Care of Chinchillas
The chinchilla (Chinchilla laniger) is native to South America, specifically the Andes mountain ranges of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Wild populations of chinchillas are thought to be endangered, if not extinct, but exact studies proving the current status of these animals have not been performed.
Chinchillas are herbivores (plant-eating) and are members of the rodent family. Consequently, their teeth grow continuously and they must have a proper diet in order to avoid dental problems. They are generally shy creatures but will take to handling if encouraged to do so from a young age. When handling your chinchilla, be aware of the defense mechanism called slip fur. If the animal is handled roughly or is fighting to escape, large patches of fur are released enabling it to get away.
Reports indicate that the average life span in captivity is 10 years, but some can live up to 20 years in the appropriate environment. Sexual maturity is reached at 8 months of age, so be sure to separate males and females before this age if you don’t want to get into the breeding business. Gestation length is approximately 110 days and, on average, 2 to 6 young are produced per litter. Babies are born fully furred with eyes and ears open and teeth present. By 1 week of age they begin to eat solid food. Weaning typically occurs between 6 and 8 weeks of age.
A large, multi-level cage is ideal to allow adequate activity as chinchillas are agile climbers and jumpers. Wooden cages are a poor choice for two reasons: they are difficult to sanitize and they will be chewed up. Wire grating is ok if the space between the wires is small enough to prevent feet from getting lodged. Chinchillas should also be provided with a place to hide. PVC pipe works well and can be sanitized in the dishwasher but it must be at least 5 inches in diameter. Temperatures below 85 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity less than 50 to 60% are needed to avoid heat stroke and skin problems.
Chinchillas have a unique requirement of daily dust baths to maintain skin and coat condition. Commercial dust is available at most pet stores. If you prefer to make your own, 9 parts of silver sand and 1 part Fuller’s earth will do. Regular sand is NOT adequate. Place the dust in a shallow dish or pan and leave in the cage for 30 to 60 minutes. Remove after use to help keep the dust clean and avoid excessive bathing.
An appropriate diet consists mainly of hay (prairie grass or timothy hay), available at most pet or feed stores, or through Oxbow Hay Company at www.oxbowhay.com. Alfalfa hay is not appropriately balanced and should be avoided. Fresh vegetables should also be fed, but in moderation. Offerings of commercial chinchilla or rabbit pellets should be limited to 1 to 2 tablespoons per day in order to avoid obesity. Other foods such as dried apples, raisins, figs, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds should be limited to no more than one teaspoon daily. Fresh, clean water should be offered daily; water bottles are preferable over bowls as they are easier to keep clean. Hard items for gnawing (and helping keep teeth worn) should be provided (examples include pumice, maple, or birch). Cedar, plum, redwood, cherry, and oleander are toxic and should be avoided.
Diseases of Chinchillas
Malocclusion- Teeth become overgrown and can lead to eating difficulties and abscesses of both soft tissue and bone. Signs include salivation, anorexia, weight loss and lethargy. Appropriate diet and gnawing surfaces are essential to prevent this condition.
Choke- Chinchillas are unable to vomit and get food items, bedding, and other objects lodged in their esophagus. Drooling, retching, and breathing difficulties may be observed. This can be a medical emergency.
Bloat- This is an accumulation of gas in the stomach. It can occur with sudden food changes or with digestive tract inflammation secondary to other diseases. This, too, can be life threatening.
Trichobezoars (hairballs) – Although seemingly minor, hairballs can be life-threatening if lodged on the digestive tract causing obstruction. Lethargy and anorexia are symptoms. Feeding fresh pineapple pr papaya tablets may help prevent formation of hairballs due to certain enzymes present in each that help keep hair from sticking together in the digestive tract.
Constipation- This usually results from a diet too low in fiber and too high in carbohydrates and protein. It can also occur as a result of GI obstruction, obesity, and lack of exercise. Signs include straining to defecate, passing scant feces which are thin, hard, and occasionally blood-stained.
Diarrhea- Can be caused by inappropriate diet (overfeeding of fresh greens) but can result from parasites or GI infection. Note that Chinchillas can carry Salmonella and may or may not have symptoms of disease.
Fur ring and paraphimosis- This is a condition in which fur collects around the penis preventing retraction of the penis into the prepuce (sheath). It is often painful and can even cause obstruction of the urinary tract (an emergency situation).
Conjunctivitis- Eye infections can be caused by a number of things including excessive dust bathing, dirty poor quality bedding, or inadequate ventilation. They can also result secondary to upper respiratory infections. Signs include ocular discharge and redness or swelling of ocular tissue.
Alopecia (hair loss) – This is often a sign of underlying skin problems including infection (bacterial or fungal) and/or parasites (mites or fleas). Diagnostic tests are often necessary to determine cause and appropriate treatment.
Heat Stroke- If temperatures exceed 85 degrees F and humidity is over 65%, heat stoke can occur and can be life threatening. A good rule of thumb is the sum of temperature and humidity is greater than 150 (e.g. 85 + 65 = 150), risk of heat stroke is present.
*The above does not include all potential diseases of chinchillas but is intended to provide owners information about common diseases and their symptoms.