I have to be honest: up until a few years ago, I never really wanted a guinea pig. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate them or dislike them, I just never felt an overwhelming urge to get one for a pet. Most of the guinea pigs I had known tended to be aloof and a bit bitey (for lack of a better word), so they weren’t on my top 5 list of “most appealing pets.”
Then I met Gipsy.
August 12, 2008: I was sitting in my exotic animal class in vet school when the professor announces that the resident guinea pigs have just had babies and encouraged the students to go see them. He also encouraged us to consider adopting them, adding that they had a “rare silver agouti” in the litter that was speculated to be the first to be adopted. So naturally, I had to go see what the fuss was about. Two other friends and I went over to the ward to look at them. For anyone who hasn’t seen baby guinea pigs, they are cute. Born fully-furred, eyes open, and ready to eat solid foods in a few hours, they are adorable. Like heart-stopping-should-be-illegal adorable. Add in cute wheeking noises and “popcorning” (an exhibition of joy and excitement in which a guinea pig will literally jump in the air like a popped kernel of popcorn), and it’s hard not to completely fall in love. Which is what happened. I fell in love with the little rare silver agouti, a beautiful adorable creature that stole my heart.
Adopting her wasn’t something I did on a whim. First, I had to overcome the *slight* problem of not being allowed to have pets in my apartment. After considering that the girl above me had successfully hidden a full-grown boxer for who knows how long, I overlooked that as a minor inconvenience that could be overcome with a little skill and planning. Then there was the whole “calling the family with ‘so I have a guinea pig now'” which I wasn’t sure how that would go over. The next obstacle was to consider if I could adopt just one. Since guinea pigs are social animals, it is recommended that a person adopt two so that they have a companion. Adopting one isn’t impossible, but it does require a higher level of commitment since the human must provide the companionship that a second guinea pig normally would. That meant making sure I could devote at least a couple of hours every day to spending time with her. Finally, and most importantly, came the research. Research into whether or not a guinea pig would be a good fit for my busy life, what sort of habitat needed to be set up, food, health concerns, all the things that are required to provide the guinea pig with a healthy happy home. After taking all factors into consideration, I decided that I could make it work and I was too in love with her anyway, so I brought her home. As I was leaving, one of the vets told me, “Now she’s more nervous than the others so just be aware of that.”
“Nervous” was a good word for her. She hid every time I walked into the room. When I picked her up, she became completely silent and still. For two weeks I contemplated if I had made the right choice. I did not want to be one of those people who decides “Well it just didn’t work out so you can have her back,” but at the same time it was obvious that she was under a lot of stress, which wasn’t good for her. I did everything I could think of to bond with her, but nothing seemed to be working. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, I got her out one night to sit with her and gave her a carrot while I was holding her. Turns out that was all it took. After that, every time I picked her up, she immediately started “talking,” making the “happy-guinea-pig” noises that are well-known to all guinea pig owners. She became much more animated, frequently squealing and exploring while she was out of her cage. But her favorite thing was to cuddle up under my chin and just be held and snuggled. This was her favorite place to be, so much so that I had to warn people not to make eye contact with her or she would lunge for their faces, expecting to be caught and held in her secure spot. I frequently wore hooded sweatshirts, and she would curl up and sleep in the hood while I studied. (It was a sad day for her when she learned the unfortunate truth that hoods are not an anatomical part of a human being.) She still would run and hide when I came into the room with her cage (as she did with everyone), and she didn’t like anyone being in the room while she ate her veggies, but once she was out with people, her personality blossomed. She loved to be the center of attention and would frequently become louder and louder if others were trying to have a conversation. She had a characteristic “sigh” that she would let out as an attempt to get pity when she felt that she wasn’t getting the attention she deserved. I’ll never forget the day that I had my apartment window open and a few people walked by and she let out one loud “wheek” at them; all I could think was, “Great, I’m getting evicted now.” Thankfully nothing ever happened and she was never discovered.
Over the next year, Gipsy and I formed a solid bond based on bell peppers, orange slices, carrots, snuggle time, and hoodies. She traveled with me to South Dakota to visit my husband and to assert her cuteness to everyone she met. Even though she was shy in her cage, she was friendly and could be rather outgoing at times, and she never offered to bite (although she once managed to demonstrate just how serious guinea pig allergies can be and was instrumental in a friend learning that he was apparently allergic to guinea pigs). She was great to show off to kids, as she was extremely tolerant, and she was the star of many school talks about exotic pet care. She did have a fearless streak, as a vet who thought she could “use a bit more exercise” learned of her stubbornness when nothing would make her move (other than to scare the clinic cat, and even that was limited to a head gesture). If she didn’t get her way, she would show her displeasure by finding the most expensive book possible and proceeding to make her own form of confetti. (This behavior eventually led to an actual case of “my guinea pig ate my homework.) One day, I ran out of bell peppers and gave her part of a banana pepper instead, and the result was something that can only be properly played out in a comedy movie. Loving and loyal, she completely changed my mind about guinea pigs.
About a year later, the ward had another litter. Going into my fourth year of school (rotation year), I was concerned that I would be unable to dedicate the time needed to her and decided that my schedule was getting busy enough that she needed a companion. I was a little hesitant; she had done very well as an only pig and didn’t have the best history of getting along with others. (The two other friends I went with that day adopted the other two guinea pigs, and we frequently had “play dates” to get them together while we studied. They had to be separated in adjoining pens because otherwise there were skirmishes and Gipsy tended to be the most “assertive” of the three.) My plan was to introduce Gipsy to her potential new companion in a neutral environment and see what happened, standing by to supervise if they didn’t get along. The results were, well, rather amusing. Seeing my adult pig being chased around a cage by three little babies was hilarious. She wanted nothing to do with them and they wanted to be right there with her. Still, she wasn’t aggressive toward them, and I finally decided to adopt another little female, Nugget. The day I took Nugget home, she promptly declared her love for her big sis by sitting on top of her in the carrier. The look on Gipsy’s face was priceless. They got along very well, much like a typical “big-sis-little-sis” relationship in which the little sister adores and worships the big sis and the big sis tolerates the little. If I got them both out together, Gipsy wanted to snuggle with me and Nugget wanted to snuggle with Gipsy. Sometimes Gipsy allowed this, other times Nugget would get a swift nip on the nose if Gipsy felt she was encroaching too much on her personal space. Nugget’s adoption enabled me to feel as if Gipsy was getting the companionship she needed on days when I would be gone for 12-18 hours at a time.
Despite all the things that can go wrong with guinea pigs, Gipsy and Nugget both remained healthy. Fed a proper diet and weighed semi-regularly, there was never any sign of any problems — until earlier this year. The first sign that there was a problem was that, when I picked up both of them at the same time, I noticed that Gipsy felt lighter than Nugget — a first for her. Weighing them both, I discovered that Gipsy had indeed lost about 100g, a fair amount for a guinea pig. She still ate well and I could find no evidence of teeth problems, which is the first rule-out in a guinea pig that is losing weight. I continued to monitor her as she dropped. After doing research, I tentatively concluded that she had hyperthyroidism, a condition extremely common in cats but equally rare in guinea pigs. The data is limited, as are treatment options. After awhile, I was able to palpate a nodule in her throat which served to mostly confirm my suspicions. Knowing that giving her medications by mouth would be next to impossible, I decided to try an experimental treatment. I ordered a month’s supply of transdermal methimazole, a common treatment for cats but one that has never been documented in guinea pigs. She continued to lose weight on this treatment, but her appetite never changed. In fact, other than the weight loss, she showed no other signs of illness. Still, concerned that the treatment appeared to be ineffective, I scheduled an appointment to take her back to the vet school and have testing done (and potentially surgery if it was deemed necessary.)
Gipsy’s appointment was scheduled for Tuesday, August 20th. When I got home Saturday evening, she appeared to be acting normal, although I noticed she sounded like she was losing her voice. I had no reason to think that she was in any immediate danger, although I was thinking that Tuesday couldn’t come fast enough. I gave her the usual Vitamin C treat and her veggies, which she ate gladly and quickly, and put her back for the night, not knowing it was the last good moment I would get to spend with her. When I awoke Sunday morning, 6 days after her 5th birthday, I found her lying in her cage gasping for air. I immediately grabbed her and raced to get her into the clinic, but she passed away moments before I got there. X-rays showed no discernible cause, no other problems that would have caused her to pass so quickly. I still don’t know what caused her death, although I will always worry that the delay in successful treatment played a role.
Nugget is now an only pig, and we are working together to navigate the upcoming time without Gipsy. It’s rough for both of us, but I will do everything I can to help Nugget adjust to the new norm. As for me, I’m still grieving, and while I’m *almost* fully functional again, writing this post still brings me to tears. But it needed to be written. Gipsy’s story deserves to be told.
August 12, 2008 – August 18, 2013
God speed, my little Gipsy, faithful companion for 5 wonderful years. Words cannot express how much you will be missed.