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Chinchillas As Pets

General information

Owning a chinchilla is a long-term commitment, as they can live for up to 20 years (average15-20 years)! Naturally, chinchillas are not burrowing animals, rather they hide in rock crevices or burrows 4,000m above sea level. They are covered in a thick fur to protect them against colder climates and their foot pads are extra thick to withstand the harsh surface of rockeries. Chinchillas are social animals, so owning more than one allows for companionship and a play mate.

Each one of their hair follicles houses 60 hairs!! These hairs are loosely attached, which is important to bear in mind when handling/ restraining them (see below). Their ears are large, relative to their body size. They have thin- walled pinnae and an acute sense of sound.

Chinchillas are relatively hassle- free pets. They tend to be more active at night time, and enjoy a quiet environment to sleep in during the daytime.

Feeding

Chinchillas are herbivores (vegetarians!!). They have a specially designed digestive system which helps breakdown the plant material they ingest (hind gut fermentation). A good quality chinchilla diet consists of good quality grass hay (timothy hay) and a small amount of chinchilla pellet feed. They need such a high fibre content in their diet to aid in the mobility of their guts and health of their dentition. Like most rodents, their teeth are constantly in a state of growth, so need to be worn down to prevent their tooth edges from overgrowing (these overgrowths are knows as dental spurs). A diet of sole pellets should be avoided. Their diet can be supplemented every now and again with treats such as small amounts of fruits and green, leafy vegetables.

Supply your chinchilla with fresh water either in a water bowl (one smaller than the size of their body) or a water bottle.

Chinchillas are coprophagic, meaning they eat their own faeces/ droppings. They do this to absorb as much nutrition from their diet as possible.

Husbandry

Chinchillas work better in pairs, single- sexed groups or polygamous groups (one male per five females). If you are going to keep more than one in the same cage, it’s better if they are introduced at a younger age, ideally before sexual maturity (6-8 months). Owing to their nature, they need enough room in the cage to allow them to jump around and climb to different heights. A multi-storey cage would be the most appropriate for this. Chinchillas enjoy gnawing, so make sure the cage material is able to withstand this (i.e. metal bars vs plastic). Ensure they have somewhere to sleep/ rest, whether it’s a separate house or a bundle of shredded newspapers.

Chinchillas are very clean creatures. They are fastidious groomers, and work hard to keep their coat in pristine condition. You can help them achieve this by adding a sand bath to their cage. This should be cleaned out weekly to encourage its use. 

Ventilation in their housing is important for their health and welfare. They are most comfortable at low temperatures. If the temperature of their environment is too high, they can suffer from heat stroke. Ensure they are kept away from drafts by keeping at least one wall of their cage against a solid wall in your room. 

Overcrowding, high humidity and poorly ventilated housing situations can result in a number of important respiratory diseases (see below).

Handling

It’s very important you are aware of proper handling of a chinchilla before attempting to do so. They are relatively easy to handle and rarely bite. They often ‘test bite’ rather than break your skin. The best approach is to hold them with a secure grasp around their chest with one hand, and with the other hand support their rear end. Alternatively their tail can be held at the base and the rest of their body supported by your other hand. If held too tight or roughly, as a defence mechanism they can shed all of their fur at the one time to escape your grasp (known as ‘fur slip’). This is a defence mechanism used to escape predators in the wild.

Common conditions

Similar to rabbits, the main problems experienced by chinchillas involves poor dental health or gut disturbances. Dental issues either arise from poor diet (too much pellets not enough high-fibre hay to gnaw on) or poor oral anatomy (teeth grow in at odd angles). Common signs of ill health in the chinchilla include; weight loss, difficulty eating, hypersalivation, ocular discharge and poor coat health. Common conditions include:

  • dental disease (malocclusion of front and back teeth)
  • gastrointestinal disease (ileus, anorexia, colic, diarrhoea and rectal prolapse)
  • respiratory disease (pneumonia and sinusitis)
  • reproductive disorders (‘fur ring’ and dystocia)
  • neurological disease (Listeriosis)
  • skin disease (ringworm and fur loss)

Interestingly, ectoparasites (parasites that live and breed on their skin surface) are fairly uncommon in chinchillas because their fur coat is so thick.

Fun facts

When a chinchilla is grooming himself, he is happy and calm. Chinchillas are cousins to the guinea pig.

 

For further information on your pet chinchilla, or if you’re concerned about them having any of the conditions/ symptoms mentioned above, come in and see us at your nearest Pets‘n’Vets surgery.

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