Tag Archives: cleaning

How to Win Friends

1 May

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.

Winter tower

Horatio, awake before the others on Christmas Eve.

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.

Cath

[Photo from Broadleys Veterinary Hospital.]

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.

Orkney lurking

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.

Summer setup

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.

Among the daffs

Horatio, Clive, Orkney and Twogoose.

The Taste of a Thousand Ants

13 Aug

Our bathroom wall has been made of ants for a week or so now. I have been hoovering up as many as possible with my mouth, and releasing them outside in clusters. They have a familiar taste that I can’t put my finger on. It’s in the family of wood sorrel, lemons, geranium leaves…

It’s that time of year when ant princesses take to the air for their mating flights before founding new nests. At some point, a new queen founded a nest behind our bathroom tiles. I have no idea what on earth they find to eat there, since the wall is made of plasterboard and it’s not like we store sandwiches in the bathroom – but the nest is a successful and productive one.

To hoover up the ants, I use my trusty pooter, a bong-like instrument through which one sucks tiny creatures through a pipe into a collecting-jar. It reduces the risk of injury to them, but, as with siphoning petrol, it has its drawbacks.

One drawback is that ants are intimately familiar with structures shaped like chambers and tunnels, and so they have no problems navigating their way out of the pooter as soon as they are sucked into it. Thus, I must keep sucking and sucking continuously to keep them in the jar until I am ready to release them.

Another drawback is that, although there is a mesh to prevent creatures from hurtling into one’s throat, this does not prevent one from tasting them. A distressed ant will release a spray of formic acid into the air. Any nearby ant who smells formic acid goes on the defensive and starts spraying too. A hundred distressed ants can release a good lungful of the stuff directly into the back of the throat of any pootering entomologist. It’s like walking into a Mexican restaurant just as they are frying the chilli: it makes you cough.

Each time my coughing exceeded my sucking on that first day, I took my haul of ants outside, breathed the sweet fresh air, and released them onto the garden wall. If I don’t do this on a given swarming-day, it means Bunty and I cannot have a bath without it turning into a scene from Titanic.

The bathroom ants start swarming at around 6 pm each evening. How long they swarm for depends on the prevailing temperature, so my long daily soaks in a hot bath can keep them bouncing off the walls for hours. Fortunately, after my first day of choking, I got the sucking balance right, and was able to keep the ants more or less in the jar without triggering an acid bath for my uvula*. As a result, when I release them now, they immediately take wing to mate, instead of forming these defensive huddles:

Six potential queens with a male (bottom left)

Unlike the bathroom ants, my pet ant Betty has failed to produce a successful colony. She ate very little, produced very tiny workers, and eventually, after two years, she died along with her 20-strong colony. I have been rethinking and revising my ideas on how to care for ants, and have been keeping a sharp eye out for a successor for Queen Betty. The cats have been helping by getting in the way.

Two nights ago, Bunty found one in the bathroom: a wingless queen. The lack of wings suggests she has mated and is full of the fertile eggs of her unborn colony. Upon mating, a queen searches for a crevice in which to start laying her eggs. The only crevices available in the bathroom were already taken. The usual advice for keeping ants is to start a queen off in a test tube, then move her to a nest once her eggs hatch. This time I am trying harder to recreate her natural environment. I let Mab (that’s her name) crawl onto my finger, and I deposited her at the entrance to the hand-made  nest I had originally made for Betty. She immediately entered, and has not emerged since.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to pooter up Mab’s sisters from the bathroom walls, floor, fixtures and fittings. I enjoy playing with ants, but I must admit I’m looking forward to the end of this swarming season, and the prospect of having less exciting baths.

 

* Uvula: that dangly thing at the back of the throat.

The Case of the Midnight Rabbit

5 Aug

Bunty and I have been exploring the joys and agonies of detective work, using an undercover camera. It came about because our rabbit Broccles suddenly started peeing about four times more than usual. The vets thought he may have a kidney infection. (Bear with me; this is relevant.)

“How much is he drinking?” asked Alasdair (of Rabbit Hypnotist fame).

I had no idea. Alasdair explained that if he’s not drinking lots, his urinary system is likely fine and he is probably eating more juicy food than usual. I was instructed to measure the water level drop in his drinking bottle. I explained that Broccles shares a water fountain with the cats, making it hard to judge how much he drinks. I said I’d keep him indoors and watch his drinking habits closely.

Bunty had a better idea. He stuck an infra-red webcam near the fountain, and set it to email us a series of snapshots every time its motion detector was triggered. The computer also sounded a noisy alarm every time the fountain was approached by an animal. This meant we could check the screen and watch the animal without having to walk through to the living room.

Broccles and the cats snoozed the long day away without having any drinks. In the evening, the alarm blared frantically over our TV show as a cat turned up for a drink. Ten minutes later, the other cat set it off. We couldn’t turn the sound off without muting our TV, which is Bunty’s computer. Ten minutes later, HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! Broccles turned up, took a few sips of water and groomed his bib for a while. We paused our show and watched him benevolently.

Ten minutes later, HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! He set it off again. We carried on watching TV. We knew what a drinking rabbit looked like by now.

Ten minutes later, HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK!

Every ten minutes through the evening and night, he set the damn thing off. I felt sure his kidneys must be disintegrating.

It took a long time to trawl through the emails the next morning. The vast majority were of him taunting us:

Most of the rest showed him taking the odd sip of water and then grooming his bib:

Turns out he really likes to groom his bib. I called Alasdair and gave him the run-down. Alasdair said that, from my description, it sounds like he’s fine. He referred to the sipping and bib-licking as “wetting his cloth to use it”. We will continue to keep an eye on his drinking habits, but this time with less of the whole HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! HOOONK! I have had it with sleuthing.