Chinchilla

How to take care of your pet chinchilla

These species originate from the Andes Mountains. Their fur has adapted to these cold conditions by being exceptionally thick–they have up to 90 hairs coming out of each hair follicle!! In general, they are a quiet, shy, agile animal, most active at dusk and at night. Their hind-limbs are very long, and well adapted to leaping, and their tail is very long to help them balance when standing up looking for predators. The females are larger than the males, and if handled frequently when young, can habituate to humans very well. They can be easily stressed by noises and external commotion. Their sense of smell is their most developed sense, used to sense gender/likelihood of predators/spatial boundaries, with excellent hearing also-they use their giant ears to localise sounds. They are easily startled by loud noises and will try to avoid new sounds they have not previously been de-sensitised to.

Diet

As herbivores, the main part of their diet should be hay/grass. This is important for dental wear (their teeth grow continuously-an adaptation to their diet of course mountain vegetation) and to stimulate their intestines. They eat most of their food at night (70%), or early morning. Due to the sparse nature of nourishing food in the Andes Mountains they have adapted to very low nutritional needs. Their diet should be supplemented by pellets (good formula is 16-20% protein, 2-3% fat and 15-35% fibre)–only 1 tablespoon daily. Avoid too much fruit or sugary treats as dental disease will develop i.e minimal amounts of corn/peas/broccoli and cabbage. As treats, a very limited intake of dried apple/raisin/figs/hazelnuts/sunflower seeds can be given (no more than half a teaspoon daily). There should be access to clean fresh water that is changed on a daily basis, water bottles are acceptable for this purpose – though be sure to check the ends of them have not been chewed beyond working!

It is perfectly normal for your chinchilla to consume their own faeces. There are two types of faeces produced, hard faecal balls, and ‘caecotrophs’. Eating the latter allows for reabsorption of vitamins and minerals. If you are noticing a lot of soft ‘bunch of grape’-like poos around the cage instead of being eaten, it could be a dietary issue, please call us for advice.

Housing

Must be indoors as they do not tolerate wet environments. They gnaw everything so all wire cages are best. Avoid plastic and glass cages as this will increase temperature and humidity. For the average size chinchilla, a 2m x 2m x 1m multilevel cage is recommended, with a nest box (30x25x20cm) clipped to the inside wall as they prefer to roost off the ground. They also require a ‘dust bath’ to keep their fur in good condition as it is so dense. PVC plumbing pipes make good hiding places and can go in the dishwasher (10-13cm diameter, Y and T sections), one hiding place per cage level is recommended. Wire mesh floors are not advised as they cannot eat their caecotrophs with these kinds of floors. Avoid pine and cedar as these are toxic, and they tend to eat most cat litters. Hay/straw or kiln dried wood shavings are best for bedding.

They love toys but again tend to chew them-avoid yew plants and walnut shavings, most wooden branches are ok but avoid plum/peach or apricot branches

The females tend to be aggressive so keep singly or in a breeding pair.

It is best to keep them in a dry environment (less than 50% humidity) at a cool temperature ie 18-20 degrees celcius–these animals are very susceptible to heatstroke due to their thick fur, often approaching distress at temperatures of 28 degrees. If you feel warm, your chinchilla will be boiling!

Fact sheet

Life expectancy          10-15 years

Puberty                       8 months (anywhere from 2-14 months!)

Oestrus                       Every month November to May

Gestation                    111 days

Litter size                    1-6 (2 is usual)

Weaning age (6-8 weeks)

Adult weight 400-500g

How to handle your pet chinchilla

They do need a quiet time during the day when they are not handled, and it is inadvisable to hold them for extended periods. Their natural predator is the owl so avoid approaching them from above-for this reason also it is not recommended to have a fan overhead. Scoop and lift with one hand under the abdomen while securing it with the other hand at the base of the tail. BE CAREFUL OF FUR SLIP–patches of hair are released when restrained too firmly, and will take several months to grow back. Chasing them in their habitat with an extended arm in the cage is very stressful and may cause handling difficulties. It is best to approach with a still hand holding a treat, use word association like ‘yes’ when doing so and soon he will be dashing over to you! Though some may not come near you at all, these should be conditioned using a treat bowl first, then use the ‘safe’ word, then toss treat in. Eventually they will recognise the word and approach you. NEVER CATCH BY THE TAIL–you will be left holding the skin around it.

Dust Bathing

This is very important to do to clear off any dust that adheres to their very thick fur and prevent matting. They should have access to these for fifteen minutes daily (over-grooming can lead to eye and skin problems). If the weather is quite humid or hot they may need it more frequently. It must be a fine and dry dust from a pet shop—volcanic ash/pumice/blue sparkle chinchilla dust. It is advisable to use a metal dish/terracotta planter/small glass aquarium as they will chew through plastic. Recommended dimensions are 25cm x 18cm x 10cm high, with one inch of dust provided.

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