Finding the Perfect Chinchilla for You
Thinking of adopting a chinchilla? There are many things to consider when purchasing a chinchilla as a pet. As with any animal, they require that their human companion provide them with an environment conducive to their health and happiness. Like a cat or dog, a chinchilla requires daily fresh food, water and interaction time. The lifespan of a chinchilla can stretch beyond 20 years, so this is a long-term commitment. Also, chinchillas have very special environmental needs. Their dense fur means that they must be kept in a cool and dry environment. It’s important that the ambient air temperature remain below 75° Fahrenheit (24° Celsius). In warm climates, this means that air conditioning is required.
Finally, when considering a younger chinchilla, we advise against purchasing kits under four months of age. A kit weaned too early can have many health problems and have a higher mortality rate than one several months old. Chinn’s Chilla Ranch only sells kits that are ready to move into a new home.
So if you’re ready to jump in with both paws, keep reading! This article explores all of the joys of owning a chinchilla in greater detail.
Selecting a Breeder
There are many things to consider when looking for a good breeder. For starters, when you email the breeder, do you feel like you can trust that person? Do you feel like the breeder just wants to make a quick sale, or are they genuinely interested in the welfare of the animal they are potentially going to sell you? Also, consider asking around for references from other breeders or chinchilla owners. Beware of anyone telling you not to buy from specific breeders. Breeders who badmouth other breeders always have something to hide in their own herds and should be avoided. An honest breeder, who is proud of the animals they have bred, has nothing to hide and will encourage you to shop around for the perfect animal for you. Also, ask others if they have had any issues with animals purchased from a breeder you are interested in working with. If they have, how has the breeder handled the situation? Did they handle it professionally? Did they stand behind the quality of their animals? The nature of breeding animals can sometimes bring health issues with them. A good breeder will address any issues that arise if they are under their control and take appropriate action to assure that those issues do not continue in the future. Lastly, a good breeder will want to know where their animals are going and the kinds of homes they will have. They are concerned about the long-term health and welfare of their animals.
Basic Chinchilla Care
Chinchillas enjoy routines, so stick to one as best as you can. This is our recommendation for regular care.
Fresh pellets, approximately 1/4 cup per chin per day. Some owners split the feeding to twice a day.
Fresh water daily.
Fresh hay. Use timothy hay if using an alfalfa-based pellet, alfalfa if using a timothy-based pellet.
Make sure the temperature is within the comfortable range.
Give scritches and love.
Once or twice a week
Give them something to chew on, such as an applewood twig or pumice stone.
We like to give all of our chinchillas weekly Vitamin C/acidophilus probiotic tablets. These were developed by Meadowbrook Chinchillas and have definitely kept down the number of vet stays at The Ranch. We use it as a substitute for a treat. The Pro-C vitamin tablets can be purchased through Meadowbrook Chinchillas.
It is imperative that you watch your new chinchilla to make sure they are eating, drinking and pooping normally. It sounds funny, but one can know a lot about a chinchilla by the shape, size, color, and sometimes odor of the droppings. When you are at the breeder’s ranch, take a sample of poop from the chinchilla you are purchasing so you have something to refer to. Well-formed, dark brown pellets are healthy. The key to healthy chinchillas is intestinal motility. If the intestine stops moving food, the chinchilla’s health can go downhill fast. In a new environment, it is typical for chinchillas to become stressed and they may not eat for the first day or so. When the stress level subsides, they typically will resume eating. If they do not, this is a very important issue and you MUST CONTACT the breeder to get advice. If a chinchilla does not eat or drink water for 2-3 days, their intestines can stop moving, leading to bacterial overgrowth of the intestines which can lead to death in less than 48 hours if not treated. A veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets and has some experience with chinchillas may also be contacted for treatment.
First, remember that each chinchilla has a different personality, and some act differently with different people. Second, chinchillas are prey animals. So, it is natural for them to be skittish, jump around the cage and not want to be caught. It takes time, effort and commitment to get a chinchilla to trust you enough to come to the front of the cage for scritches or to jump into your hands. Initially, you need to let your chinchilla acclimate to its new cage and surroundings. New sounds and smells make chinchillas nervous. Be patient. Give them a week or two to settle in and then start introducing yourself to them slowly. Start with opening the cage door and letting them come investigate what is just outside the door with you a few feet away. Then a few days or weeks later, try sitting next to the cage and see what the chinchilla will do to you. He may come smell and investigate you. Or your hands. Or your face. (Nose kisses only!). Just move slowly and let the chinchilla learn to trust you. Start by simply resting your hand in the cage and letting the chinchilla come and investigate you. Allow them to gently nibble and jump on you. Chasing chinchillas around a cage to catch them is not a way to gain trust. In time, you will notice that chinchillas can recognize their owner’s voices and react differently to new people. This is why it is important to always have positive contact with them.
Chinchillas love to be scritched on the top of the head, behind the ears, neck and under the jaw. Just be gentle and respect when the chinchilla doesn’t want to play anymore. Eventually, you can try picking them up carefully and holding them close to your body. (Just remember not to let them get too warm, as our body heat is actually at a deadly temperature for them if we snuggle them too close or too long). However, some chinchillas never learn to like human contact, so that is something to be aware of. Just remember to give your chinchilla unconditional love and they will usually show that to you in return. Bottom line: give your chinchilla time to trust you. A note on nibbling. Understand that there is a difference between biting and nibbling. Biting will leave marks and sometimes draw blood. This is typical if the chinchilla feels very threatened. If a chinchilla bites, blow directly into its face (they dislike this) while it is biting and they will associate the blowing with biting and usually stop. It is important not to freak out, and definitely do not hit your chinchilla, they can be fragile, but more importantly this is counterproductive to earning its trust. We find that washing our hands before handling chinchillas is important not only from a cleanliness point of view, but it also washes tasty food residue off our fingers so that temptation is not there for the curious chinchilla. Nibbling is light to medium pressure and is a friendly, grooming-type gesture that means it is learning to trust you.
Temperature and Humidity
Chinchillas cannot survive temperatures above 75° F (24° C). In very humid environments, even temperatures above 70° F (21° C) can be lethal. Chinchillas do not sweat and therefore have no way to reduce their body temperature. Remember, they are wearing a fur coat! Keep a close eye on the temperature to make sure they do not overheat. If kept at temperatures above their comfort level, they are likely to suffer from heat stroke and die. Fans are ineffective at cooling chinchillas; you MUST have an air conditioner in the room your chinchillas are in if the temperatures get too high. Watch for reddish ears, lethargy and laying on their sides. They’re trying to tell you its too hot for them!
Chinchillas are crepuscular, which means they are most active around dawn and dusk. As such, they appreciate natural lighting, but do not keep them in direct sunlight. Some chinchillas may enjoy the occasional sunray if given the chance, but give them a place to get out of the sun when they get too warm. A cage in direct sunlight is asking for trouble. Also, direct sunlight can hasten fur oxidation. If the chinchilla is to be in a room without windows, consider giving them a light on a timer similar to their natural lighting cycle.
Fresh air and good air circulation are very important to chinchilla health. Not only does this help keep a consistent temperature, but ventilation helps to reduce ammonia odor from chinchilla urine. If you plan on showing chinchillas, good air circulation also helps prevent fur oxidation.
Chinchillas have very good hearing because they are prey animals. Loud, sudden noises (such as barking dogs or screaming children) are startling to chinchillas. Constant noise may bother them and they can become very stressed out, which may lead to health problems and sometimes fur chewing. We find that a relatively quiet environment leads to calm chinchillas. Some people also like to play music or turn on the television for chinchillas. Daytime game shows like the Price Is Right or Animal Planet documentaries are among their favorite programs.
Size and Type
There are several good types of cages available for chinchillas. The larger the cage you can afford, and have the space for, the better. The minimum size would be 24” x 18” x 18” giving chinchillas a little room to run around. If you are considering breeding, 24“ x 24” x 18” is best. We prefer the kind with 1/2” x 1/2” floor wire. You can also purchase a cage with a pan. The cage bottom should be covered with wood shaving that the chinchilla can sit on. Wood shavings such aspen or pine work best. Some people can be allergic to pine shavings and cedar shavings can cause respiratory problems in chinchillas, so choose appropriately. As for decorations, avoid plastic as much as possible. Wood shelves are a good alternative to plastic and chinchillas get the opportunity to chew on something safe. (This is also good for keeping their ever-growing teeth worn down.) Provide chewable wood toys made of chinchilla safe woods. If you opt for a wire bottom cage, be sure to include a wood plank or tile to give their feet a break (to prevent foot sores). Also, don’t forget either a fleece tube/hammock, or a hidey house made of wood or fleece as a place for them to feel cozy and safe.
Many chinchillas enjoy running on wheels. It is an important investment to get a good, safe wheel that will last a long time. Avoid using plastic or wire mesh wheels as they do not last. (They will either break, tip over, or be chewed to bits by the chinchilla, the latter of which can kill chinchillas.) Also, the mesh wheels can trap chinchilla toes or feet and lead to severe injury! Very few wheels are adequate for use with chinchillas. We recommend the Flying Saucer. Most of the cages at Chinn’s Chilla Ranch have these wheels and the chinchillas enjoy running on them a lot! These can be purchased direct through the inventor and manufacturer Meadowbrook Chinchillas.
Chinchillas love toys to keep them preoccupied. They love anything they can chew on, especially wood. The following common woods (given that they are prepared correctly) are safe for chinchillas: apple, ash, aspen, cholla, cottonwood, crabapple, dogwood, elm, grapevine, kiwi, manzanita and pear. There are many others, just do research to make sure they are safe for chinchillas and have been boiled and baked. Organically grown woods are preferred to avoid pesticides and herbicides being ingested by the chinchilla. There are many other toys made out of wood and safe rope and whatnot. A web search for “chinchilla toys” will return many sources and options. We recommend buying from a chinchilla owner who makes them versus mass produced items from the pet store, where you don’t know what the toys are made of or what chemicals may be added to them. Better safe than sorry!
We recommend using the same type of bottle used by the breeder you buy your chinchilla from. There are three basic types: Edstrom valve, ball tip, and glass tube. They each have their pros and cons but here at The Ranch we primarily Edstrom valves, as they are pretty carefree as long as you use a bottle guard so your chinchilla doesn’t chew the plastic bottle! You will need to completely clean your bottles weekly with a small amount of dish soap, hot water and a brush. Be sure to rinse the bottle and parts well to remove any soap residue. Weekly maintenance will assure clean water free of algae, mold and bacterial growth. Some people like glass water bottles with a ball tip. These are easy to sterilize in the dishwasher and are certainly an option, but do make sure your chinchilla is drinking from it daily.
It is important to get a heavy stoneware crock for a food dish. Chinchillas love jumping around and will knock over lightweight dishes. If you are using a wire bottom cage they might dump their pellets and not have any food to eat all night.
Here at The Ranch, we use Purina Rabbit Show Chow. We recommend you use any alfalfa-based pellet designed for either chinchillas or rabbits with a protein content around 15-16%. There are many great brands out there. We strongly discourage customers from purchasing feed from the pet store that is full of dried fruit and seeds. These are not good for chinchillas and are like candy. They have low nutritional value and chinchillas will avoid eating what is actually good for them (the pellets and the hay). There are many people who can sell you pellets by the pound via mail order. Whatever you choose to buy, be sure to make a slow transition to the new feed by slowly adding more and more of it, proportionally, to the old feed. So, on the first few days feed the original food as the chinchilla settles in, then transition over by 1/8 new feed to 7/8 old feed, then a couple days later, ¼ new to ¾ old, etc. until the chinchilla is safely eating the new feed. Watch the droppings to make sure they are not extremely small or in other ways irregular.
It is important to offer fresh hay. Here, we free feed organic timothy hay daily. This is an important source of fiber and also does a good job of grinding down the chinchilla’s ever growing teeth. Make sure the hay you use is free of mold, mildew or weeds (many are toxic). Moldy hay can sicken a chinchilla. If it smells weird to you, ditch it and get a fresh batch.
Treats should be given seldom, if at all. If you choose to give treats, be sure they are low in sugar. We do not typically give treats and the chinchillas seem to be better off with a regular diet. Once a week, we do give them a half an unfrosted organic shredded wheat and an organic applewood twig a few times a week. Some owners and breeders give a half a raisin or goji berry, or an oat groat or two. Just watch for inconsistencies in their droppings to make sure they do not react poorly to the treats. Too many treats can lead to diarrhea. Do not feed treats to young (under 4 months old) chinchillas as they are still developing their digestive system.
Clean, filtered water is essential to chinchilla health. We use an under counter water filter that filters out things you don’t want to give your chinchillas, such as chlorine, giardia, cryptosporidium and other impurities. Be sure the chinchilla’s water is fresh and never goes dry.
There are many cleaning routines out there for various setups. Typically, most chinchilla owners change the shavings in the cages once or twice a week, depending on the amount of urine and odor the owners are comfortable with. Longer than that and there can be health issues for chinchillas (and people) caused by high amounts of ammonia (from the urine) such as respiratory infections and soiled fur. The bottom line is that a clean cage holds a happy chinchilla. Some chinchilla owners like to potty train their animals by placing a crock or baking dish in a corner with shavings in it. Many chinchillas well use this to urinate, some never learn and urinate anywhere they want. Regardless, chinchillas cannot be trained to poop in certain areas.
Chinchillas do not bathe in water, they dry bathe. Our chins all use Blue Cloud chinchilla dust, which is available online. Chinchillas need to have a dust bath at least once or twice weekly, depending on the humidity. Some do so daily or every other day, but we find that their skin can get a little dry from this routine. The dust is placed in a jar or goldfish bowl big enough to hold the chinchilla as it rolls around in the dust. Place enough in the container to go to a depth of about 1-2 inches. The finest dust will stick to their fur, absorb oil and stains and fall off. We typically allow them to dust for a few minutes, no more than five. Any longer and they tend to pee in it, which can ruin the whole batch. It is best to remove the droppings after each dusting so as not to soil the chinchilla’s fur the next time it dusts. The dust can be reused until there are very few fines in it, or for about a month or two at the most. Then, it should be removed and new dust added. If you have multiple chinchillas it is important to use separate dusting containers to minimize the spread of disease or fungus.
Chinchillas enjoy room to run around. Many chinchilla owners let them out for 15 or so minutes of playtime in a well contained area that is made chinchilla safe. Remove all wires and anything else the chinchillas can chew on or get themselves into. Many people use a clean bathroom as a play area, just remember to close the toilet seat cover! Wet chinchillas are NOT happy chinchillas. Also, be very careful of chinchillas in high places. They love to jump (they can jump up to 6 feet!) and sometimes they underestimate a fall and can break bones which means a trip to a vet.
When first introducing your new chinchilla to a play area, bring the cage to the middle of the room. Open the door and the naturally curious chinchilla will tentatively leave the cage. Be careful not to startle it, but if it does get startled it will run back into the cage. Don’t worry, in time the chinchilla will learn to enjoy the playtime and play area and will expect it as part of a routine. Also, have a seat on the floor, as chinchillas begin to trust you they will jump into your lap, up your arm, and sometimes even on your shoulders and head!
If you cannot give your chinchilla daily play time, consider getting a good Flying Saucer wheel or other chinchilla-safe wheel.