Guinea Pig Introductions 101
Thalestral's advice is a go-to for guinea pig caretakers! Her timeless article is reprinted here with permission. Original Find Thalestral on Twitter: @thalestral
Why Are Introductions Necessary?
Guinea pigs are a herd animal and live (more) happily in groups or pairs. As with many herd or group animals they have in place a dominance hierarchy, an order of who is in charge in the group. As a group, piggies are territorial, so any newcomer is primarily seen as a threat to this territory as well as a threat to the dominance hierarchy. To place a pig in an existing territory is to invite all out war! Terribly stressful for all pigs involved as the existing pigs gang up on the newcomer to try and get rid of them.
This is only because you have put them straight in an existing territory! So the main point of introductions is to take all pigs out of any existing territory and put them in a neutral space to create a new herd with a new dominance hierarchy for both old and new members.
The introduction steps detailed in this guide are based on both research and experience, a tried and tested method to guarantee the best results!
Choosing Your Neutral Area:
The location of the space you choose to conduct introductions in is very important. It must be in a room completely away from any existing guinea pig cages, and ideally a room that the pigs never go in. It must also be quite a large space, much larger than the cage size, and with no furniture that the pigs can hide behind or around.
Good choices are generally a bathroom, a hallway or a kitchen. Make sure there is enough space for you to fit in as well! You will take no part in the introductions at all (seriously, sit on your hands!) but you must be present in case there is a full blown fight.
You can use spare grids to block off any problem areas.
Setting Up Your Neutral Area:
First up, you want to cover the floor, or most of it at least, in towels. Introductions will last at least one hour and may last several hours. Piggies need to pee! So layers of towels in my experience are very helpful.
The towels must not smell of pig. Freshly washed with some vinegar in the wash will remove any lingering odours that only sensitive piggie noses can normally smell. Or just use towels that have never been in service to your pigs.
Do not put any houses in the area. This is the one time when houses should not be used as they will cause fights during introduction time as pigs try to hide from the drama.
Set up water bottles. Again, with the process lasting so long you need to make sure your pigs are well watered. Use spare grids to fasten the water bottles to, either in a wall along an actual wall, or in a 1x1 cube formation. If you have no spare cubes then use your DIY skills to concoct something that will work temporarily. Again, make sure water bottles and grids are cleaned thoroughly before use so that no lingering piggie smell remains.
Food. Two great big piles of hay in the middle of the floor will not only keep your piggied fed, but can also help broker relations as the pigs time out to have some nosh together. No pellet bowls - this can cause arguments. To sweeten the deal, spread some nice damp lettuce around the floor, this will serve both to keep pigs hydrated (some won't trust to use the water bottles during introductions) and as a handy distraction.
Make sure there is space for yourself to sit where you can comfortably see everything that is going on. Bring a pillow, you're in for a long sit. Make sure you have a couple of spare towels - these are for lightly throwing over two pigs if a real genuine fight happens. This is rare, but it is best to be prepared. You might want to make sure you have a drink as well so you don't need to leave.
The Magic of Buddy Baths
This is an optional step, and can be left in reserve for if introductions don't pan out. Having done so many introductions with my girls over the years I have started just doing this at the beginning as it can often speed the whole process up.
There are two ways of doing this, the first is to bathe all pigs together as this gives them both the benefit of neutralising everyone's smell and bonding them together through a yucky bath experience. That is not actually the way I do it. I have five pigs, and even with two pigs I get nervous not having enough hands to catch both pigs if they panic. If you have more than two human hands at work though, or just less stroppy pigs(!), this is fine.
The second method is simply to bathe everyone in turn. This has the effect of making everyone smell the same which makes introductions go more smoothly, but doesn't add too much extra stress. This is good I think especially as I tend to do the baths before introductions, so extra stress isn't necessarily called for! I use Gorgeous Guineas shampoo but any bunny shampoo will do as well. GG is simply the best though and I highly recommend it. Do not use human shampoos, even baby shampoos, as these strip the oil from the hair of the pig and are bad for their skin.
Bathe pigs as normal, dry off with towel and light hairdryering and move to the next step. Or skip straight on!
Butt sniffing is a large part of introduction behaviour, baths make every butt smell the same!
Put the pigs through in a particular order. The pigs you have had longest go in first. You need to leave the room to get each individual pig and you don't want the new pig(s) being ganged up on while you do this. If you have a dominant pig put them in last before your new pig(s). Place pigs far apart in the room, they probably won't move much at first, just stand still sussing out this new strange room. Or possibly running straight to the hay and stuffing their faces - depends on the pigs!
Sit yourself down and be quiet. Let the pigs find each other. Don't talk, DON'T touch. You are a fly on the wall and you must not interfere in any way. Pretend you are not there. If you don't, you will make this much harder on your pigs and far more stressful. Put simply, as far as the pigs care, this does not concern you!
Introductions can be hard, but the end result is worth it!
Normal Introduction Behaviour:
The most common factor for introductions failing is the human interfering. Piggies body and vocal language is completely different from the human versions, and while a pig can get very upset during introductions, even try and scramble in to your lap crying, you cannot interfere!
Piggies can get stressed during introductions BUT they are not as stressed as they look. Pigs who definitely do not want to be top pig will display extreme submissive behaviour - hiding in corners, crying, shaking etc. This is not because they are scared out of their wits but because they want to signal to the pigs wanting dominance that they do not!
It is heart breaking for us as human owners to watch our pets beg for help - BUT they don't really want help. They know far better than us how to play the introductions game.
The main rule of introductions? Human owners get far more upset and stressed than their piggies! Honestly, I hate introductions, they make me feel evil. But two days later when your pigs are all snuggling each other or playing with each other and you feel like an eejit for worrying so much.
The following are all normal behaviour that you do not interfere with. Memorise this list so you recognise what is going on.
- Mounting - pigs will mount each other from behind, from the side, or face on with great gusto. The pig underneath may cry and submit, run away and yell, or turn and try to mount back. If one pig is undoubtedly dominant she will just repeatedly mount everyone else to make sure there is no argument. Normal.
- Chattering - this there will be a LOT of. Everyone will chatter at everyone else, probably louder than you thought was possible. Normal.
- Chasing - pigs who want to be dominant will chase everyone else. They will not relent and upon catching the pig will either mount them or pull their hair. Normal.
- Hair Pulling - pigs will bite other pigs hair and pull chunks of hair out, this will be met by an indignant squeak and possible retaliation. You may well have a cloud of hair by the end of the day. Submissive pigs will just run away or lie and take it. Hair pulling stings a bit but doesn't hurt as bad as we think. Normal.
- Rumblestrutting - everyone will probably do this but especially the dominant pigs. Most pigs will be puffed up like tribbles to try and be big and scary or big and "leave me alone!". Hair will be especially big around the shoulders and down the spine. Rumble, rumble, rumble. Normal.
- Butt Sniffing and Nudging - piggies sniff each others butts to see who they are, submissive pigs submit, dominant pigs take offense. Nudging is much the same. Normal.
- Nose Offs - pigs lift their noses in the air at each other to see who can raise their nose highest. Seriously. Submissive pigs will pretend they can't reach as far as they can. May finish with a lunge by the winner. Don't panic! Look to see (without moving!) if the loser has been bitten, very rare that they have. Usually it's just posturing. Normal.
- Yawning - pigs will do exaggerated yawns at each other to show off how big their teeth are. This is slightly more aggressive behaviour but one pig usually backs down. Normal.
- Circling - in an effort so sniff each others butts or mount each other, sometimes two pigs get trapped in a mini whirlwind trying to out circle the other. Eventually one pig catches the other or they lose interest. Normal.
- Snorting - pigs will make a noise that is like a grunt or a snort. Only the dominant pigs do this, and if your dominant pig is usually a bit on the grumpy side you've probably had this noise directed at yourself in the past! Normal.
- Butt Dragging - pigs will drag their buts for what seems like miles along the floor. This is because they are wanting to claim the territory as their own. This isn't really limited to dominant pigs, it just seems to be something most pigs enjoy anyway! Normal.
Let me just reiterate - don't interfere!! It's hard, it really is, but you need to stick to your guns because your pigs are fine.
One one introduction I had Frisky leap into my lap and snuggle down into me for protection. I admit, I left her there which was not the right thing to do. It made the introductions in neutral space less stressful for her but made her time going into the cage much much harder :(
Rosie and Gracie have a good chatter at each other.
Rosie with her hackles up, about to mount Brie.
Sometimes the behaviour will escalate. This doesn't automatically mean introductions have failed.
Two pigs rear on haunches at each other - this is the signal to attack, to properly fight. It is very different from a nose off as the pigs front feet will leave the ground before they launch at each other. If one pig alone does this it is not a problem, the other will run away or submit. If both do it at the same time they have signaled that they want to fight. Grab your towel and aim true! Be careful of course that you don't squish your pigs. The indignity and surprise of being covered up will usually soften tensions enough by itself. Withdraw towel and keep a close eye on those two particular pigs. I have had this happen before and it has not ended introductions.
Flying ball of fur - two pigs are locked together in battle. Throw your towel immediately! Pigs do not play fight like this, it is the real deal. Cover with towel and separate using the towel - never your bare hands. Inspect each pig for cuts. If there are no cuts then place pigs back at opposite ends of the neutral area and watch closely. Again, this does not signify the end of introductions, I have had this happen before without injury during introductions.
If blood is deliberately drawn - end introductions immediately. Something isn't right and you need to regroup and decide how to proceed. Buddy bath pigs together and redo your neutral space. You may need another day to prepare everything again properly. Don't feel too disappointed, sometimes introductions just don't work first time around, you just need to try again. Maybe a bigger area, maybe a buddy bath to start with, maybe more hay. Maybe one pig has an underlying illness that is making her act out of sorts? Very rarely do introductions end in blood drawn but if so make sure you see how serious the injury is and get vet treatment if necessary.
Never use your bare hands - pigs are not talented fighters, they just lock on, flail and bite whatever they can reach. If you use your hands you will get bitten, and you will get bitten hard. Guinea pig bites can be very serious, they can bite to the bone. Use the towel, and if necessary even have oven gloves or gardening gloves or something similar as back up. They will separate very quickly when towelled. Don't touch the pigs after a fight with your bare hands (don't touch them anyway mind) as they will lash out. Use the towel!
My Purdie was labeled as anti-social after countless introductions failed. Some pigs don't do well in pairs though, and when introduced to my group as a whole she was thrilled. It took a long time for things to settle down after that introduction, more because of Purdie's poor eyesight that led her to panic, and her lack of knowledge of piggie body language, but she is the happiest little piggie I know, and is always trying to sneak up to the other girls for a snuggle :)
Yawning looks fierce but rarely leads to attacks.
Preparing the Cage:
Provided introductions are going well and it's been at least an hour since you started, you can start to prepare the cage. If you have more than one person this is ideal as one can stay with the pigs while the other prepares the cage. Otherwise, just keep checking on the pigs every two minutes or so. Time consuming but necessary! Your cage should be big enough for the number of pigs you plan to have living together.
Empty the cage and clean it down as you normally would. Then clean all the grids and every bit of coroplast/correx you can get to. Clean all the hay racks, bowls and water bottles plus any fastenings. Use fresh bedding, if you use reusable bedding make sure to add vinegar to your wash to fully neutralise piggie smells. Next clean every single house and toy you plan on putting in. Don't put in any houses with only one entrance as this can cause fights. Make sure there is a hidey place for everyone that has an escape route. Make sure there is a water bottle, pellet bowl and hay rack for everyone to use. Clean the floor as best you can outside the cage too - anywhere your older pigs have set foot!
We want the cage to be fully neutralised because even if introductions have gone well, the fun and games can start all over again in the cage. It is super important that the cage is neutral.
Length of Introductions:
Back in the neutral area continue to monitor your piggies. One hour is the minimum time I feel. However, the most important way to mark time is to begin time keeping once the pigs have settled down, not from the very beginning. One of my introductions took 4 hours! The longer you keep them in this room though, the more tired out they will get which will makes things easier when you put them all in the cage together. Don't try and rush things, just let the pigs work things out at their own speed. When you feel comfortable that your pigs are no longer about to start a war, and when they are getting pretty tired out (pigs will nap throughout introductions), you can put them back in the cage.
To the Cage:
The order of putting the pigs in the cage is not terribly important, the importance lies solely with the speed in getting everyone in as close together as possible! Once everyone is in, many of the introduction behaviours as described above will recommence. Again, use the guide of normal and warning behaviours to keep a close eye on things and keep that towel ready for use. The exact same rules apply - don't interfere, don't speak, don't move! And if you break up a fight, check both pigs over and if they are fine, put them back asap at each end of the cage (it's really hard to resist giving them a cuddle and reassuring them but fight that urge!).
The only new behaviour I have witnessed in the cage was pigs trying to jump out of the cage. To this day I still feel awful when I recall the memory of Frisky jumping up against the bars and hanging there with all her feet stuck through to the outside, begging me with her eyes to help. I felt like a monster, particularly as it was my fault for not removing her from my lap during introductions. But again, by the end of the night things were fine. And after a couple of weeks they were all best friends.
Don't leave your piggies alone. Once in the cage you need to watch them for at least an hour, preferably two. Needless to say, I don't get much sleep on these nights afterwards for worrying about my pigs!
Frisky first learned to roof jump during cage time after introductions!
The first night is the most tense. There will be chasing and squabbling galore. You'll be stronger than me if you manage to resist setting your alarm to check on them throughout the night! The first week will still see chasing, rumbling and mounting. After two weeks things will have settled down a lot. If you have one or more pigs under the age of 2 you should be aware that many of the introduction behaviours are a bit more permanent than that and will last until all pigs are out of puberty. This is why it's so important to understand that pig behaviour is different from human behaviour. Your pigs might be being chased and mounted - but they are happy!!
Weigh your pigs daily instead of weekly for the first two weeks. This way you can check that everyone is getting fed. If anyone is losing weight, increase the number of hay racks, pellet bowls and veggies.
Once all your herd is past 2 you can revel in the peace and quiet. Unless of course you have a pig that likes to play tricks on the others like my Brie!
What happens when you try and nose off with a pig who can't see where you are!
Which Pig is Dominant?
Sometimes it is very obvious which pig is dominant, while other times it can be a mystery. What's important is that the pigs know who is dominant, and they don't often share that information! The dominant pig can also change as more herd members are added, or even as the pigs get older.
I have a very dominant pig, Rosie, in my herd who has been number one from the very beginning. She is my biggest pig, but more importantly, she believes 100% that she is the top pig. It's hard to argue with that kind of conviction! The last introduction I did took place after Rosie had been separated from her herd due to her heart problems, she was very ill indeed. Once she had fully recovered, the introduction process took less than half an hour! She puffed herself huge, mounted everyone in succession into submission, and the other pigs were glad to have her back - in her absence it had been chaos.
My other pigs have all changed position in the herd, I can identify the order of them after a lot of watching. Over time you can usually start to see the dominance hierarchy for yourself.
Some quick pointers for identifying the dominant pig - in female groups - though are:
- The dominant pig will rarely be mounted by the other girls in heat, but will get to mount everyone when she is in heat.
- The dominant pig will be the one who runs over when other pigs disagree - Rosie places herself in between squabbling pigs to end arguments.
- The dominant pig will sometimes be groomed by the others, particularly on the ear, but she may groom others as well.
- The dominant pig may be the one who reassures the others in times of stress, but equally may hide underneath another pig.
As you can see, there are no hard and set rules! But over time you will get to know your pigs and will pick up on all the little things that make it obvious to yourself who is who in your herd :)
Sometimes dominant pigs want to hide too!
It's a myth that boars cannot live in pair, or even groups. Introductions proceed exactly the same way, but the behaviour may all be a little more escalated - but again, this depends very much on the females you are comparing with!
The only real difference from female pig introductions, is that with boars it is much harder if you try to introduce male pigs if one or more are still in puberty. Give yourself a lot more space, and make sure your cage is bigger even than the recommended sizes. Buddy baths may also be mandatory due to boars having much stronger scents than females.In Conclusion:
The main rule to remember is for humans not to interfere and to remember that what looks upsetting for us is not nearly as upsetting for the pigs. They know how to play the dominance game and us interfering just screws up their good plans. We might have good intentions but those intentions lead to nothing but trouble for the pigs. I cannot stress how hard it is on humans to watch, but don't interfere!!
Stay back, watch, and keep that towel ready just in case. Piggies are herd animals, they don't want to live alone, and while it can take many introductions to get it right with some pigs, the results are so worth it.