Understanding Prey Animal Instincts, Guinea Pig Whispering And Cuddling Tips

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Wiebke

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There are some tricks that may help you building up a relationship with new piggies by using guinea pig body language they will instinctively understand.
But as important is learning to firstly understand where the guinea pigs are coming from and what they are telling you!
This guide here tells you how being a new minted pet looks from the guinea pig's view: Arrival in a home from the perspective of pet shop guinea pigs

Understanding prey animal behaviour
Please never forget that guinea pigs are prey animals; they are not born as cuddly toys!

- Unresponsive prey reflex
Many prey animals survive by mimicking being dead or unresponsive. By far not all predators will kill small prey straight away. They often worry it or play with it. By not responding to being prodded and played with, prey animals may have a chance to escape with their life if they can make the predator lose attention or interest at some point.

This is the same behaviour that many people encounter first with hardly handled shop or breeder guinea pigs and that they mistake for buying a “cuddly” pet. We get regularly posts a few days or weeks into new ownership about “my guinea pig suddenly hates me”. It is not hate, but a guinea pig having learned to trust their new owner enough to start telling them their dislikes – typically this is being picked up and sitting still for prolonged cuddle sessions!

A guinea pig that is used to being handled will be interactive with you and tell you how it feels right from the start.

- Flight reflex
Most of us encounter the flight reflex when we try to pick up guinea pigs. It cuts very close to the survival instinct. Hence why many guinea pigs will never really like being picked up even though they are comfy with being cuddled. If you cannot avoid it, try to corner a piggy and guess which way it is likely to jump. Try to avoid prolonged hunts.

The best and least stressful way is to circumvent this instinct by trying to train the piggy to come into some pick-up conveyance with the help of a little favourite veg or dried forage and lots of praise. It may take some time, so be patient! Place the conveyance into a corner, so it is easier to guide a piggy there and limit the escape routes. A very gentle tap on the back end will chivvy it on.
You can use tunnels (hard or fabric), suitable cosies or upturned huts or a walk-in cardboard box that you fill with a bit of soft hay for the pick up ritual.

If you put a guinea pig back in its cage or hutch with your hands, always do this bum forward; if your guinea pig suddenly wiggles and jumps blindly, it cannot hurt itself badly as if jumps against your much softer body rather than an unforigiving surface or har edge.

See our pick-up video tutorial: How To Pick Up And Weigh Your Guinea Pig

- Defence reflex / biting
When a nervous piggy is threatened by a sudden movement, it can defend itself by biting hard and deeply. This is a reflex behaviour that happens within a split second.

Children are often at the receiving end when they are petting a new and apparently complacent piggy (see dead prey reflex) and accidentally trigger the reflex by an unexpected quick hand movement or a sudden laugh – or just by a sudden loud noise somewhere in the vicinity.
Please do not let your children pet guinea pigs until your piggies have settled in really well and are confident and responsive when being handled. The bites can be deep and can happen literally out of the blue.

Please keep in mind that this is not aggressive or willful behaviour on behalf of the piggy! Dumping a piggy as a “biter” means that the owners have completely failed their pet by not bothering to learn about its needs and behaviour and that they are now leaving it to be likely euthanized; especially in US shelters where “biters” are unlikely to find a new home and will therefore not receive any effort. By advertising it on free-ads, they are exactly what people trawling for live prey for their reptiles are looking for.
" Biting" And What You Can Do
 

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Avoiding predatory behaviours
However, there are tricks that can help you working past instinctive prey animal behaviours by not resembling a predator and by avoiding predating behaviour signals.

- be aware that your body smell is betraying you as a predator. Guinea pigs have a much finer sense of smell than we humans have. There is little you can do about it, so you have to work on other areas. Please do not use heavily perfumed toilet products around animals with a sensitive nose!

- keep up a constant flow of chatter from the moment you come into the room. A predator that is making its presence known is not hunting. Develop a range of different phrases with their own cadences for regular rituals, so the new piggies will learn what is up and can brace themselves for it (food on the way, treats, pick-up, poo patrol, cage clean, well done, sorry, I am disappointed etc. ) This will help to structure their new world and will make it seem less like random violence being perpetrated at them.

- avoid making any sudden movements or noises (including making loud remarks or sudden peals of laughter). Remember that guinea pigs have got clear vision only for a very close range, but they react instinctively to sudden movements over a distance. Very important point when you have small, excited kids!

- try not loom over the cage whenever possible; you are a lot less frightening when you are at head height with a piggy. If you can prop up the cage on a storage box or a coffee table, this will make it easier for you to get down to their level! Otherwise kneel on the floor and bend forward on your arms.

- don’t stare at a piggy like a hunting predator; always look at them sideways from the corner of your eye. Not easy when your own instinct is to watch every movement of your exciting new pets!

- play “I am not interested in you” and go away a little distance to lure a shy piggy out. Praise it lavishly if does do so and be gently disappointed just with your voice if it dashes back into hiding. Peek over your shoulder if necessary, but always appear casual. The last thing a jittery prey animal wants is being the centre of intense attention.



Using guinea pig body language to make friendly contact

“I want to be friends with you”
Hunker down and keep your own head on the same or a similar height to the piggies. Only look at them sideways. Mimic washing your face and hair with your hands the same way as a piggy does. This will hopefully relax a piggy and ideally it will answer with a wash itself. Repeat if necessary. At first, you may just get a nose peeking round the door frame. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t follow it up with a cuddle, but offer a little treat. Make delighted remarks and praise lavishly.
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Here is a little 'piggy wash' video. Sometimes you can see some not fully drained white eye cleaning fluid or hear a sneeze when a piggy is clearing its nose in the process, too.


“I invite you into the herd I am leading”
This is friendly dominance behaviour. It is better known as “power grooming”. Gently lick and very gently nibble the ear of a piggy. It establishes you as the stronger, but welcoming partner. It will also ensure that a young piggy will heed any approval/disapproval from you much better, as you are the top pig and the supreme leader of its group.
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“I love you”
Stroking the area right next to eyes gently mimics piggy kisses and exchanges of affection.
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“Don’t get uppity with me”
Gently force a piggy’s nose up with your own and hold for a moment. This re-enforces your dominance.
Always give an assurance of love before and after any chastisement. This mirrors the way social enabler piggies deal with a problem companion. It comes across as "I love you, but you need to behave!"
Make sure that when dealing with guinea pigs that you observe their hierarchy and always serve and deal with the leader first.
(PS: This is NOT the same as gently scratching the soft spot under a piggy's chin!)
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Cuddling tips

- very skittish piggies that are not used to being handled are likely to be very frightened. Start with having them underneath a towel on your lap or under pullover, where they can feel safe but can feel your breathing and your body warmth. Do not wear good clothing; there may be peeing accidents, especially once a piggy relaxes enough to fall asleep and loses control over its bladder. Take being “christened” as a badge of honour – a piggy that is falling asleep trusts you on a very basic level! Don’t pet it at first, only once it is becoming relaxed with the routine, which can take a while.

- If possible cuddle new/wiggly or very skittish (even the seemingly docile ones!) piggies that are very likely freak out always while sitting in the middle of a sofa or - even better - on the floor, so they cannot injure themselves when blind jumping. For the same reason, please do not carry them back on your arm or lift them into the cage face forward with your hands. Rather use a pick up conveyance in order prevent blind jumping. The largest number of serious falling and jumping accidents happens on the way back to the cage.
Understanding Prey Animal Instincts, Guinea Pig Whispering And Cuddling Tips

- piggies have very individual “sweet spots”; under the chin and bottom lip, on the nose, behind the ears or just being stroked down the back. A few piggies also like their bellies tickled, whereas many piggies dislike having their bellies touched. They also may have a favourite spot like sitting on your shoulder or tucked under your chin.
Some piggies do not like being touched at all. You may get as far as them tolerating being handled and groomed, but learn to just enjoy their company on their own terms. Try to get them used to touch by laying your hand close to them on your lap and “accidentally” brush their body. Apologise for the incident, but do it every now and then, as much as the piggy will allow. Take it slowly from there. Be patient.

- always heed signs that a piggy has had enough or needs an urgent pee. That is most often wiggling, but can be nibbling, tweaking your finger quite hard or pulling your clothes.
Signs of displeasure include a sharp, deep rumble; head butting, moving away or turning the bum in your face. Very young piggies are not used to sitting still for long and are more interested in exploring the world with all their senses; including by nibbling on everything, sometimes quite hard.
Feel privileged if you are at the receiving end of a piggy lick; the equivalent of a piggy kiss!


In the end, the more you learn to read guinea pig body language and behaviours yourself, the more you will get out of a relationship. Taking a piggy’s issues seriously and respecting its own needs helps to create trust. Guinea pigs are great communicators; their social interaction is much more differentiated than previously assumed, as the latest research is showing.
Over time you can develop a kind of shared trade language on the basis of shared and understood common signals with your guinea pigs. Above all, be patient, but persist – it is really worth it!

Please also read our thread with tips on how to best settling in skittish new piggies.
How Do I Settle Shy New Guinea Pigs?

This guide here deals with issues arising when you pamper your piggies unreservedly without putting your relationship on the hierarchical footing that a guinea pig expects: Who is the boss - your guinea pig or you?

Maybe one day, you'll become a piggy whisperer yourself! ;)
 
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