Chinchillas — a rodent related to the guinea pig — can make fun, enjoyable pets. They originated in South America where they live in the Andes Mountains. Their average life-span is about 10 years. They are nocturnal animals, meaning they are often more active at night and prefer to sleep during the day.
All pets, including chinchillas, need regular veterinary examinations. Chinchillas can occasionally get sick and their illnesses are often severe. All newly adopted chinchillas should be examined by a qualified veterinarian (who's knowledgeable about chinchillas) within two weeks of adoption. Many problems are caused by misinformation, and the first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from making mistakes. Like other pets, chinchillas should be examined annually and have their feces tested for parasites.
Pet chinchillas do not require vaccinations.
Chinchillas are unique animals with unique needs. Understanding these needs will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health problems.
- Fur slip: Chinchillas have the ability to release or “slip” patches of fur when handled roughly, when stressed, or when fighting. No permanent damage is usually done to the chinchilla. The fur usually regrows, although the new growth takes several months.
- Antibiotic sensitivity: Rodents are very susceptible to antibiotic toxicity. Human antibiotics, including penicillin and erythromycin, can be fatal to pet chinchillas. For this reason, you should NEVER give a pet chinchillas medication without checking with your veterinarian first.
- Dust bathing: Chinchillas have a unique grooming habit called dust bathing. Each day, they should be provided with a dust bath — a mixture of nine parts silver sand and one part fuller’s earth. These ingredients are available at most pet stores. Enough dust should be provided so that the chinchilla can roll around in it. Be sure to remove the dust bath after use and keep it clean and free of feces and urine.
- Respiratory diseases: Respiratory diseases are common in pet chinchillas and can easily become pneumonia. Conditions such as overcrowding, poor ventilation, and high humidity may predispose an animal to pneumonia. Common signs include lack of appetite, lethargy, difficulty breathing, nasal discharge, and swollen lymph nodes.
- Overgrown teeth: As is true with many rodents, chinchillas' front and back teeth grow continuously throughout life. Signs of overgrown teeth include drooling and depressed appetite. If you suspect your Chinchilla has overgrown teeth, please visit your veterinarian for further inspection. To keep the teeth worn down, a chinchilla needs to constantly gnaw. Wood is soft enough that chinchillas won't damage their teeth, but hard enough to keep teeth worn down to proper size. The best types of wood for gnawing are white pine (also good for making chinchilla houses) and apple. Do not give your chinchilla wood that is poisonous, including cedar, eucalyptus, plum, plywood, cherry, fir, spruce, and redwood.
- Diarrhea: Diarrhea is not a disease but rather a sign of disease. Rodents easily develop diarrhea due to changes in diet, incorrect usage of antibiotics, stress, and diets low in fiber or high in fat and protein. To determine the correct diagnosis, your veterinarian will perform diagnostic testing including microscopic fecal examinations, cultures, radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and/or exploratory surgery.
- Heat stroke: Heat stroke, a problem in many rodents, also occurs in chinchillas. Being normal inhabitants of the Andes Mountains, they are very comfortable at temperatures of 35-45 degrees. Temperatures above 80 degrees, especially if high humidity is also present, can easily lead to fatal heat stroke. Signs of heat stroke are similar to those seen in any pet with this problem and include panting, high blood temperature, and open-mouth breathing.
Signs of disease can be vague and non-specific, and any deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.
Chinchillas come from the arid regions of the high Andes Mountains, so their diet mostly consists of dried plants, grasses, and seeds. The key to a healthy, chinchilla diet is that it be nutrient-poor and contain a lot of bulk roughage.
A good chinchilla diet includes:
- Supplements and treats
Most pet parents are able to purchase commercial chinchilla pellets from a pet store. While the actual contents of the pellets may vary from brand to brand, the basic ingredients include wheat germ, alfalfa meal, oats, molasses, soybean oil meal, corn, and added vitamins and minerals. Since chinchillas eat with their hands, chinchilla pellets are usually longer than guinea pig or rabbit pellets so that the chinchilla has something to hang on to.
An adult chinchilla will eat about two heaping tablespoons of pellets per day. Some people recommend that chinchillas be fed twice a day, once in the morning and once again in the evening. Others suggest only once per day — some say morning, others say evening. Whichever you choose, be consistent to prevent stress.
Pellets can be offered in either a hopper type feeder that attaches to the side of the cage or a small ceramic bowl. Hopper feeders can't be tipped over and they're easy to fill from the outside of the cage. If you do offer food in a bowl, ceramic bowls are best because they are heavy enough to prevent being tipped over and they can't be chewed like a plastic bowl.
If chinchilla pellets are not available, rabbit or guinea pig pellets can be substituted. Make sure to get whichever is highest in fiber and lowest in fat.
If you have to change brands or types of pellets, keep in mind that chinchillas are creatures of habit and have delicate digestive systems. Make the change as gradual as possible, mixing in the new pellets in with the old. Each day, add slightly more of the new pellets to the mix so that the entire changeover takes a couple of weeks. A chinchilla may actually discard the new pellets at first, until it gets used to seeing them every day.
While pellets may provide most of a chinchilla's nutrition, timothy hay provides the necessary fiber. Timothy hay or orchard grass should be offered “free choice,” meaning it should be available 24 hours a day. An adult chinchilla will eat about a handful of loose hay or one pressed cube of hay each day. Besides eating their pressed hay cubes, chinchillas will also use them as play toys to push around their cage. Chinchillas will only eat as much hay as they want, so don't worry about giving them too much.
Part of the fun of owning a chinchilla is giving it special treats from time to time. Treats are fine in moderation, but too many can easily upset a chinchilla’s delicate system and cause weight gain. Don't give your adult chinchilla more than a teaspoon of treats per day (and even less for youngsters).
Almost all chinchillas love raisins. Half a raisin can be a great training aid, and an occasional raisin also helps prevent constipation in chinchillas. Again, the rule is moderation. Only three or four raisins per week is recommended, and even fewer for youngsters. Young chinchillas should only be given a half raisin at a time.
Other treats include:
- A small slice of apple (the size of a sugar cube), orange, grape, a blueberry
- A small carrot or celery slice
- Dried fruit (without sulfite preservatives)
- Rolled oats and shredded wheat (can help remedy diarrhea too)
- Sunflower seeds (buy the raw black oil sunflower seeds available for bird feeding)
Do not feed your chinchilla corn, cabbage, or lettuce. These foods can cause gas and are very hard on a chinchilla's tender digestive system.
Feed treats by hand or place them in a separate small treat dish. If treats are mixed in with a chinchilla's regular pellets, the chinchilla will pull out and throw away the regular pellets looking for the hidden treats.
Chinchillas need fresh water. Water should be changed at least every other day. If not changed, water can grow harmful bacteria. Chinchillas can drink standing water from a bowl, but this really isn't practical. The chinchilla will tend to foul its water or tip the bowl. Therefore, a water bottle that hangs on the side of the cage is much preferable.
Water bottles, including the small tube, should be thoroughly cleaned with hot water between water changes. It's easiest to have two water bottles so they can be rotated. A dishwasher provides an easy way to clean water bottles; however, a small brush is still needed to clean the tube.
Some veterinarians recommend adding vitamins to water and others don't. If chinchillas are fed an otherwise adequate diet, additional vitamins should not be necessary. Also, it's felt that adding vitamins might affect the taste of the water and the chinchilla may not drink enough water. Adding vitamins to water can also speed up bacterial growth. For these reasons, it's suggested that nothing be added to a chinchilla's usual water supply unless some additional dietary supplement is actually called for.
Your chinchilla's cage should allow for a lot of movement. Multi-level cages (similar to those designed for ferrets) work well. Like other rodents, chinchillas love to chew, so wire-mesh cages are preferred to wooden cages. Many veterinarians recommend covering at least a part of the floor with Plexiglas or wood to help take some of the pressure off your chinchilla's feet.
As noted above, chinchillas are very susceptible to heatstroke. Environmental temperatures should be kept below 80 degrees and high humidity should be avoided.
Other things to consider for housing:
- Wood or chew toys to chew (helps keep teeth filed down)
- Soft towels for bedding (make sure the chinchilla isn’t chewing the towels)
- Cage lining material (newspaper is inexpensive and works well; wood shavings sold for rodent cages can also be used)
- Cages should be cleaned at least weekly with soap and water (rinse well)