What to expect when your cavy is expecting

18 Jul

Because she is evidently more lucky than I am in these matters, one of my sister’s guinea pigs recently had an adorable litter. Mine, of course, is still expecting. This has left me with a horrible sense of unfulfilled anticipation.

My sister’s new adorable babies.

What do I do when waiting on a sow who is taking her own sweet time? Beside checking for babies every five minutes? Why, I write about baby guinea pigs, of course.

Silliness aside, I actually get a lot of questions about guinea pig young. Many people deduce what they think they know about cavy reproduction from what they have heard about hamsters or rabbits. This leads to a lot of misconceptions.

For example, one of my personal favorite misconceptions is that “guinea pigs breed like rabbits.” This is not true — cavies as a species are actually disadvantaged where reproduction is concerned, because healthy pups are born quite large, when compared to the size of the mother. In some circumstances, a sow who waits too long may end up with babies so large she cannot physically deliver them. If caught on time, a c-section might save the litter. If not — well, now you know why I say guinea pigs are at a disadvantage where reproduction is concerned.

Guinea pigs also have substantially smaller litters than many rodents. Two to three pups per litter is average. Sows only have two teats, so litters of three or more can struggle after birth. Pup fatalities in large litters are quite common.

Another question that comes up quite frequently: do guinea pigs eat their young? The short answer is that they do not. Hamsters might, but cavies aren’t especially related to hamsters. However, in some situations a sow might appear as though she is eating her newborn pups. Guinea pigs, like almost all mammals, eat the placenta after delivery. This is normal and healthy — no need to worry that your guinea pig might go gremlin on you should you catch her in the act. If there are complications during labor that lead to a stillbirth, you might also see your guinea pig biting or chewing lethargic or deceased pups. This is because the mother is trying to use pain to stimulate the pups. Sometimes a sow might get overzealous, and one of the pups might lose an ear or a toe, but in some cases, it also effectively saves the pup’s life.

Guinea pigs are not known to kill or eat pups that are born alert and healthy. If your sow does chew her young, it is likely because something is went wrong. You should be safe to handle the babies almost immediately after delivery, if you so choose. Handling the babies will not cause the mother to eat them — again, that’s a behavior sometimes seen in other rodents, but not in guinea pigs. You will want to check the babies for health within 24 hours of delivery, if possible. Healthy pups are born precocious. That is, they should be standing and walking on their own, they should be fully haired with open eyes and ears, and they should weigh somewhere in the range of 90 to 110 grams. Pups born without hair or substantially below a normal birth weight may be premature. If the pup has trouble walking, it may have suffered brain damage during delivery. This is not exceptionally uncommon, and the pup should recover within a few days.

Keep a close eye on your new litter for the first several days. Some weight loss is normal, however, weight loss exceeding ten percent of the pups’ birth weight indicates that pup or litter is failing to thrive on its own. It is possible to bring them around, but that’s a topic for another post.


One Response to “What to expect when your cavy is expecting”

  1. Val July 18, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    And make sure everybody knows how to use the milk bar and is getting equal access. One of my most hilarious stories was that my beloved Wentworth was a singleton to a first-time mama. Eleanor turned out to be the best mama pig who ever lived, but though she ADORED her baby guy, she had no idea what to do with him (“Why does he keep following me?”). I watched her give him the dime tour — food bowl, water bottle (which he couldn’t quite reach in the “travel box” I put them in after he was born so I could clean her over-dirty box she’d been to pg to let me clean) — “I sleep here, you can sleep over there, I’m so glad you’re here to be my friend!”

    “Mom, why does he keep following me?”

    Siblings find the milk bar by ganging up on mom. He was coming at it from the wrong end and was also employing a little too much teeth.

    He would try from the wrong end…*CHOMP!*

    She would run away…

    “Mom! This thing bites!”

    He would chase after her…

    “Mom, why does he keep following me?”

    Repeat for long enough to know this was NOT working out…

    I put on an A-line skirt (a blanket or towel would also work), stuck my feet out in-front of me (straight), put her in my lap, grabbed him, directed him to the tunnel between her front legs (“THIS is how it’s done, kid…”), and held her still from running away while he figured it out.

    Sometimes in large litters (my recent was four pups to a first-time mama) there is not only a pretty obvious difference in birth weight between pups, but there is a disparity in who gets access to the milk bar by heirarchy (Harville is my linebacker — still is! — he was twice the size of his runty sister Sophie and tiny brother Benwick). Often times pulling out the more dominant pups for 10-20 minutes (often the boys, and in this case I had daddy to be the best babysitter EVER to three baby boars) in a smaller box with all the comforts of home — less mom and a sibling or two — can give mom a break and the other sibs time without a battle for a teat. If there are more than two, a little house or pigloo to hide in can mean pups get blocked out.

    I’ve also found that free feeding alfalfa instead of grass hay (loose and cube) helps everybody get fat and healthy.

    The Wigglewhiskers clan sends their regards and hopes you have a healthy litter of pups and a healthy proud mama soon. 🙂

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