Guinea Pigs for Stress Relief
My daughter's pleas to get a pet coincided with a period of high stress for our family. And this made us wonder, is this really the right time for us to be adding animals to our household? Wouldn't a pet just add to our stress?
We concluded that the stroking and loving involved in pet ownership might just counteract the stressful things in our lives, but we weren't sure.
It would also depend, we reasoned, on what kind of animal we got. Maybe a goldfish would be the ideal answer, after all you don't need to do much to look after them, and it's so relaxing watching them just swim around... But then, all they do is swim around. And around. And they're not a very interactive pet for my interactive child.
We came to the conclusion that with a pet, maybe you get out of it what you put in. Looking after fish takes little effort, but you don't get a whole lot out of it. (No offence to fish-lovers. I admit I am generalising and I don't know a whole lot about fish!) While, it seemed, that a larger, land-based animal probably takes up a lot more of your time, but they learn to communicate with you, you can get to know one another well and hopefully, in time, you may also love each other.
Well we went through a couple of options. We were serious about a dog for a while, but realised it would be unfair when there wouldn't be anyone in the house for long periods during the day, and nice as it would be to get the exercise, would we find the time for regular walks?
Then we considered cats. But we have a large urban fox community around here, and although they're beautiful to watch, the foxes have got into fights with neighbours' cats, resulting in losses of eyes and things. And none of us really liked the idea of having a house cat, it just didn't seem right.
So we thought that some kind of small animal might be fun. A gerbil? Too small. A hamster? Too bitey. A lizard? (My choice). Not cuddly enough. A bird? Too um, feathery.
A rabbit was a strong contender; I liked one I'd seen that had one sticking-up and one sticking-down ear, it looked quirky... But then we met some really cute guinea pigs.
And as a big capybara fan, I just couldn't resist their cute little cousins. As you can't just buy one guinea pig, (well you can but they get lonely), we have two!
One is scruffy, cheeky and crazy and the other is smooth, beautiful and zen.
Learning About Guinea Pig Civilization
Ever since buying our guinea pigs we've been gradually learning loads about them. I can honestly say that I knew nothing about guinea pigs before, and there's no better way of realising you know nothing about a creature until you actually get one!
We're learning what they should eat, (their favourite foods so far are parsley and dill), and what they absolutely shouldn't eat. (The shouldn't list includes potatoes and iceberg lettuce). We're also learning about their herd mentality and how each group normally has a dominant piggie. This is evident in our cage..
And we're slowly getting to know the likes and dislikes of each guinea pig. Where each one likes to be stroked and where they don't. (Ears are a big no-no for our feisty one). And that they like being wrapped in a soft blanket like a baby.
From this very useful guinea pig hub by Suzanne Day, we've also learnt that the feisty one is an Abyssinian, (with Dutch markings). We didn't know this before, but the description of how this breed looks and behaves describes our scruffy boy almost exactly! The more laid-back one, I believe, is called a smooth.
We're also gradually picking up their little signs for things. For instance, when they're sitting on you and start to fidget or stare deeply into your eyes, it means "you might want to get me off you, because I need to poop". They're very thoughtful like that.
While guinea pigs are undeniably a lot of work, much more than we expected actually, we are managing to slot this work into our normal day. And we are getting so much back from these fascinating characters that it's definitely all worth it.
The amount of work involved is mainly related to poop, (poo if you're British). They eat a lot of vegetables, and of course it's going to come out the other end, and very often as it turns out.
And although some people say that their guinea pigs poop mainly in the corners of the cage, their guinea pigs obviously haven't given our guinea pigs that message!
While you don't have to fully clean out the cage each day, (we do a full clean weekly), there is a certain amount of daily cleaning to do; searching for and scooping out poop, replacing soggy wood shavings so that things stay as dry as possible, and also removing rejected, wilted vegetables.
Then there's the food. Guinea pigs do like food, and enjoy eating - almost constantly! So they need on-tap hay, (a constant supply), along with guinea pig pellets, and a bowl of (raw) vegetables two or three times each day. They also need a water bottle to help them stay hydrated.
Of course this all takes chunks of time out of our day. But the routine of chopping the vegetables, giving them food and clearing things out is strangely therapeutic.
Not having been a pet owner before, I hadn't realised how this extra routine would make me feel. It's not a duty, it's comforting. And it makes me feel slightly rural, as if our house has become that bit more like a tiny farm. When you live in a city that's a really nice thing.
It also feels good to be nourishing these sweet creatures. It's helping with the whole guinea pig bonding process. And the act of looking after animals is rewarding in itself.
While there are frenzied moments, such as watching them tear around their cage playing or trying to establish guinea pig dominance in their mini-hierarchy, the net result for our family is an increased sense of calm. Previously it was difficult to imagine that adding guinea pig care into our normal daily routine would actually have the effect of reducing our stress, rather than adding to it.
As well as the joy from getting to know our fluffy boys*, the comforting routine and the almost maternal pleasure I get from nourishing them, it is lovely sitting with them on our laps, stroking them while we watch TV. It's also so relaxing sitting by their cage, hand-feeding them, talking to them or simply sitting reading a book next to them.
And I've discovered that they're great listeners too. I tell them my problems and they sit there listening, without judgement, still and serene like little Buddhas.
If things get a little heated in their cage, we listen to calm music together. Their current favourite artist is Richard Goldsworthy. It puts them into their lovely guinea pig meditation trances. Just being with them when they're calm like this makes me calm too.
If you do yoga, tai chi or meditation you will know that sense of calm that you get from practise. Well, I would say that guinea pigs have the same effect. I can feel that special stillness deep inside of me, and that hasn't been there for a while. I also see this in my daughter when she spends time with them.
I feel like being a guinea pig owner will maybe help me to handle stressful situations a lot better. And I'm sure this also goes for other animals too, each in their own special ways.
And did I mention that they're so cute to look at? Seeing their chubby little guinea pig faces looking up at me and their comical, wise guinea pig expressions just melts my heart*.
*Please excuse my twee language. I'm not normally into the sickly sweet stuff, but my guinea pigs are turning me soppy..