The chinchilla is a rodent who is closely related to the guinea pig and porcupine. Chinchillas are clean, odorless and friendly pets but are usually shy and easily frightened. They do not make very good pets for young children since they tend to be high-strung and hyperactive. Their fur is extremely soft and beautiful. Coat colors can be bluish gray, white, silver, beige or black. The average life span for a chinchilla is 8 to 10 years with some reportedly living to 18 years of age. The following information is designed to help you take the best possible care of your pet.
Pellets - A pelleted formulation should constitute the majority of the animal's diet. If commercial chinchilla pellets are not available at your pet or feed stores, standard rabbit or guinea pig pellets can be fed. Chinchillas tend to eat with their hands and often throw out a lot of pellets, thus causing wastage.
Hay (timothy or grass hay) - Hay can be fed in addition to pellets. Hay is beneficial for nutritional and psychological reasons by providing additional fiber to the diet and serving as an item for the pet to chew on. Do not feed alfalfa--the calcium content is too high for chinchillas. Hay should be stored in a cool, dry place with good air circulation and wet or damp hay discarded.
Treat foods (fruits, nuts and vegetables) - Dried fruits and nuts are excellent treats for chinchillas. Raisins tend to be a favorite. Fresh carrots and green vegetables can also be provided but in moderation. Remember these are treats and should constitute less than 10% of the total daily food intake.
Water - Water should always be available and changed daily. A dirty water container could breed bacteria that can cause disease. The best container is a cage-mounted bottle equipped with a sipper tube. The tube should be placed low enough that your pet can easily reach it.
Cages - A wire mesh cage with a solid floor is best. Glass aquariums are not recommended because of their poor ventilation. Wood cages should not be used since chinchillas are noted gnawers. Chinchillas tend to be very active and acrobatic, thus requiring a lot of space. An ideal enclosure would measure at least 6 feet x 6 feet x 3 feet with multiple levels to allow your pet variety of movement. Nest boxes are also important accessories for your pet‘s well-being. Chinchillas will use the boxes as hiding spaces.
Temperature - Chinchillas must be kept in an area that is well lit during the day, adequately ventilated, and kept cool and dry. They do not tolerate heat or humidity, and they thrive at lower temperatures. The optimal temperature is 60 to 70 degrees F.
Multiple Chinchillas - Chinchillas tend not to get along well when housed together, with the female being the more aggressive gender. It is best to house chinchillas individually. Breeding is highly discouraged. It is best to have your chinchillas spayed or neutered.
Dust Baths - Dust baths should be provided at least once or twice weekly. The pans need to be large and deep enough to allow the chinchilla to roll over. Finely powdered volcanic ash is used to keep the fur clean and well groomed. Several brands of "chinchilla dust" are marketed. This bath should only be provided for a short time during the day, otherwise there would be a perpetual dust cloud in the cage.
Chinchillas are not very difficult to handle. Although chinchillas rarely bite, they still are capable if agitated. In addition, and more likely, they may urinate when annoyed. A lack of handling could result in aggressive behavior. Regular weekly handling is recommended to properly socialize your pet. However, the chinchilla is fast and may jump out of your hands. He may be hard to recover if this occurs. In addition, he is likely to injure himself in the fall. It is best to be in a stationary position when handling your pet. Also, to avoid "fur slip," which is the patchy shedding of hair that occurs when the fur is grasped or roughly handled, the chinchilla should be held in one hand while supporting his body on your opposite forearm and against your body. As with any animal, you must be in control when holding or restraining your pet to avoid injuries to either of you.
HEALTH & MEDICAL PROBLEMS
Slobbers/Dental Malocclusion - With this condition the fur under the jaw and down the neck is always wet from the constant drooling of saliva. Other signs include loss of appetite, sores in the mouth, and loss of fur under the chin. The primary cause for this is overgrowth of the molars. Mineral imbalances or poor dental alignment can lead to overgrown and maloccluded teeth. A veterinarian must be consulted as soon as this condition is suspected. Temporary treatment involves clipping or filing of the overgrown teeth. If the veterinarian feels the problem is related to mineral imbalances, a supplement may be prescribed. Providing wood or a mineral block for your pet to chew on often prevents this problem, but not always.
Barbering (Hair Chewing) - This occurs when chinchillas chew on their own or another's fur resulting in a rough, moth-eaten appearing coat. Some of the underlying causes of this include boredom, dirty fur, dietary imbalances and hereditary factors. Providing the animals with chew toys helps decrease the incidence.
Heat Stroke - High temperatures and high humidity are not tolerated well by chinchillas. Heat stroke generally occurs when cages are placed in direct sunlight and are poorly ventilated. Affected animals will lay on their sides, pant and feel hot to the touch. Animals in high humidity will also exhibit unkempt, damp fur. Treatment involves misting or bathing them in cool water or applying rubbing alcohol only to their foot pads. Veterinary assistance should be sought immediately.
The following diseases are infectious, they can be spread from one chinchilla to others.
Enteritis (Intestinal infection) - This is one of the most common disease conditions found in chinchillas. In many cases, the exact cause may not be determined. Bacterial, viral and protozoal agents have all been associated with this disease. Poor cleaning is often associated with an outbreak. Clinical signs range from depression to death, with or without diarrhea. Other signs of illness include loss of appetite, partial paralysis and abdominal pain. Veterinary care and treatment must be sought at the first sign of illness. This disease is often fatal despite aggressive therapy because of its severity.
Pneumonia (Respiratory infection) - This is another common condition observed in chinchillas which can be caused by a number of factors, often bacterial. Damp, draughty housing often predisposes pets to this condition. Symptoms include discharge from the eyes and nose, loss of appetite and rough hair coat. Death may result from this respiratory disease. Treatment involves your pet receiving immediate supportive care from his veterinarian.
Ringworm - It causes hair loss and scabby red lesions on the nose, feet, and around the eyes. Treatment involves the use of medications as prescribed by your pet's veterinarian.
(Some information within taken with permission from "Care of Chinchillas," Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Illinois.)