Chinchillas can make great, unique pets. However, you should never purchase a chinchilla just because you think they are cute and cuddly. They require long-term care and can live up to 10 to 15 years. Owning a chinchilla requires a commitment to providing the proper diet and bedding, appropriate housing, time for interaction and appropriate medical care, all of which may be costly. By nature, chinchillas are nocturnal. Some may be active during the day, but these pets normally are most active at night. You may not want to keep a chinchilla in your bedroom, as they will be active during times you are trying to sleep.
What Do Chinchillas Eat?
Chinchillas need plenty of roughage in their diet for the health of their teeth and gastrointestinal tract. They should have unlimited amounts of fresh Timothy hay every day. Pelleted food (made of Timothy hay) is also a main part of the diet for adult chinchillas. Chinchillas under 1-year-old should have a diet that consists of alfalfa hay-based pellets and alfalfa hay, as the alfalfa hay can encourage weight gain. Pelleted diets should also be offered in limited amounts of no more than about one or two tablespoons. There are many different brands of pelleted diets currently available, including Oxbow, Mazuri, Kaytee and Zupreem. Some pelleted diets may contain nuts, seeds or dried fruit; these should be avoided because they are low in nutrition and high in fat. Dark, leafy greens are best, and carrots can be included in moderation.
Habitat for Chinchillas
Chinchillas should be housed in a cage that is as large as possible while fitting comfortably in your home. The floor should be solid, and wire is not recommended. Proper bedding, including regular hay, straw or shredded newspaper, must be provided. Other odor-controlling bedding, such as CareFresh brand, may be used but with caution as a chinchilla may ingest some of the bedding, possibly causing an intestinal blockage. Litter in a litter box must be organic. Do not use cedar or aromatic shavings. The cage needs to be cleaned regularly to keep the ammonia levels to a minimum and prevent respiratory irritation. Boxes, tunnels (such as a 4- to 5-inch diameter PVC piping) or other hiding places should be provided to allow your chinchilla to feel safe and to give him or her exercise. Chinchillas also need room (a tall cage) and shelving or perches to allow for the jumping and climbing they would do in their natural mountain habitat.
Chinchillas require dust baths for proper grooming. The dust is a fine powder that is commercially available. A dust bath should be provided to your chinchilla at least two times a week and removed from the cage after use to keep it clean from debris and fecal waste.
“Chinchilla-proofing” your home is essential if you plan to have your chinchilla play outside of its cage. This means taking the necessary precautions to avoid exposing your pet to potential household hazards. Chinchillas are notorious chewers, so electrical cords should be out of reach. There should be no access to area mats or rugs, parts of accessible furniture covered and small toys put away. Other pets in the household may attack or play roughly with your chinchilla, so they should be kept in a separate area. Children should be supervised when interacting with your chinchilla as they may accidentally injure him or her. Keep in mind that chinchillas are sensitive to high temperatures and humidity and can suffer from heatstroke. They are from the Andes Mountains, so their bodies are used to cool temperatures with low humidity.
Possible Health Conditions
Like cats and dogs, chinchillas also need regular visits to a veterinarian. Chinchillas should have wellness exams done to ensure their good health. Annual bloodwork is recommended as they age. Chinchillas do not need vaccines, but spaying and neutering should be considered, especially if more than one is kept together as pets. Multiple females can get along well together, but males should be housed separately or neutered.
Several health problems can arise in chinchillas, as with cats and dogs. These can include gastrointestinal problems, penile hair rings for males, dental disease, heatstroke, respiratory disease, eye infections, heart disease, bloating and skin infections. There also may be emergencies that require a trip to the veterinary office or emergency room. If your chinchilla is not eating or not producing stool for a period of 12 hours or more, a veterinarian should see him or her immediately. Also, if at any time your chinchilla becomes extremely lethargic, seems disoriented or is minimally responsive, have it seen by a veterinarian immediately. Chinchillas can hide their illnesses, and if you suspect anything unusual with your chinchilla’s behavior, seek medical attention as soon as possible. If it is after hours and your regular veterinary office is closed, take your chinchilla to a veterinary emergency room. Make sure the emergency room has a veterinarian on staff that will treat your exotic pet.
Chinchillas make great pets in the proper environment. They are smart, inquisitive, loving animals. Do your research to ensure a chinchilla is the right fit for your family; make sure you have as much time and attention to devote to your chinchilla as he or she will devote to you.
Ariana Finkelstein, DVM currently practices at Mission Pet Emergency in San Antonio, Texas.