It’s a taboo topic, to be sure, but cannibalism in guinea pigs and other rodents is darkly fascinating in its way.
Why do these sweet, cuddly animals resort to cannibalism in rare cases, and what should be done to prevent it from occurring?
Despite being exceedingly rare, cannibalism isn’t completely unheard of in guinea pigs. Typically, this occurs due to a mother guinea pig feeling unsafe and wanting to prevent her babies from being consumed by other predators. Other causes include starvation and severe stress.
Keep reading to learn more about cannibalism in guinea pigs, why it happens, and what you should do to prevent your piggies from engaging in this sad behavior.
We will also cover possible solutions to cannibalistic behavior in guinea pigs.
Cannibalism In The Animal Kingdom
Unfortunately, cannibalism is not as rare in the animal kingdom as many people would like to believe.
Cannibalistic behavior serves as a rather gruesome means of population control or even helping the overall gene pool for some animal species.
Some animals eat the weaker members of their species to eliminate them from the genetic pool of traits available, thus strengthening the possible collection of traits passed on to the next generation.
It seems cruel, but it’s a calculated move on certain animals to ensure their survival, especially in harsh environments where competition between individuals is rough and deadly even in the ideal circumstances.
The most common cause of cannibalistic actions in animals overall is food scarcity and extreme environmental conditions.
There are even a few rare documented instances of humans partaking in cannibalism during environmental disasters or otherwise emotionally or mentally stressful environments.
When resources become few and far between, competition and stress increase, making animals – and even people – tense and more prone to lash out at one another.
Mental stability naturally lowers, and as animals become hungrier and more desperate over time, cannibalism tragically becomes a more valid option.
Look no further than the historic Donner Party for a horrific example of food scarcity turning even the most tight-knit groups of intelligent, kind, and rational humans into brutal cannibals.
If humans are capable of cannibalism in dire conditions, then animals certainly are not above it, either.
Interestingly, cannibalistic behavior is observable in many species, from fish to insects and even mammals like bears, dogs, rodents, and – yes, in rare cases – humans.
It feels quite unsettling to know even the cutest and cuddliest animals are capable of eating their own, but the subject is also darkly fascinating.
Cannibalism In Guinea Pigs: An Overview
It’s incredibly rare, but it still happens enough to be worth discussing.
Every once in a while, you might hear about someone’s beloved guinea pig chowing down on another member of their herd or, even worse, one of their babies.
What causes these isolated occurrences, and what should guinea pig owners do to prevent their piggies from eating each other?
Do guinea pigs have a natural susceptibility to cannibalistic behavior other animals seemingly lack?
Could there be biological factors at play causing these animals to resort to such extreme actions?
There are several potential triggers which could cause cannibalism among rodents specifically.
The causes range from overcrowded conditions, stress, fear of attracting predators to their herd or litter, or even just plain food scarcity or too much competition for food.
Why Do Guinea Pigs Resort to Cannibalism?
Strangely, small rodents such as hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, and gerbils are among the animals most prone to cannibalism.
One popular theory as to why rodents are uniquely susceptible is cannibalism, which is often used by them strategically in the wild to reduce the size of their large litters, particularly if certain individuals are deformed, ill, or disabled.
Since rodents have extremely large litters, they are more likely to cannibalize their young to ensure at least the strongest members of their group survive.
Sadly, for most wild animals, a dead baby is better than a weak baby, potentially attracting predators, in turn endangering the entire litter and possibly preventing the mother from producing more young.
Remember, despite being domesticated thousands of years ago by the indigenous peoples like the Incas, guinea pigs, like most animals, still retain many of their instincts from when they lived in the wild.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard.
Another common cause of cannibalism in these animals is overcrowding in captivity.
Although the most common instances of cannibalism involve mother guinea pigs eating their young out of self-preservation, there have existed cases of an adult guinea pig eating another adult member of their species.
If your herd becomes too crowded, your pigs will end up fighting, competing with each other for resources, and, ultimately, potentially cannibalizing one another.
This is quite rare, though, and usually only occurs in poor animal husbandry and a severe lack of understanding of animal care.
Loud Noises and Environmental Stressors
Loud noises for prolonged periods could also send your guinea pigs into a stressed-out, fight-or-flight sort of scenario in which they become too upset to eat and, for some unknown reason, end up feeding on other members of their species.
This is also exceedingly rare, and like the previous scenario, it usually only occurs in extremely poor care and a chronic disregard of the pigs’ needs.
Father Pigs Cannibalizing Their Babies
Another potential cause of this disturbing behavior is leaving the father of a litter alone with the babies after the mother has birthed the litter.
The male pigs will often impregnate the female guinea pig immediately after giving birth, which is extremely stressful on her body and dangerous for her and her babies.
Typically, female guinea pigs are pregnant for anywhere from 60 to 72 days, and the males, also known as boars, sometimes attempt to impregnate the females as little as 12 hours after they have given birth.
In particularly disturbing cases, the males might even attempt to impregnate their own babies mere hours after they’ve been birthed.
In addition, boars often become extremely aggressive when attempting to mate with sows, and they will attack or even cannibalize their babies to get closer to the sow to mate with her.
This is rare, but it is still highly recommended you keep your sows far away from any male guinea pigs for at least a few weeks after they have given birth.
In some particularly unfortunate cases, boars might even cannibalize the mother in addition to their babies.
Never leave your boars alone with a sow having recently given birth.
Again, these occurrences are extremely isolated, but you should avoid any risk factors whenever possible.
We have another post covering can father guinea pigs be left with the babies if you want additional information covering the topic.
Inadequate Privacy For A New Mother Guinea Pig
As birthing a large litter is very stressful both mentally and physically for a sow, she needs to be kept separated from any other adult pigs as she nurses and raises her young.
Any extra stressors from other adult pigs, male or female, could cause her to panic and consume her babies as a result.
Be sure to keep your female and her litter alone and monitor the group very carefully for any unusual behavior from either the babies or the mother.
Keep the group in a quiet, calm room away from any other animals like cats or dogs, and do not reintroduce the mother or her litter to the rest of your herd (if applicable) for several weeks.
Humans Handling The Litter Immediately After Birth
This cause is potentially one of the most well-known amongst guinea pig owners.
Until the babies are at least 10 full days old, you need to avoid handling them, as any unusual smells or debris could cause the mother to panic and reject them.
This is yet another instinct left over from before guinea pigs were properly domesticated many years ago.
In the wild, certain scents will attract predators to the litter.
If the mother guinea pig smells an unusual or unfamiliar odor coming from one of her young, she could potentially eat the baby to prevent it from attracting predators and endangering her and the rest of her babies.
Even in captivity, guinea pigs are still known to sometimes display this behavior, so be sure you don’t touch any of the babies immediately after they are birthed.
The mother will not appreciate your scent on her litter.
Starvation or Inadequate Nutrition
Starvation or improper nutrition is another cause of cannibalism usually attributed to poor animal husbandry or blatant neglect.
This is particularly dangerous for mother guinea pigs, as giving birth drains a significant amount of energy they normally obtain from their food.
Many novice guinea pig owners don’t know much about proper nutrition for sows who have recently given birth.
New mothers need lots of extra calcium, and without it, they will quickly become malnourished, confused, and irritable.
Be sure to give your new mother guinea pigs plenty of alfalfa hay to keep them full and alert as they nurse their new young.
If your guinea pig is starving or otherwise malnourished, she could start devouring her babies in extreme cases in an attempt to gain any nutrition possible.
Again, these sorts of incidents are extremely isolated and are typically a result of neglect, abuse, or improper care.
How Do You Prevent Cannibalistic Behavior in Guinea Pigs?
The causes for cannibalism in guinea pigs are numerous, and despite being anomalies overall, they are still quite disturbing.
Thankfully, there are many measures you should take as a guinea pig owner to prevent the members of your herd from displaying these troubling behaviors.
Once a guinea pig has developed a taste for blood, it will rarely stop unless completely separated from other pigs indefinitely or eventually culled.
Always be sure to take the following precautions with your guinea pigs to prevent them from attempting to cannibalize one another:
- In new litters, always remove any dead, sick, or deformed babies from the litter and keep them away from any boars or sows.
- Don’t handle any new babies for at least 10 days to prevent the sow from becoming upset by your scent. Don’t handle the mother, either, unless it is necessary for health reasons.
- Don’t clean or rearrange anything in the sow’s cage immediately after giving birth to a new litter. Wait at least one to two weeks before cleaning anything in the cage.
- Never overcrowd your herd. Always give your pigs ample space and resources, so they don’t compete or fight over food and space.
- Keep boars separated from sows after they have given birth.
- Don’t keep your guinea pigs in stressful, loud, crowded, or otherwise chaotic environments.
Overall, just be aware cannibalism is incredibly rare in guinea pigs, and if you care for your herd properly, it won’t ever be an issue.