As a new chinchilla owner, you are embarking on a delightful, long-term relationship. Also known as chins, chillas and a host of moniker variations, chinchillas’ lively personalities and inquisitive natures make them a marvel to watch and get to know. And since a properly cared for chinchilla typically lives at least 8 to 15 years, you have plenty of time to develop a sweet connection.
According to Lani Ritchey, co-founder of California Chins (The California Chinchilla Association), the oldest known chin is 28 years old, and she has documented quite a few in their early 20s.
To give our chinchilla’s the best and longest life possible, let’s look at what proper care might look like.
Home Sweet Home
These fastidiously clean rodents are native to the Andes Mountains of northern Chile, so when picking out housing, keep space in mind — chins need to be able to run and jump about. Experts recommend a minimum size cage of about 24-inches deep by 24-inches wide by 36-inches high for a single chinchilla, and go larger for a pair.
Because temperature is important — that soft, dense fur keeps chinchillas toasty — a wire mesh cage with a solid floor is recommended for good ventilation. If your location runs hot and stuffy, chinchilla rescue groups recommend using fans and air conditioning as needed to keep temps around 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They also warned that aquarium tanks are unsafe for chinchillas because of lack of air flow.
Inside the chinchilla’s cage, there are a variety of soft and absorbent bedding options from plain newspaper to packaged bedding found in pet stores to polar fleece and fleece liner. For the chin’s health, spot clean messes daily and sanitize the entire cage weekly.
Fun With Enrichment
A sedentary life isn’t good for any of us, including our chinchilla friends.
“Chinchillas love wooden boxes and things to live in, chew and destroy, and they’ll add windows and doors as they renovate,” Ritchey said. “They jump and run around the cage, so leaping ledges for climbing and jumping is good, and you can be creative/inventive with that.”
Chinchilla experts agree that a wheel is great exercise and enjoyment for chins, and suggest sticking with a solid surface design of at least 15 inches in diameter to protect the chin’s back. Beyond a traditional wheel, Ritchey said “flying saucer wheels are quietest and easiest to get in and out of the cage for set up, but not every chinchilla can figure out how to run on them.”
In her experience, Ritchey finds that chinchillas like cozy, small and safe spaces, as well.
“Chinchilla policy is: If we can cram four in the same space, that’s better,” she said, “so you can have hammocks and boxes and tubes — anything they can crawl into — to sleep in and chew on.”
These smart, inquisitive critters also enjoy hanging chew toys and chew sticks to keep boredom and restlessness away.
In the wild, our darling herbivores (plant eaters) dine on such delicacies as high-fiber grasses, roots, seeds, bark and berries. In our homes, the recommended chinchilla staples are food pellets and hay, which Ritchey said can be used as bedding as well as food because they will not overeat it.
“For the first six months of a chinchilla’s life, give it alfalfa for extra growth, and then move to grass hay, such as Bermuda or timothy,” she said, adding “Keep sugar content in mind with grass hays for obesity and bloat issues.”
When it comes to treats, moderation is key. The little beggars will try to overeat treats, so one or two a day — or no more than 10 percent of their daily diet — is the recommended rule of thumb. Chinchillas do best on a plain diet low in sugar or high-fat treats.
Here are some favorites you can try with your own chins:
- Dried rose petals and rose hips (preferably organic without pesticides)
- A pinch of uncooked old fashioned oats (not quick cook)
- A bit of sunflower seeds or an almond — raw or roasted with no salt or flavoring
- Half a piece of plain Shredded Wheat
- Dry-roasted pumpkin seeds
- A raisin or banana chip
- 1 or 2 plain Cheerios
It’s no surprise that a fresh supply of water is essential for chinchillas. This high desert species doesn’t drink a lot — maybe around a half ounce to 1 1/2 ounces a day — and most experts recommend bottled or filtered water because of all the chemicals often found in tap water. Keep in mind that these professional chewers can and will gnaw on plastic water containers, so glass might be a safer and longer-lasting option.
“Some owners put water bowls in, and that’s fine, too, though the chinchilla might try to swim in it,” Ritchey said.
Chinchillas are crepuscular, meaning they typically are most active at dawn and dusk; however, Ritchey finds they get used to the household routine.
“If the kids come home at 3, they wake to have treats and play,” she said. “Or if you come home from work at 7, they wake then.”
And chinchillas need daily supervised playtime outside of their cage, which is delightful to watch. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to chin-proof the area you’ve chosen for out-of-cage playtime.
A space around 12 feet long and wide should accommodate a chinchilla’s dynamic activity. They are known for running, jumping and ricocheting off walls, as well as for chewing everything they can reach, including furniture, cages, hutches, cords and baseboards. The chewing helps wear down their ever-growing teeth, so a steady supply of appropriate chew toys and playthings will help.
Experienced owners suggest wrapping electrical cords and the base and legs of playroom furniture securely in towels as well as placing wooden boxes, tubes and other items around the room perimeter to prevent access to items you don’t want them to chew on, while providing creative playthings for the chins to explore. Some owners have also used pet training aids, such as bitter tasting chew deterrents, to hinder their chinchillas from gnawing on inappropriate items.
A Social Bunch
Chinchillas live in large colonies in the wild and are a vocal species filled with chirps, barks, squeals, grunts and muttering.
“Mommies and babies talk to each other a lot,” Ritchey said, “and I’ve had some that try to talk to me.”
That said, despite their soft and cuddly appearance, these intelligent mammals rarely like be held or cuddled, which makes sense since they are prey and naturally skittish. Patience will be vital to develop trust with a new chin.
Also, unless they came as a pair, introducing chinchillas can take time and fortitude. When matching unfamiliar chinchillas, Ritchey has seen the gamut.
“They might be neutral, there might be instant hate and there might be instant grooming, which is a matchup,” she said.
A safe rule of thumb is to keep them separate when you’re not home or are sleeping, but let them play and interact when supervised.
“When you see them run into one cage and sleep together, you know they’re ready to live together,” Ritchey added.
Chinchilla Health Care
Next to a quality diet and plenty of exercise, consistent care makes a huge difference in a chinchilla’s life. They do not need vaccines, but an annual visit with a veterinarian who is experienced with chinchillas can prove helpful.
“When petting or holding your chin, lift their gums up and see if their teeth are yellow-orange, which is a healthy color for chins,” Ritchey said, adding that signs of a problem are white teeth (a mineral issue), black teeth (they are dead), horrible odor, drool or slobbers. “That’s not good news, so take a trip to the vet.”
The hay provided to chinchillas keeps the rodents’ teeth filed down, which prevents dental problems such as hooks, points or spurrs.
Yay for not having to trim their nails!
Coat care is another matter. Especially in spring and fall, when they’re pushing new fur in and you see little hair tufts sticking out all over the place, is when you really have to go after the dead hair.
Ritchey recommends using a good grooming comb, holding them by the tail on a towelled lap (in case they try to bite in irritation), and combing hair from base up. Matts can occur, so watch for matts around belly, hips and genital areas.
Hair ring checks every week or two are a must with male chinchillas. Loose hair can get wrapped around the chinchilla’s penis and can become swollen, painful and even fatal, according to experts. To check, gently retract the foreskin, pull out the penis and carefully use fingers or tweezers to remove any wads or rings of hair.
If you haven’t seen a chinchilla indulge in a dust bath, you’re missing out. They need to bathe at least once week in 1 to 2 cups of the fine dust to keep its fur clean and the natural oils from matting. The container needs to be large enough for the chin to flop and spin to coat itself well. When finished, it’ll hop right out!
Never hesitate to check with your chinchilla breeder, rescue group and critter veterinarian with any questions or concerns about your sweet chin. We all want our pets to have the best and longest life possible.