Bonding guinea pigs! A little guide to help you settle your new pigs.
Should it be Male or female? Young or old? First and foremost, you want to make sure that you do NOT end up with a breeding pair or a pregnant female. If you have a male, you will want another male. If you have a female, you'll want another female. This is the easiest path to take, since it doesn't require surgery to neuter you male guinea pig. Spaying females is very rarely done. Guinea pigs all have their own personality. It's a matter of matching up personalities. Many, many people have pairs or groups of boars who get along great. We do here. We have 6 resident boars, we find even numbers are they key to having a herd of boars. Sows are much more relaxed about herd numbers. Try to match up a dominant guinea pig with a subordinate guinea pig. It helps to have a feel for their personalities. What if you have no idea about the personalities? An older guinea pig with a younger guinea pig is a good option (larger to smaller one). They usually establish a natural hierarchy, with the younger one being subservient to the older one. Just be careful that you don't have a very feisty younger guinea pig with a very laid back older guinea pig. In that case, the younger one may challenge the older one's position as alpha guinea pig.
When you pair up a young guinea pig with any other guinea pig (young or old), there is a chance that as the younger guinea pig goes through its adolescent period (3-5 months), they will challenge the other guinea pig for top guinea pig position. This can lead to some fighting. Most of the time, they figure it out for themselves. Occasionally, the fighting is extreme and they must be permanently separated. Again, remember this can happen with ANY guinea pig pair, male/male or female/female.
1. Bond in neutral territory with a big pile of hay and veggies. 2. No hides at first, if all OK after a few hours you can add hides with more than one exit. 3. Expect dominance behaviour. As long as they aren't biting/lunging then do not separate. Normal dominance behaviour includes chasing, teeth chattering, rumbling, humping, etc. Sows and boars do this, however boars will likely display more. This can look scary to us, but it's how they sort out who is boss. 4. Leave together for several hours, until they've all had a snooze. 5. Place in their freshly cleaned 100% scent free cage to live together.
Bonding must be done all in one day, not tried again over several days. It’s incredibly stressful for them to be put together and then separated. It means bonding starts from scratch the next time they’re put in together.
Usually, the first 15 minutes is just getting acclimated to the new surroundings and the idea that there is another guinea pig there. It's the next 15 to 30 minutes that can get interesting. You should supervise them but keep your interactions and interference to an absolute minimum. Some guinea pigs will get along great. Some will decide on peaceful co-existence right from the beginning. Some will act like long lost buddies or lovers. Most, however, will go through the standard dominance dance, getting to know each other and trying to figure out who is going to be the boss. They must and will decide this.
Standard safe, non-combative, dominance behaviours
These behaviors may sound serious and they should be monitored very closely, but do not separate the pigs exhibiting these behaviors. Most of the time the behaviors will continue for a while until one backs down.
Butt dragging (they are leaving their scent)
Nose face-offs (higher in the air wins, one must lower their nose to be subservient to the other)
Teeth chattering: a little (signal of dominance)
Raised hackles (hair on the back of the neck and along the spine)
Posturing for possible attack
Teeth chattering: sustained (signal of anger, aggression, warning)
Nips, light bites (may result in little tufts of fur in their teeth)
Wide yawn (they are showing their teeth)
Snorting (like a strong puff or hiss)
Rumble strutting (looks and sounds like they are vibrating at each other)
Fighting with intent to harm
If the posturing or the nipping and bite attacks gets more serious, it's time to separate the guinea pigs. If blood is drawn, it's definitely time to stop the session. Look for these behaviors as an indicator of when to separate them.
Bite attacks are no longer warning nips, they are lunges with intent to harm.
Combination of raised hackles, loud and angry teeth chattering, rumble strutting in place with the head staying in one position while facing the other guinea pig doing the same thing. Usually a signal of a biting attack. But they may back down before they engage.
Both pigs rear up on their haunches, face to face. This is a clear, brief signal of their intent to launch full attacks at each other. Separate if possible before the attack.
Full battle. The pigs are locked together in a vicious ball of fur. This is very serious. Separate immediately, but be careful. Throw a towel over them and use a dustpan or something other than your hand to separate them. Unintended bites from their very sharp incisors can cause serious damage.
Bonding Bath - this is a last resort
Here is another technique used for harder-to-introduce couples, especially when adding a new male to a bonded male group. You will only want to try this method if you are already competent at handling guinea pigs and giving baths.
When you are ready to "introduce" the them, take everybody out and put them on the floor. Lay a blanket down and enclose it so they can't escape. Make it big enough so they have room to roam around. They will all notice each other. A play pen works well for this.
Watch their behavior closely. You will notice some things right away. If they dislike each other, it will be apparent pretty quickly. There will be teeth chattering along with more serious fighting. They may leap at each other and start fighting, in which case you should have an oven mitt, dust pan or towel you can wrap around your hand to separate them. Do not use bare hands. Fighting pigs will bite anything, and may draw blood. Even if they are not actively fighting but are in "fight mode," they may bite. Make sure no small children are around. If nobody fights right away, you can relax a bit. They may rumble around and mount each other. This is all normal. You will notice a lot of bum-sniffing and chasing, also fine. If the guinea pigs start fighting, refer to the above. The ideal outcome is instant acceptance. They will run up to each other, sniff, maybe mount a few times, and then settle down to groom the other pig. This is fantastic, but unfortunately doesn't happen all that often right from the start.
If the pigs fight, or fight after a little while, give them all a bath. You can put all of the pigs in the bathtub (keep the oven mitt handy) and run about 1 inch of warm water. Soap them all up at the same time with something that smells good. Use a small-animal shampoo that is kitten or bunny-safe (not a baby or human shampoo). The pigs will be distracted by the bath and forget that they are mad at each other. Don't get any water in the eyes, nose, or ears. Rinse them off carefully and well making sure that you get all the soap out.
Put them on some towels on the bathroom floor and dry them off as much as possible with a towel. Finish drying them with a hairdryer. Make sure it's on the WARM setting, and never get it too close to their skin. Make sure your hand is always on their fur so you can feel the level of heat you are giving them. They may try to run away, but continue drying them until all three pigs are completely dry. When you're done, they will all smell exactly the same.
Try the introductions again, this time on a new blanket that's just out of the dryer or is completely clean. They shouldn't fight. The bathroom scare and stress will hopefully cause them to bond together, and they will group together out of necessity.
If the introductions go well, clean the cage very thoroughly. Use a vinegar and water solution to clean or pet safe disinfectant. Throw all other items (pigloo, food dish, etc.) in the dishwasher. Clean any other hidey boxes or toys. You want to remove ALL scents from the cage. When you replace all the items, move them around so that nothing is in the same place as it used to be.
Then put all pigs in the new cage. They will feel that it's an entirely new home and won't be so territorial about defending it against the new pig.
Regarding their cage/house/environment, give them as much space as possible, boars especially! The more space they have the better. Have more water sources then pigs, this reduces resource dominance. Have hay piles on the floor, they will hide it and again this reduces dominance behaviour over a hay feeder. Same goes for bowls, scatter feeding works very well and encourages natural foraging behaviour. Pigs with lots to do are happier!
Photos are of the rescues and my own pigs.