Small Animal Species E-mail

Chinchilla

Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products

Getting to Know your Pet Chinchilla:
If you are looking for a soft, furry, cuddly pet, a chinchilla might be a good choice. These affectionate, intelligent, playful creatures are usually a beautiful silver-gray, but they can be black, beige, charcoal or white, too. Chinchillas bond quickly with their owners, rarely bite, and like to be cuddled and carried. They are basically nocturnal, but they also like to play during the day. It’s fun to watch chinchillas play. They love to jump, explore and climb. They adore heights and often will climb as high as they can get, even clamoring atop a food dish to get just a little higher.


Fun Facts about Chinchillas:
• Chinchillas are cousins to the guinea pig. They originated in South America.
• A group of chinchillas is called a colony.
• "Chin" is a nickname for chinchilla.
• Average life span is 10 years. The longest living chinchilla on record was 20 years old.
• Average weight of an adult male: 400 – 500 grams (.9 – 1.1 lbs).
• Average weight of an adult female: 400 – 600 grams (.9 – 1.3 lb).
• Gestation period: 105 – 118 days (about 3 1/2 months). Because the gestation period is longer than some pets, babies are well-developed, with open eyes and full coats of hair. They eat solid food just days after birth!
• Pups per litter: 1 – 6.
• Optimal weaning time: at age 6 – 8 weeks.


What you Need to Start:
Large cage with solid flooring
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Litter
Water bottle
Heavy food bowl
Food pellets
Grass hay
Lava dust
Dust bath tub or house
Grooming

Chinchillas are essentially odor-free and easy to keep clean. Some can be litter trained, but it takes a lot of patience and persistence.

Because chinchillas have naturally oily skin, they need lava dust baths four to six times a week for 15 to 30 minutes to keep their fur looking beautiful.

Without dust baths, your pet’s fur will begin to look oily, matted and unkempt. Purchase chinchilla dust at the pet store. (Because it is so fine, there is no suitable substitute.) Put two to three inches of dust into a plastic dishpan at least 6” x 9”, and 5 inches deep. Simply place your pet in the dust and they’ll do the rest.


Housing:
Chinchillas are active—even acrobatic—so they need plenty of room to play in a cage that has solid floors to protect their feet. The cage should be tall enough to allow exploring, jumping and climbing, and spacious enough to provide room for a dust box, a nest box and other cage furniture, such as a hammock. Place the cage close to household activity, but away from direct sunlight and drafts.

A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur. You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets.

Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances. Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes.


Exercise:
Look for a solid-surface exercise wheel large enough for chinchillas. (Avoid wire wheels, because a chinchilla’s feet can get caught between the wires.)

Chinchillas like to play with toys, hay cakes and wood chews.

Chinchillas like to play outside of their cages, too. If you allow your chin to run, make sure the room is “chinchilla-proofed”, because they like to chew on everything! Cover cords and outlets. Make sure house plants are out of reach (some can be poisonous). Before you let your chinchilla run, be sure that you can catch it! Chinchillas are fast and crafty, especially when they don’t want to be caught.


Feeding:
Chinchillas are herbivores, which means they eat only plant material. It’s important to feed your chinchilla correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy.

Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better for your chinchilla than a water bowl, because the bowl can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. However, your chinchilla will chew the sipper tube if too much of it is accessible. Hang the bottle on the outside of the cage, so just the tip of the spout is inside. Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.

Hay: At least 75% of a chinchilla’s diet should be unlimited, free-choice grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard or oat hay. Free choice means a pet can choose when to eat the hay—at any hour of the day. Hay provides essential fiber, which helps maintain intestinal and dental health. It also prevents boredom, obesity and dental disease by satisfying the chinchilla’s innate desire to chew. To assure freshness, wait until the pet nearly finishes one batch of hay before restocking. Chinchillas under one year old should receive alfalfa hay in addition to grass hay. Alfalfa hay also can be used to help boost the nutrition of sick, pregnant, nursing or older chinchillas as needed. After one year of age, alfalfa hay can be used as a treat (see treat information below).

Complete, high-fiber pellet: Another important source of fiber that also contains specially formulated, balanced nutrients is a pre-packaged feed pellet designed especially for the distinctive nutritional needs of the chinchilla. In a sturdy crock bowl that can’t be upset, feed a carefully selected quality brand of food to animals of all ages to maintain intestinal health and prevent digestive upset. Look for chinchilla feed that contains farm-fresh alfalfa with a balance of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Avoid foods that contain seeds because—contrary to popular belief—seeds are unhealthy.

They have a high fat content and poor nutritional balance. If you already have begun to feed your chinchilla a seed-based diet, it’s important to gradually covert your pet to the new feed over the space of one or two weeks. Gradually changing food for any reason helps avoid digestive upset. Clean dishes daily and discard any leftover food.

Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much. Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet. Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. However, do not use yogurt drops, fruits, nuts, seeds or granola sticks—they have too much sugar and fat. You can offer herbs (fresh or dried) and vegetables. Herb choices include mint, basil, oregano and thyme. Fresh greens might include romaine, butter crunch or red leaf lettuces, or cilantro, carrot tops and dandelion greens (no more than one teaspoon a day). To prevent digestive upset, feed the same treats consistently and avoid gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower.


Chinchilla Troubleshooting:
Uneven, ragged fur: When chinchillas are stressed or malnourished, or when they have a chronic disease or don’t get regular dust baths, they will cut their own hair! This is called barbering. They might even seem to be balding, but the hair follicle is not gone; the hair is just chewed off at the base. To avoid barbering, pay closer attention to your pet’s housing, nutrition and grooming.

Depressed appetite, food dropping from mouth, wet matted chin: Chinchillas are prone to serious dental problems that can cause these conditions. A diet that is low in fiber or a lack of suitable chewing material can result in the development of malocclusion, molar root overgrowth or molar spurs—sharp points on the upper and/or lower molars. These points can be painful to the animal’s cheek and tongue. Increased salivation results in a wet, matted chin (slobbers). If you see any of these abnormal signs, a visit to the vet is in order. To avoid these painful conditions, provide plenty of hay and blocks of wood for chewing.

General health: Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your chinchilla healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.


What you Probably Didn’t Know About Chinchillas:
Chinchillas release tufts of hair when they are scared. This is a natural defense mechanism. Don’t worry…if this happens, the fur will grow back.

Chinchillas eat their own poop—both solid fecals and soft, moist cecals, which they consume directly from their bottoms. Although it seems strange to us, this is natural behavior, and it’s good for your pet because the poo is packed with nutrients!

References:
1. Lightfoot TL: Clinical examination of chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, and sugar gliders. The Veterinary Clinics of North America, Exotic Animal Practice.

2. Johnson-Delaney C: Special rodents: chinchillas. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook, Lake Worth, FL, Zoological Education Network, 1996.
3. Hillyer EV, Quesenberry KE, Donnelly TM: Biology, husbandry, and clinical techniques [guinea pigs and chinchillas]. In: Quesenberry K, Hillyer E, eds: Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia, PA, WB Saunders, 1997, pp 243-259.