Animal-Assisted Therapy: The Guinea Pigs’ Perspective

Animal-assisted therapy can benefit guinea pigs too if guidelines are followed.

Posted Mar 22, 2018

Guinea pigs are sometimes used for animal activities that are believed to have beneficial effects for humans. For example, animal activities with guinea pigs in the classroom – including preparing food, cleaning the cage and providing enrichment – can lead to improvements in social skills for both typically-developing children and those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (O’Haire et al 2013, 2014).

127071 / Pixabay
Source: 127071 / Pixabay

While more research is still needed on the effects of animal-assisted interventions on humans, another important question is what the experience is like for the animals involved. A new paper in press in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (Gut et al 2018) assesses the effects of animal-assisted activities on guinea pigs.

The results are encouraging and have implications for how human-animal interactions are conducted. Dr. Karin Hediger (Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute), one of the authors of the study, told me in an email,

“The most important implication is that guinea pigs should have the possibility to freely interact with humans and have retreat possibilities. If this is guaranteed, both humans and animals can profit from the interaction.”

Five female guinea pigs took part in the study. Because guinea pigs are social animals and need to have other guinea pigs around, they took part in groups: a group of three and a group of two (this latter group also had a neutered male guinea pig who was not studied due to sex differences in behaviour).

The researchers compared three conditions:

  • A control condition, in which the guinea pigs spent time in the plexiglass cage in the room used for the animal-assisted therapy. The length of time was matched to a therapy session.
  • A therapy setting where the guinea pigs had the possibility of retreat back into the cage if they wished, because the guinea pig came onto a pet bed on the table in front of the cage to interact with the patient. These sessions lasted 10-30 minutes, as decided by the therapist.
  • A therapy setting in which the guinea pig was on a pet bed in the patient’s lap and so had no possibility of retreat. This lasted 1-5 minutes.

All of the guinea pigs had been carefully raised and were used to taking part in animal-assisted therapy at the rehabilitation centre in Basel where the study took place. An animal keeper was present to ensure the guinea pig's welfare.

The cage was open at the top and had plenty of shelters and a water source as well as hay, twigs, straw and wood shavings. During the therapy sessions when the guinea pigs had the possibility of retreat, patients would prepare vegetables for the guinea pigs and put them in food puzzle toys or on branches/in holes to encourage foraging, they would encourage the guinea pig to go over a see-saw (like guinea pig agility), and brush them.

When the therapy session did not have the possibility of retreat, whenever possible the guinea pig was encouraged onto the pet bed (rather than lifted) and then the pet bed was picked up and placed in the patient’s lap. During these sessions, the patient stroked the guinea pig and fed it (in fact there was more stroking in this condition than in the other therapy condition).

A total of 50 behavioral observations were made (20 each of the control condition and therapy with the possibility of retreat, 10 of the therapy without retreat option).

The results showed the guinea pigs did show some signs of stress during the therapy sessions, as they had more stress-related behaviours including hiding, freezing, vocalizing and startling. The signs of stress were greater during the therapy session where there was no possibility of retreat as more freezing was observed and fewer comfort behaviours such as stretching and yawning. However, in both cases the stress was relatively mild as there were no behavioural signs of high stress (such as crouching or piloerection).

During the sessions with the possibility of retreat, the guinea pigs went to hide more often, but did not spend any more time hiding, than when there was no possibility of retreat.

The guinea pigs also seemed to get some benefit from the session, because they did forage for the food and climb over the see-saw, and they chose to interact with the patient when they had the option of not doing so. So the session was providing them with enrichment activities. Being stroked is not a natural experience for guinea pigs because they do not interact with other guinea pigs in this way, hence the importance of giving them the ability to withdraw from the interaction if they wish.

The researchers say these results show the importance of providing guinea pigs with shelters where they can hide and giving them a choice of whether or not to interact with people. These implications apply not only to animal-assisted therapy activities, but also to pet guinea pigs.

Although this is a small study, it’s a promising start to ensuring that animal activities can be good for the animal as well as the human. The paper is open access if you wish to read it in full.

References

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.004

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

O'Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (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), 162-168. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2013.0165

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