Q: I just purchased a chinchilla. He ended up being able to fit through the bars of his cage, so we are returning the cage and getting one with smaller holes in a week when we have enough money. For now he is in the basement with the cage door open in a completely fenced off area where he can’t get out. We take him out each night to play, and he is a lot of fun. However, when he is in his caged area he seems to spend a lot of time on the cement floor. He goes into his cage voluntarily at times but seems to spend most of his time hopping around on the floor. Is this OK? It is colder in our basement because we have no air-conditioning, so we may have to leave him there during summer. Is this OK? The basement doesn’t have any windows, so during the day I leave a basement light on to let him know it’s daytime. Is this OK, or should I leave the lights off?
A: We generally have pets for our own enjoyment. With that enjoyment comes the responsibility to provide an environment that gives our pet a chance to have a long, safe, healthy life. Chinchillas are rodents but are categorized as exotic pets because they have some special needs. They are not as durable, resistant or independently resourceful as a rodent like a rat. They also cost a lot more. A basement could be a safe place for a chinchilla, but many basements bring a number of hazards that may result in injury or illness to a chinchilla.
If you are keeping your chinchilla in the basement, be sure there is adequate ventilation. Mold and mildew grow in many basements. Chinchillas do best if the temperature remains between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The presence of mold and/or mildew and temperatures below 50 will greatly increase the incidence of respiratory infection and pneumonia. Chinchillas can also develop fungal infections if they are in damp (urine-soaked) shavings on a cage bottom so shavings should be changed a few times per week.
Most basements have concrete floors. Running on concrete is harder on a chinchilla’s joints, just as it is for humans.
When you get a new cage, be sure all walking surfaces (floors and ramps) have wire no larger than ½ by ½ inch. If the wire is larger, the chinchilla may easily catch a foot and break a leg.
Leaving the light on for the chinchilla during the day is a good idea. Some chinchillas even enjoy some quiet music from a radio.
Here’s a review of basic chinchilla needs.
1. Chinchillas need chinchilla food. There are several brands that are specially formulated to supply the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that a chinchilla needs. Ask at your pet store or look online. Although rabbit food is cheaper, most contain sunflower and/or flax seeds. Chinchillas cannot digest and metabolize fats and oils. The oil in the seeds may cause liver damage and poor health. They also need timothy hay and an alfalfa cube occasionally. Avoid high-sugar treats.
2. Chinchillas need clean fresh water every day.
3. Chinchillas need a cage that will keep them safe and warm enough (so they are up off the concrete floor). A few toys are helpful, and a small, wood house makes them feel more secure. A solitary chinchilla will lose heat faster than a pair of chinchillas.
4. Chinchillas need a dust bath a couple times per week to keep their fur clean. Otherwise, the fur clumps from natural oils. The clumping causes the chinchilla to ”leak” off heat too fast, which can result in respiratory problems from getting too cold.
5. Chinchillas do better if they have exercise. An exercise wheel is a good idea, although daily exercise outings provide effective exercise also.
6. Chinchillas need clean, fresh air.