By Kim Halford BVetMed MSC, MRCVS. Masters in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Non-Practising Veterinary surgeon
Guinea Pigs are prey animals. In the wild, to prevent them getting caught by predators, they hide signs of pain and illness. We cry out in pain and expect animals to do the same, but if they did this in the wild it would increase the risk of them getting caught.
As guinea pigs (like rabbits) hide their pain well, owners often don’t recognise when they are in pain and often misinterpret it. Many also believe they don’t experience pain to the same degree as people or that some things which are painful to us don’t hurt them. In reality, it is thought that they experience pain the same as us but show it in a different way. Though guineas are common pets, the symptoms for pain haven’t been greatly studied with some of these signs not even being recognised by animal experts. The rest of this article covers the main behaviours associated with your pet being in pain/discomfort. Take note; by themselves, each of these signs may not mean that your guinea pig is sore; it’s more when they show a number of these signs together.
Short Term Signs
1. Vocalising “Squeaking/screaming”
When in sudden pain, guinea pigs may make loud and high-pitched squeaks. These are different and often longer lasting than their normal lower pitched “wheek”. They only usually cry out with sudden, intense types of pains, not general aches. One example is if touch/hold an area of their body that is sore.
2. Writhing/Abdominal Contractions
Some abdominal contractions (when their belly gets tight) can be normal in guinea pigs however, these may worsen or be more regular if their tummy is sore. If you see contractions and them stretching their body out, especially if they are doing this often, they’re likely in pain. Writhing/Abdominal Contractions
3. Changes in Posture
How they are stood can change depending where their pain is. With belly aches (eg. If their guts are not working well) they could have their back arched. They may stand or walk with their bodies very tense. Changes in posture are also seen when lying. Normally guinea pigs lay with their back legs tucked under them but when their spine, belly or back legs are sore they may have one or both back legs stretched out behind them or splayed to the side. Remember; healthy guinea pigs sometimes alter their position. Some guinea pigs may find it comfy to lie in these positions when well. You need to look at what is normal for your guinea pig; if they are acting differently it could be due to pain/illness/stress.
Most guinea pigs flinch when in pain. Their bodies are trying to move away from whatever is causing the pain. This may happen if you touch a sore spot. They may even flinch if nothing is near them due to pain inside them. Flinching is more common with sudden and shocking pain
When in pain, your guinea pig may shake due to fear or adrenaline running through their veins. Like us, guinea pigs shiver/shake when cold too. Shaking is very subtle and may be hard to see, so is not the most reliable sign. It could also be caused by stress or side effects from medications.
6. Paying Attention to Sore Area
Like you, if a guinea pig has a sore patch, they may look at, or touch it, a lot. Your guinea pig may groom, scratch or chew at the area more leaving wet or damaged skin/hair. Sometimes they may suddenly stop what they are doing and repeatedly turn their head/body to look at whatever is causing them pain.
7. Moving Slower
When you hurt it often worsens the faster you move so you slow down. Animals do the same. Guinea pigs move slower, frequently alter their posture (like if you’re in pain you may toss and turn in bed) or move stiffly. Medications causing sleepiness (eg. anaesthetics or some strong painkillers) may cause your guinea pigs to move slower even when not in pain. If your guinea pig has had surgery and is moving slower ask your vet whether this is likely due to the medications or pain.
8. Moving Less and Laying More
When in pain, animals tend to stay still to avoid further pain. Pain is tiring so they may sleep more. Your guinea pig may be scared due to the pain and when guinea pigs are scared they may freeze, this is called tonic immobility (and is like when a rabbit/ deer freezes if car headlights shine on them). They are likely to be quieter when in pain though some will behave normally. Guinea pigs moving less could be due to stress/tiredness from surgery or due to medication side effects. For instance, strong pain killers may cause guinea pigs to lie down more even if they aren’t sore.
Limping is usually only a sign of pain in a leg or their back/ neck. Occasionally lameness is from non-painful nerve/muscle problems but if your guinea starts limping and it doesn’t improve quickly (or they are immediately dragging their legs/ not putting them to the floor at all) take them to a vet to see what is wrong. Not all guinea pigs in pain will limp. As they hide their pain, guinea pigs may have a sore leg but not appear to be limping. Instead you may notice them not moving around their cage as easily.
10. Bar Biting
Chewing cage bars is not a normal behaviour. Guinea pigs chew on their cage bars if they are frustrated, stressed or bored. Suddenly starting bar-biting is a sign something isn’t right and you need to find, and resolve, the cause. Their bar-biting may stop once you sort out the reason behind it. If left, chewing the bars can turn into a habit or compulsion which can be distressing and damage their teeth.
Longer Term Signs of Pain
- Eating Less and Losing Weight
If you are ill, you lose your appetite; this is the same with your little friends. Healthy guinea pigs spend much of their day grazing/foraging/eating hay. But, when unwell or in pain, they often eat less. But beware, some will still eat tasty treats quickly. Remember though, you may not notice them eating less, especially if they have a couple of friends who eat the leftovers! Monitoring eating as a sign of pain can be difficult and inaccurate; you’re likely to only realise they’re eating less and, therefore in pain, after several hours. Even if they have been in a lot of pain, by the time you’ve noticed them eating less, they may have improved. If you’re not looking for the other signs of pain too, the delay in noticing this sign means your pet will have suffered more than they needed to, before you recognised it and got help.
- Drinking Less
Like with eating, painful guinea pigs don’t want to drink. Some stop drinking altogether. With others when you come to change their water bottle you may notice it is fuller than normal. Noticing your guinea pig eating/drinking less or losing weight gives you a clue they’re not feeling 100%. Once you notice this behaviour change look for other signs of pain to decide if they are in pain. Try and decide whether they are sore or if there are other reasons for them drinking less. For instance, their water may taste different to usual.
- Unkempt Coat and Grooming Less
Other than them focussing their attention to grooming a painful sore more, guinea pigs may take less care of their coat. They groom themselves less either because they don’t have the energy or their pain worsens when in the positions needed to properly groom. This sign is difficult to spot as guinea pigs may groom themselves when hiding so you may not see. Instead of looking at the time spent grooming focus on whether their coat looks clean and tidy. This may take time to be noticeable so if your guinea pigs coat looks dirty watch what they are doing for a while to see how they are acting.
The signs of pain in guinea pigs are very subtle and poorly understood. There are some easier signs to look for, such as limping or crying out, but the more subtle signs may be more accurate. Each sign, on their own, could be unrelated to pain but when they show several signs together, they could be sore. If you are worried your guinea pig is in pain watch them from afar or, even better, set up a camera and film them when you’re not in the room.
They may not hide their pain as much when alone. You can review the footage straight after. If you disturb them, they may “act hard” and not show any signs. It’s also important to recognise that all species of animals have unique ways of expressing pain, the signs given here may be different to how other animals will act when sore.
If concerned any of your pets are in pain contact a vet as soon as possible. Your vet will assess whether they are in pain and look for the cause. Following this they will recommend a course of treatment, if needed, which should help your furry friend to feel a lot brighter.