A Guinea Pig’s Sense of Time

reading a book

Guinea pigs can and will learn but won't necessarily recall how or when they learned it

If your guinea pigs are on an eating schedule, you might notice that an hour before mealtime they make their way to the bowl and wait for snacks to appear. Many of us animal lovers will consider this a nod to their level of intelligence and reward them with snacks a bit earlier than usual. Although it often leaves us asking, how exactly do our guinea pigs experience the passing of time?

Your cavies might wheek with pleasure when you walk in the room whether you’ve been gone 5 hours or 5 minutes. Researcher William Roberts and his colleagues from The University of Western Ontario in London, Canada might be closer to discovering why. They found rodents can track how much time has passed since discovering a piece of food, such as very little or a lot, but they don’t recall when the discovery occurred relative to anything else. This suggests our pets can’t place specific memories in time. The longer the time between events, the weaker the memory will be. That means when your guinea pigs cry out for food close to mealtime, scientists believe it has more to do with noticing a time of day or internal biological rhythms than it does a sense of time having passed.

This could be a comforting thought to those of us in the animal rescue community who wonder how long a neglected pet may retain memory of the abuse. Response to trauma is often on a different scale than simple recall but it is related. To others, this might seem like a flawed theory. After all, aren’t guinea pigs able to be trained and doesn’t their learning depend on the quality of their memory? It might be easier to think of cavies as young children in this regard. By the age of four children will know how to walk but won’t have the ability to know how or where they learned this skill.

The research suggests that guinea pigs have a limited view of the future as well. When given a choice between one or two rewards, it was obvious for them to choose two. As the supply in the choices grew, they showed less interest in the quantity and simply ate until they were full. They weren’t hungry enough to eat a large quantity and that response catered to immediate hunger needs. It didn’t plan for future hunger. So is the life of a naturally grazing animal with abundant food resources.

There’s very little research to support whether the way humans understand and perceive time with an episodic memory is unique to us or if any of our friends in the animal kingdom share this attribute. It’s very easy to argue many of these research conclusions when we tend to inflate their skills and project human characteristics onto our cavies. Perhaps we could learn something from our guinea pigs who delight in living in the moment.

William A. Roberts, Miranda C. Feeney, Krista MacPherson, Mark Petter, Neil McMillan, Evanya Musolino, “Episodic-Like Memory Based on When or How Long Ago,” Science 4 April 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5872, pp. 113 – 115

O’Neil, Daniela K., Alison Gopnik. ” Young children’s ability to identify the sources of their beliefs.” Developmental Psychology, Vol 27(3), May 1991. pp. 390-397.

If you have a great idea for an article about guinea pigs, please let us know. Guinea Pig Today is a network of guinea pig lovers and we’re always looking for the next great story. View our submissions page for more information on how to submit your idea.

Angela, Editor-in-Chief, GPT

Angela founded Guinea Pig Today and guest writes for CavyMadness. She volunteers with Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue and supports the ROUS Foundation. Her guinea pig, Papua, is the star of WHEK-TV/DT.

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7 Responses to “A Guinea Pig’s Sense of Time”
  1. Claire says:

    This is a good one. I’m doing research into circadian rhythm and memory functioning so this is right up my alley. Love that I can think of work AND pigs at the same time!

  2. karine Jans says:

    I would even say they also have a good idea about time in matters which have no link to food. We sleep next to the pigs, there is no full wall in between, only cabinets of almost 7 feet high. When we turn off the lights to go to bed, they keep fairly quiet, lots more than during the day, to let us sleep. When we are awake, we can sometimes hear them talk, but so quietly, it’s really obvious that they respect our sleep till the alarm goes off. About 5 minutes before that happens, they start racing in the cage. They are also aware when it’s weekend and don’t race then!

  3. David says:

    That was really very interesting. Thank you for writing and sharing this one.

  4. All well and good but aren’t they painting all rodents with a rather broad brush? They claim episodic memory just for themselves and not for all apes let alone all primates. How does it make sense to claim that the memory of all rodents — about 1/4 or all mammal species — have the same type of memory? Does a rat really remember things the same way a beaver does? Or a hamster? Or a capybara? Their habitats and their habits are completely different. Just saying.

    • I agree! I found it difficult to find conclusions made from a series of studies on a specific type of rodent and the results are probably skewed to a certain degree because of it. I think that’s why quite often the scientists say “this suggests such-and-such idea” but it doesn’t necessarily prove it. It would be easier to ask a beaver, or hamster, or capybara… or guinea pig, but I think mine are lovable jerks and probably wouldn’t tell me anyway.

  5. Some interesting conclusions but also some suggested need for further research. With regard to memory of abuse, I am convinced my 2-3 year old sheltie that was abandoned a year ago associates the sound of babies crying with some trauma as it distresses him, and apart from the sound of children laughing (which cause him to chitter) no other sounds make him distressed like this, even fireworks. None of my others have shown any concern at the sound of a baby crying.

  6. Milded says:

    A really interesting article. I don’t see how they can ‘lump’ all the rodents together either. I personally think living so close to our guineas we become totally aware (or empathetic) to all their nuances, more so than any researcher would do – unless they lived with the rodent they were researching 24 hours a day. And that must be the same for ratties, hamsters, capybaras and so on.

    Pig-watching has been one of the best bits of having guineas in our lives, and the more I have watched them more I notice. Oh-ho, got to go – a certain little pig seems to be making sure I know it is supper time – now! All it takes is a raised eyebrow!

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