The Need To Exhibit Normal Behaviour

Photo: Victoria Sponge Cake, Pancake, Rhubarb, Bagel, Toastie, Pompom. From Kaitlin (@bagelandpigs on Instagram)

Article by Abigail Edis FdSc RVN Cert VNESCC Exotics veterinary nurse

When veterinary nurses like myself are looking after our patients, we tend to use something called ‘nurs-ing care plans’ which takes into account the animals’ healthy behaviours and bodily actions. We make care plans, so we know what we need to do to care for our patients to allow them to behave and live as normal-ly as possible. 

For example – if they cannot breathe normally, we usually intervene by giving oxygen orin severe cases breathing for them, or if they cannot move well after surgery, we help them walk and provide them with physiotherapy for their muscles.

To discuss exhibiting normal behaviour, I am going to present it as if I were talking about a patient’s needs to break it down into the typical behaviours and bodily functions all animals should be allowed to exhibit.

These are: eating, drinking, urinating, defecating,breathing, maintaining temperature, grooming/clean-ing themselves, mobilising, sleeping and resting, and expressing healthy behaviours. All of these functions and actions are natural, and when animals are not able to or not given a chance to do the above, then their welfare and quality of life reduce. Of course, this is something which happens when animals (and humans)are sick. 

As a veterinary nurse, it’s my job to assess a patient’s needs and nurse them back to health, sothis topic does apply to all animals. We are also talking about when guinea pigs are well at home too, so let’s look at these behaviours and body functions one at a time and discuss how you as an owner can do the best for your little wheelers


Guinea pigs should always have access to hay and a limited amount of pellets and mixed vegetables/herbs/weeds. Hopefully, as owners, we are already doing this. When piggies are poorly or in pain, they will often stop eating, and it’s at this point we need to step in and syringe them food to help them eat. This should only be a short term solution, and the underlying illness should be addressed.It can sometimes take several weeks for guinea pigs to begin eating correctly, however, they should not be syringed food for the rest of their lives as this is probably unfair on their welfare, but all piggies are different individuals.


Piggies should ways have access to fresh, clean water. Ifthey do not drink well from a bottle, then they should be provided with a bowl from which to drink. Unless they are not eating, then guinea pigs will self-regulate how much they need to drink, there is no need to syringe them water. In periods of illness, then they will be syringe fed foods containing water and a vet will provide more if needed

Urinating and defecating

Passing urine and faeces sounds like a trivial and automatic bodily action, but as owners, we need to keep a close eye on our piggies to ensure they are doing this frequently. We will discuss this more in the next issue but always ensure that they are passing regular normal urine and standard pellets of poop. Any changes in size,consistency and number can mean they are unwell and will need intervention such as feeding and gut stimulant drugs. Older unneutered boars may also need a little help evacuating those faecal pellets which can get stuck in their small perineal sac


Something which we often don’t consider as owners but we need to ensure that piggies have a supply of fresh air. Therefore they need to live in open-topped (not glass or plastic topped) cages and run to ensure there is no build up of ammonia from urine. We should also be aware of not using smelly fragranced bedding for fragrance diffusers near them; these are likely to be unpleasant for them to have nearby and cause undue stress to them. In winter time also ensure that if you’re bringing them into a sheltered outhouse (and not indoors) that they are not in a garage which is in use. Fumes and, including cigarette and vape smoke should be kept away from piggies as they will all have detrimental effects on their little lungs.

Maintain body temperature

Guinea pigs bodies are designed for the neotropical cli-mates of South America, living in savannahs and bush-lands. The temperate climate of the UK is very different,and although they can enjoy the warm temperatures of a mild British summer time the harsh and unpredictable changes in the colder months of the year are no place for an unprotected guinea pig. In the winter time,without protection from the elements guinea pigs will not be able to maintain their temperatures and will suffer. 

Therefore we need to either bring them indoors or provide them with warmth and weather protection from an outhouse. When Piggies fall poorly, are elderly or very young, and those who are hairless will also be at risk of not maintaining average body temperatures so need to be kept indoors and sometimes given a heatsource.

Grooming and cleaning themselves

Piggies naturally wash and groom themselves, and when young and fit don’t generally need us to intervene with this. However, long-haired breeds will certainly be predisposed to getting matted and dirty fur, especially around the backend and underneath. These will be both uncomfortable and also potentially attract unwanted attention from flies. Long hair will also obscure vision, making them more jumpy and grumpy with other piggies, being a prey animal they feel safer being able to see. It is often most ideal for clipping back longer haired breeds, especially around the bottom and underneath and around the face. 

Luscious locks may look attractive, but they are not practical or always pleasant for the piggie, especially in hot weather too. Sick guinea pigs are also experts at sitting in one spot and soaking themselves in urine or not washing their faces due to being poorly. So some poorly piggies need a bum bath, or abit of a pamper to make them feel more comfortable and clean. Other times we may need to help is in the elderly or disabled piggie who may be unable to wash themselves


Mobilising simply means ‘moving’. So we need to ensure that our piggies can move easily and nat-urally. This means that their bedding must be soft and absorbent and cleaned frequently so that they can move normally. They should not live on slippery surfaces where they cannot run about like normal.

Piggies who are poorly and unable to move should be given gentle physiotherapy and held up to walk on front legs (if back legs are not currently working). However, piggies that are paralysed cannot express this normal behaviour so will have a reduced quality of life. All animals are different, but as a prey species being unable to run and hide questions should be asked as to whether the guinea pig can be cared for correctly and have a good quality of life like this.

Sleeping and resting

Sounds very trivial to be able to sleep and rest but we all know what it’s like to not have an adequate sleep. Ensure that your piggies get plenty of ‘downtime’. They are crepuscular, which means they are often most active at dawn and dusk and will usually have more quiet times in the middle of the day and the middle of the night. The latter may not be an issue for having peace but if you have a busy house-hold with children, other animals, guests, parties and even continual television watching it can be disturbing for them if it’s for long hours. Ensure that your piggies get a reasonable amount of time to rest without noise and interaction. They often seem to fit well into our routines no matter what time of day it may be.

Express normal behaviour 

Guinea pigs are social, interactive species who love food but are also prey animals who will run and hide if worried. They should be allowed to live in a group repairing and should be given adequate space to have time away from one another and not be overcrowded.It’s crucial to allow piggies to interact with one another, allow boats to rumble and mount, behaviour to one another is healthy even if this involves bickering over a bowl of food (this is normal and healthy, providing they do not fight outright and one is not getting continually bullied). 

Allowing them to run and hide asprey animals is essential, so provide them with natural hiding places, hay to burrow in and natural bedding if you can. Eating fresh and live food (e.g. grazing on the grass or offered live plants) is also a natural behaviour this should be provided where possible. All of this stems from what guinea pigs would do naturally in the wild during the day, so it will involve grazing and forag-ing for food, interacting with other piggies and sorting out the hierarchy, watching for predators and hiding when scared. 

The one behaviour we don’t advise inbreeding, as although they would do this in the wild they would also be preyed upon and eaten in the wild often keeping the population very much stable (which doesn’t happen in the pet trade). Peoples opinions tend to vary on this, but many reasons we don’t advocate breeding is – too many unwanted pets needing homes, the risk from pregnancies to mother and pups and also ‘backyard breeding’ without understanding the genetics and breeding lines correctly (therefore making lots of poorly bred animals with health issues).Neutering board is much safer than it used to be considered a neutered boar and sow pairing, often one of the strongest and natural pairings you can get without the babies to go with it.

It’s all about quality over quantity – when do we stop intervening?

The combination of everything mentioned amounts to what we call the quality of your guinea pigs (and other pets) life. We often use the term ‘quality of life’ when talking about poor animals andalso when discussing the end of life with owners. It’s crucial as an owner to consider all of the above things, and think about how much your guinea pig can carry on being and behaving like a nor-mal piggie when you are worried about their quality of life. 

If your pet is likely to get over the illness or injury, then it’s often acceptable to help them eat,move, groom, and other functions. However, when your piggie or other pet is only likely to rely on us more and more, then you may need to question at what time you decide to say goodbye and consider that dreaded time you have to put them to sleep. Always remember there is no exact right time; it’s not a black and white subject. 

Over the years of nursing, I have come to develop the saying ‘better a day too early than a day too late,’ as I have seen so many animals suffer for too long before being euthanised. It is heartbreaking to say goodbye, but as an owner(and as vets and nurses) we need to ensure the best quality of life for our pets and patients and allow them to behave as normally as they can. When this becomes an issue, then the best thing we can do to relieve them of this life and say a final farewell. The hardest and best decisions I have ever made for my pets has been a peaceful and quiet end, perhaps one day sooner than needed, but never a day too late to suffer.

  • Issue 51 - DIGITAL ONLY
    Issue 51 – DIGITAL ONLY
  • Issue 51 - PRINT ONLY
    Issue 51 – PRINT ONLY
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