It is common knowledge that guinea pigs are social animals, but what do you know about guinea pig bonding? What biochemistry is responsible for bonding behavior? How do guinea pigs bond, and exactly how does bonding get expressed? Find out all you need to know about guinea pig bonding.
- What Exactly is Bonding?
- The Biochemistry of Bonding Behavior in Guinea Pigs
- How Do Guinea Pigs Exhibit Bonding Behaviors?
- How Do I Get My Guinea Pig to Bond With Me?
- What are the Benefits of Bonding?
What Exactly is Bonding?
Bonding refers to attachment behaviors and emotions that a guinea pig exhibits toward another individual. Guinea pigs can form a strong bond to a sexual mate, he can bond with another guinea pig or another animal, or he can form a bond with a certain person. Characteristics of bonding behavior are that the attachment is long-lasting instead of transitory, the bond is specific to a certain animal or person, he feels secure and happy when he is near the bonded individual, and finally, involuntary separation from the individual causes emotional distress.
The Biochemistry of Bonding Behavior in Guinea Pigs
Like most behaviors in animals and humans alike, there are chemicals in the brain and body that make bonding happen. Let’s look at them. I think physiology and biochemistry are truly fascinating, but if they bore you, you can skip to the next section.
Oxytocin plays a big part in guinea pig bonding behavior. Oxytocin is a hormone that is created in the hypothalamus (in the brain), and then gets released by the pituitary gland (also in the brain) into the bloodstream where it travels throughout the body and acts on any cell that has oxytocin receptors. It is sometimes called the “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone” because it is released when animals or people snuggle up together or mate. The interesting thing about oxytocin is that it is released in a positive feedback mechanism. When some gets released, it feeds back and causes more to be released, creating a surge of the chemical in the body.
Most people know that oxytocin affects cells in the uterus and breast, and as such, cause contractions during labor and breast milk release. But oxytocin does more than that. Oxytocin also affects cells in many parts of the central nervous system, and cause cause neurons (nerve cells) to increase their firing rate or excitability, which creates a cascade of other cellular reactions. The end result, however, is that it affects social behavior and makes the individual engage is a variety of socially-based behaviors. There have been many studies that have explored this “social” effect of oxytocin – in humans, in dogs, in guinea pigs, in rats, and in a host of other mammals. A deficiency of oxytocin is thought to play a part in the anti-social behaviors associated with autism, and providing oxytocin has been proposed as a possible treatment. If you want to read more about the specific physiological reactions and how they play out, check out:
- Progressive Neurobiology 2001 Jun;64(3):307-26.
- Nature Neuroscience vol. 7, pp. 1048 – 1054 (2004) Published online: 26 September 2004
Because oxytocin is associated with pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding, not many people realize that oxytocin is produced in almost the same quantities in males. It is not just a female hormone. Studies on the effects of oxytocin in males provides similar results as to the studies done in females. It creates social bonding behaviors, promotes monogamy between mates, and tends to lessen aggressive behaviors.
Vasopressin is another hormone that is created by the hypothalamus (in the brain), and then gets released into the brain and bloodstream by the pituitary gland (also in the brain). Most people think of vasopressin in relation to its anti-diuretic effect on the kidneys, but again, it does more than that. In guinea pigs, vasopressin and oxytocin work together to act on nerve cells throughout the central nervous system that ultimately result in increased social-bonding behaviors. Oxytocin and vasopressin act together and contribute to a wide variety of social behaviors, including social recognition, communication, parental care, territorial aggression and social bonding. If you are interested, read more about it here:
- “Oxytocin and Vasopressin: Genetics and Behavioral Implications“. In Lajtha A, Lim R. Handbook of Neurochemistry and Molecular Neurobiology: Neuroactive Proteins and Peptides (3rd ed.). pp. 573–607. Caldwell HK, Young WS III (2006)
- >Nature Neuroscience vol. 7, 1048 – 1054 (2004) Published online: 26 September 2004;
- Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Pair Bonding, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society December 2006, Volume: 361 Issue: 1476
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that acts in conjunction with oxytocin. Dopamine has many different functions in the body, but with regard to social bonding, we are talking about the mesolimbic pathway. In this pathway, dopamine is produced deep in the middle of the brain and released from there into the brain and bloodstream where it travels, binds to receptors in various areas of the body, and causes the guinea pig to engage in various social behaviors. Dopamine is especially important in reward-based behaviors. For example, say the guinea pig has come to associate the sound of a refrigerator door opening to getting his favorite treat. Just by hearing the door open, his body will release a surge of dopamine to flood his body. If he doesn’t get the expected treat, the dopamine will dissipate, and the levels will decrease. But it is persistent, so next time he hears the fridge door open, he will still get a surge of dopamine released into his system. Dopamine has been labelled to be associated with reward, motivation, hope, pleasure, and attention. Positive social interactions cause the release of dopamine, and the results lead to reward- and reinforcement-based behavior, monogamy, and social bond formation.See: Nature Neuroscience vol. 9, pp. 7-8 (2006), Scott Edwards & David W Self
It’s important to note that dopamine works in conjunction with oxytocin. So for example if you block dopamine, a female will not bond with a male, or a male will not bond with a female. Simply by blocking that dopamine input, even oxytocin can’t stimulate the bond; blocking oxytocin receptors will also block the bond formation. Even dopamine can’t stimulate the bond. But if you have both acting at the same time to sort of activate the social aspects and the reward aspects, then it comes together to form a bond which is a preference to interact with another individual.
How Do Guinea Pigs Exhibit Bonding Behaviors?
How do you know if a guinea pig has formed a bond with a specific individual – human or animal? Well, they aren’t much different than people. If they have a bond, they have associated pleasure with that individual and want to be near that individual more often. When they are near the individual, the brain releases pleasure hormones which flood the body (see the biochemistry section above). If they are involuntarily separated from the individual they have bonded with, they will exhibit signs of emotional distress, such as lethargy, sadness, hiding, lack of appetite, etc.
You can tell if a guinea pig has created a bond by his behavior, but he also uses vocalizations to express his pleasure when he is around the individual he has formed a bond with. He may purr or rumble. See Guinea Pig Sounds for more information.
How Do I Get My Guinea Pig to Bond With Me?
As with all mammals, a guinea pig’s ability to form social bonds depends a lot on his first experiences. You may have heard stories of animals or people who were not cared for or were isolated in the first weeks or months or life, and then were unable to form social relationships later in life. These early interactions form a framework where the animal learns to form bonds with other guinea pigs (e.g., most importantly, his mother) and gain a sense of trust and security that is crucial to being able to form any kind of social bond later in life.
In most cases, however, your guinea pig will have had his early needs met and will be able to form a strong bond with you and with other guinea pigs. The important thing to remember is that bonding includes elements of trust and security, and creating that takes time and patience. To bond with a new guinea pig, spend a lot of time with him. Make sure your interaction with him is always positive, so that he learns to associate you with pleasure. Guinea pigs don’t have great eyesight, so when approaching his cage, make noises so he can hear you coming. This will ensure that you don’t frighten him. Give him treats when you approach so that he associates you with a reward. Of course, you can’t feed him every time you approach him, but the point is to make each interaction positive for him so that he learns to associate you with a positive experience. Don’t give up. If you have a skittish guinea pig who came from a not-so-great environment, it may take time for him to bond to you, but know that it will happen. Positive reinforcement applies consistently and repeatedly will eventually overcome the negative experiences in his past, and he will form a bond with you. The more often you can interact positively with him, the faster the bond will form. If you see him for 5 minutes once a day, he has no incentive or reason to bond with you.
What Are the Benefits of Bonding?
Numerous research studies have listed the many physical benefits in humans of human-to-animal bonding, such as decreased blood pressure, increased motivation, increased pleasure, decreased loneliness, decreasing the negative effects of stress, fostering feelings of being needed and important, and better cardiovascular health. But what are the benefits to guinea pigs, and do these benefits exist for both human-to-animal and guinea-pig-to-guinea-pig bonding?
It turns out, there are research studies that provide answers to these questions. There really isn’t a difference between whether the bonding is between a human and a guinea pig or between a guinea pig and another guinea pig. Both of these types of bonds create the same physiological and psychological responses in the brains and bodies of guinea pigs. Guinea pigs do exhibit some of the same benefits of bonding that people exhibit. Guinea pigs who have formed social bonds have better cardiovascular health, are calmer and exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors, and are believed to have enhanced feelings of well-being (IsHak et al., 2011).See also: