Chinchillas are one of the more unusual “small furries” encountered in pet shops. Originating in the Andes Mountains in South America they have an incredibly dense coat in order to protect them from the cold.
While chinchillas are rodents like hamsters and gerbils. their care is considerably different. For one thing they’re relatively large and active animals, which impacts the overall cage dimensions they require.
They also have some unique requirements in terms of diet and handling too. As a result it’s critical to do your research before you bring home a chinchilla, so that you can be certain of providing them with the necessary care.
Introduction to Chinchillas
Chinchillas are naturally quite sociable animals. This is particularly sad because most pet shops house them singly. This is certainly not the best way to keep your chinchilla happy.
Ideally you should aim to keep at least two chinchillas together so they have the necessary company. As breeding pairs will mate regularly it is generally best to purchase a same-sex pair. Alternatively, should you end up with a breeding pair, it is a good idea to have the male neutered to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Note that chinchillas introduced as adults can fight aggressively. As a result if you can only find single chinchillas for sale in your area it’s critical to introduce them to one another as young as possible.
The other common theme with chinchillas in pet shops is that they always seem to be asleep! In reality, chinchillas are nocturnal animals so tend to wake up in the evening, and then spend much of the night awake.
For this reason you should think carefully about whether chinchillas are the right pet for you. As large and active animals they can make plenty of noise leaping around after dark, so consider whether you’ll be able to sleep through all that activity!
Chinchillas are large and active animals. However they don’t just run around the cage floor like a hamster; chinchillas have powerful hind legs and are excellent jumpers and climbers.
All these elements mean that chinchillas need much larger cages than you may initially think. Opinions vary about how large – some authorities recommend a cage of at least a metre in all directions as a guide. In general the rule is that you need to purchase the biggest cage you can possibly find; buying a suitable chinchilla cage is therefore not a cheap endeavour.
It’s not enough to just purchase a “bare” cage however; chinchilla cages should be fitted with a number of different platforms at varying heights in order to mimic the rocky mountainous environment they are used to.
Chinchillas are rodents, which means that their teeth grow constantly. The end result of this is that chinchillas tend to be uncontrollable gnawers of wood and plastic. The best chinchilla cage is therefore made entirely of metal. The size of the mesh is critical if your pet is to avoid damaging itself while bounding around so purchasing a cage made specifically for chinchillas should be a priority.
The best of these cages have a metal tray at the base, with a tall lip to them. This prevents your chinchilla from kicking bedding, food and dust out of the cage as they leap around.
Caring for Chinchillas
Chinchillas can live for 15-20 years in captivity, so represent a significant responsibility. It is critical, therefore, that you offer them the very best care throughout this time as possible.
Once you’ve purchased your chinchilla cage there are a number of other guidelines you need to be aware of.
The first of this pertains to the chinchilla’s fur. This is thick and fluffy to keep the animal warm in the wild. Sadly, this also means that chinchillas can overheat in the summer months; great care should be taken to avoid placing your chinchilla cage in direct sunlight where they cannot escape from the heat.
A critical part of looking after a chinchilla is maintaining the quality of their fur. Here there are a number of elements to take into consideration:
Dust Baths – The best way to keep your chinchilla’s fur in tip-top condition is to provide a sand bath once or twice a week. This is just a shallow bowl of a size that will let your chinchilla roll around, filled with special chinchilla dust. Bathing in this way removes moisture and oils from the fur, keeping it in perfect condition. Just be aware that bathing in this way can create a fair amount of mess, so you’ll want to place the cage somewhere where all the dust that is flicked out can be easily cleaned up.
Damp – Chinchilla fur tends to perform badly when it gets damp, resulting on a cold and depressed-looking chinchilla. For this reason chinchillas should be considered indoor pets, rather than being suitable for external runs.
Soiling – Chinchilla fur is so thick and dense that it can easily become soiled. For this reason it is critical to keep your chinchilla cage spotlessly clean so that their mess does not become embedded in the coat. Some authorities recommend the use of chinchilla cages with a wire base, through which mess can fall, in order to avoid it getting onto the chinchilla’s fur.
Chinchillas are natural prey animals in the wild, so like to hide away during the day. All pet chinchillas should therefore be provided with at least one suitably-sized nest box. Into this bedding can be placed, allowing your pet to curl up snugly to sleep.
A chinchilla’s teeth grow throughout its life. If left unchecked these can over-grow, leading to dental problems. The solution is the provision of chews for your pet to gnaw on. Such chews can be brought from most pet shops. Alternatively any fruit wood – such as apple, pear or raspberry – is safe to use if no pesticides have been applied to it.
Chinchillas have some unique dietary perks, so it’s critical to fully understand your responsibilities as a pet owner. Chinchillas are known for having very sensitive stomachs, and when fed the wrong foods can end up with bloating. In addition to this chinchillas require a diet that is high in vitamin C yet low in fat. This means that feeding food designed for other animals – such as rabbit mix – is generally to be avoided.
The best food for chinchillas is a commercial chinchilla pellet mix. These contain a balanced and complete diet, without any of the ingredients which can cause sickness.
These pellets should then be supplemented with fresh hay, provided in a hay rack so as to avoid it getting soiled. Both the pellets and hay should be checked daily and replaced as necessary to ensure a constant supply.
Generally speaking fruits and vegetables should be avoided in the diet, however raisins and sultanas may be given in very small volumes as a treat, such as when taming your pet.
Chinchillas are typically quite shy and flighty animals. They tend to do best in a nice quiet household, where they can sleep undisturbed during the day.
They also tend not to get as hand-tame as, for example, a rat might. A chinchilla that gets snatched at is far more likely to scratch or bite to get away.
All these reasons mean that chinchillas tend not to make ideal pets for children; instead they’re more suitable for more mature pet keepers.
That being said, chinchillas will soon tame down and get used to their owner. When treated with patience and kindness chinchillas can soon build up quite a bond with their owners.
There are two important rules to bear in mind when handling a chinchilla. Firstly, they tend not to enjoy being “grasped”, and should instead be allowed to sit comfortable on your open hands. Secondly, always take great care with your chinchilla’s tail. While it is possible to restrain, or even lift up, a chinchilla by the base of its tail, never grasp a chinchillas tail further down. Doing so can result in damage to the tail, and pain for the animal in question.