Caring for a Chinchilla: What You Need to Know
By Vanessa Voltolina
Small, furry pets can make wonderful companions for both children and adults, and chinchillas are no different. However, it’s best to be to make sure that chinchillas—affectionately called chins—are a good fit for you and your family before you take one home. Here, read more about the essentials of caring for chinchillas so you can be sure to give them all of the love and care they need to thrive.
Where Chinchillas Live
Chinchillas are originally native to South America and are medium-sized rodents long valued for their extremely soft and thick fur. Sadly, wild chinchillas have been hunted almost to extinction, and remain scarce in their native habitat, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Luckily for chin lovers, they are now raised commercially and sold as house pets.
Where to Buy a Chinchilla
Most owners purchase chinchillas through pet stores or breeders, but regardless of where you buy your chinchilla, make sure you ask questions, said Adam Denish, VMD, owner of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Philadelphia. You’ll want to inquire about previous owners (if any), behavior issues, the animal’s current living situation (as a pair with another chin, in a colony, or solo), and obtain the most complete health history possible. Also examine them carefully, said Denish. “If they are young, they will most likely be scared and back away initially. Over time, they will usually accept your touch,” he said. Healthy chinchillas are shy, but when in comfortable surroundings, are quite active. They should have a thick coat of fur with no bare patches. Their eyes should be bright with no redness or drainage and there should be no evidence of diarrhea in their habitat.
If they are reluctant, he suggests using food as a bridge to entice them. “A young chinchilla is really small and can easily jump out of your hands,” he says. If you adopt an older chin from a breeder or a private seller, you will likely be in the dark when it comes to their previous history. “Take time to let them adjust to the new environment,” said Denish.
What Should Chinchillas Eat?
Of course, a healthy, adequate diet is important with all animal species. “Luckily, chinchillas are able to eat specialized pellets that are a good base diet for them,” said Denish. In addition, good quality hay, like alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass and prairie grass, is extremely important to a chinchilla’s digestive tract, he added. A pellet-only diet does not provide enough fiber for chinchillas. In fact, a tablespoon or two of pellets per day is enough for most adults. The rest of their diet should consist of hay, leafy greens, and an occasional treat of dried apples, raisins or sunflower seeds.
Your Chinchilla’s Habitat
Chins need a cage that is safe and secure. Denish recommends one with a plastic bottom instead of a wire bottom, as the wire can irritate chinchillas’ feet. As for bedding, he said that there is a variety of bedding that is suitable for chinchillas and can be decided upon based on your preference. Good options for bedding include shredded or pelleted paper products, reclaimed wood pulp waste (like Carefresh) and aspen or pine shavings (avoid cedar shavings).
Your chins cage should also be multi-level, Denish said. “They need multiple hiding areas so they can escape when they feel threatened.” PVC pipe sections in the shape of a “Y,” “T,” or “L” make great chinchilla hiding places and are easy to clean.
Unfortunately, chinchillas are not easily litter trained, said Denish, “but you can always try putting a litter box with appropriate bedding in the corner where they do their business.” A non-leaking water bottle and a food bowl completes the set-up.
Providing the correct ambient temperature and humidity levels for chinchillas can be challenging. The species is very susceptible to heat stroke, so if you live in a hot and humid part of the country, air conditioning is necessary. Temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, particularly combined with high humidity, are extremely dangerous to chinchillas.
Like many animals, chinchillas have a grooming regimen, and it comes in the form of a dust bath. This is “self-regulated by chinchillas,” said Denish, who added that a chinchilla bath house can be purchased at a pet store. Expect your chinchilla to “bathe” itself every other day to clean its coat. Help your chinchilla keep up its routine by filling a container (or bath house) about two-inches deep with chinchilla dust (available at pet stores), then place your pet chin into it.
Andrew Bean, DVM of Pet Care Veterinary Hospital in Virginia Beach, VA, said dust bathing is both a behavioral outlet and an innate behavior which plays an important role in grooming. “Chins that don't have a dust bath will develop greasy, matted coats,” he said, adding that chinchillas that are not provided with regular opportunities to bathe may develop irritation of the eyes and respiratory passages.
Chinchilla Behavior and Temperament
Chinchillas are a species that are best housed as a single pet or as pairs, said Denish. He warns against having two members of the opposite sex for breeding reasons. Chinchillas are fun as pairs, he said, because it allows them to interact with one another, especially when pet parents don’t have time to give their chin their undivided attention. “Even as singles, they are social, and desire contact when in the mood,” he said.
Denish warned that while chinchillas rarely bite, there is always a risk depending upon the personality and temperament of your chin. By nature, chins are very quick-moving and are not often recommended for children under eight years old, he said. They may be good pets for older children and teens who know how to handle and care for a pet.
“The proper way to hold a chin is to scoop it up with one hand underneath its body and use the other hand to support the hind legs and pelvis,” said Bean. “If it's a squirmy chinchilla, rather than scooping up from underneath, you can grasp from above with your index finger and middle finger on either side of the neck, and the thumb, ring finger, and pinky curling underneath the body; again, support the hindquarters with the other hand.”
Bean said that a shocking number of websites advocate grasping the chin at the base of the tail, however, he said it’s very important to avoid doing this. “It is stressful for the chin, and may cause fur slip—[where] the fur in the area [that is] grasped will all suddenly fall out, leaving you holding a wad of fur and the chin running away. It's a natural defense mechanism.”
Be wary of bringing a chinchilla into multi-pet households, Denish said, as unless they are raised together or have been acclimated to one another, dogs and cats may think chinchillas are prey.
Common Health Issues
Proper care can help keep your chinchilla healthy and active. While chinchillas can be prone to a few illnesses and chronic issues (as all pets are) some are more prevalent. According to Bean, the most common issues he sees in chinchillas are dental disease and gastrointestinal stasis leading to constipation. Prevention, he said, centers on providing good husbandry (think: proper care), especially diet.
“A small amount of a good quality, hay-based pellet may be fed daily,” he said, with a daily salad of leafy greens (avoid iceberg lettuce) and hay to round out the diet. “I really can't emphasize how important the hay is – it keeps the teeth ground down to an appropriate level, and provides the necessary fiber for good gastrointestinal function and microbial growth.”
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