Introducing Chinchillas, Degus and Guinea Pigs
Pinknose and Dizzy bonding by face grooming.
This page is about introducing Chinchillas, Degus and Guinea Pigs to new friends. I've written it as one page as a lot of the information is relevant to all 3 species, but there are some individual notes on differences. The advice is also relevant to rabbits, but since I have little experience with them can I recommend the pages by the Rabbit Welfare Association if you want to introduce two rabbits. As ever this is based on my experience and isn't a replacement for good vetinary advice.
With maybe the exception of hamsters, all small domestic rodents benefit are social and benefit from company. I get quite cross when I see advice to keep them on their own as it makes them more friendly - we should be thinking about the animal's quality of life and not the owner's. This is also not necessarily true - animals on their own often become quiet and withdrawn, and nervous animals really benefit from the example of a tame cage mate. Animals with company are also often much more active which is good for their health. Poor eaters may develop a better appetite when they have someone to compete with for the food and I have also noticed that a cage mate that eats a range of vegetables will often encourage a veg-shy cage mate to try new things.
However introductions are not always easy - particularly with chinchillas. Be prepared to:
Take your time and persevere.
Have two cages for some time if there are problems.
Quarantine any new animals until you are sure that they are no health problems.
Wait until neutered males are safe to be introduced before starting.
Never try to break up a fight by hand
Take your time and persevere :o)
Who should I introduce?
With all of the species the younger the better - babies to about 12 weeks can usually be just be put together and get along (although take care). The notes below are really about what you should do if you have a lone adult.
The best combinations for guinea pigs are a neutered boar and a one or more sows, or two sows. Neutered boar, single sow introductions are usually straight forwards, but sows can be surprisingly stroppy with each other and may need a little time.
It's not something that I'd try but some rescues do introduce boars - a baby with a grown adult seems to be easiest. But bear in mind that there may be problems when the younger male reaches maturity and challenges the adults dominance. Never try introducing two males unless you are quite happy to keep two separate cages if it doesn't work out. Boars can be kept side by side so that they can talk to each other but not fight. Never, however, keep an un neutered boar side by side with a female - they are the most amazing escapologists if they think they might have a chance with a girly. If you are interested in introducing two boars then go to the Barmy4Boars site for information.
Chinchillas and Degus
Best combination is definitely a neutered male and female. But two females can be successfully introduced. I'm not in favour of introducing two adult male chinchillas or degus, as fights can be serious and fatalities can result - it's certainly more dangerous than getting a male neutered by an experienced vet. More than one male should not be kept together if there are females in the same room as they may fight when the females come into season.
Larger groups may be possible but need very careful introductions as groups develop a pecking order. If another animal is introduced the pecking order has to be re-established, which can mean that not only can you have problems with the new animal, but your existing pair or group may fall out as well. There is more likely to be bullying within larger groups. This will be aggression below the level of fighting - for example pushing one member of the group off the food continually but it can cause ill health or even death because of stress. However, additional females can usually be introduced to a neutered male guinea pig and his existing harem if care is taken. It may also be possible with degus and chinchillas but it's not something I've tried.
Neutering will not reduce aggression in males and allow them to be kept together. The only reason to neuter a male animal is to allow him to be kept with a female.
Neutering is a controversial subject as unfortunately there is no guaranteed 101% safe operation for any small animal. However it should be bourne in mind that fights between two males kept together are quite common and can be fatal, particularly in chinchillas and degus, but male guinea pigs can also do a lot of potentially fatal damage to each other. If the alternative is your pets breeding then fatalities during pregnancy can be as high as 1 in 5, much worse odds than the risk to the male of neutering. I am in favour of neutering all single male guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus in rescues because I think that a life alone is miserable for them and the small risk is worth it.
Absolutely the most important advice regarding neutering is to find a vet that has plenty of experience in neutering guinea pigs or chinchillas - for degus go for chinchilla experience as it's unlikely you will find someone who has degu experience. Talk to them about the risks involved and make sure that they will be doing the operation - it's not uncommon for a locum to take operations on some days and while the locum may be good they may have no experience at all.
I've had a couple of male guinea pigs neutered they've breezed through he operation, but the two chinchillas I've had done were a little more poorly. They were both very dozy after the anaesthetic and when first brought home. The vet encouraged me to make sure that they were eating but honestly neither of them were desperately interested until the next day. Having spoken to others it's quite common for them to sleep on their sides and be quite restless as they are quite uncomfortable initially (not to mention walking like John Wayne). Speak to your vet about pain relief before the operation and if possible take the shelves out of the cage to prevent climbing, although I didn't do this with either of mine due to the cage design. My first male chinchilla Spike, a youngster, took a couple of weeks to get back to normal. When we adopted Basil, who was 11, from the RSPCA they could not find a home for him, partially due to his age, and he was facing winter in a small animal shed and the rest of his life in solitary confinement as there was little chance of successfully introducing him to another male. It's easy when faced with this situation and an assurance from your vet that he was fit for the op, to make the decision to have it done so that he could live with Fidgit. It's much tougher to actually take him two weeks down the line when you've got attached to the fella. However, if anything, he took the operation better than Spike and was fairly normal two days later although I kept him on cage rest for a fortnight to allow the wounds to heal.
Spaying - the neutering of female animals is more risky in all 3 species and not something that I would recommend simply for birth control. It is occasionally possible to find a spayed female guinea pig in a rescue - some rescues neuter all their sows and some need to be spayed for ovarian cysts which is worth investigating if you don't want to neuter your boar. Spayed chinchillas are rare and I've never heard of it being done on a degu.
First things first - never ever just dump a new animal in the existing animals cage.You will need to have two cages for the duration of the introductions. Just chucking them in together is asking for trouble as the new animal will be an invader in the original animal's territory. The art of introductions is to get them so used to each other that by the time you put them together in a cage there isn't any trouble. Chinchillas and Degus will face groom when they are accepting each other and the ultimate aim is to get them asleep in a heap together. Guinea pigs are more herd animals and don't tend to face groom in the as me way - acceptance is usually indicated by them ignoring each other! This takes a certain amount of knowledge of rodent psychology.
Split Cage Technique
A standard way of introducing animals is to start with the split cage technique. In this method both animals are placed in the same cage but it is split with a divider, or a smaller cage is placed in a larger cage. They are then swapped over between parts of the cage so that they get used to each other's smell in their territory. Finally they are then introduced in neutral territory before being put into the same cage together after a good clean out.
Attempting to get Indigo to learn some manners.
I've used this technique with difficult guinea-pig intros such as Indigo and Smudge where he was very over excited and kept pestering her until she got bad tempered with him. You do have to be careful as male guinea pigs can dig and climb amazingly well when they have the motivation, so make sure that he cannot escape. What was funny about this was that I would keep him in a separate cage in a different room overnight and he came to associate the sound of the small cage rattling with being put in with Smudge and he would go absolutely bonkers when he heard me pick it up in the next room, running up and down and squeaking like a nutter.
Degus and chinchillas need more care as they have a habit of trying to bite through mesh. This can result in the loss of toes or potentially nasty injuries to noses (I've heard of fatalities caused by this). In this case they should be in separate cages placed far enough apart that bites cannot happen through the gap. In this case the swapping of cages to mix territories is more important than direct contact. Care should also be taken if you have one chinchilla in the cage and another out for a run.
When introducing for the first time it is important to do so in neutral territory. For guinea pigs an outside run can be good as there is the added distraction of grass to eat, failing that try having some interesting food on the floor where the introductions are done as shown above when I was introducing Angel to Smudge and Charm. I also did a lot of the introductions in a run in the garden where there was grass to eat. But honestly for a while she would squeal like she was being tortured if one of them came near her and I was embarrassed about what the neighbours thought I was doing to her.
Looks sweet but Smudge is about to shove Angel over.
Some sites recommend using a bathtub, which might be good for degus, but chinchillas really need more space to rush around and get away from each other. You will usually get some fur pulling to start and I tend to use my hall which has plenty of room. Remember that for a chinchilla the area that they use to exercise in is their territory as well.
For some guinea pigs and neutered male-female degu pairings you can sometimes get away with just introducing them in neutral territory and then put them in a cage together once you have given it a really good clean out (so that it does not smell of one animal or another). I have heard of this being achieved with chinchillas but usually it takes quite a while of careful supervised introductions before they will accept each other in the same cage.
Some sites suggest putting a dab of something strong smelling such as Vicks Vapour Rub on noses to confuse smells or even in the case of guinea pigs (not chins or degus) giving them both a bath. This might help but it's not something I use as I want them to get used to each other's smells.
Expect a bit of stroppy behaviour (and fur pulling in chinchillas) but separate if the behaviour turns into lunging and biting. Never, ever try to separate by hand as this can lead to a serious bite. Have a towel handy to throw over them. One problem is that if you split the animals at the first sign of aggression the aggressor can take this as having 'won' the confrontation and driven the invader out. So you do have to allow a certain amount of fur pulling and stroppiness, but this should not be allowed to degenerate into fighting. As always said - take your time - you can always try another day.
The Small Box Technique
This can be a remarkably successfully technique with chinchillas who have been already been introduced in neutral territory, but you are having problems with getting into a cage together. It requires great care to avoid any potential flare-ups in an enclosed environment. It would probably work with guinea pigs although I've never needed it, but I don't know about degus as you'd need quite small tank and they could potentially fight very quickly.
Basically it involves placing both chinchillas in a smallish box and walking around the house with them. This keeps them slightly off balance and makes them forget about bickering. When they are settled they can be put down and watched carefully. If there is any trouble pick them up and walk around again - there is no need to shake the box at all just the movement of walking around. I've seen it recommended to drive rabbits around in a car but there could be a problem if a fight breaks out in that environment so I prefer to just walk around. The idea is for them to spend an extended period of time together without any bad temper and get used to each other. The picture below shows Spike and Fidgit - I'd got them playing ok out of the cage but Fidgie would not let Spike in her cage without trouble. After an hour or so in the tank they can be seen displaying grooming behaviour and then they flaked out and went to sleep together. You may need to do this for a few days running before trying them in a cage together again.
Fidgit and Spike bonding after being stuck together in a small box.
Putting in the Cage Together
The most difficult thing is always getting them to tolerate each other in the same cage - you need to take things slowly. It's worth doing this stage first thing in the morning so that you can watch them all day, and then make a call on whether you feel safe to leave them overnight. If in doubt then give it a bit longer.
If your guinea pigs are kept outside make sure that you wait a little bit longer to be sure that they are getting on as you are less likely to spot problems. Indoor piggies are pretty easy as trouble usually starts with a large amount of noise.
If trouble does break out it helps for your pets to have plenty of places to hide from each other. A refuge is a wooden box that is just big enough for one animal to get in, turn around and guard the entrance. These are a really good idea and can save lives, particularly for chinchillas. There are suitable sized wooden houses sold or put together your own.
Guinea pigs benefit from lots of tubes and boxes - they seem to prefer boxes that have two entrances. It is essential that there is at least one hiding place per guinea pig to prevent fights if they are scared and so be prepared to adapt your hutch.
If things don't work out.
Keep an eye out for trouble - it's never worth risking injuries and they should always be separated if either party gets bitten. It is normal for Degus to bicker noisily particularly over food (two food bowls can help) with lots of pushing and shoving, but they shouldn't be biting or rolling around. Guinea pigs will often bicker as well with lots of rumbling and strutting around. Face to face with raised hackles isn't such a good sign and should be watched carefully although it can sometimes settle if one piggie backs down. But they should be separated if there is any serious lunging or biting. Female guinea pigs can sometimes get stroppy when they are in season and may benefit from a divided cage for a few hours even after years together. Chinchillas generally don't bicker in the same way. Occasionally a male will get sworn at by the female and she might have a mouthful of fur if he pesters too much, but they certainly shouldn't be pulling each other's fur out regularly and large amounts of fur means there has been a fight. If two animals, particularly males, have fought and caused bite injuries it is unlikely that they will be able to be reintroduced.
As I said at the start of this article, there is always the chance that you will end up with two cages permanently . Even then it's better than having animals on their own as you can stand the cages next to each other for company. Chinchillas, in particular, can take weeks to months to introduce successfully so don't give up too easily. Your pets will really benefit from company of their own kind.
The ballad of Madame Furious and the Baz
And with those prophetic words we come to the tale of Fidgit (aka Madame Furious) and Basil. Basil came from Coventry RSPCA about a year ago. We'd popped in for some reason or another and my husband fell in love with him. He's a very hansom grey chinchilla who at the time was 11 years in age (now 12). It was autumn and small animals are kept in a very nice large, secure shed, but I didn't like the idea of an elderly chin spending the winter there, particularly when the lady told me they were struggling to find a home for an older chin. We spoke to our vet who felt he could be safely neutered. I considered this very carefully as there is always a risk - but I felt it was in his best interests as I couldn't have an un neutered male with Fidgit and he would have a really good home here. So Basil came home with us and was neutered a few weeks later.
The first problem was that the poor little fella was chronically unfit and nervous of open spaces, having spend 11 years in a tiny cage. He spent the first two weeks sitting in one place under a shelf in the cage. With hindsight I think that it would have been better to actually leave it a few months before trying introductions. Fidgit isn't known as Madame Furious for nothing - she isn't young herself (over 10 now) but when she's out she flys around at speed, bouncing off everything. Basil on the other hand initially simply slowly pootled around. So when we tried introducing them in a neutral environment, she got a bit aggressive with him and he just completely overreacted swearing at her and trying to get as far away from her as possible. After a couple of weeks I made the decision that it was too stressful for him and it would need to wait.He also had a fit a couple of months after we got him after he panicked when stuck behind the cage and the vet tells me he has a heart murmur - so understandably I've been loathe to let them sort it out between them.
Basil has come on in leaps and bounds over the last year, proving that an old chinchilla is never too old to rehabilitate. We slowly introduced him to more challenges, originally just letting him out in the room with the cages, then introducing things to climb up on (chinchillas who have been kept in small cages often don't understand up), then letting him out in the larger hall and introducing him to stairs and now he has learnt to let himself in and out of his cage (which is the upstairs part of the aviary) by climbing the back of a chair put in front of it.
In terms of introductions we have got to the point where they are absolutely fine together in the hall for an hour or more with only the occasional snarl and even the odd groom. But if he's out in the cage room (which Fidgit regards as her territory) she will simply chase him and he will put himself away. He has got amazingly good at avoiding her - he can even jump vertically when she runs at him and I am happy that no-one will get hurt; but they just don't interact in a good way. I can even have them in the same small box while they are being cleaned out with very little trouble; just not Fidgit's territory.
So what went wrong? Well one of the main problems seems to be that she is probably past coming into season and he is neutered so neither of them are very interested in having a mate. Fidgit has been on her own for a good while and is a very territorial chinchilla and so probably needs a mate that stands up to her. Sadly when we first had him Basil was very scared of being out of the cage, let alone an aggressive chinchilla and so the pattern of her being boss and being able to drive him out of her territory was established early.
An introduction now might have a different outcome as he will stand up to her if she corners him - he's actually quite a fit chinchilla now and knows how to deal with her. I am however reluctant to force them in together as I feel that Basil might get bullied and at his age it seems a little unfair. They do only have half the aviary each .but we give them a good run together in the hall regularly which allows interaction with another chinchilla.
Anyhow the bottom line is that no matter how experienced you are with chinchillas and rodent introductions - sometimes you mess it up or you get two animals that just don't want to know.