Castration is a drastic measure, but for our six grumpy guinea pigs, the advantages have outweighed the risks. It all goes back to their adolescence, when they suddenly stopped being friends and started tearing chunks out of each other. Barry’s ear got bitten completely in two. This was a shock to us, because all the information we’d read declared that guinea pigs are social animals and MUST be kept together. Besides, other pet owners had told us dire tales of guinea pigs who had died of loneliness.
We took them en masse to Broadley’s vet hospital. There were seven of them then, as their dad was still alive. They were filthy from exploring the flowerbeds, and I hadn’t dared bathe them while they were hurting. The nurse on duty was Cath. I learned that day that Cath is passionate about guinea pigs (and rabbits), and has stacks of experience and knowledge about them. When we presented her with our sea of growling, dirt-blackened, bitten-up animals with patches of fur missing, she exchanged horrified glances with the vet. I felt sure they thought we had been systematically abusing them.
I described our set-up, and asked for advice. Cath’s first advice was, of course, to separate them. Then, to bloody well give them baths. She and the vet strongly advised against castration, as it doesn’t necessarily affect guinea pig behaviour, and general anaesthetic carries a higher death risk for little animals.
We duly fenced the garden off into territories and separated their tower block into apartments. The guinea pigs spent all summer patrolling the fences and rumbling at each other, and all winter growling at their ceilings and floors.
Then we had to neuter Colin, because he kept gumming up the rabbit’s eye. (Never mind how.) Afterwards, his territorial behaviour ceased, and all the other guinea pigs were nice to him. It was as though we had given him a social skeleton key. Was this a fluke?
When Twogoose and Horatio began furiously threatening each other, we decided to try neutering them too. We felt confident that the skills and equipment at Broadley’s meant it wasn’t too much of a risk. Cath noticed them waiting there for the snip, and gave us a worried call to check that we were sure we wanted to go through with it. Our client money makes no difference to her: animal welfare is everything. We said we understood the risks – but we spent the rest of the day biting our nails, waiting for the call to say they were okay. They were. They have enjoyed each other’s company ever since.
How lovely it would be, we thought, if all the guinea pigs could live together again! Being all brothers, there was a chance they would all respond to neutering. We sent Clive, Barry and Orkney to be castrated too. Cath watched over them during their operation and recovery. She has taken a special interest in our guinea pigs since that first terrible day, and whenever she sees me, she asks, “how are the boys?” When I need guinea pig advice, she is the person I phone.
Here she is with her rabbit Ralph last month, just before she beat 11,000 contestants to become Veterinary Nurse of the Year. It is completely deserved.The guinea pigs’ tender areas healed just in time for their annual exodus to live among the grass and daffodils. Here’s Orkney, lurking in his new bedroom. They usually lurk for three days before leaving their hutches to explore the garden.
This time, it took them just a few hours to step outside and start grazing. We have placed all the hutches together, and have been watching closely for signs of distress. We left most of the territory-fence up just in case, but removed sections so they can explore the whole garden.
There was a brief squabble over who got to sleep in which hutch, but after that they settled in beautifully. Not one of them has got angry with the others – not even when there was a hailstorm to rattle them up. The change in them is remarkable! I never thought I’d see them daring to turn their backs on each other.
Long may the peace continue.