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Guinea Pigs/Guinea pig death/bonding

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QUESTION: I brought 2 guinea pigs about 3 years ago: a male and a female who subsequently had 3 babies (she was pregnant when we brought her and we didn't know!#, 2 boys and a girl. We got the male #dad# neutered so he lives with the female #mum# and baby girl whilst the 2 boys lived together in a separate cage. On Sunday my heart broke when one of the little boys #the smallest of the litter# who is 2.5 years died, he took a turn for the worse and stopped eating suddenly. he died Sunday in my arms and I am heartbroken :#

We now have 1 very sad little boy in a cage on his own who is currently not eating or drinking, i assume out of sadness for missing his brother. I have since learnt we should have showed him the body so that he could understand abit better enabling him to move on quicker. I am very worried about him as I don't want him to suffer the same fate as my other baby but I don't know what to do.

I am considering getting the male (dad) who lives with the girls and giving them some floor time together so that he has some company but not sure if this is a good idea or not? I don't want to separate the dad from the girls as he has lived with them the whole time however I can't just leave my poor boy guinea pig with no one. Is giving them a chance to have some play dates a good idea? We have never really tried to bond them as they live separately so they don't really know each other well.

ANSWER: It's always hard when you lose a young pig for no explainable reason. We always want humanize their behavior when the reality is that guinea pigs don't really take time to mourn. They are like so many other animals in the wild, when one dies the rest just move on. They do that out of the instinct for survival.

After two days it is concerning as to why the remaining brother is not eating or drinking. That is not caused by mourning the loss of this mate, that may be an indication that he too is ill. Anytime a guinea pig is sick they tend not to show their illness until they are nearly at the point of no return. Once they put their head in the corner and won't leave it, the end is near.

I would first suggest you check your water bottle. If it's the kind with the spout and the tube, make sure that tube is patent and is letting the water out. Sometimes they get stuck and you don't know they're not getting their water. When they can't drink, they stop eating. Just tap the ball at the end of the spout to see if water comes out. If it does not, then you need to replace the spout.

In the meantime I would offer him some wet lettuce to help keep him hydrated. If he goes for that, then that's a good indication that he is not ill, he just can't get his water.

I would not put the him and dad together at all, not even for a brief floor time. At 2 1/2 years old that younger pig is now a full adult. The two boars will see each other as rivals and a fight may result. They're better off staying separated.

As for showing him the body of his dead brother that would not have helped change anything. If brother was ill the other one knew it and they will typically avoid the ill pig. Again that's just a survival instinct so as not to draw the attention of predators. Some animals, even though they're raised in captivity still maintain that internal wild instinct that's just hard wired in them.

Animals understand death far better than we do. It's our need to humanize their feelings that sometimes get in the way of our judgement. Dogs and cats that have been raised together and are bonded go through a grieving process. Some birds such as parrots will do that as well. But guinea pigs simply accept what it is and move forward, taking no time for mourning or grief.

Please try to check the water bottle first to see if that's the problem. And offer lots of lettuce in the meantime. At least that will help prevent dehydration. If that's not the problem then the young fellow may be ill the same as this brother was.

I hope this helps a little bit. Please keep in touch and let me know how he is doing.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: i always check the water bottle when we refill them as i know this can happen with the ball not working properly but the spout and water was fine. i held him all day yesterday and tried him with water and food and he just wasn't interested. he died in my arms at lunchtime. i have now lost 2 pigs in the space of 4 days and feel really down. the brother only started putting his head in the corner after the other died, thats why i feared it was because of separation.

I still have my other 3 pigs who all seem well and fine, i just can't help feeling guilty and awful about the 2 that have died. i wish i could have helped them somehow as they were so young. do you have any idea what could have been the case with them being ill? they seemed fine but then just wet off their food and water. they are buried next to each other in my garden so that they are always together as they have never been apart since birth. i feel more sad because i watched them be born and have now had to watch them die and its heartbreaking.

Answer
I'm so sorry to hear you lost the other brother as well. I truly do understand your grief and confusion as I've been through it so many times myself. And you're right, the guilt you feel is painful as we hold ourselves responsible for the wellbeing of our pets. When this happens with no clear reason we naturally feel we missed something that was there and that we should have recognized.

I did not ask about the pellets you're feeding and it probably should be addressed as well. Did you by chance change anything in the type of pellets you feed? By that I mean did you get a different brand, or possibly change to rabbit pellets rather than guinea pig pellets?

The reason I ask is that there is a significant difference between rabbit and guinea pig feed. Rabbit pellets often have antibiotics in them, as they are prone to illnesses that guinea pigs are not. Guinea pigs cannot tolerate those antibiotics. They destroy the normal bacteria in their gut that helps them digest food, leaving them susceptible to a secondary infection.

I am not a fan of the pellets that are often offered in grocery stores and discount stores, the ones that contain all the colored bits and pieces in them. Too often these stores do not have a fast turnover and the feed has lost it's nutritional value before it is sold. The colored bits in the feed are nothing more than eye candy for the owners and can slowly starve a guinea pig for lack of nutrition.

I'm sure you've already tried to think of everything you can.  I wish I could give you an absolute answer but unfortunately that's just not always possible.  There are not too many things that are dangerous to a guinea pig but even then we can't always pinpoint the cause of sudden death such as you've experienced.  

I know this brings you very little comfort. I wish I had the right answer for the cause. I'm so very sorry you had to go through this. Please know that my heart is with you and I do understand.

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Pat VanAllen

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As is sometimes the case, people in urgent need of information have a higher degree of expectation than those of us as experts are able to give. The experts on this site do their best to give the most accurate and responsible answers possible. We ask that you remember that it is not our intention nor place to criticize the professional advice given by your veterinarian, nor is it appropriate for us to comment on the correctness of a diagnosis made by a licensed physician. Our knowledge is experience based. Although many years of breeding and showing cavies gives me a wealth of experience it cannot change the fact that we as experts are not veterinarians and therefore may occasionally have to reject questions that appear to be asking us to criticize advice given by the licensed professional. Having raised and exhibited cavies for many years I have extensive experience in cavy care and husbandry. I currently have an active breeding program for pedigreed show animals but do not encourage backyard breeding for inexperienced owners. Although I don't encourage breeding for fun I'm always happy to answer any questions from an owner who is in sincere need of help. Pet owners wanting to breed should understand that even experienced breeders have litter losses. The mortality rate is high in cavies. The chance for losing both sow and pups is always present, even with experience. Although this is a site for experts to assist owners, there is no expert in any field who has all the answers. The wisest thing a good expert can know is their limitations. Not having an answer does not diminish one's ability or knowledge. It simply shows that we recognize our limitations and operate within them.

Experience

Raised and shown cavies for many years, having aquired my first cavies in the early 1970's as pets. My caviary currently handles 65 + animals in two different breeds and several varieties. Having been in the health care industry as a licensed nurse for 35 years I have hands on experience with care and needs in both humans and cavies. Member of American Rabbit Breeders Association and American Cavy Breeders Association.

Organizations
Awarded Lifetime Membership in of one of the oldest cavy clubs in the United States, on whose Board I served as Sec/Treas for six years and currently serving as President. Also editor/publisher of the club's quarterly newsletter. We are strong supporters of our youth exhibitors, most of whom are 4H members who are working on cavy projects. Through these projects they become good responsible citizens. We deal with all aspects of showing, breeding, caring for and sharing experiences in the fancy. The cavy fancy is not a new one but in some areas is still relatively unknown. Our goal is to inspire interest in high quality, responsible breeding to improve the species, not just the reproduction of guinea pigs. Our job is to educate owners to help them make the right decisions and choices in the care of their cavies.

Education/Credentials
Graduate in nursing. Certified in emergency medicine.

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