The Top 10 Things to Know About Chinchillas
Chinchillas are charming, small rodents originating from South America, where they are now nearly extinct from being hunted for their thick coats. They are adapted to live at high elevations, where they inhabit the cool, rocky slopes of the Andean Mountains in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, living in burrows and rock crevices in groups of several hundred. Chinchillas are commonly bred as pets in the U.S. and are available from reputable breeders, pet stores and rescue groups. They tend to be affectionate, curious and social animals that can bond closely with their owners and generally like to be held close and cuddled. Certain features of chinchillas make them unique, and anyone considering a pet chinchilla should know these 10 fascinating chinchilla facts.
1. Their teeth grow continuously.
Like other rodents, chinchillas have teeth that grow two to three inches per year. Their upper and lower teeth must align in order to wear down properly against each other as they chew. Improper alignment, or malocclusion, occurs when the teeth do not meet properly and, therefore, do not wear correctly, leading to overgrowth. This can happen with the visible front teeth (incisors) or the back teeth (molars and premolars), which you cannot see. Overgrown teeth may cut the tongue, cheek or lips, causing difficulty eating, oral pain, decreased appetite, weight loss, drooling, pawing at the face and tooth root infections. If you notice any of these signs, be sure to seek veterinary attention. To help wear down their teeth, chinchillas should be provided with untreated wood objects (available from pet stores) on which to chew.
2. They are herbivores.
Chinchillas require a high fiber diet composed predominantly of grass hay. While alfalfa hay can be fed to nursing and growing chinchillas (in youngsters, the author recommends up until about 9 months), timothy hay is preferred for non-breeding adult chinchillas, as alfalfa is too high in protein and calcium, and can lead to obesity and development of calcium-based bladder stones. In addition to unlimited amounts of hay, chinchillas can be fed one to two tablespoons per day of commercially available pelleted food formulated for chinchillas, as well as fresh vegetables. Small amounts of low-calcium-containing fresh greens (such as dark green lettuces, collards, squash and peppers) and very small quantities of high-fiber fruit (apples and berries) can be offered daily to provide fiber and to help wear down growing teeth. Excess vegetable consumption can lead to diarrhea. Sugary treats (such as raisins, dried fruits, yogurt drops, etc.) and high-fat foods (such as nuts and sunflower seeds) should be avoided to help prevent gastrointestinal upset and obesity. Fresh water should be given every day via a sipper bottle or water bowl.
3. They have extremely dense fur.
Chinchillas possess up to 60 hairs per hair follicle, as opposed to humans who typically have only one hair per follicle, making chinchillas’ fur coats very thick to allow them to retain body heat at high altitudes. Unfortunately, their thick coats have been coveted by poachers who have trapped and killed wild chinchillas to sell their pelts for fur coats, contributing to their near extinction in the wild. Pet chinchillas’ soft, velvety coats make them very attractive to stroke and cuddle.
4. They keep clean with… dust baths!
In their native South America, chinchillas roll in volcanic ash to help keep their thick fur coats clean. Similarly, pet chinchillas require a dust bath two to three times per week. To keep their coats shiny and to absorb skin oil, pet chinchillas should be given a plastic or cardboard dust box, at least six-by-six-by-nine inches, with two to three inches of dust in the bottom. Commercially available chinchilla dust can be found online and in pet stores. Complete dust bath kits (plastic containers with spherical bottoms and roof-shaped tops) are also sold online and in stores. Dust baths should be offered for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and should be removed after use. Chinchillas typically jump into the bath, roll around in the dust rapidly over and over, and appear to really enjoy it. Since the dust can become soiled with urine and feces, it should be changed every two to three weeks or whenever it starts to clump together.
5. They can release their fur to get away from predators.
Chinchillas release clumps of fur when handled improperly, stressed or when fighting — a defense mechanism called “fur slip.” In the wild, when caught in the mouth of a predator, the chinchilla releases a patch of fur to escape. No permanent damage is usually done to the skin when this occurs. The fur re-grows, although new growth may take several months. Since they have this defense mechanism, pet chinchillas should be handled gently with one hand under the body and the other around the base of the tail. When they need to be restrained, wrap the body in a towel. Care should be taken not to grasp the skin or fur, or the chinchilla may release a large clump of hair into the grasper’s hand.
6. They are nocturnal.
Wild chinchillas are very active in the evening, particularly during and after dusk. However, pet chinchillas adapt readily to humans’ schedules. Pets should be provided with some quiet time during daylight hours and a hide box in which to sleep, if they choose. Many enjoy a wheel in their cages to run on and to get exercise at night. Make sure the wheel is large enough — guinea pig sized is best! Since chinchillas commonly like to run at night, if you are a light sleeper, a chinchilla might not be the best pet for you.
7. They are long-lived.
Pet chinchillas, when provided with proper care and nutrition, live on average about 10 years. Some pets have been reported to live as long as 20 years. Individuals thinking about a chinchilla as a pet should consider whether they are prepared to care for an animal for this many years.
8. They are very fast-moving and agile.
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.
9. They are very susceptible to heatstroke.
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.
10. They require veterinary care.
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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