By Craig Sernotti
Chinchillas (or chins, as they are sometimes called) are growing in popularity as pets today thanks to their cuddly appearance and friendly nature. They aren’t difficult to care for, don’t require much space, and can become very tame, particularly if you start out with a young chinchilla.
Chinchillas rank as one of the costlier small animals, essentially because of their slower reproductive rate. They have a very distinct look, with their large ears, bushy tails, long whiskers, and silky fur. The standard color is gray, but there is an ever-increasing range of color varieties now available. Chinchillas are mostly nocturnal, so they sleep during the day. They are social animals, and if you decide to keep more than one, opt for females—males are more likely to act aggressively toward one another. Because chinchillas have a far longer life span than most other small animals—they can live for up to 20 years—think long and hard before buying one, and be prepared to care for him for a long, long time.
Chinchillas originated high in the Andes Mountains of South America. Their thick fur protected them from fluctuating temperatures—very hot during the day and very cold at night. Humans discovered them during pre-Columbian times, and the Incas used their silky coats to create gowns for their rulers. When the Spanish invaded the region in the 1500s, they hunted and exported millions of these animals for luxurious clothing. A massive surge in demand for fur in the 1800s resulted in the hunting of an ever-increasing number of chinchillas. By the 1920s, the chinchilla was close to extinction because of the fur trade; to fuel the trade, breeding colonies were successfully established, and once there was enough stock, the animals were used for clothing. Today in the wild, the two types of chinchillas—a short-tailed and a long-tailed variety—are considered to be endangered.
Enclosure and Setup
Chinchillas need a relatively large cage, the biggest you can afford and accommodate in your home. Also, they like to climb, so the height is important. The chinchilla’s strong teeth will easily chew through plastic, so make sure that the cage is wire. A solid floor inside the housing is best, as this will protect his feet.
Like other small animals, your chinchilla will need a nest box or a small “house” for sleeping and security. You should also provide a thick layer of bedding, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep. The bedding should not be made from harmful types of wood, such as cedar, and should be free of any toxic wood preservatives.
Branches that utilize the cage’s height will greatly benefit your active pet. Secure these to the cage with a clamp or screw-type fixture. You will also need to include food and water containers, an exercise wheel, and chews (specially made cuts of wood to control tooth growth). A portion of the cage should be devoted to bathing—you can purchase the chinchilla dust for this necessary habit from a pet store.
Chinchillas are vegetarians. Give your pet a dry pellet feed—chinchilla mixes are available—and hay. Hay provides the essential fiber that aids digestion. Because neither the pellets nor the hay has much moisture, you must always provide your chinchilla with fresh, clean water.
For a balanced and healthy diet, offer your pet some fresh vegetables. Good choices include red-leaved forms of lettuce, the tops of carrots, parsley, and chard. You can also offer different types of fresh herbs, like mint, basil, thyme, and oregano. Chinchillas will also especially enjoy dandelion leaves. Certain fruits can be offered as an occasional treat.
Chinchillas are fastidious about keeping clean. Because they come from a part of the world where water is in short supply, they have adapted to bathe in dust. Purchase a special dust powder for this purpose, and change it regularly. A layer of about 2 inches (5 cm) in the bathing container in your chinchilla’s cage will enable him to bathe well.
You don’t have to worry about cutting his nails—they will naturally become filed down as he moves about his cage.
Health Care and Illness
Chinchillas are usually healthy animals who rarely require veterinary attention, as long as their nutritional and housing needs are adequately met. A sick chinchilla will eat less, and you may notice a change in the appearance of his droppings. He is also likely to be sleepier.
Chinchillas can come down with various illnesses, injuries, and infections. If you notice anything wrong with your pet, contact a veterinarian immediately.