CVMA-ACMV

Keeping Your Chinchilla in Good Health for Life

October 24, 2012

Chinchillas are large rodents named after the Chincha Indians of the Andes. By the early 1900s, this adorable energetic animal was close to extinction because of extensive hunting for the pelts. An American working in South America at the time asked the government for authorization to trap and export them. It took him about a decade just to find approximately a dozen specimens for export. The pets and fur bearing animals we see today arose almost exclusively from this small genetic pool.

Basic Biology

  • Lifespan is about a decade, though some have lived over 20 years
  • Their average weight is about 500g (1/2 kg)
  • They are born well developed (walk within a few hours, eyes open, already have a fur coat )
  • They are active at dusk and at night, but often adapt to a daytime schedule

Feeding

Lots of clean fresh water should be available. Hay is the staple of their diet. Timothy and brome grass are ideal. Alfalfa is too rich as hay, but small amounts of alfalfa pellet feed can be offered. Pelleted feed formulated specifically for this breed can be provided in small quantities. They should be fed only very small portions of treat food and introduced to any new treats gradually. Treats should only be offered to chinchillas older than 4 months of age. Dry wheat toast cube, portions of a raisin, dried apple chip, unsalted sunflower seed and very small portions of green vegetables are suitable. Some tolerate treats better than others. Monitor feces and discontinue immediately if digestive upset occurs. Branches of apple, maple, birch and pear or peach trees are important for increasing dietary fibre content. Like rabbits, chinchillas ingest their night feces, termed cecotropes. This is normal behaviour and provides essential nutrients.

Breeding

  • Females normally have 2 to 4 offspring and eat the placentas
  • Pregnancy lasts about 111 days, and one litter per year is usual, but two or even three litters can occur since they can breed again while nursing
  • They are ready to be bred by less than a year of age, but it is recommended females be about 1 year old before mating
  • May be housed in pairs or in large breeding groups, though whatever arrangement is made, the males need to be able to escape females because they can become really aggressive and hurt the males

Housing

Because they keep growing their incisors throughout their life, strong chewing substrates should be provided. Wood from fruit trees (except cherry or plum) are good examples, though wooden cages are not advisable since they can quickly chew themselves an escape route! Wire cages of 1/2 x 1/2 inch spacing are ideal and if the floor is wire for easy removal of droppings underneath, make sure part of the house is solid floored to prevent foot sores. Newborns need to be on solid footing to prevent foot and leg injuries. An exercise wheel is an excellent idea, but make sure it is solid, not wire. Bedding should be aspen shavings, not pine or cedar. Make the cage as large as your home can accommodate. Chinchillas love jumping, so offering more than one level is ideal (excepting young stock, where you need to block off the high places until they are mature). A hideaway box is very important for privacy. Toys should be left in only if they are durable, though toilet paper rolls can be safely torn apart. Water should be supplied in a glass bottle with metal or glass spout since they will chew through plastic ones in no time. Food can be offered in heavy ceramic dishes. Clean both bottle and dishes regularly. The cage must be very dry. Any sitting moisture will lead to health problems. Chinchillas require cool dry surroundings of 10-20º C or 50-68º F and 15-25 percent humidity range as rough guidelines. Even at only slightly higher temperatures and humidity, heat stroke can occur.

Handling and Behaviour

If let out for exercise, select a safe, chinchilla-proof room. A closet works well! Never leave chinchillas unattended. Only do this step after you have first tamed them. They will need a few weeks to get to know and trust you. First do open palm feeding and then only gradually begin to try to lift them up. Never chase them or you will scare them and lose their trust, perhaps permanently. If you grab at a chinchilla, a large section of fur may come out in your hand. This fur slip is an evolutionary trait to help them escape predator (predators are left only with a mouthful of fluffy fur)! A chinchilla’s tail will break if pulled.

Health Considerations

These rodents should never be bathed, but offering a sturdy container filled with finely powdered concrete as a dust bath is important. Make sure it is sized large enough so they can roll and play in it. Bath dishes should contain 1 to 2" of powder, and be placed in cage for 15 to 30 minutes every day or two. If left in longer, they will be used as toilets!

Chinchillas are fairly healthy as long as proper husbandry is carried out. No vaccines are needed, but annual check-ups at the veterinary hospital are important for identifying any early health concerns.