Fourteen Signs of Pain in Guinea Pigs

Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus) are very common pets.  The interactions between themselves and people and them being easy to tame means they’re often sought after as pets.

Guinea Pigs are naturally prey animals and to stop themselves being caught by predators they hide signs of pain and illness really well, similar to the rabbit.  When scared, guinea pigs tend to freeze, a process known as tonic immobility, rather than show obvious behaviours of pain or fear.

Pain in guinea pigs often shows as very different to our own people often overlook it and don’t usually realise it’s due to pain.  People naturally associate how humans react to pain and expect painful animals to cry out which often is not the case.  When people don’t recognise the signs of pain in their pet they often misinterpret it, sometimes believing their pet doesn’t feel pain in the same level or some things which are painful to us don’t hurt them. Usually, this is not the case, they experience pain just demonstrate it in a different way. Species such as cats, dogs, and rabbits all experience pain the same but the signs they show are unique to the species (though there are some similarities present).

 

Though Guinea Pigs are common pets, as well as sadly being used as lab animals in potentially painful procedures, the symptoms they show when in pain still haven’t been fully studied and are often unknown.  Throughout this blog I will explore already known or highly suspected the signs of pain in guinea pigs  I’m hoping this will help you identify if your guinea pig is ever in pain.

1.Change in Posture

This is a very consistent sign and shown in various ways depending where the pain in a guinea pig is.

Having the back arched is seen with other species such as the dog.  This is seen if they have belly ache for instance if their guts are not working properly or they’ve had surgery like neutering.  They stand or walk with their bodies very tense and their spines curved over making their back appear rounded rather than flat.

Changes in posture are also seen when lying.  Normally guinea pigs lay with their back legs tucked under them. Pain in guinea pigs from their spine, belly or legs may lead to them holding one or both back legs stretched out behind them or splayed to the side.

Remember healthy guinea pigs sometimes alter their position even when not in pain.  When looking for signs of pain you need see if they are in this position lot or are also showing other signs of pain.

  1. Squeaking/ Screaming (AKA Vocalising)

Sometimes, with sudden pain, guinea pigs may make loud and high-pitched squeaks which sound different and often lasting longer than their normal lower pitched noises.

They don’t always cry out when in pain, but sudden, intense types of pain rather than aching pains can cause this.  One example is if a sore part of their skin is touched or if they hit a sore leg against something.

If you’re only trying to identify pain through them making noises, you’ll miss it most of the time.  Lack of noise doesn’t mean their pain is less severe.  Pains which are grumbling away often don’t lead to them crying out.

  1. Eating less and Weight Loss

When you’re feeling unwell you don’t want to eat as much and, to some extent, that’s the same in Guinea Pigs.  Guinea Pigs enjoy eating and spend much of their day eating.

When in pain, guinea pigs often eat less but may still readily accept treats they like when offered.

Guinea Pigs may still eat treats when in pain

 

Guinea Pigs eating less usually isn’t noticed instantly, usually, it’s only noticed the next time you feed them where you will likely find more leftovers than usual.  Monitoring eating as a sign of pain can be difficult and inaccurate because you’re likely to only realise they’re in pain after several hours have passed by which point they may have improved or have suffered in a lot of pain in the meantime, adversely affecting their welfare.

  1. Drinking Less

Similar to eating, pain in guinea pigs may be seen as them being uninterested in drinking.  This doesn’t necessarily mean they stop drinking altogether, but, they drink less and noticed when you change their water.  Therefore, this sign, like with eating less, may not be that helpful by the time you notice.

Noticing your guinea pig eating or drinking less and possibly losing weight gives you a clue they’re not feeling 100%.  Once you notice this behaviour change it’s worth looking for other signs of pain to help decide if they are in pain or what else is occurring.

  1. Unkempt Coat and Grooming Less

Any animal in pain tends to stop grooming themselves either because they don’t well enough due to the pain or their pain worsens in positions needed to properly groom themselves.  As Guinea Pigs don’t groom consistentlyand may groom themselves when hiding, this sign is difficult to spot.

With pain in Guinea Pigs it’s not always easy to notice a reduction in the time spent doing a relatively sporadic behaviour.

The first way you may notice your guinea pigs aren’t grooming fully is due to their coat looking unkempt.  It may be dirtier than usual, full of dandruff or, if long-haired, there may be more knots in it.  A guinea pig’s coat being unkempt takes a while to develop and become visible with the guinea pig being in pain for some time (usually longer than twelve hours) before their hair gets to the state where it’s noticeable, before then there often won’t be a visible change in the coat at all.

Guinea pigs may be in sore when touched
  1. Moving Less and Lying More

When in pain, any movements can worsen the pain so animals tend to stay still to avoid further pain.  Pain is also tiring leading to your guinea pig lying down and sleeping more.

Along with lying and moving less to avoid pain, your guinea pig will be scared due to the pain.  When guinea pigs are scared they tend to freeze their body.

Pain in guinea pigs are likely to make them quieter if you’re around due to increased fear that you’ll pick them up or touch them and them naturally hiding pain when in front of people.  Therefore, some will act normally if you’re watching them for signs of pain.

Guinea pigs moving less could be for many reasons such as stress from the surgery or due to medication side effects.  For instance, the pain killer, Buprenorphine, causes Guinea Pigs to lay more even when they’re in less pain so this can become confusing. Therefore, guinea pigs being quiet should not be interpreted as them always being in pain.

  1. Writhing/ Abdominal Contractions

Like in Rabbits, the signs of pain in guinea pigs are very subtle.  One of these is them writhing and having abdominal contractions.  Some abdominal contractions, to make it more difficult, can be normal in Guinea Pigs, however, these tend to worsen with pain.  Looking at them carefully and seeing contractions and them stretching their body out at the same time is likely due to pain, especially if they do it often.

  1. Flinching

Most animals flinch when in pain.  This is a sudden involuntary movement where the animal is trying to move away from whatever is causing the pain.  This may be from you if you try to touch them or they could be appearing to just flinch if nothing is near them due to pain within the body rather than just in the skin.  Flinching is more common with sudden and shocking pain rather than a duller constant pain.

Eating less is a sign of pain
When in pain, Guinea pigs often eat less

 

  1. Shaking

Pain in guinea pigs, either due to fear or adrenaline, may cause them to shake.  Shaking may be very difficult to see as it is only very subtle.

As shaking is a very subtle potentially due to not only pain but also medication side effects and stress, it is not the most reliable of signs.  Due to this if you see your guinea pig shaking you should keep an eye on them and monitor them for other problems to try and work out what their problem is.

  1. Paying Attention to a Painful Area

Like ourselves, if a guinea pig has a painful area they will tend to look at it or touch it.  Your guinea pig may groom, lick, scratch or chew at that area more which may be noticed by them having wet hair or it could even lead to the skin or hair being damaged in some cases.

  1. Moving slower

Pain in Guinea Pigs tends to worsen when they move.  Therefore, as a result, they tend to move slower.

Guinea pigs will tend to move slower, potentially an altered posture and moving more stiffly.  However, medications causing sedation such as painkillers or anaesthetics may cause your guinea pigs to move slower even without pain so they should be monitored for other signs of pain.

  1. Limping

Limping is only a sign of pain if the pain is in their legs or sometime in their spine.  Lameness is usually due to pain, especially if it suddenly comes on, however in some cases it could be due to other problems such nerve or muscle problems.

Whichever leg your guinea pig is limping on is likely the one causing the pain. If they’re in pain with several legs, then the one they’re limping on is likely the most painful.

Not all guinea pigs in pain will be limping.  Also, even if they are in pain and are limping they may show no further signs of pain than the limping.

Metacam is tasty!
Carl nibbling on the Metacam  (a painkiller) Syringe

 

  1. Cage Bar- Biting

    Rodents normally chew but this can worsen or change when stressed.

    Most happy, healthy guinea pigs don’t chew their cage bars a lot unless they are stressed or bored.  If they suddenly start cage-biting it’s a sign something isn’t normal.

    Once they start cage-biting it is important for you to find the cause and try to treat it or correctly alter their behaviour whenever possible.

    Though you can buy foul-tasting liquids to spray on cage bars to prevent chewing.  This just acts as a deterrent and is unlikely to stop them chewing in the long term.  Also, chewing is only a sign of another underlying problem in a lot of cases so you need to discover what this is, correct it and then try to resolve their chewing if it continues.

  2.  Grinding Teeth (Bruxism)

 

Guinea Pigs sometimes grind their teeth when their mouths or teeth are sore.  This is usually the case if their teeth are overgrown or not meeting properly so some grow more than others.

If your guinea pig is grinding their teeth you need to see your vet ASAP as issues with their teeth/ mouth stop them eating properly, leading to other health problems.

The summary

The signs of pain in Guinea Pigs are very subtle and still poorly understood.

Unlike rabbits, mice, rats and other species, no long has studied the effects of pain on facial expression to aid with grading pain.  There are some easier signs to detect such as limping or crying out but otherwise you need to focus on subtle signs which, each on their own, could be unrelated to pain by being related to behavioural or medical issues or are a result of medication side effects.

The best way to detect signs of pain in guinea pigs is to look out for all potential signs and, if they show any, then try to identify if others are present, monitor them and look for the cause.

 

If your guinea pig show signs of pain you should take them to your vet.  Your vet can help to work out if they are in pain, where this is and then diagnose and treat them.

 

With Guinea Pigs, just being stressed from pain or them eating less can cause other health problems, some of which may be fatal.  This means trying to resolve pain not only improves your guinea pig’s welfare but, if you don’t they could become very ill.

Finally, the signs of pain fit into a couple of big groups, normal behaviours they have stopped doing (such as being active or eating) and pain behaviours they have started (such as writhing or sleeping).  It must be remembered that Guinea Pigs hide pain when people are around, so it can be very hard to spot; even if you only see a pain behaviour performed a couple of times it may suggest a major problem.

Final Words

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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