A few months ago our family expanded from three girls to five girls, when we brought home two baby guinea pigs. We had been debating for months about getting a pet, wanting something a bit more exciting than a goldfish, but not having the space, time, or money for a dog. We went to the pet store, thinking that we’d just browse, but as soon as we held our guinea pigs, we knew that we had to bring them home.
We returned to our small townhouse with their oversized cage, and all accessories, our three daughters ages six, four, and 21-months excited about this new adventure. We named our new pets Florabelle and Cinnamon, and immediately began nurturing them with cuddles and lots of hand-fed veggies.
Over the next few weeks I noticed my oldest daughter, who has ADHD, seemed more calm and relaxed when she was holding one of the guinea pigs. I also found holding them calming, my anxiety softened as I pet and cuddled either Cinnamon or Florabelle. The guineas, too, seemed happy and content, often making “wheeking” sounds, or purring when we held them. It turns out guinea pigs are really social, and require a cage-mate to play with, but they also bond to humans and love to be held and cuddled.
I decided to research the benefits of having a guinea pig as a pet, with the hope that I would confirm that guinea pigs are effective therapy pets. In my research I discovered that kids with special needs do benefit from their interactions with guinea pigs.
A 2010 study confirmed that guinea pigs can positively influence a child on the autism spectrum. Another study looked at animal-assisted intervention (AAI) within a classroom. A guinea pig pet offered a positive impact on both typically developing children and a classmate on the autism spectrum. The pet acted as a bridge between the classmates, and the child with ASD showed significant improvement in social skills with the presence of the guinea pig.
I also wondered what the impact on the guinea pigs are. I have noticed that, when I reach my hand into their cage the guineas would scurry into their little house to hide, and even when my kids would walk past their cage they’d often find a hiding spot. Were they simply sitting in our lap because they had no place to go? I didn’t see the point of having a therapy pet if they aren’t also benefiting from their human interactions.
A 2018 study confirmed that human interaction with guinea pigs does offer enrichment to both the pet owner and the pet, with the caveat that the guinea pig must always have the opportunity to retreat if needed. I learned that it’s completely natural for prey animals like guinea pigs to hide, but if they’re making happy sounds like wheeking and purring in your hands, they’re finding joy and comfort too.
Guinea pigs aren’t perfect pets, and there’s certainly a lot of work involved in having these small, furry friends. They poop, a lot, and I find myself spot cleaning their cage nearly every day, and giving a thorough clean every week. Their nails grow sharp, so they need to be clipped every few weeks - a task I don’t love. They need a lot of space to run around, which means giving them time and attention and letting them out of their cage. I purchased a small animal pen and let them run around for an hour every day, and I notice they seem happier on days when make sure they get their exercise.
The benefits seem to outweigh the work involved, though. They are pets, after all, so attention, money, and time is an obvious requirement. I love that my kids can hold Florabelle and Cinnamon, and find comfort in their happy sounds and their silky fur. Most nights after the kids go to bed, my husband and I will take one guinea pig each and sit with them on our chest while we read, a quiet and comforting ritual that has become a soothing routine.
It turns out the guinea pigs benefit the adults, just as much as the kids.
Note: If you decide to purchase a pair of guinea pigs please research these pets thoroughly. They live around four years, and require time and money to ensure they have a happy and healthy life. Please always purchase two guineas of the same gender, as guinea pigs become depressed alone, and require the constant companionship only a guinea friend can offer.