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July 5, 2011

Something to Wheek About: Get Happy With Guinea Pigs

With proper care, guinea pigs reveal delightful personalities

All Animals magazine

  • Michelle Riley/The HSUS.

by Ruthanne Johnson

If you don’t know  what “popcorning,” “wheeking,” and “rumblestrutting” mean, you haven’t spent enough time with guinea pigs.

But after sharing her home with these domestic cousins of the Andean wild cavy for nearly 14 years, Shannon Cauthen can tell you all about their endearing antics.

When guinea pigs are happy and excited, they kick up their heels and toss their heads like tiny bucking broncos as they race around their cage. This is known as popcorning. A cavy feeling bold may rumblestrut—combining a purring noise with a rear waggle to show dominance. Wheeking—a loud squeal signaling pleasure, unhappiness, or a request for a treat—is just one of at least nine distinct sounds guinea pigs use to express their needs and emotions.

“The communication they have with each other is just amazing,” says Cauthen, who founded the Colorado-based rescue group Cavy Care. “… They develop little individual friendships and then [will] defend their friend if there is another guinea pig who is causing problems. They are very dedicated to each other. ”

Guinea pigs also have a playful streak: Bells, mirrors, and hay-stuffed slitted bags are popular toys, and some of Cauthen’s piggies even enjoy games of fetch.

Sadly, some guinea pig owners never see their pets’ fun-loving side. Guinea pigs’ habitat, diet, and social life play an important role in their physical and mental well-being; as prey animals, they need to feel safe and comfortable for their personalities to blossom. Yet many people mistake them for easy-to-manage “starter pets” for children, and many pet stores sell inappropriate cages, food, and toys, says rescuer Teresa Murphy, founder of Cavy Spirit in San Mateo, Calif. The common result: a stressed, fearful animal; children quickly bored with their new companion; and parents unwilling to pick up the slack for the next five to seven years, which is guinea pigs’ average lifespan.

Read about Teresa Murphy's crusade to improve treatment of guinea pigs »

Murphy is all too familiar with the scenario: Most of the animals surrendered to Cavy Spirit “are from people who got the guinea pig for their kids, and the kids are no longer taking care of them,” she says. Shelters and rescue groups across the country speak of the neglected, withdrawn cavies living alone in small cages. The classroom pets with heatstroke or broken limbs. The animals found in dumpsters, abandoned cars, or even wandering loose outdoors, where they stand out like a neon sign advertising “come and get it” to hungry predators, says Murphy.

One adoption at a time, devotees are working to change the mindset that cavies are disposable. Cauthen encourages people to lend a hand at Cavy Care’s sanctuary, offering a free adoption in exchange for 10 volunteer stints. And she encourages the entire family to get involved, making sure the parents are “just as excited as the kids.”

Murphy has potential adopters help clean cages as well as feed and handle her foster animals. “I’ve had people say, ‘Well, that’s too much work,’ or the kid goes, ‘Eew!’ So it’s better to know what you are getting into than getting rid of the animal later on.”

For the people who learn to appreciate the species’ charms and provide top-notch care, the animals have special ways of expressing their gratitude—such as by “barbering,” the term for when a guinea pig chews off a piece of hair from a beloved friend.

“That’s a sign of affection,” says Cauthen. “... That’s happened to a couple of clients.”

Learn more about caring for cavies » 

 Read more from the current issue of All Animals»

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