Chinchillas were originally brought into the United States as a source of pelts for the fur industry. Their hair is very soft and dense. Now they are most common as endearing pets. The chinchilla is available today in pet stores in a variety of colours including charcoal, albino, beige, silver, lilac, buff, light charcoal and ebony.
HOUSING: Chinchillas require a cage large enough for the animal to run around in. A cage 2 to 3 feet long and 18 inches high and wide is adequate. They prefer a cage with a solid bottom but, the cage could have a wire bottom if the wire is covered with bedding. Chinchillas like to run, climb and jump so a cage that contains some shelves is a good choice.
The food dish should be heavy enough so that the chinchilla will not be able to tip it over. A ceramic or metal dish can be used. Water should be provided in a water bottle. A guinea pig size water bottle is adequate.
The bedding material in the chinchilla cage should be soft pine shavings, kiln dried. Aspen bedding is also acceptable. Newspaper is ok, but it wont absorb much, it might stain the chin’s fur, and they will gleefully rip it to shreds. NEVER use cedar bedding as it is toxic to chins. Also, corn cob bedding is unacceptable, it carries mites that will infest your chinny. Cat litter isn’t a good idea either. The scented kind is toxic, and the clay kind will stick to the chin’s fur. Climbing branches can be added to the cage if no shelves are available. Hardwood is best because the material can be chewed without danger to your pet.
Wooden blocks can also be used to satisfy the need to chew. Chinchillas teeth, like those of rabbits, continue to grow throughout their lives. Chew toys are necessary for good dental hygiene, keeping the teeth worn down. They will also provide your pet with useful diversion. A wheel will provide your pet with exercise. Make sure you purchase one large enough for the chinchilla.
THE DUST CONTAINER: The chinchilla’s natural instinct is to roll in volcanic dust in an effort to stay clean by removing excess moisture and oils from their dense coats. Chinchilla dust is extremely important because they do not bathe in water as other animals do. Keep about 2 inches of chinchilla dust in the container. The dust does not get dirty but needs to be replaced from time to time. The healthy chinchilla has no odour and they do not attract fleas, mites or lice. The proper size dust container is about 6 inches wide, 12 inches long, and 6 inches deep. A small cat litter pan will serve the purpose nicely, but do not use any type of cat litter in this pan. The chemicals added to cat litter can be dangerous.
CAGE MAINTENANCE: Chinchillas choose to eliminate in one corner of the cage; this area should be cleaned daily. The bedding should be replaced and the cage cleaned at least once a week using a mild soap or bleach solution. Make sure that the cage is totally dry before replacing the litter. The food dish should be cleaned and dried completely before replacing the food. The water bottle should be cleaned using a bottle brush and the metal spout should be cleaned thoroughly as well. Clean, and replace as necessary, any of the chinchilla dust.
FEEDING: Clean, fresh water should be available at all times. Make sure that it is checked more frequently during hot, humid days. Chinchillas are easy animals to feed. A basic, high quality chinchilla diet should be available at all times. Make sure that you purchase chinchilla pellets when buying food for your pet. Rabbit or guinea pig pellets do not contain the necessary nutrients required for chinchillas. Chinchilla pellets should contain about 18% protein, 2.5% fat, 15% fibre, 9% ash and 2% added minerals. The ingredients of chinchilla pellets can consist of alfalfa meal, ground barley, ground oats, soybean meal and wheat germ meal.
Treats and supplements should be provided in order to provide a varied diet. Vegetables (lettuce and members of the cabbage family should be avoided), corn, apples, carrots, and raisins can all be used to supplement the chinchilla’s diet. You want the chinchilla to eat mainly the pellets, so feed treats on a limited basis, using very small amounts each time and removing any uneaten portions to avoid spoilage. Alfalfa cubes can be used. These provide additional nutrients and also chewing exercise. Vitamins or food supplements can be added to the food or water.
LIFESTYLE: Chinchillas are very timid animals and they need love and attention from the very beginning. Try to find a pet that is as young as possible. Allow him to smell your hand before you attempt to handle him. Speak to him in a gentle, soothing voice. They should be handled in much the same way as rabbits; that is, one hand under the chest and the other supporting the hind legs. This makes the chinchilla feel secure. As is the case with most rodents, chinchillas are nocturnal, they are more active at night than during the day. They should be given a quiet environment in which to rest approximately 10 – 12 hours each day.
A chinchilla will live from 15 to 25 years. Pairs of chinchillas make good pets and live together well, but keep in mind that they will reproduce. Two males should be avoided because they may fight. Chinchillas mature at the age of five months. The breeding conditions and their behaviour is very similar to rabbits.
The gestation period is about 110 days with generally small litters – perhaps one or two young. The babies are born with their eyes open and they can easily crawl. The dust box should be emptied once the babies are born to prevent them from becoming matted with dust. The babies will stay with the mother for about 6 weeks, at which time they will be able to eat and drink on their own.
HEALTH: Like a dog or cat, their fur acts as an insulator in winter and an air conditioner in the summer. They should never be given a bath because their fur is so dense and they are very difficult to dry. The nails can be trimmed by a file to prevent scratches. Chinchillas can be brushed using a soft cat or dog brush.
Chinchillas do not carry diseases but they can catch cold very easily. For this reason, every attempt should be made to keep them out of drafts. Keep the litter clean at all times because dampness in the litter could cause health problems.