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Working with Biting Guinea Pigs

 

Biting

The vast majority of guinea pigs do not bite. They are gentle in nature and usually only bite with cause. Very young guinea pigs are learning, exploring, and testing their limits. They can't speak to us. Biting is one very important way for them to communicate. Generally, you need to figure out what your guinea pig is trying to tell you, because it may be something minor that is bothering him or her, or it could be something serious. If you know what the possible signals are, you and your guinea pig can learn from each other and get along better.

When does a normal guinea pig bite?

bulletWhen they are being carried.
Guinea pigs generally do not like to be carried or held in certain ways. They do not feel safe and may try to bite the person carrying them to communicate to the person they are not happy. Usually, this bite is just a little nibble. But, if there are additional stressors present, such as children, noise, unusual activity adding to an increased level of unfamiliarity, the bite may be more than a nibble. 

bulletIf you are holding them and they have to urinate.
Guinea pigs like to potty in private! They do not want to get you wet. If you are holding them, they will generally make their 'need' known. Some will start to fidget; some will try to get away or wriggle off of your lap or towel. Others will give you a nibble on a near-by body part, such as a hand or finger. If you ignore their signal, that signal will usually increase in intensity, such as a stronger nibble, until they give up and do what they have to do, much to their and your chagrin! Guinea pigs average about 15 to 20 minutes before they need to relieve their bladder. Some can go considerably longer, but start paying attention to "signals" at about 15 minutes.

bulletIf you've been holding them a while, they may want to go back!
Guinea pigs get tired of being held. They just want to go back to their cage. Respect their wishes.

bulletWhen they have mites or some other skin, parasite, or ill condition.
Mites make a guinea pig very sensitive to touch. They are in pain from the mite infestation and touching, picking them up, and petting them can cause much discomfort. Their natural reaction is to lash out at the source of the pain and they may try to bite you. If your guinea pig exhibits this behavior coupled with scratching, please take your guinea pig to a vet.

Mites are NOT passed on to people or other pets.
Mites are NOT visible to the naked eye.
Mites are very difficult to test for.
Mites do not originate from hay or bedding.
Mites CAN be passed from guinea pig to guinea pig.
Mites cannot be 'cured' with a shampoo.
Mites require a vet visit and 2-3 subsequent visits for treatment. Most vets who suspect mites will simply treat for it. It is easier and less painful than testing. 
Mites may always be present in guinea pigs, but can overtake an animal under stress, poor diet, or pregnancy. If left untreated, seizures and death can result.

Taking your guinea pig to a vet for a health check is a good idea to rule out any other possible medical conditions. In older pigs who start to bite, you should definitely take your guinea pig to the vet and be sure your vet does a thorough examination of the teeth, especially the back molars. Biting may be a symptom of malocclusion. Some pigs need to bite in different ways to try to relieve the pain of their molars growing too long or in the wrong direction. They may try to get things into their mouth to bite to try to 'fix' their problem. Malocclusion is an extremely serious condition and left untreated will result in the death of your guinea pig as the pain will cause him or her to eventually cease eating. See the link above for more information and treatment.

bulletSome are sensitive in certain areas.
Many guinea pigs don't like being touched or petted on their rumps. Just be diligent in determining if this is due to mites or illness rather than a general sensitivity.

bulletHe may be trying to groom you.
Guinea pigs groom each other. They will bite or nibble at the other guinea pig. Try offering your guinea pig the flat palm of your hand when he tries to bite. He won't be able to bite the tight skin and you and he may be able to figure it out.

bulletChildren holding a guinea pig improperly.
While they may not have done anything wrong, per se, many children lack the right touch with guinea pigs or don't realize that a certain touch or pet or position is uncomfortable or painful for the guinea pig.

bulletPetting a guinea pig against the lay of their hair.
Guinea pigs, like most pets and people, do not like their hair pushed or petted in the opposite direction in which it grows. It can feel anywhere between annoying to painful.
 
bulletMay be unhappy in his housing.
If your cage is too small, too confining, your guinea pig may just be unhappy and grumpy. A bored guinea pig stuck in a small cage might resort to chewing anything he can find. Please see Guinea Pig Cages for proper cage size and very inexpensive ways to improve their cage and environment. 

bulletIn their adolescence as they progress to adulthood. 
This is the difficult case, because it takes patience and time. Guinea pigs who exhibit this behavior tend to be between 4 months to 1 year old or young babies. Once they reach maturity, the biting behavior usually fades--usually after about 12 months old. They turn into sweet lap piggies and they are well worth the investment in love and patience. Babies tend to grow out of it in a few weeks to a few months.

Very occasionally, a guinea pig just has an attitude.

Once in a while, a guinea pig will just have an attitude and will be a biter. This is very unusual. In our rescue, while we've taken in hundreds of guinea pigs, only a handful had biting behavior. And within a few months, none of those pigs continued biting after being in a good environment, with guinea pig friends they liked, and proper housing, care, and handling.

What can you do to try to change biting behavior?

Assuming you have ruled out any health or stress reasons for biting, then here are some suggestions:

bulletDO NOT PUNISH or DISCIPLINE!
Guinea pigs will not understand the good and bad cause and effect. Do not tap them on the nose. Do not squirt them with water. Do not yell at them. Do not blow in their face. Do not pinch them on the back of their neck. You will only serve to make them afraid of you. Your reaction of pain is the only signal that is needed to the guinea pig. Follow a number of these suggestions and over time, you should be able to convert a biter into a sweet, lovable lap piggie.

bulletMake sure there is a wooden hidey hole in the cage for the guinea pig to gnaw on. This can help alleviate the need to bite. Wooden 'chew sticks' are usually ignored and therefore useless. A wooden hidey hole or wooden tunnel is best.

bulletMake sure your cage space is adequate. Pet store cages are all too small. Please see Guinea Pig Cages for proper cage sizes and very inexpensive ways to improve their cage and environment. Proper cage size can go a long way to making your guinea pig happier and more well-adjusted. If your cage is on the floor, try putting it at table height. Floor cages can be more stressful for guinea pigs.

bulletMake sure you supply the guinea pig with an UNLIMITED amount of Timothy hay available ALL the time. For young cavies under 4 months old and pregnant or lactating sows, you can mix in 1/2 Alfalfa hay with the Timothy. The Timothy hay also provides the guinea pig with something to chew all day and is needed for their nutrition, gut motility, and grinding down the molars.

bulletStuff hay inside a cardboard toilet paper tube, but slit it lengthwise so the pig cannot get his head stuck inside. Some pigs will like challenge of trying to get the hay out of the tube, and they like chewing on and playing with the tube. A good boredom-buster for your cage.

bulletDon't put them back down after they bite. That will only reinforce the behavior--biting to get their way. Continue holding your guinea pig and pet him calmly. Put him down later.

bulletBitter Apple is an anti-chewing spray which can be found in most pet stores and rubbed on whatever body part or place the cavy usually bites. This might discourage the guinea pig from biting.

bulletMake sure you wash your hands before picking up your guinea pig, especially if you have been handling food. Sometimes they confuse the smell of food on your hands as a snack!

bulletPet your guinea pig in the cage without picking him up. Make sure he understands that not all contact is the same, and not as stressful. Start out just by putting your hand in the cage for a while. Let your guinea pig come up to you. Graduate into petting him in the cage. Then, gently corner him and scoop him up. Sit down in a secure place with your guinea pig for lap and petting time.

bulletWhen you pick up a guinea pig, wrap him in a towel loosely and make him feel secure. Make sure they cannot see that they are in the air. Provide as stress-free of a situation as possible when handling them (calm and quiet).

bulletYou must give it time. Guinea pigs require patience. You will not see improvement in days. It usually takes weeks and months. Don't expect major changes overnight. Patience, love and tolerance will come back to you many times over.

What can you do to live with biting behavior?

bulletGive your guinea pig a well-behaved non-mating friend to live with. Guinea pigs learn from each other in all manners of behavior. This may help change your cavies' behavior. Not all piggies are meant to be lap piggies. 

Links to additional information
 


Little Nippers

Biting the Cage Bars
 

There is usually a reason for biting the cage bars and your guinea pig is usually trying to communicate something to you.

Why?

He wants something! Usually it's food. Most guinea pigs will wheek for food, some will bite the cage bars. We've had some that will usually wheek, but when they think you are being particularly slow about meeting their needs, they will start biting the bars for additional attention. Sometimes they will stand on their hind legs and bite the bars for added effect! The guinea pig may also want OUT, especially if they get floor time on a regular basis. Most of the time it's food or treats.

She's bored! Nothing better to do. Cage may be too small or just too boring.

He or She wants to get to other piggies in the area! This is when you have multiple cages with other guinea pigs. Even if they can't see the other pigs, their sense of smell is keen.

What to DO

Feed on a Routine Try to stick to the same time to feed, twice a day, usually. If they know they won't get extra treats by begging, they will be much less inclined to do so.

Big, Fun Cage with Lots of Hay and hiding houses to bite and chew on. Cardboard boxes with holes cut in the sides work great. We always make sure there is some kind of wooden structure - not just chew toys - in the cage, a box or a tunnel. Make sure they have LOTS of unlimited Timothy hay available. Make sure your cage is big enough. For ideas on toys, hiding houses, cages and cage size, and hay, see Guinea Pig Cages.

Floor Time! Give your guinea pig daily exercise and exploration. See the Floor Time page on Guinea Pig Cages.

Vinegar. Try putting some white vinegar on the bars. They don't like the taste. Some people suggest the bitter apple spray that you can buy at pet stores, but many report no success with it, whereas there has been success reported with vinegar. You could try both and see if either works.

If All Else Fails

The behavior may be too ingrained to change, depending on when you start behavior modification. It's generally more of a problem for you than for your guinea pig, assuming you've provided a proper cage size, environment, hay, accessories, and food. You may just have to live with it.

 

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