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What does It Mean to be "Used As a Guinea Pig"?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 21, 2024
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Animals used for laboratory tests are not selected randomly from local pet stores or breeders, but are shipped in directly from specialized companies that raise genetically pure strains. This purity eliminates many of the problems scientists face when observing the results of their experiments, since all of the animals should be in similar health beforehand. For decades, one of the test animals of choice was the guinea pig, considered to be heartier and easier to observe than mice or rats. To be used as a guinea pig, therefore, meant to be the test subject for medical or scientific experiments.

Eventually, however, the guinea pig became less and less popular as a test animal for laboratory experimentation. Compared to other rodents, it has a long gestational period, which means it could take months before generations of animals could be studied for genetic damage. The animal is also highly sensitive to drugs such as penicillin, which does not make it an ideal candidate for medical research. Many laboratories have already switched to using mice for their research, and there are only two strains of laboratory-grade guinea pigs now available for research purposes. In 2006, a major breeding facility in Great Britain bowed to public pressure and agreed to stop production.

In the common vernacular, being used as a guinea pig suggests becoming a tester for an unproven process or product. If a friend graduates from a beauty school and wants to perform her first professional haircut, for example, the brave friend in the chair is being used as a guinea pig. A cook experimenting with a new recipe may also seek out a volunteer to act as a test subject. Others may decide to observe the person's reactions before committing themselves to a similar taste test. Unlike the actual rodent, a person is often aware of the dangers involved and agrees to take the risk.

Sometimes, a large company will use one of its smaller divisions as a test subject in order to gauge public interest in a new product line or service. By observing both the positive and negative results of the experiment, the company can make a rational decision on whether or not to invest more money and time into the project. Being used as a guinea pig in a rhetorical sense can be both rewarding and risky at the same time. There is an element of sacrifice inherent with the position, but there is also often a sense of accomplishment if the experiment leads to new advances.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to All The Science, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By golf07 — On Sep 05, 2012

My daughter is an aspiring chef and loves to experiment in the kitchen. We are fortunate enough to be her guinea pigs. In a situation like this, it has turned out to be a good thing.

Many times when I get home from work, she will already have dinner taken care of. There have been a few flops along the way, but most of the time her experiments have been delicious.

Not only have we got to try new foods that I would have never thought of, but I also don't have to worry about what I am going to make for dinner every night. Now if I could just get her to clean up after herself too, but maybe that is asking for too much!

By John57 — On Sep 05, 2012

My cousin used to have a couple guinea pigs for pets and we always had fun playing with them. They were bigger and much softer than something like a hamster. When you picked them up they would make special guinea pig sounds like they were talking to you and snuggle right up against you.

I have a hard time reading about any testing done on these animals. When you have something like this for a pet, it is hard to think about them being used for a scientific experiment.

By Mykol — On Sep 04, 2012

As long as someone knows up front about the risks of certain medications, I think it should be their choice to decide whether they want to be a guinea pig or not.

I have been frustrated on the other side of this because I have felt like my sister has been treated as a guinea pig in the medical system without volunteering for it.

She has had some mental problems as a result of trauma to her brain from a car accident. They have had a hard time treating her because this is so different from someone who has a chemical imbalance.

She has been on so many different medications trying to find something that will work for her. Each one of them has had negative and serious side effects for her. I feel like they are just experimenting with her, and treating her like a guinea pig until they find something that will work.

By LisaLou — On Sep 04, 2012

@StarJo-- I have known a few people who have volunteered to be a guinea pig for a new drug program. They are not charged for the drug and don't mind being a part of the experiment.

The two people I am most familiar with were at a place where they were willing to try anything. The other medications and treatments they had been using weren't working very well, and they were really hoping for positive results from the new drug.

In a case like this, I see nothing wrong with being a guinea pig. You know up front what the risks are and go into the experiment accepting them, but hoping for a positive outcome.

By Oceana — On Aug 30, 2012

@kylee07drg – That sounds like a pleasant way to be used as a guinea pig! I had a much less pleasant experience with being one, and this was due in part to not knowing that I was one.

I went for a haircut at a new salon, and I had no idea that this was the stylist's first job. Her mother owned the salon, so she let the girl cut before she had even graduated cosmetology school.

She had told the girl that if she did well, she would consider hiring her part-time while she finished her education. Well, the stylist made a mess of my hair, and her mother had to fix it. In order to do this, she had to cut a lot more off than I had wanted to make it even.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 29, 2012

My friend has a guinea pig as a pet, and she once told me that she would love to go to a research lab and open up all the guinea pig cages so that they could be free. I told her that would be a bad idea, unless she wanted to go to prison.

Labs are on the lookout for people who do this, because it has happened so often in the past. I'm pretty sure they have security cameras installed on the property.

It is sad that these animals are used without having any choice in the matter. However, I would rather the research companies use literal guinea pigs instead of human ones.

By kylee07drg — On Aug 28, 2012

I used my friends as guinea pigs before marketing my new chocolate truffles in stores. I wanted to make sure that I had the recipe perfected, so I called in my friends on two different occasions to serve as taste testers.

They had no problem with this at all. They gave me useful information after the first taste test that helped me improve the truffles, and on their second visit, they confirmed that the truffles were flawless.

By StarJo — On Aug 27, 2012

I am a guinea pig for the nephrology research center at a major university. They were looking for subjects to test a new drug to treat polycystic kidney disease on, and I met the criteria.

I was a willing guinea pig, because I know that without some form of treatment, I will most likely need a kidney transplant someday. If this drug works, then it could save me from that, while giving the researchers all the guinea pig information that they need.

They do yearly MRIs to see how much my cysts have shrunk, if any. They also test my blood and urine every six months to see if the drug is having any adverse effects.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to All The Science, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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