We have been keeping Chinchillas for 16 years and counting! We currently have 6 of our own Chinchillas (Black Velvet, Beige & Grey Mutations) both Male and Female so we have a good understanding of how to care for these delightful animals. We have created this care sheet as a guide for those who are new to caring for Chinchillas or those who would just like to pick up a few tricks!
an introduction to chinchillas
Chinchillas are quite sociable animals, they love company so housing them in an isolated area of your house (or garage) is not a good way to keep your Chin happy. It is possible to keep two chinchillas together for company and there are ways in which introductions can be done, more on that later! The other common theme with chinchillas is that they always seem to be asleep! Chinchillas are nocturnal animals so tend to wake up in the evening, and then spend much of the night awake and playing. For this reason, you should think carefully about whether Chinchillas are the right pet for you.
Chinchillas are active animals. Not only do they run around the cage floor, they also have powerful hind legs and are excellent jumpers and climbers.
All these elements combined mean that Chinchillas need much larger cages than you may initially think. You may see cages advertised online (such as the one pictured) for Chinchillas. Chinchillas require as big a cage as you can afford or find. Buying a suitable Chinchilla cage is therefore not a cheap endeavour however your Chin will be happy and that's what matters in the long run. The second picture is a cage recommended and used by us which is 1.8m high by 1.5m wide by 1m deep. We have found this to be a fantastic size as for our Chins as they also get regular out of the cage exercise.
Most cages like these, come with adjustable platforms which are all made from the same cage wire material. There are pros and cons to this. Chinchillas are, as mentioned earlier, great jumpers as they are born to navigate rocky mountains and steep cliffs. Whilst the cage design makes it easier to clean, it also makes it easy for accidents to happen, Chinchilla back legs are narrow and long like a kangaroos foot. When they are jumping their feet and slip in between the wires and this could lead to sprains or breaks in the foot. This is easily fixed however by using untreated wood as platforms! Not only is this a great way to ensure safety, it also allows them something safe to chew on!
Many websites will recommend glass tanks as Chinchillas enclosures. We do not recommend this for many reasons however glass tanks have very poor ventilation.
Chinchilla Temperatures & Cage position
Chinchillas are sensitive to heat, humidity, and drafts. Extreme heat can even cause heatstroke, which can be life threatening. They do not do well when temperatures go above 25º C. For this reason it's best to keep them in an air conditioned room or if you are unable to do that, you will want to keep the cage out of direct sunlight and away from heaters and other heat sources. Putting a frozen water bottle of some kind into the cage during the summer will allow your Chin to choose whether they want to lie against it and cool themselves down.
Although Chins can handle cold temperatures, they should also be kept away from drafts as this can cause respiratory infections which can be fatal.
Shredded paper bedding is an great choice for a substrate. It is safe if your Chin nibbles on the bedding and absorbs liquids and odours well. Bedding made from pine or cedar should be avoided. They can be sharp and painful to your pet’s feet and are sometimes dusty and may cause respiratory problems.
Cedar Shavings - This is not suitable for Chins as the oils in the wood causes irritation.
Pine Shavings - This is less aromatic and irritating than cedar but should still be avoided.
Aspen - Aspen is non-aromatic and is a great choice for Chinchillas. (We stock this!)
Corncob Bedding - This is not a suitable bedding for this species. In addition to promoting mould and bacteria growth, it is difficult to digest and could lead to an impaction.
Straw - Straw is not an acceptable bedding for this species. It does not absorb urine and it's sharp stalks can cause eye injury.
Timothy Hay - When used alone, timothy hay isn't suitable as a bedding but when layered on top of paper based bedding, it is an excellent substrate. A layer of timothy hay on top of shredded paper can stretch the life of the paper bedding, permitting weekly changes. The top layer of hay should be changed daily to reduce odour and mould build up.
Cat Litter - Never use cat litter as a bedding for small animals.
Chinchillas have some unique dietary perks, so it’s critical to fully understand your responsibilities as an owner. Chinchillas are known for having very sensitive stomachs, and when fed the wrong foods can end up with bloating. 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 or guinea pig mix is 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. Hay makes up 70% of a Chinchillas diet so it is critical that they have a steady supply. Hay is best provided in a hay rack so as to avoid it getting mixed in with their mess. Meadow, Timothy, or Lucerne (Alfalfa) and the common grasses are the most satisfactory for feeding chinchillas. The amount of protein in hays varies. Timothy hay contains approximately 6-8% protein and alfalfa hay (of good grade) contains about 14% protein. Alfalfa or Lucerne Hay should be fed in small amounts and in addition to Timothy or Meadow Hay and not solely on its own. All hay should be stored in a dry, upright container that is well ventilated. Hay that has been exposed to water or dampness should be thrown out to prevent illness in your pet.
Hay plays another important role in your chinchilla’s health as it helps to grind down the back molars, keeping them at a healthy length. A high quality hay takes a lot of chewing to break down. The side to side grinding motion of the jaw keeps the molars from getting too long, which can cause damage to your Chinchillas overall health. 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 completely, however raisins, sultanas, banana chips and cranberries may be given in very small volumes as a treat!
Chinchilla's have thick and fluffy fur to keep them warm in the wild. This also means that Chinchillas can overheat in the summer month and 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. 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. Never wash your Chinchilla in water or use dry shampoos, Chinchilla Dust is available from Barkleys as well as Dust Baths.
Damp – Chinchilla fur tends to perform badly when it gets damp, resulting on a cold and depressed chinchilla. Chinchillas are not suitable for external runs.
Soiling – Chinchilla fur is so thick and dense that it can easily become soiled. It is critical to keep your Chinchilla cage clean so that their mess does not become embedded in the coat.
Chinchillas are natural prey animals in the wild and like to hide away during the day. Chinchillas should be provided with at least one suitably-sized nest box or hide where they can tuck into and feel safe.
A Chinchilla’s teeth grow constantly. If left unchecked these can over-grow and lead to serious dental problems. An easy solution is to provide safe chews for your pet to gnaw on. Such chews can be brought from us and are pre-approved to be Chinchilla safe! We have a variety of fruit wood in flavours such as apple, strawberry and pear. Alternatively untreated woods can be used (please see our list of approved woods!) Chinchillas are very curious and will chew anything they can get a hold of! Books, walls, plastic etc. It's best to make sure they cannot access these items to chew on.
We have kept Chinchillas both individually and in pairs. Our individuals however, have had hours of contact with us every day and thus have never showed signs of being lonely or depressed. If you are not in a position to give as much time per day as we are, 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. Please be aware that Chinchillas introduced as adults can fight aggressively.
Chinchillas in the wild are prey animals and are typically quite shy and flighty. They tend to do best in a nice quiet household, where they can sleep undisturbed during the day. Chinchillas also tend not to get as hand-tame as, for example, a rat might. Therefore we don't recommend Chinchillas to households who are looking for a "cuddly pet". A Chinchilla that gets snatched at is far more likely to scratch or bite to get away.
That being said, Chinchillas will soon tame down and get used to their owner. When treated with patience and kindness they can soon build up quite a bond with their owners that lasts years.
There are two important rules to bear in mind when handling a Chinchilla. Firstly, they tend not to enjoy being “grasped” or "held". They 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 and it is possible for Chinchillas to drop their tails in fright.
We recommend yearly check ups to make sure your Chin is happy and healthy! We recommend Exotic Vet Kevin at Mill Road Vet Clinic, Whangarei.
Healthy and Wellbeing
Note: We are not Vets and any if you have any doubts about the health of you Chinchilla, please take them to the Vet immediately. Our information below is to give you an idea of what can occur in Chinchillas but should not be used to make a diagnosis without a professional opinion.
Chinchillas are a hardy species. The most common ailments arise from an improper diet and/or incorrect husbandry. The following is a list of the most common issues Chinchilla owners run into. It is always a good idea to familiarise yourself with any health issues that may occur.
Respiratory Illness: Bordetella is a common bacteria that can cause respiratory infection that often leads to pneumonia. Symptoms include sneezing, fever, lethargy, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, loss of appetite, and laboured breathing.
Diarrhoea: Loose, watery stools over an extended period of time can be damaging to your pet. Changing brands of food too quickly, or feeding too many watery fruits/veggies (this is not recommended) may be the problem. If your pet has diarrhoea, you should increase the amount of roughage you are offering, cut down on pellets and treats and completely eliminate fresh fruit/veggies from the diet. If you do not see improvement within a day you should give your vet a call as diarrhoea is often a symptom of something more serious.
Constipation: More common than diarrhoea, constipation is the direct result of an improper diet. Your Chinchilla needs dietary fibre from roughage (hays and grasses). Increase the amount of roughage and water offered and cut down on the pellets and you should see some improvement. An intestinal blockage, environmental stress or pregnancy may also lead to constipation.
Bloating: This is typically caused by a sudden change in diet and over eating. It is also seen in nursing females and may be related to hypocalcemia, a calcium disorder. Symptoms include a swollen, painful stomach, loss of appetite, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. If your chinchilla is displaying signs of bloating, it is time to call the vet.
Stomach Ulcers: Stomach ulcers can be a silent killer and your chinchilla may show no signs of an ulcer until it is too late. Stomach ulcers are a direct result of poor diet, mainly too much fibrous hay or moldy hay and pellets made for different species. It is important that you provide your Chinchilla with the proper types of hay and pellets.
Skin Issues: Skin issues may be the result of parasites, bacteria, fungal or behavioral issues such as excessive grooming.
Ring Worm: Ringworm, is not actually a worm. It is a type of mold-like-fungus that is commonly found on skin, nails, and hair. The fungus tends to appear most often when the humidity level rises above 50%, when there is little sunlight, and when the animal is stressed, like after moving or weaning. Chinchillas tend to be vulnerable at the time of weaning.
Abscesses: Abscesses can occur where there has been trauma to the skin, or a laceration. Bacteria can infect the wound, causing a build up of pus that will require vet assistance. Because the chinchillas fur is so thick, abscesses often go unnoticed until they rupture. If this is the case, consult your vet for treatment. It's a good idea to feel your Chinchilla when you are handling them so you are more likely to notice any abnormal lumps and bumps should any occur.
Fur Chewing: This is typically seen as a behavioural issue. It can be the result of boredom, stress, nervousness, hormones, improper temperatures or drafty environments. You can remedy this by providing enough toys and free time to stimulate your Chinchilla and ensuring the temperature and humidity in the Chins enclosure fall within recommended the guidelines.
Heat Stress: Chinchillas are sensitive to higher temps and rapid temperature changes in their environment. To avoid heat stress you should house your chin in a climate controlled room that never exceeds 25° C. Signs of heat stroke include restlessness. rapid breathing, drooling, congestion, high fever. red ears, coma and eventual death.
If you suspect your chin is having a heat stroke, measures to cool him down must be taken immediately to save his life. To cool your pet slowly, you should give him a cool water bath. (Not cold but cool - room temperature.) Call your vet for further instructions.