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Guinea Pig (Cavy) Enrichment: The Beginner’s Guide

guinea pig enrichment guide

Guinea pigs are intelligent, sociable and emotional animals. Just like us, they need a variety of enrichment to help them live a long and happy life. 

Guinea pigs need mental stimulation and physical enrichment for a healthy and happy life. Enrichment is provided by a large enclosure with objects to navigate and play with, the right diet and social interactions with humans and other guinea pigs.

My mum has been a guinea pig fan since she was a child and kept them ever since. In fact we have a whole guinea pig barn where we care for and breed our gorgeous guinea pigs. You could say we have a bit of an obsession.

This article will introduce you to the different categories of guinea pig enrichment and I’ll share with you some examples and our expertise on how to enrich your guinea pig’s life. 

Why is Enrichment for Guinea Pigs Important?

Guinea pigs are very emotional creatures and can quickly get bored, leading to depression, weight gain, and illness.

Different types of enrichment allow guinea pigs in captivity to go about their everyday life and encourages them to exhibit natural behaviours.  Enrichment helps to satisfy a guinea pig’s physical, physiological, and cognitive needs. 

Based on Marie Pele’s “Importance of the Environment for the Welfare of Captive Animals: Behavior and Enrichment“, enrichment must provide the following:

  • Increase in behavioural diversity.
  • Reduction in abnormal behaviour 
  • Increase in the positive and full use of the captive environment.

For guinea pig owners, enrichment usually means the following:

  • Additional properties in enclosure (rocks, logs, tunnels)
  • Toys (balls, wicker basket, paper bags)
  • Activities (food puzzle, hurdles, trick training)
  • Having other pets as friends

Providing a wide range of enrichment can help keep your guinea pig’s brain occupied, help them feel secure and more comfortable around you. Additionally, it helps guinea pigs be more in touch with their instincts and behaviours and increases your pet’s overall well-being. 

For guinea pig mums and dads out there, we want our guinea pigs to be healthy and happy both in mind and in the body. A guinea pig owner as well as any other pet owners, must take note that with certain types of animals, even species, the enrichment you provide can come in several varieties. 

Now, for example. This is your first time getting yourself a guinea pig. So far, all you have at home is a simple see-through cage. Now, you should be modifying, adding, and adjusting the current state of the enclosure to something that can resemble a guinea pig’s natural habitat in the wild. So, your guinea pig’s enclosure would be expected to have something such as small grass patches, rocks and tunnels and hiding places, as well as plenty of fresh hay.

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A muddle of guinea pigs!

Behaviour Problems in Guinea Pigs From Lack of Enrichment 

Your guinea pig’s captive environment can be considered much more impoverished in terms of the sensory cues when compared to the natural habitat it lives in. Therefore, it is imperative to provide the necessary needs and enrichment for your guinea pig’s welfare.

As a guinea pig owner, you have the utmost responsibility to seek and provide opportunities and choices for your guinea pig to exhibit their natural behaviours. By not supplying or limiting the enrichment they deserve, you are not giving them the love and care that all guinea pig need.

Some Strange but Common Guinea Pig Behaviours Explained

The last thing you want to do is neglect your guinea pigs’ needs. Not providing enrichment to your guinea pigs can cause adverse effects. This would include:

  • Inhibits natural behaviour 
  • Unwanted behaviours (e.g. excessive digging and squealing)
  • Deprived of senses
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Health issues
  • Death

One of the most infamous examples of the lack of enrichment of animal captivity is Tilikum the Orca.  Now I know an Orca isn’t a guinea pig, but this is a good example of what can happen to an animal’s behaviour without enrichment.

Tilikum, the largest Orca in captivity, was argued by many researchers and experts to have lacked enrichment in its enclosure. Tilikum had a small enclosure for its size and could not do the activities it would have done in the wild. Furthermore, SeaWorld was forcing Tilikum to do a variety of tricks.

Due to the lack of enrichment, Tilikum began suffering from several health issues over the Orca’s lifetime. Furthermore, Tilikum ended up killing three people. It is also important to note that Orcas do not hunt or intentionally attack humans unless provoked in the wild.

Now, a guinea pig will never be able to kill three people, let alone one. However, the incident shows how important enrichment is and how it can affect an animal’s well being and physical health. Therefore, as the guinea pig owner, you must provide the enrichment it needs to make them comfortable, secure, and happy. 

There are eight primary types of enrichment that guinea pig owners can use to enhance their guinea pig’s quality of life, and I’ll go through them all with examples now.

Visual Enrichment for Interaction and Stimulation for your Guinea Pig

Just like humans, a guinea pig can get bored without something to look at. 

Guinea pigs don’t have very good eyesight for details at all, but they do have a dichromatic vision and can see the colours blue, red, yellow and particularly green. This means they benefit from brightly coloured objects in their environment.

Guinea pig eyes are positioned on the sides of their face. This is because they are prey animals, so having an incredible 340 degree field of view helps them with their awareness of their surroundings if they need to run and hide.  

While you might think a guinea pig would like a tv for entertainment (and there are plenty of youtube videos for them), your guinea pig can’t really see the screen property.  The position and function of your piggies eyes mean they aren’t built for processing digital images.

However, a guinea pig doesn’t need good vision because they use their other senses more. Their vision is good for the detection of movement, and colour.  Guinea pigs can process 33 images per second (compared to a human who sees 22) which means they are super sensitive to motion. Being able to see the details on objects is not as important to a guinea pig as being able to detect a potential predator by the slightest movement. 

When it comes to visual enrichment, we provide our piggies with a ‘room with a view’ so they can see their friends in other cages and have colourful toys and objects in their runs that they can interact with on a daily basis.

Giving your guinea pig different environments like an indoor cage and outdoor run will give them a variety of visual enrichment opportunities.

Auditory Enrichment to Sooth or Excite your Guinea Pigs

Auditory enrichment primarily provides the required ambience that your guinea pigs need in their enclosure. You can adjust the sounds they would hear in the wild or even play some soothing music that both of you enjoy.  Did you know that your guinea pig will vibrate with happiness when they hear music they like?

As a guinea pig owner, you can use auditory enrichment to mimic the animal’s natural habitat. 

Types of nature-based auditory enrichment include:

  • Ambient sounds (light rain, rain forest, breeze)
  • Non-specific vocalisations of other animals (birds, monkeys, etc.)

Guinea pigs love music. Music is good for your guinea pig’s soul.

They can listen to music to calm them and relieve stress and anxiety. There’s music that makes them popcorn and music that they love to dance to. One of our guinea pigs (Rune) loves to dance to 80’s pop music!

The Pet Tunes YouTube channel has plenty of music and guinea pig TV to watch. This is my favourite which sends some of our piggies off to sleep.

Although as enriching as auditory stimuli can be, it is important to balance the auditory enrichment. Observe how your guinea pigs react. From there, determine how often or little you should provide the auditory stimuli. It definitely should not be played 24/7. Some pets are sensitive to loud noise, so make sure to keep your music at a low volume.

There will always be several occasions where you might be living in an area that is loud or has more noise. Remember to ensure that your guinea pigs have auditory enrichment since loud and unpleasant noise can cause several issues, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Restlessness

For guinea pigs, anything that is soothing is perfect. Play slow and calm ambient music for them; even classical music works. Furthermore, some guinea pig owners play a recording of other guinea pig sounds. Allegedly, the recordings of other guinea pig sounds buffer the stress of social deprivation if your guinea pig is living alone.

READ NEXT:  Complete guide on how to take care of your new pet guinea pig

Understanding the Sounds your Guinea Pig Makes

Listen to the sounds your guinea pig makes to understand how they are feeling:

  • Wheeking or squealing: this sounds like a long, high pitched whistle, or squeal, usually representing excitement. You’ll hear this sound when your guinea pig knows its food of playtime. Ours go mad when they hear the carrots being chopped up and landing in the feeding bucket.
  • Chutting:  A soft sound a bit like a frog’s croak generally means that your guinea pig is content and just going about its daily business.
  • Cooing: This is a sign of affection, and guinea pigs will do it for humans they love and for their babies.
  • Purring: Can mean your guinea pig is happy or angry depending on the context. A contented guinea pig will make a low purring sound, whereas an annoyed piggy will make a high pitched purr that increases in pitch as they make the sound. Short purrs and a motionless guinea pig means that they are afraid.
  • Rumble strutting This is a very low sound. It often goes hand in hand with a guinea pig shaking its butt and moving around slowly. This sound is used to show dominance, male guinea pigs use it to get attention from female guinea pigs and it’s used to calm down fighting guinea pigs. Female guinea pigs make that sound as well, for example, when they want to establish themselves as boss or when they could become pregnant when it’s the time of the month. 
  • Teeth chattering means ‘back off’
  • Shrieking: If you hear this high-pitched noise from your guinea pig, they are really scared or injured and need to stop and investigate why. 

Food-Based Enrichment Ideas for a Happy Active Guinea Pig

Nutritional enrichment encourages your guinea pigs to naturally forage as they would in the wild for their food. There are many ways of making mealtimes more fun for your guinea pig which encourage the natural behaviours of:

  • Forage
  • Hunting
  • Tasting 

Having a system around nutritional enrichment can help decrease your guinea pig’s behaviours that are, for the most part, unwanted, such as excessive digging or squealing. The more different foods you offer your young guinea pigs, the less picky they will become in later life. 

Enrichment games that involve food will also help increase the physical activity your guinea pig undertakes and that will ultimately benefit your guinea pig’s physical and mental health.

Most guinea pig owners feed their guinea pigs with the universal feed you get in the pet shop to get a balanced diet, which is fine. You can use this food or add variety by introducing novel food items to their daily intake. 

What Food Can You Use for Guinea Pig Enrichment?

Guinea pigs are herbivores and need three foods every day to stay healthy: fresh hay ( timothy or meadow grass), pellets ( with vitamin c) and fresh fruit and vegetables. They need to eat hay constantly to wear down their back teeth and stop their front teeth from overgrowing. 

Here are a few examples of fresh treat foods for guinea pigs:

  • Vegetables: leafy greens ( spinach and kale) and sweet peppers
  • Special Guinea Pig Treats ( check labels carefully for additives)
  • Foraged weeds and plants: dandelions, goosegrass (that sticky weed), groundsel and chickweed
  • Apple or Pear: Tree leaves, bark and branches are good for your cavy

You can grow grass and wheatgrass or dandelions in trays on your windowsill or allow your guinea pigs to raid a fresh herb pot.

For guinea pigs, food puzzles and toys are a great way to stimulate a guinea pig’s natural behaviour and instinct since it incorporates food into a puzzle activity. Food puzzles can be easily purchased in pet shops or crafted at home. 

READ NEXT ( opens in new window): Guinea Pig Puzzles Top Picks for 2021

You can make an easy vegetable ‘kebab’ for your guinea pigs by chopping vegetables into chunks and threading them on a string, then hang this within their reach. Don’t put it too high as guinea pigs can’t jump up and grab things. Even scattering their daily pellets around your cage or run or hiding them where piggies can smell and work out how to get at them is enrichment for guinea pigs of any age.

In its natural habitat, guinea pigs forage and have to work for their food located in small and tight spaces and they love it. Listen for the grunts and squeals as they hunt.

Olfactory Enrichment: Stimulate Your Guinea Pig’s Sense of Smell

Many pets and animals, including guinea pigs, find olfactory enrichment incredibly stimulating. Like guinea pigs, many animals rely heavily on their sense of smell for survival since sometimes it is one of the most powerful biological tools they have ( and makes up for their dodgy eyesight).

Providing your guinea pigs with new scents around their enclosure and environment will encourage your guinea pig to explore more since it stimulates curiosity.  But these scents should all be natural from food and objects.  Even an open window on a crisp spring day can provide much needed olfactory enrichment for you and your guinea pig.

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Guinea Pigs like to get outside and sniff the world around them

Take your guinea pig outside in a secure run so they can sniff the scents carried by a breeze and enjoy some fresh grass in the sunshine. Even if you are in a flat, pop your guinea pig cage on the balcony and have a cup of tea with them whilst they take in the sights and sounds of the outside world.

Guinea pigs rely heavily on scent to forage for food as well as for social interaction. If you have a guinea pig long enough, they will likely recognise your scent. 

Using essential oils and candles

One important piece of advice to note as a guinea pig owner. Please be extremely careful when you have any scented candles or essential oils in your home. Do not have them anywhere near your guinea pig’s environment. Some people find guinea pig odour to be too strong and attempt to diffuse it with scented candles, oil burners or cleaning products like Febreze. But these items can cause respiratory issues in your guinea pig so they are best avoided altogether.

Below are some examples of essential oils that are known to be toxic to guinea pigs:

  • Pine
  • Peppermint
  • Cinnamon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Juniper
  • Anise
  • Citrus

Cognitive, Tactile, and Occupational Enrichment to Reduce Your Guinea Pig’s Boredom

Most animals need tactile enrichment to keep their boredom at bay. For example, many primates in zoos are provided with puzzles, devices, toys, and tools. The variety of properties often encourage them to use and play while stimulating cognitive enrichment at the same time.

Occupational enrichment is the idea of providing your pets challenges by giving them some sort of activity that will occupy and encourage them in terms of physical activities and mental stimulation. 

Occupational enrichment is often used alongside nutritional enrichment, such as food puzzle toys and obedience training, stimulating them mentally and giving dietary benefits. 

Popping a toy in your guinea pig’s enclosure helps cognitive enrichment.

You can provide your guinea pigs with several forms of occupational enrichment that will help prevent boredom, and at the same time, physically and mentally occupy them. Examples of toys and games for guinea pig include:

  • Puzzle toys 
  • Playing “hide-and-go-seek” with food
  • Brown paper bags ( cut off handles) filled with hay
  • Toilet roll cardboard tubes ( cut them open)
  • Kitchen roll inner cardboard tubes ( also cut open to avoid heads getting stuck)

Occupational enrichment will also help your guinea pigs release excess energy, which ultimately helps those who have any form of anxiety or nervousness.

Choosing Suitable Toys For Your Guinea Pig

A word of warning about choosing toys though, some toys are labelled up for guinea pigs that really aren’t suited to them at all. Please do not buy your guinea pig :

  • metal hay balls
  • hamster wheels
  • toys with string

Guinea pigs can get their heads stuck in the metal hay balls and will probably need a general anaesthetic and wire cutters to get them out. Hamster wheels are for hamsters. Your guinea pigs spine is very fragile and can not bend in the same way as a hamster. Stick to giving our guinea pig ramps and tunnels instead.

Guinea pig owners must make sure that the toys purchased are selected carefully. The toy must be safe and of interest to your pet. Check out our Top Picks for Guinea Pig Toys for 2021 for toys that we recommend.

Keeping Guinea Pig Toys Clean

If you do plan to purchase toys for your pets, be sure to maintain their quality by cleaning them. You should regularly wash the toys in hot soapy water that your guinea pigs commonly use to maintain good hygiene. If one of your guinea pigs picks up a disease, it may spread like wildfire to the other guinea pigs in the enclosure, risking health, and potentially, their lives.

Rotate toys and inspect for damage and wear

Keep in mind too, that you should alternate their guinea pigs’ toys as well. A toy that gets used too much can get worn out pretty quickly and may potentially lead to boredom. Try and keep things interesting, provide different toys and change them around once a week.

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Alternating toys with other objects will reduce boredom as well. This will help in maintaining the interests of all the other physical enrichment tools around your guinea pigs. Ideally, as a guinea pig owner, you should not remove toys that enrich them (it is not the best idea to take their favourite toy away); but it is best to have several different toys for your pets to use alternatively. 

Social and Human Interaction Enrichment for your Guinea Pigs

Like almost every existing being, including humans, social or social access is an incredibly important part of maintaining one’s mental and psychological well-being.

Based on Dr. Robert Young’s “Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals,” social enrichment is the practice of providing and facilitating contact and interaction with an animal’s own species as well as other species, especially humans.

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Guinea pigs like their human companions

A muddle of guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are herd animals and live in large social groups called muddles in the wild. Mixing with their own kind either in the same cage of being able to see other guinea pigs through the bars is vital. 

Guinea Pigs love the interaction and companionship, which can be a human, another guinea pig, or often they can be kept with a rabbit as a buddy.

FUN FACT: Did you know in Switzerland it is illegal to keep a guinea pig on its own? 

Human interaction is also an important aspect of social enrichment. Human-interaction will help reduce your guinea pig’s level of stress and anxiety. Regular handling from an early age will help increase your guinea pig’s comfort level among human beings. Human interaction can also reduce the aggression of fearful pets and improve their general welfare since they feel safer.

Social enrichment is primarily a way to direct and guide your pet to being safe and comfortable in the environment it is exposed to. Your guinea pig will be able to learn how to be calm when exposed to new things, including social interaction with others. When a well-socialised guinea pig is exposed to other guinea pigs, people, or other objects, they will unlikely react as such:

  • Over-stimulated
  • Act aggressive
  • Run away 

Now unlike a rabbit, you can’t take your guinea pig for a walk in the park. Even with a ‘special’ harness your guinea pig’s delicate spine is not designed for the forces that tugging on a leash exert so please don’t try this no matter how tempting. However, you can provide your guinea pigs with social enrichment by:

  • Playing games together
  • Get your guinea pig a guinea pig or rabbit friend
  • Set up a guinea pig playdate with other guinea pigs
  • Spend time grooming them
  • Try trick training

Here’s a fun way to teach your guinea pig how to weave:

Environmental Enrichment for Your Guinea Pig’s Enclosure

Environmental, physical, and structural enrichment is probably the most common and easiest enrichment to provide your guinea pig.  Guinea pigs love zooming about and enjoy doing circuits of their enclosure navigating any objects you put in their path. They love to dive through tunnels, dodge through cardboard boxes  (make door openings for them), jump over hurdles. They also like to play guinea pig bumper cars with their pals by bumping deliberately into them at the end of a mad run.

Primarily, physical enrichment centres around the provision of objects, such as:

  • Properties and Installations in Enclosure
  • Toys and Interactive Objects

These objects encourage your guinea pigs to express their natural behaviours. For example, if you provide an underground shelter for your guinea pigs, your guinea pigs may begin to build a nest. This expresses the guinea pig’s digging behaviour as comfort (not destructive), reflecting the pet’s security and easement in building a home.

Physical enrichment helps provide pets with control to adjust their levels of comfort and sense of security over their environment.

Physical enrichment requires guinea pig owners to change the space, quality, and complexity of their pets’ environmental living space. One of the most common ways for guinea pig owners to provide physical enrichment is to provide several different types of toys and other interactive properties. 

Interactive toys installed in your guinea pigs’ enclosure can help decrease their reactive responses to other environmental factors, which may include less reaction to:

  • Other pets
  • Other people
  • Noise

Furthermore, physical enrichment helps decrease other unwanted behaviours, including:

  • Excessive Squealing
  • Excessive Digging
  • Escape Attempts 
  • Nibbling/Excessive bites (Not harmful intent) 

Aside from providing your guinea pigs with all sorts of fun toys, consider installing a physical feature as well in your guinea pigs’ enclosure, cage, or environment. Installing a few physical features to your guinea pig’s environment can increase the complexity of the environment and its level of comfort. 

An outdoor run will offer your guinea pig lots of opportunities for exploration and adventures. Don’t be surprised if you see them having an attack of the zoomies ( running at full speed) or our favourite, the guinea pig hop, known as popcorning. You might hear and see some rumblestrutting too!

6 More Ideas for Enrichment for your Guinea Pig

Here are some more great ideas for providing enrichment for your guinea pig:

  • Tunnels: Guinea pigs burrow underground in the wild. Therefore, tunnels are very popular amongst all species of guinea pigs. Furthermore, guinea pigs are prey animals; so, having access to several tunnels will make them feel safe and comfortable since they can hide and get cozy. You can install guinea pig tunnels using concrete pipes, plastic pipes, or even a makeshift wooden tunnel.
  • Hurdles: User rulers, curtain rods and other low objects (about 1-2 inches high) to make little hurdles for your guinea pig to leap over.
  • Shelters and Shelves: Any form of shelter or shelf-like property in your guinea pig’s environment is a great installation. These shelters or shelf-like properties will most likely become the guinea pig’s home. Again, guinea pigs like to hide, and shelters that are installed semi-underground are a perfect home for them. You can purchase these shelters in pet shops or build your own made out of wood or PVC pipe.
  • Makeshift Curtains: In addition to shelters made out of wood or concrete, add a curtain. This additional enrichment tool can make your guinea pig more comfortable and safer as it can tuck them away to hide. Use any cloth, thin cardboard, or hessian. If they start chewing your makeshift curtains, remove them!
  • Foliage, Rocks, Wood, and Bedding: Add more decorations, such as rocks, wood, foliage, and bedding in order to make your guinea pig’s home resemble its natural environment. Blocks of wood or logs are the dentists of guinea pigs since they help fulfil the need to gnaw. This maintains their dental health. Furthermore, rocks or boulders act as their manicure tools because it helps maintain the guinea pigs’ growing nails.
  • Log Bridges: Log bridges are versatile since they can be used to climb, hop, hide under, etc. Consider having a log bridge in your guinea pig’s environment since they are agile creatures and love to run around.
  • Cozy/Fluffy Items: Any items that are furry, soft, cushiony, or fluffy give comfort to guinea pigs and increase their comfort within the environment. These items include blankets, sleeping cushions, and fleece huts. But be warned, as guinea pigs will most likely pee or poo on them. So, make sure you wash them often to stave off an awful smell and health hazards. 
  • Additional Levels: To make your guinea pig’s home more interesting, add another level to it. The easiest way is to install a ramp on a shelf for easier access.

Provide the Enriched Life Your Guinea Pig Needs!

Guinea pigs, much like other types of pets, need enrichment to live their lives to the fullest. Living life to the fullest, for a guinea pig, is living as it is in the wild. Therefore, a guinea pig owner should always try and provide them the types of enrichment it needs. As a guinea pig owner, you are responsible for making your guinea pigs feel comfortable, loved, and secure. 

Aside from providing them with the enrichment they need, make sure you have variousoptions to keep them away from boredom. Although enrichment tools help immensely, remember that the guinea pigs owner’s time spent with the guinea pigs is an enrichment on its own!

READ NEXT: Top Picks for Guinea Pig Toys, Beds and Hidey Huts 2021

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References

Jacobs, G. H., Deegan, J. F., Spectral Sensitivity, Photopigments, and Color Vision in the Guinea Pig (Cavia porcellus), Behavioral Neuroscience, 1994.

Miles, R. C., Ratoosh, P., Meyer, D. R., Absence of color vision in guinea pig, Journal of neurophysiology, 1956.

Jacobs, G. H., The distribution and nature of colour vision among the mammals, Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 1993.

Jacobs, G. H., Evolution of colour vision in mammals, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 2009.

Shanidze, N. M., Coordination of Eye and Head Movements in Cavia Porcellus, 2011.

Williams, D. L., Ophthalmology of Exotic Pets, Wiley Online Library, 2012.