A Reflection on Guineas and Guinea Tending
I had never given guinea pigs much thought until my family and I became caretakers of them several years ago. Before, I considered them rather bland, dull creatures if they came to mind at all. It made sense to me that guinea pig was a metaphor for a non-protesting and easily oppressed experimental subject. But having raised a few guinea pigs over the years, the notion that these charming little creatures are dull or merely ambivalent subjects for experimentation seems ignorant, and an insult to the species. Like my husband and children, I have come to know guinea pigs fairly well. Now, I see them as creatures with personalities and idiosyncrasies, creatures that you can come to love, and creatures that can teach you a thing or two about life, the good and the not so good.
Guineas spend a lot of time munching and staring into space. They are experts in playing Statues, too, given their ability to immobilize themselves for several minutes at a time without a twitch, blink, or breath discernable to the naked eye. You’d be sorely disappointed if you expected a guinea pig to exercise in a wire wheel like the frenetic hamster does. If introduced to it, a guinea pig would sniff it, look back at you stonily, and sniff again, concluding that the wheel had little to offer, no cozy place to burrow, nothing at all to munch on. He or she would slowly step away and amble off to more familiar surroundings, those that more likely offer comfort and security.
Yes, guinea pigs can seem to be rather dull creatures, but that dullness is generally proportional to what you know about them and how much time you spend attending to them. Guinea pigs can touch your heart, they can make you cry, grumble or laugh. You must invest in your guinea pig to keep them interested and interesting. You must be an active participant in your guinea’s life in order to reap the rewards of guinea tending.
We had been the caretakers of three and a half generations of guinea pigs over thirteen years, and experienced challenges in caring for them, not necessarily pleasant, but always educational. We became familiar with guinea pig births, misbehavior, major and minor medical conditions, old age, and death.
My husband and I obtained our first guinea pig as a birthday gift for our daughter, Melissa, when she turned five. We had been thinking about a first pet for a few months, but weren’t ready for a dog or cat, animals that could undoubtedly wreak havoc on our house and furnishings, much of which had been redone, repaneled, repainted, and recarpeted over our eight years of home ownership. We didn’t want things scratched, peed on, or chewed up. We didn’t want to scoop up doo-doo.
I’d read that guinea pigs were a perfect pet for a young child. Compact, very holdable, gentle, simple to care for. Besides that, guineas were clean. They weren’t the source of peculiar or lingering odors. Their droppings were just that, droppings, not a sludgy stinky mess. Plus, they didn’t bark, screech, or scratch.
Melissa picked out a fluffy black and white guinea from the pet shop, and named her Trixie. She was an Abyssinian, covered in patches of medium length black and white fur, arranged in whorls and tufts from head to toe. She had shiny black eyes and a pink nose. She was our starter guinea pig.
Birth and Beyond
After we brought her home, Trixie had the cage to herself for the first six weeks or so. We took her out frequently for Melissa to pet, to brush, and to hold. Jeffrey, Melissa’s older brother, would occasionally hold Trixie too. My husband, petless throughout his life until Trixie came along, eventually took to her as well, letting her sit on his chest, typically at the dining room table while he read the paper. I set her on my lap in the evening sometimes, after the dinner dishes were done, stroking her soft fur. She sat fairly still, sometimes purring, sometimes sniffing the air or turning her head about, looking at the surroundings. At times, I would observe undulations, jerks, or twitching of her torso, contortions that seemed to go unnoticed by Trixie. I was naively surprised when Melissa and I witnessed Trixie give birth to three pups the first day of spring that year, one of our first lessons.
We learned that birth is not as big a deal for animals as it is for humans, nor is it necessarily a pretty site. Out the pups came that morning, just as we readied ourselves to refresh Trixie’s food and water. Trixie bore them without a squeak or whimper. She licked each one clean after it appeared, and she instinctively consumed the blood-streaked afterbirth before our eyes. I wish I had a photo of Trixie’s brand-new babies. There were many other babies, later on, and my daughter became our official guinea-pig archivist and photographer.
Guinea pig pups are amazingly well developed compared to the offspring of other mammals. They are born with seeing eyes, working teeth, and a full coat of fur. They’re fully mobile too, capable of walking and even scurrying around the cage within a few hours of birth, hungry and ready to nurse or even to munch on hay. As newborns, they can make a racket, especially as a herd. Their shrill squeak is often piercing to the human ear. It is amusing to watch the pups in their earliest days, scampering around the cage and squeaking simultaneously, as if these functions were interdependent.
Of Trixie’s offspring, we kept one pup, which Melissa named Squeaky, the only female of the three. She was a miniature golden and white version of Trixie, but with a disproportionately large head, compared to her body, like many newborns. We sadly gave up the two males to a neighbor girl, a trial itself, as we had quickly grown attached to them.
Squeaky, by contrast to Trixie, was an excitable and very high-energy guinea from the outset. She could be plain irascible. Just lifting her from the cage was a trial. She raced, she scrambled, she ricocheted from corner to corner in an effort to avoid you. Inevitably, we would win out, but often times it was an exhausting and frustrating battle.
When we allowed Trixie and Squeaky outside in warmer weather, Squeaky learned to abscond from her wire pen to find fresh grass or a dark and cozy place. Her preference was under the lawn mower in the shed. Snatching her, as she raced from lawnmower to a distant corner of the shed, was a consequence of luck, not stealth.
Guinea Pig Antics
We kept our guineas in a very large cage, constructed by my husband. It was set in the back room, a closed in porch-like area off the kitchen. Our guinea pigs soon recognized the sounds of food preparation, especially the readying of raw vegetables for a salad. Opening the refrigerator crisper drawer or the crackling of a plastic bag, brought on a chorus of squeaking and chortling. The rhythmic tapping or scraping of a knife against a cutting board was also music to a guinea pig’s ear, eliciting frenzied chatter.
Guineas respond to visual cues too, the sight of you included, even those guinea pigs that haven’t agreeably accepted your efforts at physical contact, holding, or petting. If there is a hint that food is nearby, our guinea pigs typically stood on their hind legs, front paws against the side of the cage facing you, chortling as if their lives depended upon it. Just seeing you pass by the cage was an opportunity for practicing their histrionics.
Guinea Pig Activity and Interaction
Binkles was one of the female offspring of another guinea, Velvet. Binkles was shorthaired, mostly black, but with numerous white markings on her face, torso and limbs. My husband would elicit purrs from her by initiating a “Brrrrrrr” as he held her against his chest and looked into her eyes. An exchange of “Brrrrr ‘ing” could go on for several minutes. Another game that amused all of us was the 100% Cotton Game whereby my husband would inform Binkles that she was “as soft as” a certain percentage of cotton. My husband tested this out in a variety of ways, changing his tone of voice, word emphasis, and order of the statements. Binkles purred solely when she heard the phrase as soft as 100% cotton.
Guinea pigs can be amusing to watch in a natural environment too. Our guineas grew comfortable enough to traverse the lawn under the protection of their plastic igloos, using their snouts and the force of their moving bodies to propel the igloos forward. Sometimes they would venture out of the igloo, boldly eating a patch of green grass or clover unprotected. It was a charming scene, really. They looked like miniature cows from a distance, grazing lazily. But they always bolted back to the igloo in response to any sound, be it a brash clang or a mere whisper. For stocky creatures with very short legs, it was amazing to observe their immediate response, and the bullet-fast speed at which they catapulted to safety.
Guinea Pig Illness and End of Life
As is true for most pet owners, the most difficult periods occurred when our guineas suffered or died. Thankfully, with Trixie and Squeaky, death happened quietly, without drama, nor evidence of suffering. For a brief period, each of them slowed down, grew quieter and less responsive, and ate little. We found Squeaky still and lifeless one day inside the cage. Trixie’s death followed a few months later, as Jeffrey held her in his lap, stroking her fur. They were both buried under the lilac bush in the backyard.
Our experience with Velvet, Binkles’ mother, was harder. Velvet had given birth to Binkles and three other pups within a couple months of bringing her home. Velvet proved to be calm and stoic, and an excellent, patient mother to her four offspring. She seemed to lead a normal guinea life for several weeks after their births until one day when we noticed that she was not using her hind legs. Velvet had begun to depend upon her front paws to reach her bowl, the water bottle, or to move to a comfortable resting spot in the cage. There was no sign of injury to her rear legs or paws. She seemed to be comfortable, otherwise, eating and drinking normally, and dealing patiently with her needy pups, letting them nurse at will without complaining or rebuffing them.
When the problem persisted for a couple days, we took Velvet to the vet. He surmised that she must have been dropped or that she had fallen, although we were very certain that hadn’t happened. There was no sign of direct, overt injury to her body or her limbs. The vet gave her a shot of cortisone, thinking that it might help any inflammatory process that could be affecting her mobility, and he gave us instructions to remove Velvet from the other guineas so she could rest, and so the area might have a better opportunity to heal. Give it a few days, he told us.
Unfortunately, Velvet did not improve despite the treatment and rest period. A few days after the office visit she had difficulty keeping her head upright. She was mobile, but far less so. Fortunately, she still ate a little. But soon, I noticed spasms around Velvet’s neck area. These would come so infrequently and were so brief, that I sometimes wondered if they were a figment of my imagination.
Still, a couple of days later, her symptoms grew worse. When I entered the house after work, I noticed that Velvet’s neck spasms were much more forceful and frequent. Lying on her side, head drooping, she now exhibited an involuntary pedaling of her upper limbs. Periodically, she rotated her paws in a circular motion, as if she were cycling. But she was listless, otherwise. Her eyes stared, vacant and unfocused. What I had called spasms, I realized, weren’t spasms. They were seizures.
Acceptance, inevitable but not so easy
I tried to talk to Melissa about Velvet. I wanted to prepare her, to let her know that Velvet was very sick. She had trouble hearing that, and withdrew. I imagine she had difficulty dealing with such extreme suffering, a phenomenon that was unfamiliar to her, and that she felt helpless to alleviate. I knew Velvet would not get better, that all we could do was offer comfort.
But keeping her comfortable seemed impossible. We made the difficult decision. My husband drove me to the vet, and I sat beside him holding Velvet in a cardboard box. On the way, her paws pat-a-patted on the side of the box continuously. She lay on her side, seemingly oblivious. When I watched the vet examine her, my eyes were full, smoldering, ready to storm. Velvet had a spinal tumor, the vet ascertained, and it had advanced up her spine and grown larger. After Velvet received the injection, I saw that she was calm again at last, and as still as can be. I pet her one last time, then sobbed uncontrollably, embarrassed, covering my eyes with my hands and leaving the office, allowing my husband to pay the bill and to arrange for her remains to be cremated.
It didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t seem right that such a defenseless creature should have to suffer like that, that anyone, any creature, no matter how small, should have to experience such misery. Velvet’s suffering, though a result of natural causes, was hard to watch and to accept.
In retrospect, there was the benefit of anticipation and emotional preparation. By contrast, a few years later our then four guineas passed away suddenly on a sunny day, not long after my daughter set them outside. They were alive and well one minute, and gone minutes later. We weren’t sure what happened. We decided after much thought that the guinea pigs may have eaten grass contaminated by dirty water, water that had overflowed from the backyard fountain onto the grass as my husband was cleaning it.
The sense of loss, the guilt, the sadness overwhelmed me at first. And of course I was concerned about my daughter, though it seemed she was coping better than I. Over the next couple weeks, I was sensitive to the absence of guinea pig noises, especially upon awakening each morning. Our bedroom was adjacent to the back room where we kept the guineas, and I had grown accustomed to the rattling of the metal ball inside the water bottle, as the guineas drank from it. I especially missed the chortling of our guineas requesting their morning food, as my husband and I stepped out of our bedroom.
We cleared the cage out, leaving it nearly empty after we buried those four guineas under the lilac bush. Melissa put two stuffed toy guinea pigs in the cage to cheer things up. But of course, that was no replacement for the real live creatures.
Just Two More
Our last pet shop guineas were named Smore and Feathers. We’d thought we brought home two females, but learned later that Feathers was male. He was longhaired, white with tan markings, and we compared him to a jazz musician or a punk-rocker, given his wild spiky halo of fur. Smore, a cross between an Abyssinian and smooth haired guinea, sported a tufted, whorled coat of dark brown, caramel, and white fur.
Smore didn’t disappoint us. She, too, gave birth to guinea pig pups several weeks after we brought her home. My motto with female guineas is “buy one, get at least two free.” She bore one male and one female, who we named Zip and Checkers. Their coloring was very much like their mother’s. Checkers’ back was patterned in four contrasting squares of caramel, dark brown, and white. Zip had a white horizontal stripe across his back, dividing the vertical halves of dark brown and caramel. We kept the females separate from the males to avoid amassing multiple generations of guineas into the future.
Those Final Days with Trooper Smore
Time passed. Melissa, like her brother, graduated from high school and eventually went to college. We moved during those college years, and took Smore with us. By that time she was our only remaining guinea pig. We called her our trooper — Trooper Smore. While it was easy to take Smore for granted in our new home, I reminded myself many times to pay attention to her. I knew she was our last guinea pig, and I would miss her when she was gone.
Recognizing this, I got better at attending to Smore: greeting her in the morning and petting and picking her up in the evening, even if she scrambled to and fro to avoid me. Once in my hand, or resting on my shoulder, she settled quickly. She enjoyed being brushed. She loved a treat of fresh parsley or fragrant celery leaves.
Sometimes, I set Smore out on the grass, avoiding very warm days. No overflowing fountains this time, and always protection with a place to burrow. I knew that Smore’s vocalizations were something to savor, as were her longer periods of calm and serenity.
Smore is buried beside the Lenten Rose in the raised garden at the side of the garage, where two other favorite plants reside, green moss and a Hydrangea. It’s both a sunny and shady spot, depending on the time of day. A fitting place, I think, for a little creature that emits lively brightness and cheer, but is also a source for abiding in dark, sustaining quiet.
So, what are some life lessons, anyway? We’ve had a preview with the guineas. Here are a few that come to mind:
Appreciate the small things; they are often the most precious.
Birth is a spectacular but necessarily messy process.
If you strongly desire something or someone, pursue and persist, but don’t push.
Sometimes, you cannot cure. If not, try to provide comfort and reassurance.
There are risks to living in the natural world. Try to minimize them, without obliterating them from your experience.
Protect those that depend upon you.
Life comes without guarantees. Slow down. Watch.