Guide to Chinchillas

Chinchillas are sweet, entertaining and somewhat destructive little creatures, so if you are fond of your skirting boards, then think twice abut getting a chinny unless you have a separate room where they can play.

Also, as Chinchillas live quite a long time (between 8 and 10 years although there are reports of them reaching 16 years), getting a chinchilla should be given careful thought as they will b around for a long time.

The natural habitat of the chinchilla is on the slopes of the Andes mountain range in South America, at altitudes of between 3000 to 5000m (10,000 to 16,000ft). Little is known about their diet in the wild, and is thought to be made up of course grasses, shrubs, cacti and mosses.

In the 1920’s these animals were killed in their thousands to supply the fur trade of the time, and only swift action, and regulations, introduced by the government at the time, prevented this animals extinction. However, there are still chinchilla farms where they are bred purely for their pelt.

The chinchilla’s fur is very dense and soft. The natural wild colour is mottled charcoal on the back and a creamy white on the underside, although now many more colours are available which include light and dark beige, silver, blond, pastel, blue velvet, velvet, light and dark brown, charcoal and violet.
Housing

Ideal housing for a chinchillas should be a cage made from 16 gauge galvanised weld mesh with ј” to ѕ” squares on the floor and Ѕ” to 1” squares on the sides and top. The size of a cage to house 1 adult chinchilla should measure at least 24” deep, 36″ wide and 24” high.

Fruit branches and wooden shelves should be fitted because chinchillas prefer to sit on something solid. And blocks of wood 2 to 4” square will soon be whittled away by their strong teeth, water should be offered in a glass bottle, with a stainless steel spout, firmly attached to the outside of the cage.

The position of the cage is also important as chinchillas – like all small animals – are particularly susceptible to damp and draughty conditions. Loud voices and sudden noises will also disturb them, so keep them out of busy hallways, and the clicking sound normally made to budgies will only worry and confuse them, so always talk to them using a soft and soothing tone.

Handling

Before holding any chinchilla make sure your hands are clean and dry because any dirt, grease or sweat will damage the fur. If a chinchilla feels threatened, in its cage, it will retreat into a corner and sit down facing you, and if grabbed the animals defences include the ability to shed clumps of fur in order to escape, to prevent this from happening to remove a chinchilla from its cage keep your hand as low as possible, as this poses less of a threat to the animal, and gently hold the animals ear, not too hard, as it is possible to burst blood vessels in the chinchilla’s ears, this should make it sit quietly, then put your other hand in and pick the animal up.

To calm a frightened chinchilla, as with most small animals, cup your hands over its eyes and gently rub around its ears.

When holding a chinchilla it is important that it feels safe this is best achieved by holding the tail firmly between your index and middle fingers while the chinchilla sits on the palm of your hand, holding the animal by its shoulders with your other hand.

Once used to this the animal should sit quite still on your palm without the need to be held by the shoulders.

Diet

The most important food a chinchilla can be given is good quality hay. This mimics the sort of foodstuffs a chinchilla would eat in the wild, giving them lots of gnawing action and therefore keeping their teeth healthy as well as digestive sustem.

Chinchilla’s digest their food in two stages, this involves firstly eating food and then re-ingesting a food pellet straight from the anus, and then finally expelling a fully digested waste pellet.

The commercially available chinchilla pellets are well balanced and contain about 17% protein, and most chinchillas will eat about 1 to 1-Ѕ tablespoons (1oz) per day. These pellets should not be kept for more than 2 – 3 months after the date of purchase and stored in a dry lidded container.

As we said before, hay is a vital part of the chinchilla’s diet, and one animal will eat about a handful each day. The use of a hayrack will reduce the wastage, as any that has been trodden on will not be eaten. Any hay on the floor of the cage should be removed daily and disposed of.

Under normal conditions the pellets and hay is all the food the animal will need to keep fit and healthy, however treats can be offered, the golden rule being to feed very small quantities of not too ofetn. Some of the foods that can be given include grass, clover, comfrey, dandelion, plantain and dock.

Also small quantities of carrot and celery tops and edible leaves from trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, willow, apple, raspberry and blackberry will also be accepted. Always make sure that any foods collected from the wild are washed thoroughly and have not been contaminated by chemicals or the waste of other animals.

Chinchillas, like most animals, have a sweet tooth, and given the chance will eat more than is good for them.Raisins are, for this reason, a firm favourite but because they are preserved in mineral oil, they like most fruits will act as a laxative, but small amounts fed in a controlled way will do no harm.

Cooked mixed flake cereals are also popular but should never replace the pellets completely.

Chinchillas have delicate digestive systems, therefore it is imperative their food bowl and water bottle are washed daily to stop any bacteria forming. We only use boiled tap water in our chinchilla bottles.

Nuts and oily seeds such as rape and sunflower should be avoided and remember that the chinchilla’s digestive system cannot cope with large quantities of rich, moist food.

Bathing

Chinchilla’s are special in that they bathe in dust, and although this can be a very messy affair, it is also one of the highlights of keeping this wonderful animal.

Only sepiolite dust should be used, given to them once a day, for about 20 minutes, and always removed after to prevent it becoming too soiled. The dust should be offered in a deep sided container and about 1” in depth.

Specially formulated to ensure a balanced but varied diet.This palatable Alfalfa-based mix includes raisins, carrots and flaked peas. It is high in fibre low in fat providing a correctly based diet for healthy chinchillas.

Health

Eyes

If your chinchilla has recurring eye problems (such as a white discharge) and your vet has checked out your chinchilla’s mouth and his teeth seem fine, an x-ray should be carried out. This way the vet can see if the root of the teeth are growing upwards and causing pressure on the eye socket.

Chinchillas have what is called an open root – if the teeth aren’t used constantly (by gnawing and grinding on lots of hard foodstuffs and hay) they keep on growing – inside the mouth as well as up towards the eye sockets and down through the jaw (the same as degus and in some cases, guinea pigs).

By giving your chinchilla lots to gnaw on – like timothy hay and hard foods – you are doing your best to keep their teeth healthy – as well as their general health too.

It must be stated here that there is no substitute for good veterinary advice when treating your small furries. If you know of a good specialist in this field please email us with their details.

Teeth

Teeth problems are the curse of chinchillas – see under ‘eyes’ above. If your chinchilla has difficulty eating and/ or has a wet chin, then you must see a vet immediately. While their teeth may seem healthy to look at, there could be problems with the roots causing pain and inability to eat as they grow up towards the eye socket or down through the jaw.

Fur chewing

A chinchilla can become a fur chewier, it is not really understood why this behaviour occurs although a dietary deficiency or boredom have both been suggested as a cause, although this does not seem to adversely affect the animal, once started this is a very difficult behavioural problem to cure.

Chinchilla’s can also suffer from fur fungus; this condition is recognised by a lot of broken whiskers, scabs on the ears and/or missing clumps of fur, this can be treated but is best avoided by good care and cage hygiene.

Heat

During the summer chinchilla’s can suffer from heat stress; the normal rectal temperature is 97oF (37oC). Any higher and the animal will have problems keeping cool, and in extreme cases can even fall into a coma. At the first sign of overheating remove the animal to a cooler position and lightly dampen its ears and feet with a cool cloth. Seek veterinary advice.