Well, it’s a dog website but about Animal-Assisted Interventions since it’s my thesis topic. There are very recent studies on the well-being of the guinea pig in animal-assisted interventions. So I propose you a small summary 😊
Let’s talk about guinea pigs !
Studies about the positive impacts of guinea pigs in AAI are numerous (Flom, 2005; O’Haire, 2013, 2014; O’Haire et al., 2013; O’haire et al., 2015; Talarovičová, 2010) but then what about those little beasts? How to best manage their well-being during a session?
Study 1 – Gut (2018)
The first study on the welfare of guinea pigs in AAI was released in 2018. It focused on the behaviors of 5 guinea pigs during AAI sessions with the aim of identifying risk factors for their stress/welfare. The sessions lasted 10 to 30 minutes and were held 2 to 5 times a week. All guinea pigs were familiarized with human contact.
Their study involved 5 females guinea pigs and they accumulated 50 observations in 3 different situations :
- With a possibility of withdrawal
- No possibility of withdrawal = placed on the beneficiary’s legs
- Without human interaction = control situation
Why study the effect of the possibility of withdrawal? The possibility of withdrawal is related to welfare, mostly in captive species. It is defined as the freedom of choice of contact with humans. Often in AAI, guinea pigs are petted and even held by humans without the possibility of withdrawal. Besides, guinea pigs rarely bite, they prefer to hide and when this is not possible they freeze.
- In the condition with possibility of withdrawal :
- The frequency but not the duration of the hiding behavior was higher.
- The number of « comfort » behaviors was constant
- While the number of « surprising » and exploratory behaviors and the duration of locomotion increased significantly compared to the control condition.
- More time interacting with humans but petted for less time
- Condition without possibility of withdrawal :
- Frequency of freeze behaviour was significantly increased
- No observation of « comfort » behaviours.
- Without the possibility of withdrawal, ICs showed a strong increase in freezing, non-feeding and vocalization.
- Locomotion and rest decreased without withdrawal.
The increase in the number of hiding, startling, freezing behaviours, the reduction in comfort behaviours and time spent eating can be considered stress-related behaviours.
Impossibility of retreat
- The 2 conditions with or without the possibility of withdrawal can be considered as 2 different levels of stress applied to guinea pigs, with a higher level of stress in the condition without the possibility of withdrawal.
- There are also other indicators of stress such as crouching, piloerection or eye closure and increased fighting (socio-negative behavior) that were not observed in this study, so the stress level was not very high.
- One of the main reasons why guinea pigs experienced more stress in this condition could be due to the limited opportunity to withdraw from beneficiary’s legs. Indeed, seeking shelter is a natural behavior of guinea pigs. Ohl and van der Staay (2012) have suggested that when this need cannot be met, stress results.
Lack of social partners
- Another factor could be the lack of social partners in the condition on the legs, while in the condition with the possibility of withdrawal, the animals were in their group. Social partners play an important role in stress management (Hennessy et al., 2008).
- In addition to stress-related changes, they also observed changes in behaviour related to enrichment. Enrichment is referred to as a change in the frequency of behaviour without the appearance of stress-related behaviour (Brewer et al., 2014). It is therefore closely related to stress. Enrichment allows animals to express the natural behaviours of their species and includes the environmental, social and nutritional aspects of enrichment along with foraging (Hutchinson et al., 2005).
- In this study, guinea pigs showed more exploratory behaviour and more locomotion during the condition with the possibility of withdrawal. These behaviours are directly related to enrichment (Brewer et al., 2014). Consequently, they conclude that the possibility of withdrawal contributes to spatial enrichment.
- Interaction with humans can also participate in this social enrichment since food can function as a means of foraging. Moreover, in their study, interactions with humans were mainly feeding.
Study 2 – Wirth (2020)
This second study complements the first one! The objective of their research was to observe the effects of the possibility of withdrawal, the presence of conspectives (other animals of the same species), AAI experience and interactions with humans on the well-being of guinea pigs. Their research involved 20 guinea pigs of various ages and sexes. They measured eye temperature as an indicator of stress level as well as behavioural observation during 147 observations.
Guinea pigs were observed in 4 conditions
- Condition with the possibility of withdrawal with the specifics
- With the possibility of withdrawal without the specifics.
- Without possibility of withdrawal
- No interaction with humans
Their hypotheses were :
- The possibility of withdrawal and the choice of interactions are associated with a reduction of stress at the physiological and behavioural level.
- The presence of specifics leads to lower indicators of physiological and behavioural stress. Indeed, previous research has shown that the presence of specifics reduces physiological and behavioural reactions in stressful situations (Sachser et al., 1998, 2007).
Influence of withdrawal possibility
- There was an increase in eye temperature in condition 1 and 3 compared to normal. The temperature was higher in condition 1 than 3 so the hypothesis about the possibility of withdrawal is not validated at the physiological level.
- On the other hand, the behavioral effect in the condition with the possibility of withdrawal is not validated at the physiological level.
- More time to eat :
- The time spent eating was reduced in all therapeutic settings (1-3) compared to the setting without human interaction (4).
- Less time eating in condition 3 than in condition 1.
- More locomotor behaviour :
- When there was no possibility of withdrawal (III), they showed more passive behaviors, such as standing or freezing, compared to the condition with possibility of withdrawal (IV).
- Less time not to move in 1 than in 4.
- Fewer socio-negative interactions with humans :
- More socionegative interactions with humans in 3 compared to 1 and more in 1 than 2.
- More time to eat :
- So hypothesis 2 is confirmed: the lack of possibility of withdrawal can lead to more stress. This could indicate that the increase at the physiological level is more related to positive excitement or increased physical activity than to negative stress.
- Stress behaviors identified: less eating, more surprise behaviors and increased freeze up.
Influence of the presence of conspecifics
- Higher eye temperature with specifics than only so it goes against hypothesis 2.
- At the behavioral level: more time on the table when the conspecifics were absent.
- Guinea pigs were more likely to meet humans in condition 1 than in condition 2.
- Less time to vocalize alone vs. with conspecifics.
Influence of experience
- No influence of the experimence on eye temperature
- But less stressful behaviors (concealment, surprise, freezing) when they were experienced, but it is not known if this is also because they were better selected.
- Reduction of eye temperature as the sessions progress = effect of habituation
Influence of interactions with humans
- Highest eye temperature in the presence of humans
- The percentage of time a guinea pig was stroked was positively correlated with an increase in eye temperature, regardless of the condition.
- No difference in comfort and exploratory behaviors between 1 and 4 but a tendency of more exploratory behaviors in 1 than 4.
- Without humans, the guinea pigs spent most of their time in the table enclosure immobile (but not frozen), whereas they showed locomotion in the withdrawn condition, even though the same amount and type of food was available in both conditions. However, we also found a decrease in the time spent eating, an increase in the frequency of concealment and an increase in astonishment in guinea pigs exposed to human contact.
- On the basis of their results, they identified the behaviours « reduced eating », « increased startle » and « increased freezing » as indicators of increased stress levels.
- Petting guinea pigs was correlated with an increase in eye temperature and could be a stressor. The results of the study suggest that in AAI, guinea pigsshould have an opportunity for withdrawal, access to congeners, and time to adapt to a new environment. In this way, stress could be reduced.
Recommendations for practice
- The opportunity to withdraw is useful to reduce stress and should always be present during animal mediation sessions. It is therefore important to have an enriched shelter during the session = There is everything to be gained with the possibility of withdrawal: less stress and more interaction!
- Contact with congeners is also important and ICs should not be the only IC in the session and they should have the possibility to interact with each other.
- The individuality of each CI must also be taken into account, as well as the relationship with the facilitator and the beneficiaries.
- Good selection and socialization are important for better stress management.
- Indicators of stress to consider are: reduced eating, increased startle, increased freezing, reduced exploration, vocalizations, fighting, teeth chattering, or stereotypical behaviors such as bar biting.
Flom, B. L. (2005). Counseling with pocket pets : Using small animals in elementary counseling programs. Professional School Counseling, 469–471.
Gut, W., Crump, L., Zinsstag, J., Hattendorf, J., & Hediger, K. (2018). The effect of human interaction on guinea pig behavior in animal-assisted therapy. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 25, 56‑64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.004
O’Haire, M. E. (2013). Animal-Assisted Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder : A Systematic Literature Review | SpringerLink. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1707-5
O’Haire, M. E. (2014). Effects of Classroom Animal-Assisted Activities on Social Functioning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 20(3). https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2013.0165
O’haire, M. E., Guérin, N. A., & Kirkham, A. C. (2015). Animal-Assisted Intervention for trauma : A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01121
O’Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (2013). Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities with Guinea Pigs in the Primary School Classroom. Anthrozoös, 26(3), 445‑458. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303713X13697429463835
Sachser, N., Dürschlag, M., & Hirzel, D. (1998). Social relationships and the management of stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(8), 891–904.
Sachser, N., Künzl, C., & Kaiser, S. (2007). The welfare of laboratory guinea pigs. In E. Kaliste (Éd.), The Welfare of Laboratory Animals (p. 181‑209). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-2271-5_9
Talarovičová, A. (2010). Guinea pigs—The “Small Great” Therapist for Autistic Children, or : Do Guinea Pigs Have Positive Effects on Autistic Child Social Behavior? Society & Animals, 18(2). https://doi.org/10.1163/156853010X491999
Wirth, S., Gebhardt-Henrich, S., Riemer, S., Hattendorf, J., Zinsstag, J., & Hediger, K. (2020). The influence of human interaction on guinea pigs : Behavioral and thermographic changes during animal-assisted therapy. Physiology & Behavior, 113076. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2020.113076