As a big fan of guinea pigs, they’re the only pets I’ve ever wanted. Until recently.
I used to be quite frightened of dogs. But in recent years I’ve seen how special they are to people, how much joy them give them. I started to like dogs. Then, one day, I realised I really wanted a dog. I’m not alone in this. My younger son wants one too and even my daughter has started to want one.
But, for various reasons, I’m not allowed a dog just yet. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I can’t handle my grief over animals. Because animals die. Even animals that you really love.
When we got our first guinea pigs, Eric and Daisy, back in the summer of 2014, one of the factors which made us choose guinea pigs over other pets was the ‘fact’ that they live for six years. So, according to that, Eric and Daisy should still be alive – or should have left us only very recently. But the fact is that we’ve had four guinea pigs die in the last four years, three of them in just over two and half years.
Daisy died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2016 and that was hard but, in truth, the grief was fairly short-lived. Eric was always our favourite and, most importantly, we didn’t have to watch Daisy die over a period of days or weeks.
For me, knowing a pet is going to die, but not knowing when and watching them suffer and decline is every bit as bad as them actually dying. But the alternative – to have them put to sleep by the vet – is absolutely heartbreaking. That moment when you have to hand over your beloved pet to the vet, knowing you will never see them again, is devastating.
It took me a long time to recover from Eric’s death. That one hit the whole family hard as he was our original guinea pig. As the kids have got older, the guinea pigs have become less ‘ours’ and more ‘mine’. The kids have been less engaged with each subsequent guinea pig. But I have loved every single one.
Wilfred’s death hit me just as hard as Eric’s did. And I lived with grief and uncertainty over Cedric for 10 days. My husband and son told me that a vet had never saved a guinea pig, but I lived in hope. Cedric bounced back quickly on medication from the vet, but it only lasted a day. Every day when I got up in the morning, I was convinced he wouldn’t be with us any more. I was scared to look in the hutch, but it was the first thing I did every day. I cried that he was still alive. That I had one more day with him.
And I cried so many times because I thought he was going to die.
And it was affecting my sleep badly. For night after night, I was awake from 2.30am, potentially locking myself into a cycle of insomnia that could last for months or years. My insomnia had improved hugely over lockdown and worry over my beloved Cedric brought it right back.
My family were supportive and practical. They helped feed him and give him medication. They were kind to me.
But they thought I was over-reacting. He’s ‘just’ a pet. ‘Just’ a guinea pig. I know that guinea pigs don’t last long. I can’t get upset every time.
But I can’t stop myself getting upset every time. I don’t want to go through it. But if I don’t go through it, what do I do? Give up having guinea pigs because I can’t handle the grief? I love having guinea pigs and a life without them would be boring. They give me so much pleasure with their squeaks and their little furry faces and funny personalities. Just sitting and stroking a guinea pig helps me to relax and unwind.
Weighing up all the positives against the negative of not having them, I feel like I have no choice but to deal with the grief. But I wish it didn’t come round so often. It feels like a roller coaster. One dies and I have to replace him for the sake of his friend, who can’t be left on his own. But I’m setting myself up for more grief in two or three years’ time. Because every one of those guinea pigs is going to die sooner or later.
And that’s why I can’t have a dog. Much as I love my guinea pigs, I know that losing a dog would be so much harder. A guinea pig is a friend, but a dog is a whole other level of friend. A dog really is part of the family.
On the plus side, my husband thinks Henry will be my ‘six year guinea pig’. While I desperately fed Cedric in a bid to keep him alive, Henry was very happy to help himself to all of the extra food. He’s been putting weight on ever since we got him as a baby in November last year and is still showing no signs of slowing down. If Henry gets ill, all of that extra weight will buy him lots of extra time.