The Lonely Guinea Pig
Anyone who’s had their pet put under general anaesthetic will have had their vet run through the associated risks. We all know what it’s like to have selective hearing, drowning out all the reassurances and just having the warnings and hazards ringing in your ears. So choosing whether non-essential surgery is the right path for your animal really is one of the hardest decision any pet owner can make. That’s the position I found myself in a short while back when I asked myself whether I should get my guinea pig neutered.
Haymitch came to us a little over a year ago, from the zoo where I worked at the time. The zoo had a small section called ‘Pets Corner’, with a delightful number of commonly kept small animals, including guinea pigs. Occasionally they have baby guinea pigs, and the offspring are sold to carefully-vetted new homes. This is normally a process that goes without a hitch… that is, until Haymitch.
Haymitch’s litter included three brothers, who were all kept together to provide each other with the necessary companionship, but Haymitch was unfortunately picked on and bullied. The keeper team are very experienced and quickly recognised the difference between normal scraps and dangerous fighting, so they removed Haymith before he could be hurt too badly. Determined not to give up on him, the keepers tried again to partner Haymitch with a male, with similar results.
Guinea pigs are as diverse as humans in personality and sometimes it’s the case that even brothers don’t get along. So Haymitch remained a special case for just under a year; he never bonded to another guinea pig and never found a human willing to put the time in for this precious little boy. His story broke my heart so I decided to take him home with me. Since then, he’s been alone as I looked for the perfect companion for him. A vet advised me that my best option would be to have him neutered and then pair him with a female.
Only having space for a maximum of two guinea pigs, I was reluctant to buy one that I would have to separate from her sisters, and I have yet to find a singular female in a local rescue. But, at long last, she came along. Little nine-week-old Piper had no sisters and was searching for a companion of her own, so it seemed like a great fit.
However, now that we had a female, I had to confront the reality of what needed to happen next. If Piper had simply been placed with Haymitch, she may have ended up nearly continuously pregnant, something that would have had devastating consequences on her health, so the only way to pair them up was to have one of them fixed. And since it is safer and less invasive for a male to have this procedure, it was clear that Haymitch would have to be the one to go through it.
I was aware of the relatively high risk of anaesthetic complications when it comes to guinea pigs, but I also knew that Haymitch was lonely and in desperate need of a companion. Faced with the tough decision of weighing up the risk versus reward, I decided the benefit to his life would be worth the surgery. So I’ve decided to bring you along for the journey and give an honest overview of what it’s like having your guinea pig neutered to hopefully help you weigh up the risks and benefits for yourself.
I dropped Haymith off at the vet surgery with much trepidation. I sat by my phone with a pit in my stomach, waiting for the call saying I could come and bring him home. Thankfully, all my anxiety was for nothing and my little champ breezed through his operation without a hitch. He came around in good time and quickly regained his voracious appetite. I picked him up, brought him home, and put him into a meticulously cleaned pen to avoid the risk of infection. But soon, much to his dismay, it was medicine time – a painkiller twice a day. While it’s not fair to say he enjoyed the experience, he seemed not to mind the taste of the painkiller itself and dutifully lapped it from the syringe.
So all was going well… until it wasn’t.
After coming off the painkillers, Haymitch became slow and lethargic. He lost his appetite and just sat very still all the time. Despite cleaning his pen (at this point multiple times a day), he ended up sitting in his own waste due to his lack of movement. It was then that I decided this was more than him just being a little sore, so I took him straight back to the vet. Unfortunately, it turned out he had developed an infection. What followed was two weeks of twice-daily wound cleaning, cage cleaning, and yet more medicine. This was exactly what I had been afraid of. I was riddled with guilt and feeling as though I had let my poor boy down. I simply did my best to make this traumatic daily routine as stress-free as it possibly could be.
Then, as though he was doomed to receive no break from this series of unfortunate events, his tummy started reacting badly to the huge quantity of antibiotics that had been prescribed. Right back to the vet he went and the news was mixed. While Haymitch’s wound and infection had both healed and cleared up, he now needed probiotics. Was this poor lad never going to get a break from the meds?
But I can now thankfully say that he is healed, well recovered, and back to his usual self. It’s been a little over a month since my boy was fixed, but he’s not yet safe to be with Piper. (It’s extremely important to note that even after a guinea pig has been neutered, he can still get a female pregnant for up to 4-6 weeks later, so always follow the advice of your vet on how long it is best to wait.) However, they have squeaking back and forth at each other from their respective pens, so I am hopeful that they will soon become the best of friends – and that is the only thing that makes me feel confident that all of this, despite the drama, was the right choice for my boy.
Of course, I felt immense guilt at putting Haymitch through what he experienced. There is nothing quite like the feeling of not being able to explain that you are just trying to help. Looking at him suffering through his infection and constantly thinking I could have done more to prevent it was heartbreaking. But that’s why I want to share this experience.
So would I recommend getting a guinea pig neutered, even after what happened to Haymitch? If it’s the only way to make sure your piggy friend gets the companion they need for their wellbeing, then yes – absolutely. However, if it’s simply to improve your guinea pig’s temperament, then I would advise against taking the risk. In my opinion, it should be more of a last resort. But if it does have to happen, be confident that your piggy is stronger and more resilient than you think. It can and will be worth the risk for the joy having a friend will bring them. Just make sure you are obsessive with your cleaning and monitoring, keep an eye on their eating and drinking and note any behavioural changes, and, as gross as it may be, check their poo for any unusual colours, shapes or consistencies.
To find out more about Haymitch or any of the other animals that we have here at The Nature Nook, check out our Meet the Pets page!