Chinchillas are well-known for their cute appearance, rotund bodies and fluffy tails. Few could fail to fall for such an animals, which explains why so many are now kept as pets.
However, chinchillas are far more “specialist” pets than most other “small furries”, requiring considerably different care to more commonly-kept guinea pigs, rabbits or hamsters. One critical element that potential chinchilla owners must understand are their unique dietary requirements in captivity…
An Introduction to Feeding Chinchillas
In nature, chinchillas are herbivores, eating a range of wild plants and grasses. The impact of this is that chinchillas have evolved to thrive on a reasonably “boring” looking diet, which is high in fibre and plant material.
This comes as something of a shock to owners of many other small mammals, who are used to providing a never-ending smorgasbord of fruits, vegetables and grains. Instead, not only do chinchillas require a far more basic diet, but attempts to liven things up often do not end well.
Here’s what to you need to know to feed your chinchilla properly…
High Quality Hay
Experts suggest that the biggest constituent of a chinchilla should be good quality hay. This should be fresh, dust-free and sweet-smelling. Do not feed any hay which is damp or mouldy, as it can cause stomach upsets.
This hay should be fed liberally, ensuring a fresh supply is available at all times. Furthermore, the hay should ideally be provided in a hay rack to keep it fresh, thus avoiding the chances of your chinchilla eating hay which has been urinated on.
A variety of different hays can be found for sale, but most vets recommend “Timothy hay” as one of the best of all.
While hay should make up the majority of the diet, chinchillas should also be provided with a supply of dry food. While muesli-type chinchilla foods may look appealing to our human eyes, it is important to point out that chinchillas can be selective feeders. In other words, chinchillas will often pick out their favourite pieces, leaving others to one side. As a result, mineral deficiencies can arise.
Pellets can therefore make a better source of food, offering a complete and balanced diet. These pellets are normally made primarily from alfalfa, with a range of vitamins and minerals added.
Both hay and dried pellets should be fed liberally, so that your pet has constant access to both. Given enough exercise, chinchillas rarely become obese so there is little worry of them being overfed.
Chinchillas teeth grow continuously throughout their lifetimes. Some experts claim that they can grow several inches in length during a single year. As with other small mammals, then, it is important that chinchillas have opportunities to wear their teeth down. Without this element, teeth can become overgrown, leading to pain and/or starvation.
A range of chinchilla-safe chews are available from pet shops. Examples include those made of pumice, cuttlefish or fruit wood.
Sections of apple or pear tree may also be given, where upon your chinchilla will skilfully strip off all the bark.
Chinchillas are known to have quite sensitive digestive systems. As a result it is critically important that you only provide foodstuffs which have been made specially for your chinchilla. Foods and toys sold for other small furries – such as rabbits or guinea pigs – should never be fed.
As a result, before taking on one or more chinchillas you should confirm that it will be easy for you to source the necessary food on a regular basis. Also, do not underestimate the cost of feeding your chinchilla; be certain to budget for these ongoing costs.
Avoid the Treats
Many pet owners derive great pleasure from feeding treats to their pets. Whether it’s giving a bone to your dog, some yogurt drops to your hamster or some carrot tops to a budgie, all pets enjoy a treat now and again.
However when feeding chinchillas it is truly a case of “less is more”. Overfeed your chinchilla with treats and you could be heading down a nasty path of illness and veterinary visits. Suitable treats include rose hips and raisons, but these should only be fed very, very occasionally. Just one or two raisons per week is sufficient. You have been warned!
It goes without saying that fresh, clean water should be available to your chinchilla at all times. This is most typically provided in a bottle, so that the water does not become soiled. Be careful, however, as chinchillas can rapidly gnaw through a plastic bottle, so seek advice from the pet shop on how best to protect it.
To many first-time chinchilla keepers, their diet can seem very boring indeed. Hay, pellets and some chews. No piles of fresh fruit, or constant treat giving. No chocolate drops or constant slices of apple and banana.
Fear not! This simple diet is more than enough to keep your chinchilla fit and healthy for life, and remember that too much treat-giving can actually be detrimental to your chinchilla’s health.