How to Take Care of a Chinchilla
Chinchillas hail from the mountains of Chile, but these adorable, fur-covered rodents are also popular pets in U.S. households.
Taking care of a domestic, pet chinchilla requires dedication from pet parents to ensure that these small animals live healthy lives.
“Chinchillas have a relatively longer life span compared to other rodents—10 to11 years,” says Dr. Meliasa Robinson, a veterinarian at Saint Francis Veterinary Center of South Jersey. “Despite their natural shyness, chinchillas can be rewarding pets with a playful nature.”
Here are some essential tips for providing the best care for your chinchilla.
Chinchilla food and diet
Proper care of your chinchilla starts with a well-balanced diet. Because chinchillas are small animals, pet parents have to be cognizant about keeping them at a healthy weight to avoid associated medical problems.
“I recommend feeding a diet high in fiber, which makes hay a major component of the chinchilla diet,” says Robinson. “Commercial pellets are also available for chinchillas to provide additional vitamins and nutrients.”
Robinson adds that alfalfa hay is not suitable for adult chinchillas and that feeding a chinchilla too many pellets can lead to intestinal issues. She recommends a set amount of pellets—about 2 to3 tablespoons—per day.
“Items such as grains, apples and carrots are considered treats and should be limited to prevent upsetting the stomach,” says Robinson. “To help keep your chinchilla at a healthy weight, make sure hay is the primary portion of the diet (70 to75 percent), limit pellets to 10 percent of the diet, fresh vegetables to 10 percent and the remainder treats.”
Chinchilla housing recommendations
Another important part of caring for your chinchilla is setting up the proper environment to keep your pet safe, comfortable and entertained.
“Chinchillas are very agile and acrobatic—thus, they require larger housing than say a guinea pig,” says Robinson. “Large multi-level [enclosures] that provide climbing and jumping opportunities are ideal. Be sure to provide an area for hiding, just in case your chinchilla is feeling shy.”
Chinchillas come from a natural high-altitude environment that is dry and cool. For this reason, you’ll want to prevent your chinchilla’s room from becoming overly humid or hot during warmer weather.
“Make sure the area of the habitat is not too hot,” says Robinson. “Chinchillas are sensitive to heat, and temperatures greater than 80 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat stroke, which can be fatal.”
Chinchillas release excess heat through their ears, so if your chinchilla is getting too hot you may notice the skin in their ears becoming red, with visible red veins. Keep your pet cool and make sure they always have access to fresh, clean, chlorine-free water.
Chinchilla habitats should be cleaned and disinfected at least once per week. Rinse the habitat and allow it to dry completely before placing your pet back inside. Additionally, pet parents should change chinchilla bedding at least once per week and remove wet spots from the habitat on a daily basis.
You can let your chinchilla out of their habitat as often as you would like, as long as you supervise your pet closely. Robinson says that frequent handling of chinchillas can help you build a bond with your pet.
When removing your chinchilla from their habitat, consider doing so in a smaller room or space. “Keep in mind that your chinchilla may want to hide at times, so being in a large open space could be stressful,” Robinson adds.
Chinchilla baths and grooming
When it comes to grooming, chinchillas are relatively low-maintenance pets. They need access to a dust bath a couple times per week, but pet parents do not need to physically groom chinchillas.
“Commercial dust baths are available,” says Robinson. “Provide a pan that is large enough for your chinchilla to roll in and is 2 to3 centimeters deep. Make sure your chinchilla does not excessively use the dust bath, as this can cause eye problems.”
Because of the density of chinchilla fur, regular water bathing (the way you might bathe a dog or cat) is not recommended, as it can be very difficult for the fur to dry, and this can lead to bacterial or fungal issues.
Although chinchillas do not require regular brushing, pet parents can use a soft brush to lightly comb a chinchilla’s fur during regular handling sessions.
Caring for your chinchilla’s teeth
A chinchilla’s teeth grow continuously throughout their life, and malocclusion (misaligned teeth) can occur at any time. Regularly examine your chinchilla’s teeth for developing problems.
“The best thing that can be done for your chinchilla’s teeth is to feed an appropriate diet and find a veterinarian who has experience seeing chinchillas,” says Robinson. “An examination is recommended at least annually, and in an older chinchilla, every 6 months may be needed.”
Pet parents can offer chinchillas store-bought chew sticks or mineral chews to help file down their teeth.
Keep a close eye on your chinchilla’s behaviors and eating habits. If your chinchilla is dropping food, not eating well or is drooling excessively, it’s time to see your veterinarian. Additionally, says Robinson, smaller than normal stools may be an indication of a dental or dietary issue that needs veterinary attention.
Understanding normal chinchilla behavior
A chinchilla who has been socialized properly may enjoy being handled and carried. “Frequent handling will help them become more relaxed and used to their human family members,” says Robinson.
But again, Robinson notes that chinchillas can be shy, and they sometimes enjoy hiding. Pet parents should provide hiding areas in their habitats so that chinchillas can escape for a little alone time.
These small pets are active, and they love to jump and play. Chinchillas are
nocturnal, meaning that they sleep most of the day and are awake and energized at night. Pet parents should not be concerned if they see their pets sleeping a lot during the day.
Chinchillas may also be vocal in certain situations. “Chinchillas do make distinct vocal sounds based on response to certain situations and context,” says Robinson.
Pet parents should watch for any changes in their chinchilla’s behavior such as lethargy, distressed or labored breathing, an unsteady gait or disinterest in their surroundings. These could be indicators of an underlying medical problem.
“Decreased appetite, lethargy, drooling, palpable swelling on the bottom jaw, weight loss and small stool are red flags,” adds Robinson. “If any of these signs are noted, be sure to bring your chinchilla to a veterinarian right away. Make sure your veterinarian is comfortable seeing chinchillas.”
Just like many small animals, chinchillas can make great pets if you are ready for the commitment and understand the care they need. If you are considering welcoming home a chinchilla, be sure to stock up on all the supplies they will need before they arrive!