Wouldn’t it be amazing if, even for just a day, our cavys could talk to us and tell us what they’re thinking? Maybe they don’t like our favorite TV show. They might get really annoyed at the way we disturb their play while we toss and turn in bed at night. Or, maybe they just want to tell us they love us after we say it to them. Our cavys might not speak to us in our language but they certainly do communicate with us through the sounds they make and the behaviors they display... guinea pig communication is very alive and well.
Let's have some fun and take a look at the unique language of guinea pigs.
Muttering is pretty common when your piggy is just happy with life. These noises sound just like you would think: a (more or less) constant low level of what might be spelled as whwfffwhstwhhfffwihhh. (We’ve asked for guinea pig proofreading on this, and they tell us that is pretty close.) These sounds are not really in anticipation of anything, just your guinea pig talking to himself.
Purring is a nice low vibration sound. It's a relaxed, content sound, much like when a cat purrs. Like this. If the purring comes in short bursts and is higher pitched, it is a sign of confusion or uncertainty, and your piggy is looking for reassurance.
The wheek is a short, squeaky noise and often happens at dinner time, when cavy hears the hay coming. It's often accompanied by some popcorning, and the whole scene is pretty darn adorable. Here’s an example.
Chirping sounds just like a bird chirping. (Take a listen here.) This is not a well understood sound, and really isn’t heard often. It has been heard at several unrelated times (interest in something new, uncertainty in a new environment) and may also have something to do with sows feeding baby piggies.
Piggies do whine, and usually that whine is directed at another pig who is annoying them. You can translate the whine to: “Stoooooooppppp iiiiitttttttt."
Clacking teeth together is called chattering. Don't mess with a guinea pig who's chattering her teeth. She's angry. Maybe your piggy has had enough of being held, or is done with being stroked. Whatever's going on, they're ready for it to stop.
This may be accompanied by the head toss. Chattering can become louder and more angry, and at its worst, is accompanied by raised hackles, rumblestrutting, and the pig may raise up on his hind legs, ready for attack. Back away.
Another noise you may hear from an angry or threatened piggy is hissing. Teeth barring and hissing often go together, and you may even notice your guinea pig’s fur is fluffed up and poofy; your friend is trying to look bigger and more threatening (as far as guinea pigs can look big and threatening). The head may be tossed up, and the front legs in a wide stance. A fight is brewing... separate those piggies!
What's the first thing you do when you hear a funny or a strange noise? Stop what you're doing and listen intently or something similar, right? That's what cavys do, too, when they hear something - like a bird - or are frightened. They freeze.
When your cavy's in the mood for romance, you'll likely hear a deep rumbling sound and he may start strutting his stuff for the object of his affection.
Notice your guinea pig sniffing her surroundings? The camera? A new toy? Another guinea pig? Sniffing is a way guinea pig's explore.
If you ever hear a shriek, run to your friend with phone in hand and be ready to go to the vet. Your guinea pig has been injured, through accident or attack, and needs help immediately. A shriek is an emergency... don’t wait to find out what has happened.
Guinea pig communication isn’t just sounds and noises, though. It includes postures and gestures, too. Watching your guinea pig’s body language can tell you tons about what they are thinking and feeling, and you’ll start to recognize how they combine all kinds of vocalizations and body language to get their point across.
Here is a breakdown of the typical “moves” your guinea pig may use to communicate with you (or with other piggies).
...When They're Happy
Nothing in the world is better than a happy cavy, wouldn't you say? And, how does a guinea pig show happiness? Why, by popcorning, of course.
Popcorning is that quick hopping up and down, and happens when your friend is in a state of happy excitement. This is one of the cutest behaviors ever, ever, ever. It's usually accompanied by wheeking like mad, and it has the desired effect of turning humans into smiling food dispensers.
Check out these adorable darlings.
2. Nose Bumping 👃
A nose bump is a friendly hello, between piggies or even between guinea pig and human. This is the piggy version of the air kiss or the handshake.
3. Standing on Back Legs (to Beg)
What started out as a way to see around them for a greater distance has turned into a very effective cue for human caretakers. Think of the people who give dogs certain hand signals to get a sit or stay. OK, now notice that when guinea pigs give us the standing on hind legs cue, we can easily be taught to respond with food, attention, and a possible post on Facebook. We are good little learners, us humans.
...When They're Being Dominant
1. Head/Nose Toss
This is a way of saying “back off, I’m not angry yet but I don’t feel comfortable”.
Nips are less than bites, and more like a pinch. Warning, this piggy is irritated.
3. Raised Hackles
This is a way of making the pig look (at least to anther pig) bigger and scarier. This is a dominance and/or aggressive tactic, and whatever is going on, you should keep an eye on the situation.
4. Wide Yawn
A wide yawn isn’t your piggy getting ready to nap, nor is it a dismissive gesture. Your piggy is standing up, legs spread apart, and has already shown signs of displeasure. Now she’s showing off those big sharp incisors. Take heed.
Kinda sounds like something from “Stomp” or “West Side Story” doesn’t it? Take a look at an example of this slow, swaying walk accompanied by a rumbling sound. It's a fairly low-key attempt at establishing dominance. Honestly, watching a rumblestrutting guinea pig is kind of a hoot. They take themselves very seriously, though, so if you have to laugh, try to hide it.
6. Teeth Barring
Oh my. Something is very upsetting. Either your guinea pig is facing a threat, or is very angry. Guinea pigs are gentle and patient little beings, so the baring of teeth is a serious gesture. A time out is in order.
7. Standing on Hind Legs (Face-off)
This is one of the last signals of an all-out guinea pig war. Often, the teeth are bared, there is angry chattering going on, the head may be tossed back, and we’ve got all kinds of signs that the two pigs are about to turn into one big furry ball of fury. Don’t stick your hand in that situation... you may well get a bad bite. But do throw a towel over the piggies, and separate them with a dustpan or other object.
If your friend feels that there is a threat around, they may freeze. For a little animal of prey, this is a way of becoming invisible to any predators. You may or may not hear a low vibration during a freeze; this is your piggy’s way of telling other guinea pigs in the area that there is a predator.
There are some other vocalizations, like cooing and rumbling, that you won't hear unless your guinea pig isn't spayed or neutered. (Read more about that here.)
Cavies are big conversationalists. Talk talk talk all day long. They tell us how they feel and what they want, and they don’t hold back. Of course, each guinea pig is an individual and has their own particular type of guinea pig communication, so it's up to us to really get to know each one of our friends.
One mutters all day, every day, and another one purrs. One head tosses after a few minutes in our arms, the other stands on hind legs and begs for attention. The big key is this: we all like to be noticed, heard, and understood… so if you pay attention, they will interact with you, and you can have a deeper, fuller friendship.
Now you can enjoy your friendship with your guinea pig on a whole new level. You may even learn some cool surprising things about your friend, now that you speak piggy!