By Jennifer Phillips
Chinchillas are very energetic and inquisitive creatures that have been become increasingly popular as pets. They are rodents in the Chinchillidae family that are native to the Andes Mountains in South America, where they live in burrows or crevices in rocks. The name Chinchilla, which means “little chincha,” comes from Chincha people of the Andes who hunted them nearly to extinction in order to wear their soft, dense fur. Today, illegal hunting continues to threaten the existence of chinchillas in the wild.
Chinchillas have been described as fluffy, round squirrels in appearance. They have large eyes and ears that many people find very cute. Including their bushy tails, adult chinchillas are typically around 12 inches long and weigh around 1 to 1 ½ pounds, with females being larger. The most common color of chinchilla is varying shades of gray, but domestication has produced more variety in colors such as white, black velvet, beige, ebony, violet and sapphire, and combinations of these colors.
Chinchillas have a surprisingly long lifespan, especially when they are enjoying the advantages of being a well cared for pet. On average, a chinchilla lives to be 10 to 12 years old in captivity, with some reaching 20 years of age. This is something that is very important to keep in mind when deciding whether a chinchilla is right for you.
Choosing where you will get your chinchilla is also an important decision to make. Pet stores are a common place to acquire a chinchilla, mainly due to convenience. However, lack of socialization at a young age, which most animals at pet stores experience, can result in skittish and aggressive behavior. Poor diet, stress and boredom can also lead to health and behavior problems such as pulling out fur, called barbering. A reputable breeder can minimize these risks by providing an environment that includes socialization, a proper diet and enough stimulation to ensure a healthy, happy chinchilla.
Selecting a chinchilla with a good personality and being knowledgeable about their needs will help ensure a good, long term relationship with them. While their personalities can vary from one chinchilla to another, an individual’s personality does not change easily, so keep this in mind when choosing your chinchilla. Typically, what you see is what you get. Earning their trust takes time and effort, but once you do, they will be more likely to enjoy getting petted or even hopping onto your shoulder. Most chinchillas don’t enjoy much cuddling or being handled too much even after they get to know you. Since chinchillas are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active at twilight (dusk and dawn), these are the best times to interact with them.
Chinchillas are fairly easy to care for and have very little odor, but maintaining a clean environment is crucial to their health since they are sensitive to bacteria and other contaminants that may be ingested from an unsanitary environment. Enclosures such aquariums can easily overheat your chinchilla and are not recommended. An uncoated wire cage, with spacing no larger than half an inch by one inch, will prevent them from escaping, chewing their way out or becoming sick from ingesting wire coating. A great, affordable place to buy cages is martinscages.com.
Mesh flooring can cause soreness of their delicate feet and toes, so cover the levels with untreated pine or fleece, or use a cage with solid flooring. Avoid using cedar and redwood bedding, or any other woods that contain resins, oils and phenols as they are toxic to chinchillas. Aspen shavings or untreated white pine shavings are the safest bedding options. Since chinchillas require lots of exercise, make sure to choose a cage that is large enough for him to get adequate exercise. A large exercise wheel, such as the Wobust Wodent Wheel is highly recommended for allowing exercise. The location of the cage is also important to avoid stress and major temperature fluctuations. Place the cage in a cool, but not drafty, place that is quiet and avoids direct sunlight. Since chinchillas don’t sweat, they may suffer a heatstroke in temperatures above 75º F.
Chinchillas require a dust bath that mimics the volcanic ash of their natural habitat once or twice per week to clean themselves. Dust bathing too frequently can dry out their skin and irritate their eyes and nose, so don’t allow them full time access. These dust baths work by collecting oils and dirt particles which then fall off as they shake and roll around. It’s important to use only dust made for chinchillas, which is often made from ground pumice rock, while avoiding brands that use sand, as it can irritate skin. Place an inch or two of dust in an enclosed container, such as those made specifically for dust baths, and allow your chinchilla some time to have a blast. Large fish bowls also work well for dust baths, because glass improves the visibility of the chinchilla while he’s bathing. Since the dust bath involves the chinchilla excitedly rolling around, make sure the container is heavy enough not to fall over and place it in the cage or in another safe place while it’s being used. Bathing with water can cause fungus and remove natural skin oils, so stick with dust baths only. In addition to keeping them clean, dust baths are also relaxing and fun for chinchillas.
The digestive tract of the chinchilla is delicate, so it is very important to stick to a steady, appropriate diet and make any diet changes gradually. A chinchilla specific, low protein, low fat, high fiber diet in the form of pellets is best. Mixed foods allow the chinchilla to pick out certain items rather than eating a balanced diet and often contain items that should be reserved for treat time only. Using a bowl that attaches to the side of the cage prevents spilling or soiling the food. Plastic food bowls tend get chewed and spill easily.
In addition to their regular food, fresh, clean grass hay, such as western timothy, brome, orchard or bermuda grass should be made available at all times. Avoid rich legume hays that are too high in protein such as alfalfa, clover and vetch. Fresh vegetables and fruit should not be given, and sweets should be very limited because sugars harm the normal intestinal microflora of the chinchilla and can also cause diabetes. Clean water should always be available from a water bottle that is placed to prevent chewing or has a metal guard. Chinchillas chew things in order to wear down their continuously growing teeth, so providing chew toys helps prevent the overgrowth and misalignment of the teeth.
It’s easy to see why chinchillas have become such popular pets since their domestication in the early 1900’s. They have unique personalities and entertain us with their enthusiastic dust baths. If well cared for, they can be an interesting addition to your furry family for many years.