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One of the most frustrating things about keeping guinea pigs as pets is overcoming their natural prey instincts. In the wild, virtually everything they encounter is dangerous to them, so their nervous systems are primed to detect threats everywhere. If a guinea pig ever becomes comfortable enough with you to allow you to rub his belly, you have achieved an impressive feat.
You can observe the prey drive of a guinea pig simply by reaching into his cage to pick him up. No matter how long he has known you and no matter how much he likes you, the hand reaching down from above triggers a primal response that causes most pigs to flee in terror. Similarly, if you try to expose a guinea pig’s belly, he may associate the act with the actions of a predator and respond with panic.
Food and Conditioning
The key to making a guinea pig comfortable with handling is feeding him. Guinea pigs love grass hay and fresh vegetables; you can use treats to distract your pet from his discomfort or fear. Hand-feeding your pet while in the cage can help him get used to your presence and is a good first step in acclimatizing him to physical proximity. Keeping a bag of spring mix or torn romaine leaves handy during lap time can help to calm your guinea pig down and get him to relax. If he acts nervous or tense, offer him a treat and pet him gently while making soothing noises. With repetition, he will associate playtime with snacks and gradually become more receptive to physical contact.
Once your guinea pig is comfortable with you, you can try for a belly rub. The safest method is when he lies down voluntarily on his side, exposing his belly. This level of relaxation is extremely rare, however, so you may have to try cradling your guinea pig. Keep your arm pressed against your body and lay him in the crook of your arm as if you are cradling a baby. Keeping his head higher than his feet will make him less likely to panic. If he struggles, place him back on his feet immediately and offer treats as an apology. If he is quiet, gently rub or scratch his belly while speaking in a soothing tone of voice, and offer snacks afterward to increase the positive reinforcement.
Some guinea pigs will never become relaxed enough to submit to a belly rub, and few guinea pigs actually enjoy sitting in such an exposed position for very long. Most guinea pigs prefer a good scratch behind the ears or gentle petting on the back. Find the level of contact your pet is most comfortable with, and he will grow to enjoy his time out of the cage.
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