Caring for Chinchillas
Ever heard of a pet that requires dust baths and has a coat so thick that they are not affected by fleas? These social active critters once raised for their coats are now widely kept as pets and can even be litter box trained, at least to a certain extent.
The domestic chinchilla is a native of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. The name Chinchilla is believed to have come from the native Chinchia Indians who hunted these little creatures for their meat and fur. Today the chinchilla is almost extinct in its native Chile. There are two living species of chinchilla: Chinchilla brevicaudata and Chinchilla lanigera. The most noticeable difference between the species is the tail. Chinchilla brevicaudata has a shorter tail and ears with a thicker neck and shoulders. Most domestic chinchillas are thought to be derived from the lanigera species. The Giant chinchilla species has already been hunted to extinction.
The chinchilla was first brought to the United States in the early 1920’s when the Chilean government allowed a mining engineer from California to capture and transfer eleven chinchillas to the United States of which only three were female. This was the beginning of the first chinchilla farm. Before becoming popular as pets, chinchillas were raised for the fur trade taking 80 to 100 chinchillas to make a single coat. In the 1960’s these little critters became more fashionable to keep as pets rather than to wear as coats.
One advantage of a chinchilla as a pet is that they don’t get fleas because their fur is too thick. These pets don’t have an odor and are relatively smart and trainable. They learn easily to use a litter box for urination but are rather stubborn were they dispose of their small, hard, dry fecal pellets.
The average life span for a chinchilla is 8 to 12 years, but animals reaching over 20 years of age have been recorded. The two most common causes of death in the chinchilla are contaminated food, especially with mold, insecticides or pesticides, and overheating. These little heavily coated rodents cannot tolerate ambient temperatures of over 80°F which will lead to heat stroke.
An adult chinchilla weighs from 1 ½ to 3 pounds with the females being larger than their male counterparts. These pets run from 8 to 15 inches in length with another 3 to 6 inches for the puffy tail. The chinchilla actually comes in a variety of colors other than the standard gray and include: afro-violet, beige, black velvet, ebony, mosaic (a white coat patterned with gray, black or another color), white, and charcoal. The two most popular colors and hardest to find are the ebony and white.
Chinchillas are generally sociable and high-energy rodents. Various personalities do however exist. They are intelligent, creative, and love to have activities to keep them busy. Supervision is required because they are rodents and need to be kept from chewing on cords and wires.
A tub for dust baths is a must for the chinchilla. The dust used is actually volcanic ash and is essential in keeping the animal’s coat healthy by keeping oils in the coat under control. Dust baths should be offered for 10 to 15 minutes daily or at least 4 to 5 times weekly. The dust should be a minimum of 2-4 inches deep.
Cedar shaving should be avoided since they may cause respiratory problems. Pine or hardwood chips may be used for bedding. Kennel flooring may be made of wire mesh but the openings should be no smaller than ½ inch to prevent their feet from becoming caught. A portion of the kennel area should be solid flooring where they may comfortably stand or sit.
Since chinchillas are rodents, their teeth need constant filing and something to chew on is a must. Wooden chew toys, chin block, and pumice blocks are available. Birch, willow apple, or manzanita wood are some of the best wood products to use. Plastic should be avoided because when ingested it may lead to blockage.
The diet should consist of high-quality pelleted food, alfalfa, timothy hay, and rolled oats which are all good bets at dinner time. Adult chinchillas typically eat 0.75 to 1.0 oz per day of commercial pellets. They will also appreciate produce treats such as dried fruits, nuts, sunflower seeds, various green vegetables, and especially fresh carrot. The dried fruits and nuts should be used sparingly, not to exceed 1 teaspoon per day per adult to prevent upsetting the microflora of their cecum causing diarrhea and bloat. Too much supplementation, particularly with nuts, may lead to obesity. Good quality hay may be given continuously. Calf manna may be used as a supplement for pregnant, lactating, and growing animals.
Water is best provided by water bottles hung on the side of the cage because dishes are often overturned.
Chinchillas reach sexual maturity at 7 to 10 months of age and are polyestrous (they will go in and out of heat during the breeding season). Chinchillas generally breed from November to May in the northern hemisphere for a 30 to 50 day period. Females tend to undergo a postpartum estrus within a few days after having given birth. The gestation period for a chinchilla is from 105 to 115 days.
Baby chinchillas are known as kits with two kits being a normal sized litter, although litter size may be as high as five. Newborn kits have a full coat, a complete set of teeth, and their eyes usually open within a day of birth. Kits are weaned at 3 to 6 weeks of age.
It is common practice to remove the male before birth, although when housed in pairs this is often unnecessary since the male rarely bothers the kits.
Sexing can be done through distance comparisons. In the female, the anus is immediately caudal to the urogenital openings. In the male, the penis is separated from the anus by a considerable distance. The male has no scrotum with the testicles being housed in the inguinal canal or subcutaneous tissues.
Scott, Peggy. “Lil’Softies, a Luxurious Coat is just the Beginning of the Chinchilla’s Charm”. Pet Product News International. February 2008. P. 132.
Johnson-Delaney, Cathy. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook for Veterinarians. 2005. Zoological Education Network. Pp. 98-2 through 98-4.
Merry, Carol. “An Introduction to Chinchillas.” Exotic Animals A Veterinary Handbook. 1995. Veterinary Learning Systems. Pp. 39-42.