and fall-outs, which is why they are much less known.

Because of their roaming lifestyle, guinea pigs have adopted a different strategy to most rodents: they have one of the longest pregnancies with the fewest number of babies, so their offspring is able to keep up with the group from the word go.
But this comes at a very hefty price: Sows are engineered to be nonstop pregnant from the moment they are weaned until they die – usually young – from miscarriage, during or just after birth or from simply being worn out with only a few hours between giving birth and coming into season again. Like boars, sows never stop being able to procreate, even if the fatality rate goes up massively; there was no need because of the short life span!

The never decreasing or stopping hormone output can lead to the development of ovarian cysts once sows reach adulthood; many older sows have them, but most cysts will never cause any problems or even any visible symptoms. Not all ovarian cysts are hormone based, either. This is why hormone injections and implants don’t necessarily work for all sows.

In fact, the cysts that typically cause behaviour as if a sow was permanently in a strong season and which can be very disruptive to a group or a pair, are usually small cysts. Typical behaviours are chasing, rumble-strutting, frequent mounting, grumpiness etc.

It is important to see a piggy savvy vet when one of your girls is reaching this disruptive stage and is losing weight as a result. Other symptoms can include crusty nipples and hair loss on both sides of the belly, but they are often not present. Any large cysts – even though often not hormonal – should of course also be seen and receive treatment.
You have to discuss with your vet which method will be the best for you, ranging from a full spaying operation, hormone treatment or just drainage for large cysts in a frailer elderly sow.

More information on sow behaviours and treatments in ovarian cysts: Sow Behaviour (including ovarian cysts)
 

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Part IV: Fear and stress

Fear and stress can take many forms, but it is generally most obvious during bonding and in extremely skittish guinea pigs that seem to have a default setting with their instincts on high alert and that really struggle as soon as there is a little change to their stable environment. These are the two aspects I am specially looking at in the following.


Prey animal instinct default setting
Have you ever noticed that some guinea pigs are much more skittish and timid than others? And that some never quite seem to lose it even with your best long term efforts, despite a sibling having become very relaxed?

As far as I can see from my own guinea pigs, their mothers must have been very stressed and running fully on their prey animal instincts when pregnant and during the nursing period. Some of the babies, but by far not all, seem to be much more affected by that stress and seem to internalise this full blown state as their default setting whenever confronted with a stressful situation or out of their familiar surroundings.

I can get my naturally skittish guinea pigs to eventually relax a fair way with lots of patience and persistence as well as being as hands-off or hands-on as needed. But I have never quite managed to get all of them to be able to relax completely and all the time, even though they would trust me implicitly eventually. As soon as they are out of their comfort zone, we are back to square one!


Fear-aggression
Guinea pigs that are feeling lost, separated from their company and home, and our of their comfort zone often try to overcompensate by putting up an aggressive, dominant front when meeting other guinea pigs in their new home.

Fear-aggressive, over the top behaviour is also not at all uncommon in guinea pigs that are either singles or have always been with a companion and that have no idea how to handle new guinea pigs when they come face to face with them.
While there are a few guinea pigs with aggression problems, in my own experience most aggressive behaviours are actually borne out of fear and insecurity especially in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar guinea pigs.

Giving them time to get their bearings and to get to know their future mates through the bars or grids can help minimise the risk of a bonding failing. It takes some understanding to spot the subtle signs of what is just a front and what is real aggression and often time and patience, and ideally a friendly and socially adept piggy to help integrating them.

Sometimes, the best way forward with a guinea pig that has real problems with interacting or accepting others is to keep them alongside others with interaction through the bars for ongoing stimulation but with their own territory.
 

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Part V: Antisocial and disabled guinea pigs

There are of course piggies that have real aggression potential and that do rub the others the wrong way. You have the mischief-makers and trouble stirrers but also those that are getting wound up very easily and that have a very low boiling point.
In these cases it can take some time to work out what is going on and how to best handle the situation within your individual possibilities – sleepless nights are guaranteed! There is unfortunately no magic wand solution and you have to feel your way in every case by trial and error.

There are also guinea pigs that have quite obviously visible physical disabilities, neurological disorders, are not very bright or often away with the fairies. These can usually not be treated or have to be treated on an experimental basis, like cataracts, epilepsy or hyperthyroidism.
If these piggies can keep up with a group or a mate, then the group can be actually rather protective and caring. Some companions become professional carers for their mates (often siblings, but not necessarily so), whether that is a physical disability like blindness or deafness or behavioural problem.
 
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