Did you know that it’s illegal to own fewer than two guinea pigs at a time in Switzerland? Apparently this got a little bit of media attention a few years ago but I did not get the memo, resulting in some disbelieving looks when my girlfriend brought it up casually the other day. At first, I was taken aback but on further thought, it makes sense and should perhaps be applied to social animals in other countries too.
Guinea pigs are highly social animals and form tight bonds with those they live with. When separated, or a member of their group dies they can get lonely and become distressed. This is not unusual in social animals. Rats, rabbits and even cats, whom not everyone would consider social, can express loneliness if left without a playmate. While rescue shelters and vets in the UK will recommend owners ensure their furry companions have a friend, it is just that – a recommendation (although some stores will refuse the sale of some single animals like rats unless the owner already has some at home).
Switzerland’s ban on single guinea pigs was just one aspect of a larger reform of animal welfare legislation in 2008 that emphasised the ‘social rights’ of animals. In fact, it doesn’t really single out guinea pigs at all, they just became a popular example. As a result of the legislation, in order to keep guinea pigs and other animals from falling into loneliness once a companion dies, it became possible to rent a replacement pet. Yes, rent a replacement pet. It was this that sparked media attention previously. As with most pets, it’s unlikely that your two furry companions will live to the same age so it can be useful to have the option to rent a friend for your lonely rodent rather than be caught in an endless cycle of buying or adopting again each time a pet passes on.
The Swiss welfare ordinance is pretty strict on its take on allowing species-specific behaviours. It states that behaviour specific to your pet’s species must not be restricted in any way. While this mostly refers to foraging and physical behaviours it includes comfort behaviours and social interaction with conspecifics – others of the same species. This means that if any aspect of keeping a pet, be it through handling, housing or feeding, unnecessarily deviates from that which is considered an essential aspect of its species-specific behaviour, it is considered illegal. This is great because species-specific behaviours haven’t always been well understood, let alone taken so seriously.
But why is all this so important? Does it really matter if a guinea pig lives with other guinea pigs? What if its owner spends a lot of time playing with it? Would that be enough to prevent loneliness?
Probably not. You may love spending time with your pet and may even say you prefer it to seeing other people, but spend too long in isolation from other humans and problems start to arise. It’s no different for our pets.
While some animals may not get along well with others of their kind, this is usually due to a bad experience that has made the animal fearful. The wild relative of the guinea pig (Cavia aperea f. porcellus), the Cavy (Cavia aperea) are usually found in close family groups which occasionally form larger colonies when living in the same area with other family groups.
Such social animals, especially rodents, tend to raise young communally, engage in play to learn vital skills like how to fend off an attacker, communicate resource locations and many other behaviours that through ensuring the survival of the group, ensure the survival of the individual. Grooming and huddling together to sleep help to reinforce social bonds – hence the term ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. When an individual is isolated from its group and can’t perform these behaviours it can become lethargic and display symptoms not unlike those of depression in humans. They may stop eating or drinking, explore less and can even turn to over-grooming (often called barbering in pet rats) where they can end up with bald patches and painful sores.
It’s true that we may look at our single cat or rabbit and think they’re doing fine on their own and are perfectly happy, but consider that, without seeing your pet interact, you may not be aware of how happy your pet, could be with a friend. Switzerland has realised the importance of these behaviours to their social pets, and we would do well to do the same. So next time you consider getting a pet that would naturally live in groups, remember – the more the merrier!
- Asher, M, de Oliveira, E, S and Sachser, N, Social System and Spatial Organization of Wild Guinea Pigs (Cavia aperea) in a Natural Population (2004) Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 85, no. 4, 16, Pp. 788–796, https://doi.org/10.1644/BNS-012
- Berger J. and Stevens E. F, (1996) Wild mammals in captivity – principles and techniques (Kleiman D. G. Allen M. E. Thompson K. V. Lumpkin S. Harris H., eds.). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.
- Künzl, C and Sachser, N, The Behavioral Endocrinology of Domestication: A Comparison between the Domestic Guinea Pig (Cavia apereaf.porcellus) and Its Wild Ancestor, the Cavy (Cavia aperea) (1999) Hormones and Behaviour, Vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 28-37, https://doi.org/10.1006/hbeh.1998.1493
- Sachser, N. Naturwissenschaften, Of Domestic and Wild Guinea Pigs: Studies in Sociophysiology, Domestication, and Social Evolution (1998) vol. 85, no. 7, pp.307-317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s001140050507
- Swiss Animal Welfare Ordinance (2008) and Animal Welfare Act (2005)