Many of us wish that we could understand what our pets are trying to tell us, and it can be particularly daunting when we get a new species for the first time. The best way to get to know our furry friends is to spend time with them, observe their reactions and make a note of new behaviours to research later. Understanding their vocabulary not only strengthens our relationship with them, it also better equips us to work with our pet’s needs.
There are lots of good books about animal behaviour, but small pets, like guinea pigs, are sometimes overlooked. Looking after any pet is a learning experience, and hopefully this Pet Life guide to guinea pig and rabbit communication will come in handy, wherever you and your pets are along the journey.
Anyone who has ever rustled a bag of treats near their guinea pigs will know they are vocal creatures. Some piggies seem to sense that fresh vegetables are on the way before their owners have even had the idea to feed them, and their expectant ‘wheeking’ noises are hard to resist.
This high-pitched squeaking noise is usually heard when food is on its way. A sign of anticipation and excitement, once one guinea pig starts, their companions usually follow in hopes of a delicious meal. Some guinea pigs’ ears twitch as they wheek and some also popcorn (happy jump) and zoom around at high speed.
Guinea pigs tend to rumble when they’re in the mood for love, especially males who are interested in a female, but females who are in season also do it. The low-pitched rumble is normally deeper than a purr and is often accompanied by walking around, low to the ground, with a wiggling bottom, which is known as ‘rumble strutting’.
Just like cats, guinea pigs purr in contentment, but it is slightly more complicated to decipher. Depending on the pitch and other concurrent behaviours, a guinea pig’s purring can mean different things. A happy purr happens when the guinea pig is comfortable and feels safe. Their muscles will be relaxed; perhaps they are lying on their tummies with a leg poking out, with a human they trust and know well, or have just found something delicious in their favourite hiding place.
However, guinea pigs also purr when they are nervous, for example when they hear an unexpected or loud noise. This purr is shorter and higher pitched, and signals that they are uncertain and seeking reassurance. Along with this nervous purr, they might have wide saucer eyes and a tense pose, poised to run if they receive confirmation that something terrifying is nearby.
One way that guinea pigs express their annoyance is by chattering their teeth. It sounds a bit like frantic chewing, and they often stare at the source of irritation while they do it.
This noise comes from a very upset guinea pig. You might hear this if two guinea pigs are squaring up for a fight, where they may also bare their teeth and puff up their fur.
A sudden shriek or squeal can indicate that a guinea pig is in pain or very frightened. They can be very loud. Any unexpected loud squeals need investigating in case one of your guinea pigs is injured or in trouble.
Whining or whingeing tends to happen when a guinea pig wants to complain about a situation they are not happy with. When introducing new guinea pigs to each other you might hear this moaning noise as they express how unimpressed they are with their new neighbour.
Sometimes guinea pigs walk around muttering or clucking as they explore their area. This is roughly translated as “all seems well with the world today”.
Audible or squeaky breathing
If your guinea pig develops audible breathing, or any strange respiratory noises, it’s important to get them seen by a vet. It can be a sign of a medical problem, such as a respiratory infection that needs prompt treatment.
Guinea pigs have a better sense of smell than we do and can gain useful information from the scents around them. Sniffing is an exploratory behaviour. They’re checking out who has been there before them, and any potential threats or food that might be in the area.
Jumping and bouncing are signs of a joyful guinea pig, and often coincide with happy wheeking noises, a freshly cleaned enclosure, favourite foods, or new toys.
If your guinea pig is walking slowly around the enclosure, swaying and rumbling, then they are either trying to impress a member of the opposite sex, or assert their dominance over another guinea pig. Rumble strutting can escalate into mounting each other, and it will become clear if the recipient is impressed with this or not!
Although guinea pigs are generally friendly, when they want to fight they can be vicious. If two guinea pigs rear up at each other on their hind legs, expose their teeth, or teeth-chatter with their fur all puffed up, they may be about to attack each other. Although this is more common between males, it can happen between females too, especially if they are newly introduced. If you need to separate them, use a towel to protect your hands as guinea pigs can cause nasty injuries when in fighting mode.
Sometimes guinea pigs will ‘boff’ your hand upwards when you’re stroking their heads. This is roughly translated as a friendly “get off”!
Fidgeting or nibbling when being held
If you can get 10-15 minutes of guinea pig cuddles without a ‘little accident’ then you’re doing well! However, they would rather go to the toilet in their hutch or run than on you, so when things start getting desperate, they nibble, fidget or whine, which is their way of asking politely if they can return home to use the ‘bathroom’.
Lots of things are scary to guinea pigs. After all, their non-domesticated ancestors were prey animals, so they are constantly vigilant for danger. When they’re worried about something, they either freeze or run for cover.
Guinea pigs yawn for two reasons. The first is when they’re tucked up in their bedding and ready for a nap. The second reason is to warn off another guinea pig. In this instance, they’ll look the opposite of sleepy: alert, front legs spread to make themselves look bigger, and possibly chattering their teeth as well.
These lists aren’t exhaustive, but hopefully help to explain some of our small pet’s more puzzling noises and behaviours. The more time we spend watching our guinea pigs, the more they can teach us about what they’re experiencing and how we can help to make the most of their time with us.
This article was written for Pet Life by Rachel Henson.