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Chinchillas need space to run around. Their long, paintbrush-like bushy tails help them balance as they leap. Their enclosure should be a minimum of four-by-four-by-three-feet for a single chinchilla, and since these animals are very active, the cage should have multiple levels for jumping and climbing, as well as a place to hide. Chinchillas should be housed singly unless they have been raised together and the cage is large enough. Otherwise, fighting may occur. Opposite-sex pairs also shouldn’t be kept together unless the male is neutered, or many babies may result! The cage should be placed in a quiet area to minimize exposure to sudden movements and loud noises that may stress the pet. Like other rodents, chinchillas love to chew, and, therefore, wire-mesh cages are preferable to wooden cages. Galvanized wire should not be used for cages, as it contains zinc, which can be toxic if ingested. Mesh should be narrow enough to prevent catching feet between the bars. To lessen the likelihood of foot trauma (also called pododermatitis or "sore hock"), part of a wire cage floor should be covered with Plexiglas, tile or wood (although wood is hard to disinfect) to take pressure from the wire cage bottom off the soles of the chinchilla’s feet. A thick layer of paper-based bedding should be provided under the cage floor to absorb urine and feces. When housing one chinchilla, this bedding should be spot-cleaned daily and completely cleaned out weekly. Wood shavings are not recommended, as they can be dusty and irritating and are indigestible if eaten. Chinchillas should be allowed to run around outside of the cage daily in a safe space to play and exercise, but they should never be left unsupervised, as they may chew on electric cords, painted surfaces and other items that may be toxic or dangerous.
Since chinchillas have evolved to live at high altitudes with cool temperatures, they do not do well in warm weather. With their dense fur coats, they do best living at temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit and definitely cannot tolerate heat above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Above this temperature, they commonly collapse from heatstroke. Collapse is often the first sign that they are in trouble, so prevention is definitely best. They also do not tolerate humid conditions at all. Heatstroke in a chinchilla is a life-threatening emergency condition requiring immediate veterinary attention including cool water baths and subcutaneous or intravenous fluid therapy. And while chinchillas prefer cooler temperatures, they generally should not be housed outside where temperature swings may be extreme and they can suffer frostbite on their sparsely furred ear tips and feet.
Many chinchilla owners don’t realize it, but their pets should visit the veterinarian annually to have their teeth checked and to be weighed. Dental problems — especially tooth root impaction from overgrowth of teeth into the jaw, like wisdom tooth impaction in humans — is extremely common in older pet chinchillas. Tooth root impaction often has a slow and insidious onset that can only be picked up early on by a chinchilla-savvy veterinarian who feels the impacted tooth roots along the underside of the jaw and notices weight loss beneath the thick fur coat. Often, chinchillas with tooth root impaction aren’t diagnosed until late in the course of the disease, when little can be done for treatment. That’s why it is essential that chinchillas have a thorough physical examination, including a weight check and oral exam every year.
Chinchillas can make phenomenal, loving companions, but like other pets, they have special requirements to stay healthy and thrive. If you are considering bringing one of these fascinating little creatures into your home, be sure to speak to a veterinary professional first to be sure that a chinchilla is the right match for you.
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