Chinchillas

The Chinchilla (Chinchilla Laniger)

Chinchillas are rodents just like guinea pigs and come from the Andes Mountains in South America. The name means 'little chincha' after the Chincha people of the Andes who wore its beautiful fur. Sadly their soft dense fur (with 60 hairs to one follicle) was so highly prized that they are nearly extinct in the wild due to hunting for the fur trade. They have also been bred in captivity since the 1920's for their pelts.

Habitat in the wild

In the wild chinchillas live at high altitudes (up to 4200 metres) in rocky barren regions They live in burrows or rock crevices and are preyed upon by birds of prey, felines and canines. They are herbivorous eating a coarse fibrous diet of grasses, leaves, fruits and seeds.

Normal biology

In the wild chinchillas are grey but common colours seen now are white, black, beige violet and sapphire. The incisors are normally yellow. The female is larger (500-600g) than the male (400-500g). They can be sexed by comparing the distance between the back passage and the genitalia - the distance is much longer in the male. The pregnant female has a gestation period of 111 days. Baby chinchillas are called kits and are born fully furred with eyes open

Behaviour:

Chinchillas are friendly, clean pets but being shy are easily frightened. They are not suitable pets for young children as they are nocturnal and can be quite skittish to hold. They are fairly gregarious and can be kept in pairs although some females can become territorial and attack a new arrival.

Nutrition

A high fibre diet is essential for healthy teeth and digestion. The best diet is lots of good quality meadow hay and chinchilla pellets (1-2 tablespoons). Apple, pear, twigs from fruit or willow trees and fresh dried herbs can be given as treats. Cereal mix rations should be avoided because they lack fibre. A low fibre diet can lead to medical problems like gut stasis, fur chewing and dental disease.

Grooming

Their soft dense fur means chinchillas must groom regularly. Chinchilla sand should be provided in a shallow tray daily. The sand should be removed after about half an hour to avoid a dust cloud causing eye infections.

Housing

Their dense coat and lack of ability to sweat means they are very susceptible to heat stroke so chinchillas should be kept in a cool, dry well ventilated room.

A large multilevel cage (Minimum 2m x 2m x 1m) is needed with height as well as width to enable them to climb. Provide lots of cage furniture like natural branches, rocks, large pipes and a nest box. Chinchillas will gnaw so avoid wooden cages. Wire mesh cages are best with /or without a solid floor. A wire mesh floor allows urine and faeces to fall below the cage and keeps the fur clean.

Handling

Wriggly chinchillas should be held close to the body and can be gently grasped by the base of the tail. Don't grab a chinchilla roughly or you may get 'fur slip' - the chinchilla's way of escaping predation.

Health problems

The commonest problems we see in our hospital are dental disease, gut stasis and respiratory infections. A good fibrous diet and well ventilated housing are important to your chinchilla healthy. However be aware that chinchillas are a prey species so they instinctively hide signs of ill health to escape the eye of predators. They are very good at appearing well even when very ill.

How to avoid problems

  • Feed good quality fresh hay and pellets for healthy teeth and gut.
  • Bring your chinchilla for a dental check every 6-12 months to an experienced vet.
  • The dense fur can hide a multitude so weigh your chinchilla every 1-2 weeks on an accurate digital weighing scales. A drop in weight for no reason could be an early clue to your pet not being well. Seek veterinary advice promptly.