Posted: June 13, 2012, 7 a.m. EDT
Q: Last year I adopted a 1-year-old, female guinea pig called Ginger. I have tried to follow all advice on guinea pigs, but I still can’t seem to tame her. Although she does let me pet her, it is only sometimes and usually while she’s eating. Other times she just runs away, and I am not sure why. Sometimes I wonder if this is just a way of her playing, because she tends to come out of hiding the moment I stop trying to pet her and not when I am far away. I’m not sure whether she wants my attention or not. When I adopted her, her profile in Petfinder indicated that she liked being petted and held, so I wonder if she simply doesn’t like me at all. She usually doesn’t want us to pick her up, but we have had to a few times (for example, last year we had to flee our apartment due to a fire alarm) and after being placed in my lap she seemed to be quite content. How do I know if my guinea pig loves me, whether she is just cranky or if she is simply playing hard to get? I respect my cavy’s temperament but if there is a chance for me to be able to bond with her more, I would love to find out.
A: What you are describing is not uncommon in guinea pigs. Based on your description, your guinea pig does not have a love/hate relationship with you, it is just a matter of communicating your needs so that she understands. Try these suggestions.
1) When interacting with your guinea pig, take away her house so that she has nowhere to hide. Taking away the house will eventually indicate that this is "playtime or interaction time" between the two of you. When that time is over, return her home so that she can feel safe.
2) Every time you approach your guinea pig's cage to interact with her in any way, bring a small treat like a bit of carrot, lettuce, grape or berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries). You will quickly find out her favorites and reword her accordingly for her trust. There will come a time when these things will no longer be necessary and you will simply be able to approach the cage for a kiss through the bars or a nose rub.
3) If you always call your guinea pig by name she will learn it and respond to it. She will learn the sound of your voice and always associate it with the pleasantries you offer with each visit. Guinea pigs are very food-motivated and learn quickly.
4) Announce yourself by placing your hand at least 5 inches from your guinea pig's eyes so that she can see you. Guinea pigs do not see directly in front of their noses, so being at least 5 inches away cuts down on the element of surprise and generates a true bond of trust between the two of you. Sometimes you may notice your guinea pig turn one eye on you and then the other, which makes it possible for your guinea pig to see your face despite its nose.
5) Keep your guinea pig in an area you where are most active and work with her outside the cage in a small playpen; both actions will win her trust. Granted her first reaction will be "what do you expect from me," and she will sit there like a stunned fish. But keep offering the opportunity to explore this environment or other places that provide space for exploration and are easy to clean up.
6) If it is possible, engage your guinea pig in a one-sided conversation. Tell her about your day, the people in that day and eventually she will reward you with purrs and twitters as if to offer her opinions on these experiences as you interact with each other. Guinea pigs are very social creatures, great listeners and wonderful lap animals. I often allow them to run around my tile bathroom as I read a book. They love to take this time to explore me and nibble on the corners of my books. Occasionally with a guinea pig that has severe trust issues, I lie in the middle of the room and let her explore me. Sniff and run, sniff and run and then it eventually turns into just sniffing. I may put a carrot under my hand, or knee for them to find, which associates good things when interacting with me. Time will earn your reward, and your guinea pig’s undying friendship once won over is worth its weight in gold.
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