Guinea Pig Welfare During Animal-Assisted Therapy
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is more in the public consciousness than ever, partially thanks to various news stories and controversies about emotional support animals, and the confusion over the difference between service animals and support animals. Dogs seem to be the most common therapy animals, though many different species have been brought into the category. This includes some less common companions, such as guinea pigs.
Anyone who lives with guinea pigs, however, knows that their desire for, and reactions to, human contact are highly contextual and not to be taken for granted. Because of this, their use in AAT is potentially problematic, in that it may be beneficial to the human receiving therapy, but it may cause undue stress for the pigs. This study attempted to understand the potential animal welfare pitfalls, noting that “there are currently no data investigating the effects of human contact or integration of animals in AAIs on guinea pig behavior.”
To study this, the researchers observed 5 guinea pigs from a group of six individuals used regularly in AAT at a rehabilitation clinic in Switzerland. (They note that one of the study’s limitations is its small sample size.) Under controlled conditions within very specific parameters, they sought to study a particular aspect: the possibility for the guinea pigs to retreat. Since guinea pigs are prey animals who have a tendency to flee when frightened, the idea is that giving them a retreat possibility may be an important welfare consideration during therapy sessions.
The researchers tested this through three types of sessions: therapy with retreat possibility, therapy without retreat possibility, and a control scenario. They examined the stress of the pigs through 5 key behaviors: locomotion, explorative behavior, comfort behavior, freezing, and hiding. Overall, the authors found that a retreat possibility was crucial:
Guinea pigs showed higher frequency, but not duration, of hiding and an increase in startling, as well as more locomotion, explorative behavior, and time spent not eating during therapy with retreat possibility compared to the control setting without human interaction. Without retreat possibility, guinea pigs showed a strong increase in freezing, not eating and vocalizing. Locomotion and resting decreased without retreat possibility.
It’s important to note that the behaviors that were more common during the sessions with retreat possibility are generally considered to be indicators of good welfare, while the opposite is true of the behaviors during the sessions with no retreat possibility. In other words, providing a retreat possibility whenever possible “to ensure free choice of human interaction” should be a best practice of guinea pig AAT. The study also noted that the presence of another pig during the session can act as a kind of social buffer and could reduce stress further.
The authors note that the strength of their research is that it is on a topic that has never been studied before, and they also note that their findings have implications for all guinea pigs in human care, including those kept in labs, or those kept as companion animals: “the factors described in this study for guinea pigs assisting in therapy are also relevant for human-guinea pig interactions in general to ensure animal well-being. It is important for pet owners [sic] to understand that free interactions and retreat possibilities are relevant for species-appropriate handling and keeping.”
For those living with and advocating for guinea pigs, this may already be common knowledge, but it’s good to keep in mind as advocates talk to those outside of their circle.