Chinchillas are rodents native to the Andes mountains in South America. Their natural climate is dry and cool and they are most active at night. They live among rocks and mountain crevices where they forage on plants.Chinchillas have very dense fur that they keep clean by taking a “dust bath.” This ritual involves rolling and flipping in volcanic dust. Chinchillas came to North America in the early 1900s when ranchers raised them for their fur. M.F. Chapman is the man responsible for bringing the first chinchillas to North America. Chinchillas can live a long time in captivity usually 10-15 years but can live up into their 20s. While usually only gray chinchillas are seen in the wild, many mutations have been developed among captive chins. In fact there are around 16 different color mutations!
One of the most important things to consider about chinchillas is that they cannot tolerate very high temperatures or very high humidity. Chinchillas should be kept at temperatures under 75 degrees F but 70 F is ideal. If you live where temperatures get any higher than 75 even if it’s one day a year and you have a chinchilla then you need to have an air-conditioner. Chinchillas can over heat very quickly and this can lead to death. Just think how you would feel running around in the heat while wearing a full-length fur coat. If you think a fan will help, please think again. With you and me, fans seem to cool us down because we sweat and the fan moves the air around helping the sweat evaporate creating the cooling effect. Chinchillas do not sweat, so a fan WILL NOT HELP!
Chinchillas are hearty pets and do not usually get sick nor do they need vaccinations but it is a good idea to have a knowledgeable vet on hand. Make sure the vet has experience with chinchillas; some will assume that they are similar to other small animals but they are unique (not a guinea pig or rabbit) which is why you should find a vet who has had lots of chinchilla experience. It is a good idea to find a vet ahead of time then to be frantically searching for one when you have an emergency. It is also a good idea to take your chin to a vet for a check-up when you first bring him or her home as well as a yearly check-up to make sure your chinchilla is in good general health.
Chinchillas’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life, which is why they need to chew on wood or pumice. The chewing wears down their teeth and keeps them at the proper length. Overgrown teeth cause problems and at the very least will cause your chin to have to have its teeth filled down.
Ringworm, or fungus, is common among chinchillas. Ringworm will show up as patches of red, crusty or flaky skin. Missing patches of hair with irritated skin is a sign of ringworm.
Chinchillas kept in captivity need a dust bath provided a few times per week to keep their fur looking good. The dust should be changed weekly or sooner if soiled. The dust can be provided in a special dust house or you can use any type of container or box as long as it is large enough for the chinchilla to roll and flip. Pet chinchillas do not need to be brushed or combed however doing so, especially during or after their first prime (when they get their adult fur), will help the dust get deeper into the fur. Most if not all chinchillas entered into a chinchilla show will have been combed with a special chinchilla comb.
Chinchillas run, bounce, and jump in their cage. Since they are nocturnal, all this can be loud when you are trying to sleep. Although most active during the evening and night, chinchillas do not sleep all day and will periodically move around their cage from time to time throughout the day.
Wild chinchillas live in colonies so it is possible for 2 or more chinchillas to live together. Two males are often the easiest to pair up but females can be paired together also. This always depends on the individual personalities of the chinchillas though and you should always have a spare chinchilla cage on hand in case the chinchillas begin to fight. Also, there is nothing wrong with having a single chinchilla; some chinchillas even like to be “only chins” and do not get along with others.
Chinchillas can make a variety of vocalizations. You can listen to some of them here.
As defense mechanisms, chinchillas can loose their fur! If a predator tries to grab at the chinchilla, it can slip its fur (in the same way a lizard can throw it’s tail) so that the predator is left with just a mouthful of fur! You may experience this with your own pet chin if you go to pick it up and it tries to run away. The amount of fur slip that occurs varies and how often a chinchilla fur slips depends on the individual chin also. Another defense aid is “spraying.” Chinchillas can spray urine and females tend to be much better at it with incredible aim. Chinchillas can spray walls, people, and/ or other chins. Some become habitual sprayers, while others only do it on occasion or when irritated.
Chinchillas are herbivores which means they feed strictly on plants A good quality feed will be fresh and will NOT have any type of treats in it (banana chips, papaya, seeds, nuts, etc.). The pellets will also NOT CONTAIN CORN as an ingredient. Some owners use supplements but they are not necessary with a good quality diet. Some commonly recommended feeds are Oxbow, American Pet Diner (APD), and Tradition (Hubbard Feeds). Chinchillas on average eat about 2 tablespoons of pellets per day. Most owners like to free feed their chinchillas; this means they have pellets at all times. You can use a gravity bin feeder (but make sure it has a lid) or use a smaller food dish that the chinchilla cannot tip over. The advantage to the gravity bin feeders are that you won’t have to fill them as often as a bowl but the advantages of the bowls are that you can dump out the crumbs and fleeces (that will inevitably end up there) when the pellets get low and the pellets will be more fresh assuming you keep them in an air-tight container or bag.
Chinchillas should be provided loose hay at all times. The hay is a very good source of fiber and helps to keep their teeth trimmed. Hay cubes are sometimes used as an alternative to loose hay. They can help cut down on the mess caused by loose hay however some chinchillas prefer to play with them rather than eating the hay cubes.
Chinchillas do not need treats but it’s okay to feed them on occasion. One small treat (the size of a raisin) per day is adequate and any more can be unhealthy. Sticky treats such as dried fruit (apple, papaya, pineapple, raisins, etc.) should be limited to once a week. Rosehips are a good source of calcium but should be limited to 2-3 per week. Other options are spoon size shredded wheat, plain cheerios, oats, dried vegetables, or the occasional few sunflower seeds. Too many seeds or nuts can lead to liver disease due to high amounts of fat.
In addition to pellets and hay, chinchillas also need water. A water bottle is the very best way to provide clean fresh water. There are several types of bottles available; plastic vacuum bottles, glass vacuum bottles, and positive flow plastic bottles. Each kind of bottle has it’s own advantages. Vacuum bottles usually have a metal nozzle with a metal ball inside. These bottles work on a vacuum principle and usually drip a little. The plastic bottles are usually very cheap but will most likely get a hole chewed in them pretty fast. The glass bottles hold up much better, provided you don’t drop them, and can be sanitized. The positive flow gravity bottles such as the Edstrom Water Buddy do not allow saliva and food particles to get sucked back up as the vacuum bottles do and they are easy to refill but they are plastic and unless you buy a guard to protect them, your chinchilla will probably chew a hole in it sooner or later.
Chinchilla housing can be as simple or as complex as you want. Each chinchilla should be allowed at minimum 2 square feet of space. Typical runs (a system of connected cages used by some breeders) are 15 “x 21″x 12″. Many pet owners like larger cages and some have been known to build cages up to 5′l x 8′h. However, not everyone has room for a giant cage and tall cages can be dangerous if the chinchilla were to fall from the top to the bottom if not well planned out.
– The first decision to make when getting a cage is do you want a wire cage or a solid sided cage. Wire cages provide more airflow but are messier. Solid cages (usually made of melamine and enclosed on 3 sides) will help to contain the mess but are heavy and do not provide as much airflow as the wire cages. There are a few people who make solid cages you can buy or you can build the cage yourself either from your own plans or from plans available on the web. If you do use melamine be careful and make sure that all exposed edges are covered, as the glue used to make melamine is toxic to chinchillas.
– Next you need to decide if you want a solid bottom cage or a wire bottom. A solid bottom cage is where you put the bedding in the bottom of the cage and the animal has contact with the bedding. Solid bottoms are easier on chinchillas’ feet but some people do not like their pet sitting in its waste. Wire bottoms solve this problem by having a wire floor above the bedding pan. The animal does not have contact with the bedding and the pan can be dumped while the chinchilla remains in the cage. Wire bottoms are generally considered easier to clean but chinchilla feet can get sore from being on wire all the time and on occasion feet can get stuck in the wire and lead to broken legs. Be sure to provide a ledge or solid surface in wire cages so that your chinchilla can get off the wire if desired.
– You need to decide the dimensions of the cage you want. A longer cage will allow more room for running but a taller cage allows more jumping and you can add more levels. If you chose a tall cage, make sure to overlap shelves or have a full level to that your chinchilla cannot fall more than 18-24″ if he was to miscalculate a jump.
– Finally, you may need to take into account the wire spacing of the cage, whether you are going to use a wire cage or melamine cage since it will have at least one side of wire mesh. Many people believe wire floors should be no larger than 1/2″ x 1/2″, though others say 1/2″ x 1″ is best. If you have wire shelves, you should run a strip or metal or wood along the underside of the shelf at the edge so that your chin won’t hang itself if a foot slips through when jumping down. Side wire should be no wider than 1". Many commercially manufactured cages have spacing around 1″ x 4-6”. It is possible to find smaller side spacing but generally the cages are not as sturdy since a higher gauge wire is used. Side wire should be no bigger than 1/2″ for breeding chinchillas but if you are thinking about breeding, please do some research first and do not rush into it. Far too many people rush into breeding only to acquire too many chinchillas too fast and then end up selling most, if not all of their chinchillas a short time later.
Here are a few more points to consider on caging:
– Galvanized steel should be used for metal cages. The galvanization protects against rusting.
– Powder coating is an alternative to galvanized steel. It is easier to clean but can get scraped or chewed off over time. White coating makes it easy to see any urine that has been spayed on the cage bars.
– Plastic will get chewed. Just because your chinchilla has not chewed plastic in the past doesn’t mean he won’t ever chew plastic. I’ve had a chinchilla that didn’t chew plastic in the past chew his way out of a pet carrier in half an hour.
– Wire ramps/ladders are not needed as chins can jump from one level to the next. The ramps can actually be dangerous and they just take up unnecessary room so it is a good idea to remove them if your cage has any.
– Smaller doors make it harder to get your chinchilla out of the cage but larger doors make it harder to contain your chin when opening the door for feeding or adding hay.
The few things that a chinchilla NEEDS are: a food dish, a water bottle, a container for dust, and if you live in a climate where temperatures can reach above 75, then you can add AIR-CONDITIONING to the list.
You may wish to provide some of these accessories although they are not needed:
– Hay rack – can help keep hay clean as some chins tend to urinate on it if in a dish or on a shelf, be careful of protruding wires!
– Hanging toys – help wear down teeth and entertain
– Chew sticks or carry toys – small sticks or pieces of wood or pumice that chins can carry around their cage. Make sure they have not been treated with pesticides or fertilizers.
– Hide house or tunnel – provides a sense of security and a quiet place to rest
– Hammock – provides a comfortable place for your chin to lounge.
– Wheels – some chins will use them , others won’t. Personally I do not feel that chins move naturally on them and so they are not for exercise but are more of a toy. If you purchase a wheel, do make sure it has a solid running surface and does NOT have cross bars (a bar running along the diameter of the circle) as these can be dangerous. Also a full grown chinchilla will need a wheel that has at least a 14″ diameter.
– Tiles – some people use these to add solid surfaces in the cage for the chins to rest their feet off the wire. They can also be cooled and placed in the cage on a hot day however THIS IS NOT A REPLACEMENTS FOR AIR-CONDITIONING AND WILL NOT PREVENT HEATSTROKE!
Enrichment is important to any animal kept in captivity. In the wild, animals come across different things in their environment. In captivity their environment is controlled and often times every day is the same. It’s a good idea to make every day different for your pet. This could mean giving your chinchilla a new toy, letting it out to explore and play (in a chin-proof area), or giving it hay in a different way (maybe fill up a toilet paper tube with hay instead of the usual hay rack or dish.) You can even replicate natural foraging behaviors by letting your chinchilla run around your room and find pellets that you have “hidden.” The point is DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT EVERY DAY! It will help keep your chinchilla from becoming bored and stimulate his natural behavior.