By Marty Hull
I currently own two chinchillas housed in separate cages. The first one is a male that is about 4 years old. I have had him since he was 6 months old, and he is wonderful. The second one is a female that is about 16 months old. I got her about two and a half months ago from a family who didn’t want her anymore. They said that they were afraid of her, and therefore never gave her any attention. They said they were afraid she would bite them, although she never had.
She was in poor condition when I received her, and I was aware of that. She had huge clumps of fur all over her body from lack of dust baths. I took her to the vet and he said she was fine, just to pull out those clumps gently. So I did, and she looks a lot better. She gets dust baths every day and will continue to, until her fur looks good. At first she would not take them, but after I gave her a treat when she did, she hops in every time.
I take her out as much as I can along with my other chinchilla, although I separate them because of the gender difference. At first she wasn’t sure what to think when she was allowed that freedom, but now she seems to somewhat enjoy it, but isn’t very obeying.
The problem is that her behavior is very aggressive. It is a pain to get her out of her cage, and she is very ornery when I tell her that playtime is over. She snorts often, and bites occasionally when I try to lift her out. I know it is a bite because it is hard, and she bit off my fingernail once causing it to bleed one time when I wasn’t being too cautious. I can tell she is scared, so I talk softly to her telling her it is OK. I move very slowly around her too. But even that is hard to do when she pees on me. She snorts and sometimes even if I just walk too close to her cage or show any signs of attempting to get her, she rears up and shoots a stream of pee at me. It is very frustrating, and I try to give her a treat when she doesn’t do that and tell her “No!” when she does, but it doesn’t much seem to be helping.
It has gotten so if I give her food, she lets me touch her head for a second before she gets angry, but the urinating has not ceased. She even almost shows interest in me and allows me to scratch her chin occasionally, (but don’t get me wrong, she is still aggressive), but the urinating is still frustrating.
My question is: How do I train against this behavior effectively and why does she do it? I have not found anything on the Internet about this type of behavior, so I am lost. It’s been a couple months and there has been slight improvement of other things, but not this. And how quickly can this be treated? Along with this, her underside is disgusting and caked with urine, so I will have to clean that by hand.
First, it is helpful to understand the mental capabilities of a chinchilla. Chinchillas do not learn commands. They do not understand the meaning of words or thoughts expressed in words or sentences. They do sense tone of voice, are very sensitive to loud noises and/or yelling. Many learn to recognize their names. They recognize and remember the characteristics of each individual they see regularly, like sound and tone of voice, how the person smells, the color and shape of clothes worn, the size of the person and how the person moves. They are very aware when a stranger comes in the room. They will associate all of those individual traits with how they have been treated.
Chinchillas that have been abused will try to avoid most people. Their instinct is to run away but they do not have that option when caged. If they feel threatened or cornered, the females may spray (spray urine) and males and females may bite. The biting is not an aggressive attack. It is more a desperate response because they cannot run away.
The spraying and biting are protective behaviors. In the household where she resided prior to your adopting her, she might well have been repeatedly teased and grabbed out of the cage. Then eventually, no attention was given to her at all. This type of owner behavior does not invite the formation of a trusting bond between the owner and the chinchilla. It only instills fear in the animal. Chinchillas have a long memory and a good one. It took time for the chinchilla to adopt this behavior and it will take time for her to modify it. Because each chinchilla is different, there is no set timetable for behavior modification.
We frequently receive chinchillas with this type of attitude as rescues from animal shelters. When they arrive, we house them in a cage in a quiet/secure area and only take them out of their cages for immediate medical or hygiene needs. We talk to them to get them accustomed to our voices and put a hand into their cage to familiarize them with our scent. We do not reach for or try to grab the chinchilla. We just place a hand in the cage and let it sit there. We wait for the chinchilla to come to us. We do this several times per day. It takes time for the chinchilla to become comfortable with our presence. Sometimes it takes a few days, a few weeks or close to a year to begin building a trust relationship with a chinchilla.
One very common trait most chinchillas share: they are very curious. In time, the chinchilla will come over to the hand, will sniff and nibble. They will lightly “taste” any jewelry on the fingers and may nibble on fingernails. In time, we start moving the fingers to lightly scratch the side of the face or under the chin. This is the start of building a bond of trust. The increase in contact and scratching must be determined by the chinchilla and not by the owner.
Run around time: If you want the chinchilla out of the cage for playtime, first set the cage on the floor. Open the cage door and stand back. In this setting, when the chinchilla comes out of the cage to explore, it is the animal’s decision to leave the cage, not the owner’s. There is no stressful confrontation because the chinchilla is not physically removed from the cage. Be sure to remove any hazards from the play area, like electric cords and plugs. With the cage on the floor, the chinchilla can be easily and gently herded back into the cage without the owner having to grab the chinchilla. Sometimes it is helpful to place barriers, like pieces of cardboard, on either side of the cage to make “herding” easier.
Some chinchillas will modify their behavior with time and patience; others will do so only to some degree. This is where you have to accept the chinchilla as he or she is and recognize you cannot always change the behavior into what you want. For example, we have some chinchillas that enjoy chin scratches and “cage” hugs, but do not want to come out of the cage under any circumstance. So we never take those chinchillas out of the cage.
Regarding the urine on her underside. Some chinchillas develop a habit of sitting in areas where they urinate. This may be the result of being kept in too small of a cage and/or not having the cage cleaned and shavings changed often enough. Grooming is the most effective method of eliminating matted fur and urine, but grooming requires taking the chinchilla out of the cage, restraining her and then combing and brushing the fur, all of which are traumatic. In time, that may be possible without causing her a lot of stress; for right now, continuing with more frequent dust bathing and changing out the shavings in her cage frequently are the best options.
For now, it is more important to work on building trust with the chinchilla so both the chinchilla and you have a better experience.