By Kevin Schargen
1. What’s the average size of a chinchilla?
This perfectly packaged rodent weighs in at 1 to 2 pounds, with an overall length of a foot or so. Weigh your chinchilla on a gram scale at regular intervals throughout the year. Knowing the animal’s normal weight range allows you to monitor for possible unhealthy weight fluctuations that could alert you to disease. Never rely on visual assessment — seeing your pet every day weakens your powers of noting change, and the animal’s dense coat complicates the matter by obscuring his underlying body condition.
2. Are chinchillas short-lived like many of the other commonly kept rodent species?
Unlike the mouse, rat and gerbil, this rodent has longevity on his side. On a proper diet and under the supervision of a well-informed care provider, this endearing and enduring rodent may live for 15 to 20 years.
3. Is the chinchilla a diurnal or nocturnal animal?
Nocturnal. Like the sugar glider, hamster and hedgehog, the chinchilla prefers to make his appearance during the moonlit hours. Would-be pet owners who are home during the day and work at night (or routinely engage in nocturnal escapades) may not be ideal companions for chinchillas.
4. How active is this rodent?
You need only examine the disproportionately long hind legs of a chinchilla to get an idea of his innate gymnastic ability. Cage size should reflect the animal’s need to exercise this natural behavior — a consideration often overlooked in chinchilla housing. To keep a chinchilla’s naturally active body (and mind) in peak condition, daily out-of-cage exercise is essential. For in-cage aerobics, provide an extra large exercise wheel. Seek out an exercise wheel designed specifically for chinchillas. Substituting another type of wheel could cause injury.
5. Do they shed their coat?
A chinchilla sheds his coat several times each year. Regularly comb (with a fine-toothed comb) your chinchilla during these periods. Bring fur loss accompanied by skin irritations to the attention of your veterinarian. Take care not to grab a chinchilla’s coat. If a chinchilla’s coat is grabbed, the animal may lose fur in that area.
6. Aside from the standard blue-gray, what coat color varieties are available?
Selective breeding has produced, and will continue to produce, stunning color varieties. Violet, white, tan and black are just a few of the rare colors available to the discriminating chinchilla fancier.
7. Do these rodents produce unpleasant odors?
Adding to the magnetism of this captivating companion is his lack of a natural odor. The only odors associated with chinchillas stem from poor cage-cleaning habits.
8. Are chinchillas noisy?
These rodents seem to have a sound reserved for every one of their emotions. Spend several hours with your chinchilla each night, and you will soon become fluent in chin chatter.
9. Should these animals be housed separately or in pairs?
Chinchillas may be housed separately or in male-female pairs. Same-sex pairing is not recommended because it may increase aggression between cagemates. Females tend to be larger and a bit more aggressive than males. Chinchillas are prone to bickering with one another, so all introductions — regardless of the sex combination — should be performed with supervision.
10. What are the housing requirements?
Shoot for spacious quarters that encourage your valued companion to display his graceful bounding abilities. A multi-level cage measuring 5 feet in all dimensions is adequate. Cages with wire bottoms are convenient to clean but may pose a risk to the delicate extremities of this acrobatic rodent. Solid-bottom cages eliminate this risk but are more challenging to keep clean. Plastic and wood are no match for the insistent incisors of the chinchilla, so be sure the cage walls are made of galvanized or stainless-steel wire. Mesh spacing for adult animals should be in the order of 2 square inches (2 by 1 inch), but if smaller animals are involved, it is safest to go with 1/2- by 1/2-inch squares.
A large hiding shelter with a generous sprinkling of bedding within serves as a cozy refuge for an anxious or weary animal. Choose paper-based bedding or some other harmless type. Some health complications of small companion mammals have been associated with the use of aromatic cedar and pine shavings. The aroma of these beddings might also mask the need for cage cleaning, which can be unhealthy for your pet.
Equip the cage with a durable water bottle and feed bowl, and clean both with soap and water on a daily basis. Help keep those incessantly growing incisors under control by offering a pumice stone, hay cubes and a variety of wooden chew toys. Do not offer scrap wood from your basement or tree cuttings from the yard as chew toys. For safety reasons, use only wooden toys from a pet retailer.
11. Is it absolutely necessary to provide a dust bath?
Dust bathing is an indispensable part of healthy chinchilla living. Although comical to observe, this activity serves the very serious role of eliminating excess moisture and oil from the coat. Dust (volcanic ash) specifically made for chinchillas is available at most pet retailers. Pour some chinchilla dust into a clean cat litter box, place it in the cage, and let the blissful wallowing begin. Give your chinchilla access to a dust bath at least a few times a week, and be sure to increase the frequency during the humid summer months.
12. What diet keeps a chinchilla in top shape?
Some companion animal species thrive on a varied diet, but others perform better on more constant fare. The chinchilla fits into the latter grouping. With his sensitive balance of intestinal microflora (microbes that reside in the intestines and play a critical role in digestion), this rodent’s overall health may be seriously compromised by any practice that upsets the steady grind of microbial activity. A rapid change in diet and the offering of too many treats (commercial snacks, fruits, vegetables) are two such ill-advised practices.
A sound dietary plan includes commercial pellets made specifically for chinchillas, ample quantities of timothy hay (along with some alfalfa), and fresh water. Ken Korecky, president of the Exotic Nutrition Co., warns that some chinchillas are quite finicky when it comes to eating and are susceptible to eating disorders induced by stress and dental problems.
Depending on the quality and quantity of alfalfa hay consumed (which is typically rich in calcium), you may want to sprinkle a powdered calcium supplement on the feed a few times per week. Extra vitamin C may also be added. Consult an animal nutritionist or veterinarian for further advice on supplementation strategies.
To maintain maximum freshness and preserve the nutritive value of the feed, store your chinchilla’s pellets in a cool, dry environment. Before offering hay, be sure it is dry, smells fresh and shows no signs of mold growth. Chinchillas typically consume a few tablespoonfuls of pellets per day and will nibble on the hay at their leisure. Try to feed your chinchilla at around the same time each night.
If the diet must be changed, slowly incorporate the new feed. The process of adding the new pellets and reducing the old pellets should be done proportionately, and it should take at least a week or two to complete the conversion.
13. Is it true that chinchillas are extremely sensitive to heat and humidity?
Having evolved in the frigid Andes of South America, the well-insulated chinchilla is a master at keeping the heat in and the cold out. Because of this, a chinchilla’s body cannot cope with the extreme physical stress of elevated environmental temperatures or high humidity.
To recover from the grave condition of heatstroke, a chinchilla must be discovered early and immediately removed from the heated environment. Richard S. Funk, MA, DMV, of Mesa Veterinary Hospital in Arizona, advises offering cold drinking water and a cool (not cold) water bath to any chinchilla suffering from heatstroke. Immediate transportation (in a cool vehicle) to a veterinary hospital is required for further stabilization.
In order for a chinchilla to escape the deadly heat of summer, house it in an air-conditioned environment. Once the ambient temperature starts to creep above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius), the chances of heatstroke dramatically increase. Aim to keep the animal’s surrounding temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 21 degrees Celsius). Take care not to situate the cage in direct sunlight or by air vents.
14. Do they suffer any other common medical problems?
Properly fed chinchillas are hearty, but several disorders must be considered. Internal parasites (such as Giardia), dental problems (such as jaw misalignment and loose teeth), inflammation of the intestinal lining (which may cause diarrhea, mucus in the feces, vomiting and dehydration), heart murmurs and ringworm are some of the more common problems.
Proper nutrition, good sanitation and regular veterinary attention are important in preventing and controlling many of these maladies. Closely monitor your chinchilla’s behavior, weight and bowel movements (which should be firm, small, rounded pellets of a dark-green to brown color), and report any abnormal changes to your veterinarian. The body temperature of a healthy chinchilla is around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius).
Constant exposure to stress predisposes an animal to disease. Because chinchillas are naturally skittish animals, keep cage relocation, loud noises and diurnal disturbances to a minimum.
The chinchilla’s teeth can be another health indicator. The natural color of a chinchilla’s incisors is yellow-orange.
15. What household hazards should I be aware of?
Inquisitive and always eager to find a new chew toy, the chinchilla must be closely monitored when not in his cage. Toxic houseplants, electrical wires, toothpaste and rodent baits are just a few of the many household hazards that must be kept out of a chinchilla’s curious paws.
A chinchilla on the run should be picked up carefully — one hand holding the base of the tail, the other cradling its body. Never grab a chinchilla’s coat or the tip of his tail.