- Supporter in '11
We got our first guinea pigs, a tri-color Abby and a reddish brown Abby, a little more than five years ago. My daughters, then pre-teens, had pet gerbils and my husband didn’t want any more pets. Our story begins when my husband went to pick up my youngest daughter from a girl scout meeting at the leader’s house. He noticed that the leader let the family’s two pet guinea pigs graze in the back yard, “guarded” by their two collies. My husband was horrified and tried to tell the leader this was cruel. She shrugged it off saying the collies were great herders and the guinea pigs had never been hurt. I can’t imagine how someone wouldn’t understand how horribly stressful that must have been for them.
Thankfully, a few days later, she sent an email to the troop members asking if anyone wanted to adopt the guinea pigs. My daughters and I were out, but my husband immediately responded to the note saying we would take them.
Since the pet store cage the guinea pigs came in was smaller than the one my husband had made for the gerbils, he set out to make a large, two level condo for them. A few days later, during my annual physical, my doctor mentioned that her kids enjoyed sitting on the floor doing homework while their guinea pigs had floor time in the same room. So, we decided to free range our piggies. My husband built the cage with a removable fence on the bottom level.
The piggie condo
The tri-color Abby soon got the courage to walk around the kitchen. She was (understandably) skittish, since she’d been in a home with big dogs. Sometimes when she heard a noise and tried to run back to her cage quickly, she would end up skidding on the linoleum. We decided on the name Skittle as sort of a cross between Skittish and Skidding. (One of my daughters still insists her name was actually Skiddle.)
The other guinea pig, Ginger, was very different. She was a very, very shy “turtle pig” who carried her hut with her whenever possible and wouldn’t go more than a few inches from her new condo. In fact, when she did come out of the condo, she very often kept her back leg touching it while she stretched out as far as possible to get the lettuce I was trying to use as a bribe.
Skittle soon figured out there were no predators in our house. Her courage rapidly increased. She loved to explore and wandered the kitchen daily. She also quickly learned where all the food came from, so she often stood on my feet as I washed lettuce at the sink just to make sure she got her share. She ran to the refrigerators when it was opened. Since we kept her hay on our back porch, she ran to the hay box in her cage when she heard the back door open. She learned our schedule too. She was up like a flash at 6 am for her morning tomato. She napped in the afternoon, but woke up and came out of her cage a few minutes before my kids came home from school, since they often brought home dandelion leaves from an unsprayed lot next to us.
As Skittle became more comfortable, she began to explore the rest of the house. I remember the day she wandered out of the kitchen and into the family room and found the giant, fuzzy, carpeted guinea pig hut that we call the underside of our couch. She went right underneath and promptly groomed herself then stretched out for a nap.
However, no sooner had she settled down, when she jumped up suddenly and ran back to her condo. She ran up the ramp and found Ginger. A moment later, the two of them headed toward the couch in a train. Skittle walked a little more slowly than usual, so Ginger, who we had come to realize didn’t see very well, could stay right behind her. They walked the 20 or 30 feet to the couch and crawled underneath. This, of course, was surprising because Ginger had never willingly gone more than a few inches from her cage.
I’d still like to know what Skittle said to Ginger to get her to take such a long walk – she must have told Ginger about the fabulous guinea pig mansion.
The two of them seemed ready to move into the mansion permanently, so we ended up having to take them out from under the couch. I guess Ginger didn’t like that as she never wandered so far again.
Skittle, however, didn’t let that experience dampen her love of exploring. She eventually learned we didn’t want her under the couch. If we were around talking, she knew better than to go there. However, she often came into the family room when I was reading quietly. Sometimes she would see me, freeze with a “darn it Mom, I didn’t know you were home” look on her face before turning around and going back to the kitchen. Other times, she’d just dart underneath her couch, hoping perhaps that I wouldn’t see her.
I came to appreciate that Skittle never urinated anywhere in the house. A few times I saw her run back to her cage full speed, only to urinate just as she passed the cage’s threshold.
Next chapter - Skittle guards a sick Ginger
- Supporter in '11
We keep much of our grass pesticide and fertilizer free, so they could have some outside time (without collies!). They both learned to sit on their hind legs and beg for food. Skittle hated to be picked up, but if I sat on the kitchen floor, she would crawl into my lap to retrieve a piece of lettuce. Even Ginger got up the nerve to leave her turtle shell hut and eat out of our hand.
Skittle (left) and Ginger (right) enjoying some outside time
One day, we noticed Ginger wasn’t eating as much as usual. She didn’t even try her “morning tomato". She seemed smaller and weighed less than Skittle, even though they had been the same size when we got them. Ginger lost interest while eating a piece of lettuce. She didn't object when Skittle took it. She didn't seem to have any other symptoms.
Thankfully, we had a good vet who had cared for our elderly cockatiel and removed a scent gland tumor one of the gerbils. The vet examined Ginger, x-rayed her and took blood tests. The vet agreed that Ginger was failing and admitted she was stumped by the lack of other symptoms and the normal test results. She said she had reviewed the case with all her partners, including another small animal specialist.
I spend hours on the internet looking for answers too. I didn’t really find any, but I at least found guinea lynx, which helped me learn how to hand feed Ginger and got me to start weighing them daily.
We kept Ginger on pain killer and hand fed her while the vets were scrambling for a diagnosis. At first, Ginger zoomed out of her cage and wheeked as soon as I came downstairs in the morning. She was anxious for her CC. She learned to eat it very well.
Skittle learned that I sometimes dropped some CC on the floor while filling the syringes, so she always followed Ginger out and patrolled under the kitchen table for any stray bits. I sometimes let her lick out the bowl I’d mixed the CC in.
Ginger’s weight stayed stable for a week or so. She ate a little on her own. I was so hopeful that she would gain weight and get better. After a week or so, she started to refuse it more often and began to lose weight. We had another round of tests, hoping to find another clue. There was small spot on the bone in an x-ray. The vet’s best guess was Ginger has bone cancer. I hated to have Ginger put to sleep without a clear diagnosis and Ginger seemed comfortable on pain killers, so I kept hoping and feeding.
During that time, Skittle went from stealing Ginger’s extra lettuce to being protective of her. Skittle stopped exploring. She laid in front of the door to Ginger’s pigloo like a guard dog most of the day. That was something she had never done before. And, although the two of them were not normally cuddly, Skittle often went into Ginger’s pigloo at night and slept there. It was a remarkable change in Skittle’s behavior.
Ginger kept losing weight and began to seem a little disoriented. She also had begun to fight being fed. The night before we were going to have her put to sleep, she died in her own cage with Skittle nearby.
Skittle was very quiet after that. She rarely wheeked or explored. My husband thought perhaps she was just getting old at age 4 or 5. We wondered if she were too old for a new friend. My human children were getting older too. They were very involved in sports and other activities and didn’t have much time for pets. My husband was afraid of getting Skittle a new cage mate for fear we’d have to get that piggy a new friend after Skittle passed and we’d end up with “pigs in perpetuity.”
Also, after Ginger’s death, my husband’s father went to the doctor because he didn’t feel well and was diagnosed with fourth stage cancer. He died a few months later.
After Ginger’s death, and with my father in law’s illness, I hadn’t weighed Skittle as often. One day, to my horror, I realized she was losing weight.
Next chapter: Pigs in Perpetuity
- Supporter in '13