PTSD in guinea pigs

PTSD in Guinea Pigs – Are they Skittish or Traumatized?

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, dangerous, and/or traumatic event. And unfortunately, it’s estimated that 3.9% of the world population has experienced PTSD at some point in their lives. 

But you’re not here to learn about this mental illness in humans (either way, this is a good resource about it), or how pets like guinea pigs can help with our mental health

You’re here, reading this article because you suspect that your pet guinea pig might have PTSD. 

And that leads to so many questions: can guinea pigs have PTSD? If so, how do you know if they have it or are just skittish? Is there a way to properly diagnose it, if PTSD in animals is a thing? How do you treat it?

I was just as confused as you, and even after searching the internet, all I could find were forums of owners asking about it, articles about whether dogs can have PTSD or AI-generated posts with no proper citation. 

So, I spent a month of detailed research, reading scientific articles, and asking veterinarians and psychiatrists, to write this article for you. And hopefully in an easy and understandable way. 

Okay, enough chit-chatting. Let’s get started. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Before we dive deep into whether or not PTSD exists or is recognized in animals or guinea pigs, we must go over the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

That way, we can see the common themes and why this disorder might be present in your guinea pig. 

Now, there is actually a whole criteria for diagnosing PTSD in humans, and I’m not a doctor. But here are some of the symptoms. If you are experiencing these, please consult your doctor. 

  • vivid flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening right now)
  • intrusive thoughts or images.
  • nightmares.
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma.
  • physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling.

Keep in mind that everyone reacts to trauma differently, and there’s no right or wrong way. That’s a huge reason why it’s also so hard to see if a guinea pig has PTSD.

PTSD in guinea pigs

Can guinea pigs have PTSD?

The short answer is yes. 

The longer answer is despite the mounting evidence that a wide range of animals experience long-term impacts of extreme stress, many psychologists still see PTSD as a uniquely human problem. 

As David Diamond, a neurobiologist at the University of South says, “PTSD is defined in terms of human responses,” (BBC)

Another explained why.

“Realistically, there is no way to know unless you knew the guinea pig beforehand, know of the trauma that was sustained, and continue to care for the guinea pig after the trauma and know that its behaviour is different than before the trauma.”
David Diamond

“There is very little research on PTSD in animals, and most of it is just confirming that we can create PTSD-like symptoms in animals in a laboratory setting by traumatizing them. Good job, scientists.”

But wait!

Don’t click off yet, just because there isn’t an exact term for PTSD in guinea pigs doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Many guinea pig owners, including me, have seen traumatized piggies. 

In fact, scientists know that many neurological tests can be effectively used on guinea pigs, and provide meaningful results for diagnosis and treatment. 

traumatized guinea pig

Before I share my own story of a guinea pig who passed away from it, here is an online guinea pig owner who had concerns about her traumatized guinea pig.

In this post, the guinea pig was mistreated and dragged by the neck by a ferret in the same cage before the current owner adopted her.

“I get her home, she’s sweet, but I think something is off. Picking her up she just hangs there limp.”

“After quarantine, I put her in with my girls. She didn’t know what to do! She would just freeze with a blank look in her eyes. I think she expected to be attacked at any moment. “ 
Guinea Pig Cages

“Her eyes seem so sad. Like she’s afraid any moment now the ferret will come after her again. “

As another user says, “Horses, dogs, cats, etc. can have PTSD, so I don’t see why guinea pigs couldn’t.”

Other guinea pig parents have traumatized guinea pigs too. I’m not going to go over them in this article, but here’s one from a guinea pig forum that maybe you can relate to.

How to differentiate if a guinea pig has PTSD or is just skittish?

While both PTSD and normal skittish behaviour can present with similar signs, differentiating PTSD from general skittishness in guinea pigs involves observing the intensity, duration, and triggers of their behaviour.

General Skittishness

A heightened sensitivity to sudden movements, noises, or new environments typically characterizes this. 

It is a common trait in many guinea pigs and can often be seen as a natural response to unfamiliar stimuli. Skittish behaviour is usually short-lived and subsides as the guinea pig becomes accustomed to its environment and routine.

scared guinea pig. PTSD

PTSD in Guinea Pigs

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a more severe and prolonged reaction to past traumatic experiences. In guinea pigs, PTSD may manifest as extreme and persistent fear responses, even in safe and familiar settings. 

These responses are often triggered by stimuli that are reminiscent of the trauma, such as certain sounds, smells, or handling methods. The key differentiators are the persistence and intensity of the behaviour, which do not diminish over time as they would with normal skittishness.

For instance, a guinea pig with PTSD might react to the sound of a vacuum cleaner if it was previously exposed to such noise during a traumatic event. In contrast, skittish guinea pigs will generally display more generalized fear across various unfamiliar stimuli.

(Answer by Ehab Youssef, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Mental Health Researcher and Writer at Mentalyc.)

guinea pig

What are the signs of PTSD in guinea pigs?

Signs of PTSD in guinea pigs include:

Hypervigilance

Constantly being on alert, even in the absence of immediate threats. Your piggy might be perpetually jumpy or tense. For example, exaggerated startle response to sudden movements or noises. 

Avoidance Behaviors

This means avoiding certain areas of their habitat, people, objects or other guinea pigs that they associate with the traumatic event.

Exaggerated Startle Response

An extreme reaction to sudden noises or movements, far beyond what is typical for a skittish guinea pig.

Changes in Normal Behavior

This can include a loss of interest in food, play, or social interactions. The guinea pig might become withdrawn or unusually aggressive. 

It may seem like the piggy has depression. They may also have difficulty settling down even in a calm environment. 

Repetitive Behaviors

Engaging in repetitive or compulsive behaviours, such as incessant grooming, pacing or bar biting as a coping mechanism.

Physical Symptoms

Signs of stress include weight loss, changes in fur quality, or gastrointestinal issues. If you see any of these symptoms, please contact your vet as soon as possible. 

How do I know if my guinea pig is traumatized? Signs of PTSD in guinea pigs

How do you diagnose PTSD in guinea pigs?

As we know, unlike humans, there isn’t a way to properly diagnose PTSD in guinea pigs. But if you suspect your guinea pig is traumatized and shows the symptoms of this disorder, take your piggy to the vet. 

Since you know your guinea pig best, I recommend jogging down notes of what you think traumatized your piggy and how it behaved before and after the event.  

This will be very helpful because it’s hard to know if a guinea pig is just shy and skittish or has trauma without knowing what it was like before the trauma. 

Even if you think spending money on getting a diagnosis of a possible PTSD case for your guinea pig is not worth it, trust me. The symptoms your piggy is showing are serious enough for a vet visit. 

This is not something that can be easily fixed with a DIY guinea pig first aid kit

Guinea Pig PTSD Treatment

Treating PTSD in guinea pigs involves a combination of environmental adjustments, behavioural therapies, and sometimes veterinary intervention. 

Keep in mind that like any mental illness, sometimes all we can do as caregivers of these adorable pets is help create a safe space and comfort. 

Provide a Safe and Calm Environment

Ensure that the guinea pig’s habitat is quiet, safe, and free from stressors. This includes minimizing loud noises, sudden movements, and other potential triggers.

Adding more hideouts to your guinea pig’s habitat helps a lot too. Even though we probably already know that hides are a must, it’s scientifically proven that Having the option to hide seems to lower stress for guinea pigs. This setup causes little stress and might even be enjoyable for them.

Gradual Desensitization

Slowly and gradually expose the guinea pig to the stimuli that trigger their fear responses in a controlled manner, allowing them to associate these stimuli with positive experiences. Emphasis on the slow though. 

Have a Consistent Routine

Maintain a consistent daily routine to provide a sense of security and predictability. Guinea pigs in general like routines, and a piggy who is on constant high alert and has trauma will benefit from it even more. 

Try setting a specific time for feeding, cleaning the cage, and cuddling, and then stick to the schedule as closely as possible.

Give Positive Reinforcement

Use treats and gentle interactions to reinforce calm behaviour and build trust. Rewarding your guinea pig for good behaviour is always a good thing. 

I like to give my piggies bell peppers, lettuce, and even easy homemade hay cookies

can guinea pigs eat bell peppers?

Socialization

If appropriate, allow the guinea pig to interact with other guinea pigs in a controlled and positive setting to rebuild social behaviours. 

After all, guinea pigs are social animals and need buddies. Here’s why

If your piggy isn’t able to physically live with another piggy in the same cage, no worries. I had the same problem. What I did was separate their cages side by side. Here’s how I made it work

In the meantime, It’s very important to keep your single guinea pig happy. And I specifically wrote an article for that to help you. 

Ask for Veterinary Support

In severe cases, consulting a veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals, aka guinea pigs, is essential. They might recommend medications to help manage anxiety and stress. And they will also give advice on how you can help your potato-shaped furball. 

Provide Enrichment Activities

I can’t stress this enough. Provide mental and physical stimulation through toys (here’s a list of my guinea pigs’ favourites), hiding places, and safe exploration opportunities to reduce stress and improve their well-being.

There are a lot of ways to do that besides DIY toys for your piggies. Training them tricks, or even cuddling can work. Every guinea pig’s different, so explore which ones your piggy likes the most. 

Take it slow

Building trust takes time, especially with guinea pigs who have trauma. Be patient and give your guinea pig the time they need to feel comfortable. 

Conclusion

While scientists might not all agree on whether guinea pigs can have PTSD as medical terminology, many guinea pig owners have seen signs of trauma in their pets. 

It’s important to watch for changes in behaviour that might show your guinea pig is stressed or scared. 

To differentiate PTSD in guinea pigs from being skittish, it’s recommended to observe persistent signs such as hypervigilance, avoidance behaviours, and exaggerated startle responses, which are not typical of normal skittishness. 

Signs of PTSD may include decreased appetite, withdrawal, and increased aggression. 

Creating a safe and calm home, keeping a steady routine, and giving lots of love and patience can help your guinea pig feel better. If you’re worried, always talk to a vet for advice. 

So that’s all for now. What are your thoughts? Do you think your guinea pig has PTSD? Let me know in the comments! 

Remember your potato-shaped furball depends on you for comfort and care, and with the right support, they can live a happy and healthy life.

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