Meet Nutmeg, the sensory sensitive guinea pig

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Nutmeg

Ok, that’s probably a bit of a stretch. But she does have some behavioral characteristics that ring true with some things I deal with. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful I adopted her; I can understand. And like many pets, she teaches me lots of lessons when I’m receptive to them.

A little background: I adopted two guinea pigs in 2010 — Martha and Lizzie. Martha has been my “calm” guinea pig. The one that enjoys being petted and purrs a lot. Lizzie required more taming. Sadly, Lizzie passed away in 2014. So I got Nutmeg at that time to keep Martha company. Martha is still with me, although at a much slower pace.

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Lizzie

So while not a medical diagnosis, here are some ways that I consider Nutmeg to be sensory sensitive. At the very least, 2010 was the year I learned I had sensory processing disorder and about 2 months before learning that, I had adopted two guinea pigs. Coincidence? Hmmm. But over the years, it’s been fascinating to see these characteristics in my pets, offering a unique perspective into my own behavior. And to see them improve as I’ve improved and grown.

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Martha

Overreacts to sound: Oh my goodness! Every little rustling of plastic sends Nutmeg squealing. I know she thinks it’s food and that it’s for her, but she becomes quite vocal. It doesn’t help that the cage is set up near the kitchen, so every movement I make in cooking, grabbing produce bags from the fridge or even opening/closing the fridge, she is alert and vocal.

Doesn’t like to be picked up from the cage: She fights me every time when I try to pick her up. Most guinea pigs will put up a little fight with this; it’s natural and healthy. They usually will let you corner them and then pick them up. But Nutmeg? She should be a football receiver. No opening is too small for her to dodge and squirm free and change course. It’s amazing. Several rounds of chasing her around the cage are required before either I give up or I finally capture her. To me, this seems like a tactile thing. Wanting to control the manner and timing of physical contact. I know what that’s like.

Doesn’t like to be petted while in the cage: It’s uncanny. She begs for attention and food and then when you try to pet her, she runs away. Martha, on the other hand, will let me pet her. Martha might run into a tunnel while I’m trying to pet her, but she’s at least purring in the process. She will continue to let me pet her while she’s in the tunnel, at least the part of her I can reach. But Nutmeg? Nope. She’s the football player again and runs out of reach.

Being petted on my lap: Nutmeg doesn’t mind being petted while placed on my lap. I usually put her on a blanket on my lap. It’s a soft texture, and then if she pees on me, well, she’s peeing on the blanket. But she’ll stay there and enjoy being petted for a while. She’ll lick my arm and purr some. She loves being covered by the blanket, even if only her head is covered. I assume it feels safer to her. She likes being wrapped up in the blanket, with me petting her beneath it. So it’s interesting that certain environments are more enjoyable than others. It’s very similar to me not wanting to be touched and yet really needing the deep pressure of a bear hug.

Effect of music: It’s amazing, really. Nutmeg might begin to squirm while on my lap, but when I play music she calms down. She settles onto my lap, gets super comfortable and lays down. Not all music will do. She likes when it has a good beat, especially with tambourines. Lizzie was the same way. When Lizzie heard the opening to “Are you gonna be my girl?” by the Jets, she would start purring. Nutmeg will purr some when she hears music, but mostly it’s a signal for her to calm down. She’ll lay on the blanket and let me put her for quite a while. Just so content. And there are moments when she’s in the cage and I play music close to the cage, that Nutmeg will then let me pet her in the cage; she remains still enough and purrs.

Picky eater: Just because she’s a guinea pig, doesn’t mean she’ll eat just anything. I’ll give her a treat and sometimes she’ll put it down and beg for something else. Or when I first introduced her to a new vegetable, she didn’t just take it and chow down. She was skeptical at first.

Cues that it’s time to go back to the cage: Lizzie had a way of letting me know she was ready to return to the cage. She would crawl up my left arm, which was how I would balance her against my body in putting her back. Nutmeg also has her signal: moving from my lap to my shoulder. She crawls up my body and stops at my left shoulder. And when I’m tired of attention or want to be left alone, I give nonverbal cues too. Most are really subtle: a really bored look does wonders at times; slowly inching away from a group; not making eye contact as often; begin doodling if there is paper nearby; really making no effort to contribute to conversations. Martha makes no indications of wanting to return to the cage; it’s up to me.

Like I said, most of these things are probably pretty typical guinea pig behavior. However, Martha doesn’t go ballistic every time I grab a plastic bag or open the fridge. She is pretty relaxed. Martha will fight some with getting picked up, but allows herself to be cornered pretty fast and then grabbed. And as she’s gotten older, most of the time Martha doesn’t put up any fight. Nutmeg doesn’t seem too happy about the chase, but she enjoys being petted after the ordeal, in her comfy environment.

I don’t really know what to draw from this other than that people and animals have their preferences.

When I first got Lizzie, she was very skittish. I had to burrito-roll her in a blanket to keep her calm enough to let me hold her and pet her. She wouldn’t make much noise, but over time she got more vocal. She started calling out and making her presence more noticeable. She also started purring more frequently and giving me little kisses. And in many ways, I was doing the same thing: slowing getting more comfortable in social situations and with sharing. So it took time to adjust and get comfortable. Learning which environments are safe, to the point that you can be open and vulnerable without worrying how you’ll be received.

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