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Guinea Pig Herd Dynamics: When the Matriarch Passes

All photos courtesy of Shelby Stone.

Guinea pigs, by nature, are herd animals. My guinea pig herd consisted of six females ranging in age from 3 to 6. 

It started with 2 Abyssinian guinea pig sisters that we adopted as babies (4 months old). We named them Daphne and Delilah. Daphne, the calico one, was a go-getter from the moment we met her. Super active and friendly, she was always the first to greet us, the first to taste-test new veggies, and the first to explore new areas of her enclosure. Delilah was happy to let her sister be the leader in this two-piggie guinea pig herd. 

Delilah, Daphne, and Godiva

Delilah, Daphne and Godiva

Soon, we adopted more cavies to join the family:

  • There was Buttercup, a blond Peruvian with enviable, luscious locks.
  • Then Godiva, a brown skinny guinea (naked pig), who must have been a runt because she never grew much larger than baby-sized!
  • Then Topanga and Blossom, 2 Texel sisters who sported some seriously frizzy 'fros.
The entire herd

Left to right: Buttercup, Godiva, Delilah, Blossom, Topanga, Daphne. This is fresh cut grass from my own backyard, I grow it in gardens especially for the critters. No pesticides.

They lived happily as a herd for about 5 years. Daphne was always the matriarch. Her daily duties included checking on her fellow piggies to make sure everyone was fed and happy, breaking up any squabbles, exploring new habitats to ensure their safety, and nibbling new greens to make sure they were fresh enough for her herd. She was always the friendliest and most active guinea; she was the first to greet people by running to the tip-top of the Guinea Pig Taj Mahal when she heard someone coming down the stairs. When the fridge door inevitably opened to display its abundance of guinea pig treats, Daphne was consistently the loudest wheeker. 

The Guinea Pig Taj Mahal

The Guinea Pig "Taj Mahal"

Then Daphne started to slow down. Around age 5, she began to lose weight, even though her eating habits never changed. I took her to the vet and, after some bloodwork, she was diagnosed with early liver disease…of which there was no cure. The vet put Daphne on a strict diet of lots of hay and dark leafy greens. Additionally, some pain meds and a short-term antibiotic were prescribed to jumpstart her system again. I was told to weigh her weekly to make sure she was gaining weight. And…she thrived! For almost 1 year, she did great. Her weight increased; her activity level went back to normal. Everything was grand in the guinea pig world...until that one day. 

I went downstairs to feed the piggies and found Daphne lying very still and quiet. She was alive, but just barely. I scooped her up in a warm towel and hurried her into the emergency vet… but I already knew what the outcome would be. She started seizing on my way through the vet doors, and they humanely put her down while I held her. My sassy matriarch was gone. Much too soon. 

Coming home, I noticed an immediate change in the herd. They knew something had happened. They were skittish and dragged their veggies into the huts to eat instead of munching them happily in the open. They didn’t wheek as giddily when the fridge door opened. They had lost their leader. However, someone else in the herd was about to step up the ranks. Someone I never expected was about to slip into the matriarch role and get the herd back on track. Teeny tiny Godiva. 

Daphne, Godiva, and Whisper

Daphne and Godiva. And the late Whisper in the background making a cameo appearance.

Godiva and Daphne were always buddies. Whether it was because Godiva was the smallest and Daphne’s natural mothering instinct wanted to protect her, or whether Godiva just naturally followed close to Daphne and preferred to snuggle with her for warmth over any of the other pigs. I initially was worried most about Godiva because Daphne was her closest buddy. Still, I watched closely and noticed a distinct change in behavior from the runt piggie. 

We're all ears graphic

Daphne was the only piggie who would venture to the top level of the enclosure; it was just HER place. No other piggie ever challenged that. Then, one day, Godiva bolted to the top when I came downstairs to give them their nightly veggies… so I gave her a few handfuls before anyone else. Again, no one confronted her when Godiva scarfed them up. Godiva became the first to greet me with loud wheeks. She was the first inside new habitats and the first to investigate new toys. The herd looked to her to try out new veggies or pellets before trying them themselves. The herd had naturally adopted a new leader….or maybe Daphne had been training her all along. 

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