When Love Hurts: Can Heartbreak Kill Guinea Pigs?

It’s heartbreaking for us when we lose a guinea pig, but to lose two or more in a short time is awful. However, it can and does happen despite our best efforts, leaving us bewildered. Can a surviving guinea pig die from a broken heart if its companion dies, or are we personifying its behavior? And how can we prevent it from happening?

Veterinary science does not prove that guinea pigs can die directly from broken hearts. However, as social animals, cavies form strong bonds with their companions and can experience emotional distress when they lose one. Their ensuing behavior can lead to stress-related issues, resulting in death.

I experienced the loss of one of my guinea pigs when I went away on vacation. He and his siblings were rescued, but unfortunately, he didn’t make it. I nursed him; he grew up and had such a strong personality. That is until I went on holiday. My friend (well-versed in guinea pigs) who was looking after him told me he died two days after I left. My heart was broken. I think his heart was broken, too.

Why Guinea Pigs Appear To Die Of A Broken Heart

Grief affects people and animals differently, but there are many similarities between how humans and guinea pigs (and other animals) experience the loss of a loved one. One similarity is that the overwhelming sadness of losing someone causes a change in behavior and function – whether conscious or unconscious and observable or not.

They are known to be social animals, and they form strong attachments with their family members or companions. So, when they lose a close companion (through death or separation), cavies “grieve” in ways we can see. However, their grief and depression can also affect them physiologically, compromising their health and fortitude.

So, it could be argued that a guinea pig can die of a broken heart but that the cause of death is most likely a result of secondary issues resulting from grief. This said, it shouldn’t be ruled out that the closely-timed death of companion guinea pigs could be attributed to a common ailment or age. The only way to know the cause of death is through a necropsy.

Signs of Emotional Distress

Guinea pigs form strong social bonds with their companions, and sudden separation or losing a cage mate can cause them to exhibit signs of distress. This is especially true with siblings or guinea pigs that have been companions for an extended period.

In severe cases, stress and depression can lead to health issues such as an impaired immune system, susceptibility to illness, and an overall decline in well-being. But what are some of the signs of emotional distress in your Guinea pet?

Physical Signs

Chronic stress in guinea pigs is most likely to affect their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A distressed guinea pig will often stop eating, which causes an imbalance in its GI. This imbalance can lead to stasis, reducing the appetite further and leading to more complications.

A distressed guinea pig might display one or more of the following physical and GI-related signs:

  • Poor appetite,
  • Smaller stools,
  • Absence of stools,
  • Anorexia or weight loss,
  • Dehydration,
  • Difficulty breathing,
  • Blood in the urine,
  • Difficulty urinating, and
  • A low body temperature.

If your guinea pig displays any of these signs, it is best to seek immediate assistance from a veterinarian.

Behavioral Signs

Guinea pigs experience grief, stress, and depression in different ways. The list below shows some common behaviors a guinea pig might display after losing a companion. Even if your guinea pig doesn’t display this behavior, it is still wise to watch it for other signs.

The following risky behaviors are common in guinea pigs that have lost a companion:

  • Decreased appetite,
  • Decreased activity,
  • Rejecting attention or demanding excessive amounts of it,
  • “Searching” for something,
  • Confusion,
  • Withdrawal, and
  • Increased vocalization.
Understanding your guinea pig's sounds can help you detect emotional distress.

It’s important to note that signs of distress in guinea pigs can cause and be caused by other symptoms, making it more challenging to treat. However, the overall response to distress will likely weaken a guinea pig’s immunity. As such, they will be prone to “unrelated” problems, irritations, and infections, which can have life-threatening consequences, especially given their high metabolisms.

How To Reduce Emotional Distress In Guinea Pigs

While we can’t dictate how a guinea pig will respond to the loss of a companion, we can help them and hopefully prevent them from “dying from a broken heart.” If you know your guinea pigs will be separated (i.e., if you know one is ill and going to die or if you’re a breeder), you can manage the situation proactively.

However, since we don’t always have the luxury of knowing this, here are some ways to reduce emotional distress in guinea pigs:

Get It A New Friend

If you have only one guinea pig after losing another, it might help to get a new friend. Ensure the pairing is well thought out regarding the guinea pigs’ sexes and maturity. When introducing them, do so in a neutral environment. Wash them both before the introduction to remove smells, give them lots of treats, and supervise the introduction closely.

Related: Is it OK to have just one guinea pig?

If the two aren’t immediately compatible, put them in adjacent cages where they can see one another. Hopefully, they will become familiar with each other and friends over time.

Give Your Piggy A Stuffed Toy

If you’re still looking for a friend for your guinea pig, giving them a soft toy in their cage can be helpful for cuddling. You can also put a mirror on its level, as its reflection might give the impression it’s not alone.

Give Lots Of Love And Attention

If, for whatever reason, you can’t get your piggy a friend, ensure you give it lots of attention. This means increased human time with lots of cuddles, treats, and interaction to meet their social requirements.

Conclusion

Heartbreak in guinea pigs can affect their behavior and health, compromising their immunity and even resulting in death. Keeping guinea pigs in pairs or small groups is generally recommended to prevent such issues. Then, if one guinea pig in a pair passes away, monitor the surviving guinea pig closely and provide extra attention and environmental enrichment to help it cope with the loss.