Wirth, S., Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G., Riemer, S. et al. 2020. The influence of human interaction on guinea pigs: Behavioral and thermographic changes during animal-assisted therapy. Physiology & Behavior 225, 113076.
Guinea pigs are often involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) but there is little knowledge about the effects of human contact on guinea pigs involved in AAT. The aim of this study was to investigate effects of availability of a retreat, presence of conspecifics, prior experience with AAT, and human interaction on indicators of welfare in guinea pigs involved in AAT. Guinea pigs of both sexes and different ages (n=20) were assigned to a randomized, controlled within-subject trial with repeated measurements. Each guinea pig was tested in four settings: (I) therapy with retreat possibility with conspecifics, (II) therapy with retreat possibility without conspecifics, (III) therapy without retreat possibility, and (IV) setting without human interaction. We measured changes in eye temperature, as a proxy to infer stress levels, at 5-s intervals with a thermographic camera. All sessions were video recorded and the guinea pigs’ behavior was coded using continuous recording and focal animal sampling. For the statistical analysis we used generalized linear mixed models, with therapy setting as a fixed effect and individual guinea pig as a random effect. We observed a temperature increase relative to baseline in settings (I) therapy with retreat with conspecifics present and (III) therapy without retreat. The percentage of time a guinea pig was petted was positively correlated with a rise in the eye temperature independent of the setting. Time spent eating was reduced in all therapy settings (I-III) compared to the setting without HAI (human animal interaction) (IV). In the setting with retreat (I), guinea pigs showed more active behaviors such as locomotive behavior or startling compared to the setting without retreat (III) and the setting without HAI (IV). When no retreat was available (III), they showed more passive behaviors, such as standing still or freezing compared to therapy with retreat (I). Based on our results we identified the behaviors “reduced eating”, “increased startle” and “increased freezing” as indicators of an increased stress level. Petting the guinea pigs was correlated with a rise in the eye temperature and might be a factor which can cause stress. Our results support the suggestion that guinea pigs involved in AAT should have a retreat possibility, should have access to conspecifics, and should be given time to adapt to a new setting. In this way, stress might be reduced.