Why Do Guinea Pigs Eat Their Babies?
It is too easy for us to humanize and even moralize our companion animals. It is often seen as amusing when we see them acting in ways which appear human to us. This means when they do something which would be seen as reprehensible to us, it can be confusing. A guinea pig eating her young is perhaps one of the most acute examples of this. We cannot apply the same standards to our pets. At AnimalWised, we ask why do guinea pigs eat their babies? By answering, we can see how this behavior has important reasons behind it and does not qualify as cruelty.
Do guinea pigs eat their young?
Before we adopt a guinea pig, also known as a cavy, it is important we understand their needs and behaviors. As part of responsible care, we also need to know that breeding should only be carried out by professionals who have the means to care for the young and find suitable homes for them. There are many guardians who let their guinea pigs breed, whether knowingly or not.
When a guinea pig brings her pups to term, it is important to know that it is possible she will eat her babies. It is equally important to know that it occurs in a minority of cases. In fact, it does not happen as much as other animal species. For example, it is more common in other rodents, such as when hamsters eat their offspring.
The fact that animals eat their own young can seem an inhumane and self-destructive act to many. However, it is important to know that the phenomenon known as puerperal cannibalism (killing and ingestion of the offspring) has compelling reasons behind it, even in the domestic environment. It is not an immoral act and understanding why guinea pigs eat their babies will explain why.
If you are unsure, take a look at our related article to find out if your guinea pig is pregnant.
Why do guinea pigs eat their young?
Puerperal cannibalism in guinea pigs can occur in one of two ways:
- Ingestion of pups that are stillborn or die shortly after delivery.
- Killing and ingestion babies that have been born alive.
Whether the cavy pups were born alive, the reasons for their ingestion are almost always based on survival:
- The ingestion of stillborn pups is due to the need to eliminate any remains that could attract potential predators and endanger the rest of the litter, as well as the mother.
- The ingestion of live young may seem somewhat aberrant if it leads to the death of healthy animals. However, in the other cavy's mind, she has good cause. Insufficient or poor quality feeding will prevent the female from producing enough milk to feed the entire litter. When the female sees her offspring in danger for this reason, she may decide to sacrifice the weakest to ensure the survival of the rest.
- Stress can also be a cause that triggers puerperal cannibalism in guinea pigs. If a female is subjected to high levels of stress, she may devour her young. She may consider the nest not to be safe and will kill the guinea pigs herself rather than let them die for another reason.
Although puerperal cannibalism in guinea pigs is possible, we need to remember it is relatively very rare in this species. This is mainly due to the fact that guinea pigs are born well developed. Their size is considerably large compared to that of their parent and they are born completely covered with hair. This is one reason why the ingestion of young can be practically difficult for the mother.
Learn more about reproduction in cavies with our article on whether guinea pigs go into heat.
Caring for a guinea pig and her babies
Now that you know why guinea pigs eat their young, we will provide some background information on caring for a pregnant guinea pig. Guinea pig gestation is relatively long as between 58 and 75 days. During this period, it is essential the animal has a checkup with a veterinarian experienced in exotic pet species. This is to ensure the mother is in good health and her pregnancy does not threaten her well-being.
Unless the veterinarian has reason to believe there are likely to be birthing complications, you will be able to let the guinea pig give birth at home. When this is the case, there are certain precautions we need to take to best ensure the health of the mother guinea pig and her babies:
- Prepare a nest: environment is very important for a guinea pig about to go into labor. Since the mother and her pups will be very vulnerable, it is important they have shelter and privacy somewhere comfortable. Males must be separated from the mother before the 50th day of pregnancy, although females can remain even after she gives birth, as long as they have a good relationship with the mother.
- Check the temperature: at the time of delivery, the room temperature should be between 18-24 ºC (64.4-75.2 ºF) to ensure the comfort of the mother and her offspring. Under normal conditions, guinea pigs give birth very quickly. In just about 30 minutes all the young should be expelled, with an interval of 2 to 5 minutes between each pup. During this period, it is important not to manipulate or disturb the mother or her pups in any way.
- Help only when needed: immediately after each birth, the mother cleanses the young and ingests their placenta. As long as she is able and does it properly without harming the young, it is important to let her do it herself. When several pups are born in a row, the mother may not be able to clean them all. In this case, the pup should be picked up with a clean cotton towel and the amniotic sac gently removed. Use the towel for both these actions and never touch newborn guinea pigs directly with your hands.
In the event of any complication, it is important to call a professional specialized in exotic animals and follow their instructions step by step. It is advisable to have a means of transport prepared for the mother and the offspring, in case an emergency trip to a veterinary clinic is necessary.
As stated above, guinea pig pups are born well developed. They are very precocious animals which are born with their eyes open, as well as full-formed teeth and hair. In only a few minutes, they are able to walk and run around.
Unlike many other mammal species, guinea pig young start eating solid food just 3 days after birth, so it is necessary that they have access to solid food. This does not negate the need for a lactation period of 3-4 weeks after giving birth. During this time, it is essential the entire litter remains with their mother. This is not only important for feeding, but also socialization and other developmental factors.
We will need to provide proper nutrition for the mother before and after labor, as well as during the lactation period. We also need to maintain a quiet environment during these periods to best prevent them feeling stressed. As explained above, improper care during this time can lead the guinea pigs to ingest their young.
How to prevent my guinea pig from eating her babies
As we have already mentioned, puerperal cannibalism is not a common practice among cavies. However, there are certain factors that can trigger a cavy to eat her young. To best ensure it does not occur in your pregnant guinea pig, it is important to consider the following preventive measures:
- Immediately remove pups that are stillborn or die shortly after delivery.
- A balanced diet is essential to avoid a guinea pig eating her babies. Ensuring appropriate quality and quantity of food during pregnancy and lactation will almost certainly prevent puerperal cannibalism in guinea pigs.
- Avoid stress in guinea pigs during pregnancy, parturition and lactation. The female should be disturbed as little as possible and provided with a quiet and suitable place for the rearing of the litter.
Keep in mind that later you will have to look for responsible families for the adoption of the guinea pigs once they are weaned. Therefore, we recommend evaluating the option of sterilization when females and males live together in the home.
Once the guinea pig pups are born, you will need to know their sex. Find out how to do this with our guide on how to tell if a guinea pig is male or female.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to Why Do Guinea Pigs Eat Their Babies?, we recommend you visit our Pregnancy problems category.
- Romairone, A. (2011). Puerperal cannibalism I.
- Romairone, A. (2008). Puerperal cannibalism II.