It might seem like the most natural thing in the world; to pick up a small animal, give them a cuddle and a stroke before returning them safely to their cage.
However, handling a guinea pig requires a great deal of care in order to avoid dropping your pet and to ensure that he/she feels comfortable and secure.
Guinea pigs have delicate bones and a fall, particularly from a height, could cause serious injuries such as broken bones, internal damage and bruising. Not only this but accidents can make your pet feel vulnerable and nervous about being handled.
Because of this it is important you ensure you get used to handling your pet correctly as early as possible. This will help the bonding experience and prevent any mishaps.
Guinea pigs can wriggle and jump and, however confident you feel, it is essential that you always support your guinea pig. Loud noises or sudden movements can make your pet feel alarmed. If this were to happen when you were transporting them at height, a fall could cause a serious injury; so it is important to learn how to hold your guinea pig properly.
Some pets enjoy being carried but this is not a natural thing for a guinea pig so the first few times you do it they are likely to be nervous and they may avoid you next time you approach them. This is why it’s important to get your first few encounters well-practiced so that the both of you feel more comfortable and confident.
The best way to approach your guinea pig is get down to their level and reach to them slowly from the front.
I’ve found the best way is to slowly put your hand in the cage – not right by your pet but a little distance away. Keep it still and they will become inquisitive and most likely come and sniff your hand so they become used to your scent. Let them do this for a minute or two.
This is all a part of the bonding experience and, if they can associate your smell (and voice) with a relaxed cuddle they will more likely want to be picked up in future.
At this stage, we are aiming to reinforce a positive bond so go steady, be patient but be firm and consistent.
Your should never approach your guinea pig from behind as this can startle them.
In addition, swooping on them from a height can be equally as alarming. Remember, in the wild they are preyed upon by large birds so it is in their nature to run from air attacks!
To pick up your guinea pig you should have a hand under their chest with your other hand supporting their bottom.
It is essential that your guinea pig feels secure, so support his bottom with confidence.
Ideally, and particularly with nervous guinea pigs, you should support them by restraining (at least) one of their front quarters. It’s good advice for the more nervous pets who may have a tendency to nip and bite to give them a firm and safe feeling of security whilst preventing them the access to deliver an unexpected ‘chomp’.
Whilst you need to have a firm grip on your pet you should also make sure that you are not holding them too tightly. As with any small creatures, their insides are very delicate and too much pressure on their lungs and stomach can cause discomfort.
Bring your guinea pig close in to your chest and hold them with both hands (not tightly but securely so they can’t fall).
This will give your cavy confidence that you have them securely but also provide them with the warmth of your body, important scenting and give you an opportunity for a sneaky cuddle.
The first couple of times that you do this, it is likely that your guinea pig will struggle so try to keep this first handling down to just a few minutes until you can build up the time that they feel comfortable in your care.
While you cuddle them, talk to them gently and softly so they become used to a soothing voice.
It is always a good idea to pet them while you’re seated . Imagine the fear of looking down and seeing a drop many times your own body length!
Whilst holding your pet you may find that they try to nuzzle their faces into your clothing. If you hold them to your chest, they might try to bury themselves in your neck, particularly if you have long hair which offers a hideout for them!
It is part of their natural behavior to try and hide. The idea being if their head is hidden then no-one can see them.
For this reason, the first couple of times you handle your pet, you might want to hold a small piece of fleece as well. This way they have access to a ‘hiding’ place and may feel more comfortable as a result.
When you put your guinea pig back in their housing or pen it is tempting to just ‘let them go’ when you are a few inches from the ground.
However, it is an important part of handling for you to signify that you are finished and are putting them back rather than them escaping from you.
When you release your guinea pig, try to do so under absolute controlled conditions. If they squirm a few feet before the ground, make sure you have them securely but not too tightly.
Lower you guinea pig slowly into their cage. You should always do this with their bottom first. This will also prevent them from making a dash for it and keeps you in control and stops them from hurting themselves by jumping.
Overall, handling a new guinea pig requires patience; your pet is adjusting to a new environment and new owners. It is not a normal thing and requires you to be reassuring, firm and consistent.
You should always wash your hands before (and after) handling a guinea pig.
This will ensure that you are not carrying any germs or bacteria which may be harmful to your pet but will also remove any scent of food. Cavies have an excellent sense of smell and if they can detect some delicious scent on your fingers then they may accidentally bite you, mistaking you for a treat.
In addition, you should try not to smell of anything artificial as this will prevent your cavy from learning your unique scent. So, don’t try to handle your pet just after spraying your deodorant or using perfume.
Think about the area in which you are handling your guinea pig; you should make sure that dogs and cats are not in the room with you in case they are tempted to consider your small pet as a toy or tasty snack. Even if you think your other pets will be fine with your guinea pigs, it is always safer to keep them apart.
You should make sure the area is free of obstacles so you don’t trip whilst holding your cavy and you should always have clear access to return your pet back to safe environment if you need to do so in a hurry.
Be particularly careful about any potential escape routes. If you accidentally drop your pet, you should be confident that they have nowhere they can disappear to such as gaps in fences, holes and ledges/drops; they can move extremely quickly for such a small creature, particularly when they are afraid.
The environment should be free of potential, unexpected loud noises as this may frighten your cavy and cause it to struggle free. This is particularly important when they are quite young and during your first handling experiences together. A barking dog or tv program that has bursts of volume can be extremely alarming for them.
Very squirmy or skittish animals may benefit from being tempted into handling by using food as a ‘lure’ and a treat. Have some special fresh vegetable treats on hand to make this process as rewarding as possible (a piece of cucumber or lettuce is ideal).
Lastly, it’s a good idea to wear clothing that you don’t mind getting messy.
Unless you hold your guinea pig for too long (15 minutes should be the maximum), they are unlikely to urinate on you. However, you are likely to get a lot of hair (even from short-haired piggies) as well as the odd poop.
With the correct technique, handling is a real pleasure for both you and your pet. Not only does physical interaction help with bonding but it also prevents guinea pigs from getting too skittish and nervous.
With regular handling, essential grooming, maintenance and trips to the vets will be much less stressful for both you and your cavy.
Guinea pigs are social animals and they benefit from handling by getting important social interaction; this can help keep them happy as lonely cavies run the risk of serious health problems.
A daily fifteen minutes of petting time will make your guinea pig relaxed and provide them with an enjoyable massage, groom and mental stimulation.
When you are handling your guinea pig it is recommended that you do so for periods of no longer than about 15 minutes. Within this time they may need the toilet and will indicate they want to do so be becoming more restless.
Some guinea pigs will lick you if they want to get down. Others will give a little nip which doesn’t usually hurt. Our male guinea pig, Mr Jaffas will give a gentle nip and if we don’t put him back, he will give a slightly harder nip and continue with harder nips until he is put back. He never hurts though – it’s just his way of telling us he has had enough.
If you ignore these signs then you run the risk of being nipped harder than you may like!
It is more common for a cavy to go for a number two whilst being handled than urinating on you. If your pet urinates on you then this is highly unusual and indicates that you probably missed those tell-tale signs.
As you get used to handling your guinea pig you will get to know when he wants to return to his housing.
Most guinea pigs do not like to be touched on their bellies or their bottoms. You will learn very quickly if there is a specific spot on your cavy that is a no-go zone but, generally, avoid the tummy.
It is best to stroke your cavy from the head to the rump and maybe a gentle rub under the chin and around the neck. A couple of our guinea pigs, Brandy in particular, absolutely love being stroked under their chin. Brandy will lift her head up for more as you do this – she can’t get enough!
Another thing you should never do is put them in any type of restraint or use a collar, lead or harness. This is extremely dangerous.
Because guinea pigs have such a delicate bone structure, younger children should never be allowed to pick them up.
This is not to say that they cannot touch them. It should be perfectly safe if the child is sitting at floor level. Then you can allow the guinea pig to settle on their lap.
A pregnant guinea pig can still be handled but extra care must be taken. Under no circumstances should you place your expectant guinea pig in a position where she could be dropped or squeezed too firmly. If needed, sit on the floor and gently lift her onto your lap for a stroke. In the later weeks of her pregnancy, handling should be kept to an absolute minimum.
If you do accidentally drop or release your guinea pig too soon you need to then don’t worry, they are catchable but it’s important that you don’t panic!
The first thing to do is to block any escape routes and to minimize the space he can roam.
If you are indoors, close doors and place upturned books or other flat objects against any places they can hide (under the sofa, cupboards or behind shelving).
You should also make sure there are no dangerous objects around which could hurt them, eg electrical cables that could be chewed etc.
Don’t rush around as this will scare your pet. Instead, slowly corner your cavy and then approach him as you would do under normal handling circumstances.
Be patient, be calm and try to lure him with food.
If the escape was a result of a fall then you will need to be extra careful in case your pet has sustained any injuries. These may not be immediately obvious but once you have caught him, just give him a quick check over. If he seems ok, return him to his cage but be watchful for any changes in physical behavior or obvious signs of injury.
Despite all of our advice, tips and guidelines, your first handling may not go as well as you expected but don’t despair. If your pet struggled, nipped, whined or urinated on you, don’t give up.
The key is to persevere with your attempts at handling and taming. Work out what went wrong and try to adjust your technique to improve your skill.
For example, if your guinea pig urinated on you then you probably held her for too long or too tightly.
If they squirmed immediately and you put them down too quickly then try bringing them closer to your body to establish confidence in your handling.
If they nipped your fingers, perhaps you forgot to wash your hands first and he was thinking they were a tasty treat!
Petting a small animal is key to your enjoyment of their company and, with guinea pigs, essential for their well-being.
Consider handling as the primary skill you need to being a responsible owner and the more you handle them the more natural and easier it will be.