When a guinea pig dies, when do you bring home a new roommate for the one left behind to grieve? In the last three weeks or so, we've had e-mails from owners who were facing the inevitability of having to put gravely ill guinea pigs to sleep.
My short answer is "Your pig will tell you."
Until you've had a guinea pig or two (or more) you don't realize how deeply these critters can grieve, or how quickly they can sink into a depression and how long they can stay in that psychological state until you pull them out of it. There's a fine line between letting a guinea pig mourn the loss of a friend and adjust to life without him/her and letting the guinea pig slide into a full-blown depression. Depression isn't to be trifled with, to be treated with a wait-and-see approach for too long. Loss of appetite, decreased water drinking, lethargy, zero interest in things that used to draw a reaction, little to no socializing with human companions -- all are signs of depression, and all can lead to more serious illness if they're not stopped.
Cari wrote to us about her pair of female guinea pigs, one of whom is very sick and does not have a lot of time left in her life. She wrote to us, "I am worried about her companion. I fear she will be so lonely, and I know they do better in pairs and I want to get another female for her....I also wonder when another should be introduced, before or after?" I give her a lot of credit for thinking ahead like this, and for proceeding with caution instead of acting too soon. For a lot of folks, balancing compassion and restraint is not easy.
My advice to Cari is that she wait until after her guinea pig dies. The sick one is dealing with enough stress from her illness, and the healthy one is dealing with the stress of seeing her friend fade away. (Yes, I am fully convinced that these animals know before us humans when they are preparing to cross over.) Introducing another pig at this time is more stress -- and avoidable stress at that. Let the girls close out their lives together, and when the sick one crosses over, Cari and her remaining guinea pig need to grieve together and comfort each other.
Observation will tell Cari when her guinea pig is getting depressed -- she may see it within a few days, or it might be longer. But it will come, and it's best to act when the symptoms first start to appear. It's rare for a guinea pig who's used to having a roommate to function well as a lone pig for any length of time. They get used to constant companionship -- and not having it for an extended period of time turns their world upside down with unhealthy consequences.
Stacey started talking to us when she was trying to make the difficult decision between euthanizing her middle-aged guinea pig or putting her through inordinately expensive and risky surgery that offered disproportionately little in the way of guarantees of post-operative longevity. The prospect of needing to get a new roommate (someday) for her remaining guinea pig was never brought up. Honestly, as rattled by the experience as Stacey understandably was, adoption of another pig was not something I expected her to consider for a while.
After putting Cupcake to sleep, Stacey -- grieving and worried about her remaining guinea pig -- bought two 5-month-old females on the same day as Cupcake's death. Warned by the pet store clerk that her guinea pig might fight with the new ones in order to establish herself as "alpha female," Stacey did some online research to find out how to introduce them all. Introductions on neutral ground went well -- sharing space in the cage did not. After breaking up the fighting, Stacey did more online research. Her next steps were a) cleaning everything in the cage with vinegar, and b) giving everyone a bath together. After another rough beginning, the younger girls got the hint that there was only one queen bee -- and it wasn't either of them. When last I heard from Stacey, there seemed to be some kind of continuing peace in the cage.
In her last e-mail, Stacey wrote, "I thought it would be easy to bring new pigs home." I thought to myself, "You don't know what a lucky break you had. The fight could have been worse, blood could have been drawn by a bad bite, those three pigs might never have called a truce -- and then you really would have been stuck."
I can't say I blame Stacey's pig for her initial reaction. She was not happy about losing her friend and acquiring two strange roommates in her cage on the same day. It's a lot of adjustment to ask her to make. (Stacey was acting from a broken heart and concern for her guinea pig, so you can understand her impulse.) I'm just relieved it seems to have worked out as quickly as it did.
Again, how long you wait before bringing someone new home really does depend on the individual pig, but I firmly believe that the grieving process needs to be given space and time. We humans would demand and expect that for ourselves, and, knowing what emotions animals are capable of, I think they expect it as well.