I am the proud mama of four chinchillas. With my allergies and nocturnal tendencies, they are the perfect pet for me. Although they aren’t “cuddly,” they are smart, fun, and interesting… not to mention adorable! However, if you want them to live full, happy lives (up to around 20 years!), there are a few things you need to know. They are sensitive little things, and many die before their time because their owners don’t know how they differ from guinea pigs or rabbits. Hence the creation of this page!
Water – fresh water should always be available via a hanging water bottle – high quality glass bottles or the use of metal shielding can prevent chewing. Chinchillas do not generally drink a large amount of water daily; it is best to use smaller bottles and refill the water often to prevent bacterial overgrowth.
Feed – Use only high quality chinchilla pellets. Pellets should be high protein (16-20%), high fiber (18-23%), and low fat (2-3%). Mazuri Chinchilla, Oxbow Chinchilla, Purina Advanced Nutrition Rabbit, or Tradition Chinchilla, are all high quality brands. Be sure to watch the expiration dates, as some vitamins will degrade over time. Pellets with additions like fruits or grains included are inappropriate.
Hay – Loose timothy hay or orchard grass should be provided ad lib daily. This is important for gastrointestinal and dental health. Alfalfa hay is higher in calcium and protein, and may be provided in limited quantities occasionally. However, alfalfa is a soft legume hay and is not high enough in fiber to fulfill the health benefits of timothy or orchard hays. Brome, oat, or barley hays are also a good occasional treat, but do not take the place of timothy hay.
Dust – Commercially available, high-quality dust include Blue Cloud and Blue Sparkle. There are other brands available, but avoid scented dust. Chinchillas need to bathe in dust 2-3 times weekly to keep their coats in good shape. Over-dusting can cause dry skin, especially in the ears and feet; so do not provide unlimited access to the dust. Sweet PDZ is reportedly a possible alternative if you find you are allergic to the regular dust (I have not seen this in action).
Set-up – Avoid exclusively mesh flooring or shelving. Varied textures likewood, fleece, and solid metal will help avoid accidents and pressure sores (pododermatitis or bumblefoot). Provide a hide house or tube; chinchillas like height and protection on at least 3 sides while they sleep. Fleece hammocks are also a fun and comfortable cage accessory. Your cage should provide lots of perches and shelves, allowing for climbing, jumping, and high lookouts. Vertical space is more important than horizontal space. Break up heights to guard against falls – chinchillas can be surprisingly clumsy. A hammock stretched across the center of a high cage is a good safety precaution. A marble tile will give your chinchilla a cool place to lie if they feel overheated. I suggest having 6 cubic feet of cage space for each chinchilla you house, minimum.
Bedding – Fleece liners are my personal preference, as they are easy to clean, reusable (and thus earth- and wallet- friendly), and cute. You can also use aspen bedding, carefresh, or paper shreds. Avoid aromatics like pine or cedar, and don’t use beddings like corn or other edibles, as your chinchilla will prefer to eat that instead of the pellets.
Toys and Treats
Treats – chinchillas have very sensitive gastrointestinal systems, and survive best on a basic diet of pellets and hay. If feeding treats is important to you as an owner, it is necessary that you only provide healthy treats in limited quantities (ie. less than ½ tsp daily). Avoid sugary treats like raisins, dry papaya, or dry cranberries. “Safe” treats include rosehips, dry hibiscus or rose petals, plain wheaties or cheerios, or a piece of dry, whole-wheat pasta.
Toys – for a chinchilla with healthy teeth, a lot of chewing is imperative. Toys provide chewing opportunities and enrich the cage environment. Wood toy parts, twigs, and shelves all provide chewing opportunities. Pumice, cholla, and coconut shell are also good choices. Shredding toys do not provide much in terms of tooth maintenance, but seem to be some of my girls’ favorite toys. Shredders that are bird-safe are generally chinchilla safe. They include bamboo, balsa, palm leaf, seagrass, cornhusk, or loofah.
Woods – different types and hardness provide variety, but it is important to be sure they are safe for chinchillas. The most common dangerous woods come from pitted fruits (cherry, peach, plum, etc) due to the cyanide present in these species; also aromatic woods (ie. cedar, citrus) have various health hazards. Wood with bark like apple, pear, willow, grapevine, cottonwood, elm, or manzanita are safe favorites. There are more complete lists on many other websites.
Exercise & interaction
Wheels – Chinchillas are very active, and need to have a wheel to keep them healthy. Safe wheels are solid metal. Do not buy mesh or plastic wheels. There are two types of appropriate chinchilla wheels – traditional vertical wheels and the “flying saucer.”
Playtime – at least ½ hour daily of out-of-cage playtime is very important for all chinchillas – and this is the fun time for owners as well! Choose or create a chinchilla-safe room for your pet to play in. I prefer to have their cage in the room they play in so they have a place to retreat to and rest. Do not use plastic run-around balls – they are not safe for chinchillas, who overheat easily and do not “run” as much as “hop.”
Chinchilla-proofing – protect cords by running them through hard coverings like PVC pipes and/or lifting them off the ground. Try to limit the number of small, inaccessible places, like behind the fridge, under the stove, or under/inside of the couch. Be aware that chinchillas are born chewers – try to limit their access to plastics or other dangerous materials, or items you don’t want chewed. They are also great climbers and jumpers – keep this in mind. Provide places for your pet to hide, as a large open space is both boring and can cause your chinchilla to feel exposed; this is a recipe for nervous over-activity and overheating. Provide lots of safe things for your chinchilla to play and chew on, and change it around occasionally to prevent boredom. A bored chinchilla is a chewing chinchilla, and your walls or baseboards are at risk. Chinchillas love chewing on corners – if you want to protect susceptible places, fit cardboard corner guards. Avoid having your chinchilla play in a high-traffic area, and walk carefully when it is out; chinchillas are fast and unpredictable, and can be stepped on during play time. Chinchillas are prey animals, and should not be mixed with other pets; cats and dogs that have not shown prey-drive previously may be stimulated by their quick movements.
Car – for single chinchillas, a small pet carrier lined with fleece and buckled into the car is appropriate for most trips. For a longer trip, it is important to provide water and hay (in block form is appropriate). If you are transporting more than one chinchilla for any significant distance, you should separate them for cleanliness reasons and to prevent overheating and conflict (even if they are usually peaceful cage mates).
Airline – It is possible to fly with chinchillas in the cargo hold in several airlines, but it is necessary to call ahead and get confirmation in writing regarding the type of pet you are transporting. Cargo holds are generally not climate controlled on the tarmac, so if you are flying to an area with a hot climate, there is a risk of overheating on the tarmac or during transport onto or off of the plane. The moral of the story is plan ahead, call, and be sure you have a physical letter or e-mail from the airline to show at check-in to prevent problems.
Common Health Issues
Overheating – chinchillas are historically animals of high altitudes and cold climates – they have very thick fur and prefer temperatures below 70 degrees. Some breeders keep their chinchillas in rooms as cold as 50 degrees, but most pet owners keep temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. Allowing temperature to fluctuate significantly can be more problematic than keeping a room slightly too warm or too cold; avoid drafts as much as possible. It is absolutely imperative that chinchillas are kept below 75 degrees AT MOST; even in temperate climates, the availability of an air conditioner is necessary. Fans move air around, but as chinchillas do not sweat or pant, this does nothing to moderate their body temperature. Availability of a marble slab will provide opportunities for the chinchilla to cool themselves somewhat in short-term or mildly warm conditions. Overheating is a deadly condition; signs include red, warm ears, warm/hot paw pads, exaggerated respirations, and stretching out on their sides.
Gastrointestinal Issues – chinchillas have very sensitive digestive tracts. GI problems can develop quickly and kill in as little as 24 hours. It is very important to practice prevention and monitor DAILY for signs of illness. Watching the size, consistency, and production of feces is the most reliable way to monitor GI health. Large, soft feces or feces stuck to the fur around the anus can be sign of dietary imbalance, approaching diarrhea, or parasite. Small, oddly formed, hard feces can indicate a slowed GI; and can be a sign of developing stasis, bloat, or reduced intake from disease or malocclusion.
Malocclusion – malocclusion is the term used to describe overgrown or improperly aligned teeth. Chinchillas are rodents, and have teeth that continually grow. Teeth that grow improperly can cause pain by scraping the cheeks and tongue, or can prevent the teeth from meeting properly to grind food. In some cases, malocclusion may occur through the elongation of the tooth roots, which is very painful. Malocclusion is generally non-reversible, but in some cases can be managed with regular visits to an exotics vet. Signs include weight loss, drooling, weeping eye on one or both sides, rubbing of mouth, diminishing consumption of food and corresponding reduction in the size of feces.
Emergency Care – when any indications of health issues appear, it is necessary to get your chinchilla to a vet as soon as possible. However, short-term support can help to reduce the impact of the illness and prevent the development of additional issues. Keep a bag of Oxbow Critical Care in your freezer and start hand-feeding any time you suspect your chinchilla has reduced its intake of food to keep its digestive tract moving. If you suspect gastrointestinal issues, providing a probiotic like Benebac gel and liquid simethicone (baby gas drops) will not hurt and may help. Keep a couple instant cold packs available in case something unforeseen comes up (like a power outage) and you need to reduce the temperature without air conditioning for a short time.
Supplements – for most chinchillas, dietary supplements such as grain mixes or calf manna are not necessary. If you choose to provide these supplements, be aware that grains are very high in phosphorus and can cause a calcium imbalance unless you also supplement with calcium. Unless directed by a vet, vitamin supplements are not necessary either, although I have had some success using vitamin C and calcium supplements to support dental health. If you choose to provide vitamin C and/or calcium, do not over-dose and be sure your chosen supplements do not include lots of sugar. I provide vitamin C in the form of rosehips or crystals added to my chinchillas’ water bottle and calcium by giving ¼ Tums 750 tablets (mixed berry is my girls’ favorite flavor).
Finding a chinchilla-savvy vet – most vets do not have significant knowledge of chinchillas or other small animals. Although they may be wonderfully knowledgeable for cats or dogs, they may not be prepared to care for your chinchilla. Do your research regarding local exotics vets, and visit them in a non-emergency situation to ask questions and be sure they are knowledgeable. Look for vets that are comfortable and competent when handling your pet and are aware of the basic care requirements (their information should line up with the basic information provided in this article). Online chinchilla forums often have ongoing lists and reviews of chinchilla vets. If you can’t find an exotics vet that works for you, you may also want to look into working with your dog or cat vet; if they are willing to treat your chinchilla, you may want to provide articles regarding chinchilla care before an emergency occurs. Learn enough about the care of your pet to be alert for dangerous treatments; for example, chinchillas are hindgut fermenters, and should not be prescribed certain antibiotics, such as Clavamox (amoxicillin/penicillin) or clindamycin.
My favorite suppliers & informational websites