Chinchilla are very fun pets to have and easy to care for, but there is a lot of false information out there, especially on the internet and sometimes from pet stores, so make sure to see a veterinarian regarding proper care, caging, bedding and diet before buying all the "wrong stuff". There are only a few veterinarians in Chicago and the Chicago suburbs that specifically care for chinchillas and other exotic pets, including the veterinarians at Midwest Bird & Exotic Animal Hospital (located near Chicago's west side, only a few blocks west of Harlem, Chicago's western border), so make sure to find the right veterinarian before your chinchilla gets sick!
Life Span: 10 – 18 years
Environment Temperature Range: 60F - 75F
Body Temperature: 97F – 100F
Gestation Period: 111 days
Litter Size: 1 – 5 (range) 2 (average)
Weaning Age: 6-8 weeks
Diet and Handling
The chinchilla is a rodent, which is closely related to the guinea pig and porcupine. The pet chinchilla’s wild counterpart inhabits the Andes Mountain areas of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. In the wild state, they live at high altitudes in rocky, barren mountainous regions. They have been bred in captivity since 1923 primarily for their pelts. Some chinchillas that were fortunate enough to have substandard furs were sold as pets or research animals. Today chinchillas are raised for both purposes: pets and pelts.
Chinchilla laniger is the main species bred today. They tend to be fairly clean, odorless and friendly pets, but usually are shy and easily frightened. They do not make very good pets for young children, since they tend to be high strung and hyperactive (both the child and the pet). The fur is extremely soft and beautiful bluish grey in color, thus leading to their popularity in the pelt industry. Current color mutations include white, silver, beige and black.
What do wild chinchillas eat? Do they eat bowls of man-made pellets? No. They eat fresh or dried out vegetation (also know as grass, many wild leafy greens like dandelions, and dried grasses, a.k.a. hay). But if you are currently feeding pellets to your chinchilla, you do not want to take them away abruptly or completely! This can hurt them! And when we help you to wean them down or off of the pellets, onto a healthy leafy green and veggie diet, it is of utmost importance that you wean them to an appropriate, specific diet with great variety. Please do not guess what to feed your chinchilla! They can end up in the hospital, very sick, if you feed them the wrong vegetables or fruit snacks. And if you feed them only pellets and hay, they will likely eventually get sick in different ways from eating pellets (kidney/bladder issues, gut issues, malnutrition, etc). Tailoring a diet for your chinchilla takes finesse and time and guidance from one of our veterinarians. As much as we'd like to just write some easy instructions for you here, we can't risk your chinchilla's health by assuming it's just like every other chinchilla. They have similar diets, but not exactly the same. We take into account your chinchilla's age, size, urine-calcium, stools, etc, to guide you to the correct diet items and amounts.
Chinchillas are not very difficult to handle and rarely bite. Be careful when handling
them, however, due to the risk of “fur slip”. Fur slip is the patchy shedding of hair
that occurs when the fur is grasped or roughly handled. To avoid this condition,
always grasp the base of the tail (close to the body) with one hand while supporting
the body on your opposite forearm and against your body. Chinchillas can also be held around the thorax as done with other rodents. Although they rarely bite, they still are capable if agitated enough. In addition, and more likely, they may urinate when annoyed. As with any animal, always be in control when holding or restraining your pet to avoid injuries to either of you.
Housing and Breeding
Chinchillas must be kept in an area that is well lit, adequately ventilated and kept cool and dry. They do not
tolerate heat or humidity and they thrive at lower temperatures. The optimal temperature is 60F to 70F.
Wire mesh cages are typically used for chinchillas, with or without a solid floor. Glass aquariums or plastic
containers can be used, but with caution due to their poor ventilation. If these containers are used, watch
for the development of scruffy fur as an indication of impending problems. Wooden cages should not be used
since chinchillas are noted gnawers. These animals tend to be very active and acrobatic, thus requiring a lot
of space. An ideal enclosure would measure at least 6ft x 6ft x 3ft with a one foot square nest box.
Dust baths should be provided at least once or twice weekly. These must be large and deep enough to allow
the chinchillas to roll over in it. Finely powdered volcanic ash is used to keep the fur clean and well groomed.
Several brands of “chinchilla dust” are marketed. A home-made alternative consists of 9 parts of silver sand to
1 part of Fuller’s earth. This bath should only be provided for a short time during the day, otherwise there would
be a perpetual dust cloud in the cage.
Chinchillas tend not to get along well when housed together, with the female being the more aggressive gender. Breeders and pelters commonly set up polygamous colonies with one male having access to five or so females maintained in separate cages. The male has a tunnel along the back of the female’s cages, which enables him
to enter any cage at will. The females cannot pass through the tunnel because they are fitted with lightweight collars that are just a little wider than the cage opening.
Chinchillas will breed throughout the year, with the main breeding season being between November and May.
Estrous cycles vary from 30 to 50 days. Many female chinchillas have irregular cycles.
The female chinchilla can be quite aggressive towards the male. For this reason, males are given the opportunity
to escape from the female’s cage. This is accomplished by placing a collar around the female’s neck and having
a small exit hole that the male cam climb through, but the female wearing a collar cannot. Many breeders set
up several female chinchilla cages in a row with a pathway located in back allowing free access to several females by the single male; this practice is known as harem breeding. Up to 20% of all females may never breed, which
is often due to incompatibility with the male. In cases such as this, changing of the male may raise the conception rate. The gestation period is 111 days on the average, with a range of 105-115 days. There are no obvious signs
of impending parturition (giving birth). Most births, however, take place in the morning. Usually two babies are
born, but litter size varies between one and five.
Non-Infectious and Infectious Conditions
This condition is characterized by drooling of saliva onto the fur under the chin. Other signs include inappetance, sores in the mouth and loss of fur under the chin. The underlying cause is overgrowth of the molars (cheek teeth). Mineral imbalances, as well as poor dental alignment, lead to overgrown and maloccluded teeth. Temporary treatment involves clipping of the affected teeth and proper mineral supplementation. Providing wood or mineral blocks for the chinchilla to chew may aid in prevention, but many cases have a genetic basis.
As mentioned in the section on HANDLING, chinchillas often lose patches of fur when roughly handled. Another common cause is fighting among the chinchillas. This condition does not injure the pet, but ruins the pelt of
animals raised for fur.
Barbering is the condition where a chinchilla chews on its own or another’s fur resulting in a rough, moth-eaten appearing coat. Some of the underlying causes of this behavior include boredom, dirty fur, dietary imbalances
and hereditary factors. This condition is a serious problem in the pelt industry. Providing the animals with chew
toys as well as selective breeding often aid in decreasing the incidence within a colony.
High temperatures and high humidity are not tolerated well by chinchillas. Most problems occur in situations
where the cage is placed in direct sunlight and poorly ventilated. Affected animals will be lying on their sides
and panting. They also feel hot to the touch because of elevated body temperature. Animals in high humidity
will also exhibit unkempt, damp fur. Treatment involves misting or bathing them in cold water or applying rubbing alcohol to their foot pads. Veterinary assistance should be sought for further recommendations and treatment.
Enteritis (Intestinal Infection)
One of the most common disease conditions of chinchillas is enteritis, or infection of the digestive tract.
In many cases, the exact cause may not be determined. Bacterial, viral and protozoal agents have all been
associated with the syndrome. A few specific agents include Pseudomonas aeroginosa, Salmonella typhimurium,
E. coli and Giardia. Poor husbandry and management is often associated with an outbreak.
Clinical signs range from depression to death, with or without diarrhea. Other signs of illness include loss of
appetite, partial paralysis and painful abdomen. Examination of the feces through fecal flotation, direct smears
and cultures may reveal the causative agent.
Veterinary care and treatment must be sought at the first sign of illness. Treatment of enteritis involves
appropriate antibiotic therapy and supportive care. This disease is often fatal despite aggressive therapy due
to the severity of the illness.
Pneumonia (Respiratory Infection)
Pneumonia is another common condition observed in chinchillas, which is caused by a number of disease agents. Bordatella, Pasteurella, Pseudomonas and E. coli are a few of the bacterial species commonly associated with
the syndrome. Damp, draughty housing often predisposes the pet to this condition. Clinical signs include discharge from the eyes and nose, loss of appetite and rough hair coat. Death may result from this respiratory disease. Treatment involves supportive care and antibiotics.
Trichophyton mentagrophytes is the typical agent in chinchilla’s with ringworm. It causes hair loss and scabby
red lesions on the nose, feet and around the eyes. This is a very serious problem with fur ranchers due to the damage to the chinchilla’s hair coat. Treatment involves the use of griseofulvin as prescribed by your veterinarian.
Special thanks to J. Derrell Clark, Jean Coulton, Richard Webb and Christine Williams whose published information
on this subject was compiled to produce this paper.