Chinchillas are herbivores of the rodent family. Squirrels and guinea pigs are also rodents. There are two subtypes of chinchillas; the short tailed (Chinchilla brevicaudata) and the long tailed species (C. lanigera). The long-tailed is the domesticated species we have for pets. They originated high in the Andes of South America. In the wild, chinchillas live in small burrows foraging for roots and grasses. With proper care a chinchilla can live up to 15 years, although 8-10 is average.
Housing requirements are simple. A cage floor with a solid or 1/2″ wire or less; we prefer to see 1/4″ mesh. For all wire floor cages we do recommend a solid surface area in their resting box or in a corner of the habitat. The side and top wire mesh of the age can be 1” x 1.5” or less. A single chinchilla should have a cage 16 x 30 by 16” high, or larger. We do not advise the use of aromatic wood chips (oak, cedar, redwood, non-kiln dried pine); these chips have been associated with lung problems. Aspen shavings do not cause lung diseases unless allowed to become wet and moldy. A clean cage will help prevent diseases from occurring. The temperature can range from 55-75 degrees, preferably with no sudden variations or draft. Overheating should be avoided; especially above 95 degrees. Even an 80 degree air temperature can cause a problem with some chinchillas. The use of plastic containers or toys is not recommended. A chinchilla likes to chew and plastic ingestion can cause a problem. Ceramic feed bowls, glass water bottles, wood and lava chewing stones are all adequate. Do not grab a chinchilla by the tail, as you can denude the skin. Bathing in water is not needed, nor even recommended for the average chinchilla. To provide a dust bath/bowl is recommended each week.
Commercial diets are advised for all pets, including chinchillas. Diet changes should be gradual in herbivores, and treats are adequate if they are held to 20% or less of their diet. Chinchillas should be fed grass hay as part of their diet. Hays with 14-16% protein content are advised for younger, growing chinchillas and lower protein grass hay is adequate for adults. Sudden changes to a lush green grass can cause a gas or bloat problem to occur. Cabbage, kale, clover and lettuce also can cause bloat if the chinchilla is not adjusted to the diet; we do not advise these items as part of their diet. Lawn clippings are not to be fed; yet freshly picked “organic” grass is adequate in small amounts. Concentrates such as grains should be kept to a minimum. Digestive upsets are seen when treats become most of the chinchilla’s diet; herbivores need more fiber than concentrates in their diet. Peanuts, raisins, pre-cooked grains (i.e. corn flakes) also cause digestive problems and should be a very, very minor part of their diet, if any. Milk and animal proteins are not advised. Feed grains also should be limited to prevent impactions, a major problem in chinchillas. As a general rule chinchillas and pocket pets should not have seeds or especially fruit as over 5% of their diet. A diet too high in non-digestible fiber (straw) also causes problems. The complete diets containing vitamins and minerals, should be in a pelleted form and fed as approximately 1/2 of their diet. Feed less than 2 tablespoons per chinchilla, with the rest of the diet being hay and some fruits and vegetables. A mixture of free ingredients is not a complete diet. Chinchillas are primarily nocturnal, and thus eat mostly during the evening to early morning. Provide the feed mostly at night, especially if it is a treat which can sour (fruits and vegetables). A chinchilla eating its own fecal pellets (coprophagy) is normal. Most animals eat 1.5-2.5% of their weight a day in food. Fresh water should ALWAYS be available. Animals usually drink about 5% of their weight a day in water.
A nesting box or area is advised if you plan to breed chinchillas. In the wild they have 2-3 litters a year. We advise waiting till they are one year old before breeding occurs. Estrus occurs approximately every 24 days. After mating a copulation plug (“stopper”) may be noticed in their cage. It is hard to diagnose pregnancy, although the last month of pregnancy the female can be palpated to help determine if she is pregnant. Fall is the time of year most births occur. Gestation lasts approximately 105-111 days; 111 being more common length of pregnancy days. Labor lasts up to 4 hours, with 1 to 5 babies being born. The female has only 6 nipples. After giving birth the mother may begin mating the next day. The babies can be weaned after 2 months of age. Mothers seldom have trouble raising their litter. Do not over-handle the mother in late pregnancy, or the mother and babies for a couple of weeks after they are born. Problems of cannibalism and abandonment can develop with over-handling. If the male is left in with the female, a refuge box may be needed for him if/when the female becomes aggressive towards him. It is best to separate the pregnant and nursing female from the male unless enough space is provided. Do not house 2 or more males with any female(s).
Ringworm, internal parasites, external parasites and improper feeding are the most common problems we see. To catch small problems before they worsen, we advise periodic fecals on all exotic pets. Parasites, poor nutrition and improper teeth wear are the initial cause for most problems we see in chinchillas. The routine use of insecticides may cause more of a problem than good. Some products labeled for dogs or cats can cause toxicity problems in chinchillas. For pet chinchillas there are no vaccines that are required. A periodic physical is advised. Hair rings around the penis can occur, but is very, very rare. Listeriosis is a neurological disease periodically seen in chinchillas. Slobbers, fur chewing, fur slip and other diseases can be prevented with routine examinations, attentive care by the owner and a proper diet.
The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic