Article by Wiebke Wiese Thomas
Teenage-hood is an age that affects both genders, but the degree can vary enormously. Some can sail through it seemingly unaffected while others will give you plenty of sleepless nights and heartbreak!
The teenage months start when guinea pigs reach their sexual maturity. That is the time when in boars, the testicles descend and when sows will start to give birth; i.e. their sexual organs are now fully developed. Sexual maturity should not – and sadly many vets make this mistake because textbooks do not make the crucial distinction – be confused with procreative maturity, i.e. the age at which guinea pigs can start the next generation, (which for guinea pigs happens around or just after weaning about ten weeks earlier).
Unlike with us humans, the two do not coincide. How do the teenage months typically run? The teenage months tend to start around four months and last until the body settles down into adulthood around 15 months of age although short hormone spikes in boars can occasionally occur later, including in neutered boars.
It is a common misconception that this is a fixed period of constant high stress. In fact, there are quite distinct and typical phases as bodies and minds mature and dependent youngsters learn to spread their wings and explore their environment and their options in their society.
In boars the testicles start descending around four months; sometimes a bit earlier or later. The first strong hormone spike often accompanies this, so you cannot miss the onset of when your cute little baby boys suddenly turn into serious full-on boars! It is at this age that your youngsters are typically at their loudest and most vocal as they are at the highest risk of accidents and predation while they become self-reliant and make space for the next batch of babies. Around six months of age, hormones in both genders are at their lifetime high.
This is the peak of teenage-hood. Sows often have noticeably stronger seasons during these weeks, which can easily top any human soap opera drama! Boars have testosterone literally singing through their bodies and can experience sharp spikes. Apart from the onset, this is the classic age for fall-outs. Furthermore, it’s the period when boars are at their most difficult to bond or re-bond. The next tricky period is often the weeks from about 8-10 months.
This is what I call the ‘boundary pushing’ months when the youngsters are constantly at the limit and are wearing down the patience of their companions but are in most cases just about toeing the line.
Sound familiar? Teenagers have by then got the necessary experience to master their environment and have reached most of their genetically determined adult weight and size. Now they are spreading their wings and testing how far they can fly. It is often the seemingly unaffected piggies that are suddenly waking up late; often around 12 months or shortly after. It feels like they have to make up lost ground while the hormonally most affected ones are usually already over the worst. Around 15 months, your babies will calm down a lot. They stop being quite as dramatic and boisterous and any constant squabbling settles down. No, they are not ill. They have just become full adults!
Teenage-hood in sows gets overlooked because it rarely leads to fall-outs, although these can happen in poorly matched sows that have not come to a firm agreement about leadership. Sows in a group are generally wired to get on and to bring up any babies between them. That is also the reason why the sow equivalent of a full-on deep fighting bite is a painful mouthful of fur. If you see this happening, you will know that there is a major rift that will continue to run on, openly or under the surface, waiting to flare up again in the next crisis.
Teenage years are generally characterised by stronger seasons, which can be very dramatic indeed with lots of vocalising, rumble-strutting, chasing and mounting (whether that is mounting the sow ranked just below or, lacking that option, just above in the hierarchy), or even the usually not exactly pleased ‘husboar’ in the hours before she is ready to mate. The powerful pheromones given off can trigger other sows within reach of them to come into season as well if they are close enough in their oestrus cycle. If you have a larger group or several, you can end up with a nonstop mega-season that can last up to three days until it is all over and blessed peace returns! Sows in a group often have their seasons in two clusters; with the smaller cluster generally comprising of the sows whose oestrus cycle is too far off to be triggered and harmonised by the larger cluster.
If the leadership is not yet fully secure or the under-sow is not entirely happy with the existing hierarchy, rumblestrutting and dominance behaviours will be more marked and longer-lasting, both in the run-up to and potentially lasting for quite a few days after a season. In a group, it is usually the top sow who has stronger seasons, but sharp hormone spikes can overturn this in under-sows. Another feature of the teenage months is near-constant squabbling, especially between sisters with a very competitive relationship. This happens typically in the run-up to their first birthday when pushing the others’ limits can mean teetering at breaking point more than once. Feel blessed if you have one of those pairs where you don’t notice any seasons and that harmonise well!
Character compatibility and mutual liking are key to any happy guinea pig bond, but never more crucial than in teenage boars. This is really the make or break time for any boar bond! The most obvious personality mismatches manifest as major clashes and fights, right at the onset around four months.
The other make-or-break time generally comes with the intense hormone spikes around six months when the testosterone levels are at their all-time high. It is no surprise that the by far the largest group of piggies ending up in rescues are fallen-out teenage boars between 4-6 months of age. Because this is also the most challenging age to bond them, an increasing number of rescues will neuter the difficult to bond boars so they can have a happy and peaceful career as a neutered ‘husboar’ living with a sow or several. While the time around 8-10 months can give you sleepless nights, fights and fall-outs are generally rare at this stage. However, a small number can occur in pairs that have swum along peacefully can get suddenly into real trouble in the last weeks of teenage after 12 months.
It is often less of a hormone-based fight, but more of character incompatibility caused fall-out that happens at this time. While hormone fuelled fights can flare up very suddenly, and you may only happen onto the aftermath of one, you don’t necessarily have to wait until there is a fight with bloody bites if a relationship is heading towards a fall-out. You should however not separate at the first sign of any mild dominance, either!
The best way of working out whether a bond is still functional or not is by putting a divider into the boar cage for a couple of days to allow hormones and tempers to settle down again. Then re-introduce formally on neutral ground outside the cage. A ‘buddy bath’ is not needed and somewhat counterproductive as by then the testosterone stink has evaporated and been cleared off the coat, and the added stress from the bath will not create a friendly atmosphere. If the bond is still working, then your boys will go back without more than some mild dominance behaviour; if not, the existing problems will make an appearance pretty quickly again, whether this is some real grudge or one of the boars is demanding abject submission and no longer getting it.
If one of the boars is being bullied, they will perk up noticeably when separated from their companion(s). You can’t do trial separations all the time because they can, in this case, become an additional strain on a relationship already under pressure, but trial separations are the best way of working out the status of a bond without risking a fight. However, if there has been a full-on fight with deep bleeding bites to rump or head/neck, then this is most definitely the end of the road. An accidental glancing scratch in a scuffle you may just about get away with if you are lucky. Boars that have been separated without a fight will often not go back together as adults although if their fail has been just a near one, they may eventually come to share run or lawn time again, especially as they age and their testosterone starts fizzling out.
Thankfully, the majority of boars will actually make it through teenage-hood without a fall-out!
Working around teenage problems
There are things you can do and should not do with teenagers in order to avoid any obvious triggers for fights. Space: Lots and lots of it, please! Start with a 2×5 ft minimum cage for boars but provide more if possible. Not being available to get away from each other, as piggies would typically do after a lost confrontation, means that they are forced to remain in each other’s presence. If you have boars, opt for a cage that can easily be divided into two single cages (or three in case of a trio or quartet). If you find that a boar is very much sticking to their corner of the cage and is not coming down or across unless they absolutely have to, then be disappointed but also relieved that you have given your piggies the option to have an amicable divorce. Separate formally with a divider if possible.
If you are converting a two-tier hutch or cage, please be aware that the boars still need to remain in contact for ongoing social interaction and vital stimulation. Communication happens not just by voice; it also comprises body language and pheromones and is much more complex than you think.
Everything in the same number as piggies
Please always have at least the same number of huts or log tunnels with two exits as you have piggies in the cage or one more. Make sure that you have water bottles at different ends and also hay in more than one area or with access that cannot be blocked. Serve veg and pellets in one bowl each per piggy and in portions that can be eaten in one go, spaced well apart and remove between meals, or sprinkle feed around the cage to avoid food bullying. Do not clutter the space with toys. Leave those for the run but give teenagers plenty of space to run and to escape.
Observe the hierarchy with any dominant piggies
You must observe the hierarchy, especially if you have a very dominant piggy. Always feed, treat, handle, groom and deal with the leader first in order to not trigger another dominance display; especially with piggies that are very stand-offish
Be careful with changes to the cages!
If you can, please enlarge a boar cage before your boys hit teenagers, or make sure that you have got extra accommodation available in case there are problems. Any changes to the territory require a new hierarchy sort-out even in adult piggies, which can mean the end of the line, especially in teenagers. If you do extend, then please spread used bedding around and wipe down the new part, so it smells like theirs.
Do not introduce sows into a bonded boars’ environment!
The presence of sow pheromones will not go unnoticed and trigger a fight between teenage boys. Boars that have grown up in an environment with sows are generally not affected although they may still react to a very strong season. Nevertheless, they should ideally be kept out of sight or reach of sow pheromones if that is possible, especially during teenage years. Single unneutered boars can be kept next to sows, as long as they cannot climb into a sow cage for ongoing companionship and stimulation as they don’t have a mate to fight.
Do not add more boars!
You are so happy with your two boys, so the temptation to squeeze in another one or two or to merge your sow and boar pair into one big happy family is ever so tempting. Please don’t! Boars are best in pairs or very large bachelor groups. Teenage trios and quartets have a very high falling out rate. It is simply not worth risking breaking what is not broken! Either get another separate boar pair or leave your dreams where they belong and concentrate on getting your existing boar pair safely through teenage-hood first before you think about another separate pair of boys!
Neutered (de-sexed) boars
While most fallen-out boars are fine as next-door companions, neutering is a valid option if you have got access to a good vet and can afford the extremely variable cost and post-op care service. Two neutered boars living with any number of sows is generally a straight recipe for disaster. However, what neutering does NOT achieve is to allow two fighting boars to live happily together. The operation only takes away the ability to make babies after a six weeks post-op safety wait, but it does not change the personal outlook or socially interactive behaviour.
A neutered boar will behave precisely the same as a full one. Nor will a neutered boar heal a rift between a feuding pair or group of sows. He would inevitably associate with one party sooner or later. Unfortunately, vets not experienced with guinea pigs still recommend neutering as a calming down measure. – After reading through all the issues, I want to reassure you that the majority of piggies WILL survive teenage years without falling out. The more you can look for mutual liking, and the more space you can provide, the higher the chances of getting through teenage-hood without major trouble.