Do Chinchillas Make Good Pets?
Ron Hines DVM PhD
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Chinchillas are quick, perky little animals. I love them. If you have never met the acquaintance of one, they have a personality similar to a park squirrel.
Chinchillas have many characteristics that make them great pets. However, they are not suited for everyone. I do not suggest them for children because they are small and fragile and if they are squeezed too tight - they will bite. I prefer them to all other rodents because of their lack of unpleasant smell and unusually long life spans.
What Are Their Good Qualities?
Their good qualities include a beautiful soft lush fur, an inquisitive, boisterous nature and no objectionable noises. They are very low-maintenance pets.
What Are Their Not-So-Good Qualities?
On the down side, chinchillas are somewhat high-strung, and they have relatively short attention spans. They also do not tolerate hot weather or high humidity well.
Where Do These Animals Come From?
Chinchillas originated in the Andes Mountains of South America where they inhabit crevices in the rocks. Chinchillas come in a variety of colors. The most common color is silvery gray; but the also come in white, beige, ebony and sapphire (super-violet) color.
What Are Some Characteristics Of Chinchillas?
Adult female chinchillas weight about a pound-and-a-half and are a bit bigger than males. Chinchillas can live 12 to 20 years – an exceptionally long life span for a rodent. They also have an exceptionally long pregnancy, 111 days. So babies pop out ready-to-go like their distant cousins, the guinea pigs. Chinchillas will not thrive above 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.8C) or in humidity over 40%.
Buying A Chinchilla
Unfortunately, pet stores are in business to make a profit - not to provide you with a friendly, healthy pet. Pet shops are the worst place to obtain a chinchilla. If you have not yet obtained your pet, go to a reputable breeder such as those that are members of The Chinchilla Club and ask the breeder for the phone number of satisfied clients in your area.
Chinchilla personalities are determined during their first month of age. They need to be handled and petted frequently after they are born or they will grow up skittish and aggressive. An ideal age to purchase your chinchilla is 10 weeks of age.
If possible, check both the parents and the youngster for problems before you become attached to a Chinchilla. Be cautious of watery or pasty eyes, drooling (tooth alignment problems), wool pulling or missing areas of fur. I prefer to buy directly from a breeder I trust or one who willingly supplies me with satisfied contacts who have purchased her animals. Most of the problem animals I see were purchased through pet stores. Common problems I see in pet store purchased chinchillas are wool pulling due to boredom and stress and malocclusion due to improper diet and genetics. Aggression is a problem in animals not socialized to people at a young enough age.
Do's-and-don'ts With Chinchillas:
Chinchillas allowed to run free in the house will slowly but surely chew it down. Besides this, through their indiscriminate chewing they will be exposed to many household toxins.
I like to keep a chinchilla in no smaller than a 6’ x6’ x 4’ mesh cage with a galvanized droppings pan. If the galvanize is new, I wash it thoroughly with vinegar. The galvanized cage coating has been known to be toxic when chewed. Powder-coated metals are apparently safe. Imported Chinese-made cages may be coated with lead-containing paint. If you make the pen, the ABS plastic pan that is supplied with collapsible dog crates works well - it the chinchillas can not reach it to chew on (they need an exposed corner to get started).
Chinchillas love cardboard boxes to hide in and destroy as well as ledge shelves to bask on. They also love dust bathing. I supply them with cornstarch or corn meal in a shallow dish or crock. Beware of plastic toys or cage parts that the chinchilla might ingest.
The floor of your pet's cage should be solid – never wire. Wire floor housed chinchillas eventually end up with arthritis of the foot. I prefer pine shaving or corncob bedding. Chinchillas do not do well on cedar chips. Cedar smells pleasant, but it contains natural chemicals that can be toxic. That is why insects do not bother the tree.
Cages need to be cleaned every two days. You can sprinkle baking soda in the corner the Chinchilla uses to eliminate. Locate your cage out of drafts and strong direct sunlight.
The Chinchilla’s primary diet (90%) should consist of chinchilla or guinea pig chow (Mazuri 5M01, ZuPreem, Purina or equivalent). This can be supplemented with coarse alfalfa and timothy hay, endive, escarole and spinach. Some alfalfa is entirely too rich. Do not feed beans, corn, sweet potato apples and carrots. They are too rich in carbohydrates and sugars.
Carbohydrates , including sugars, poison the normal intestinal flora (bacteria yeasts and molds) of the chinchilla. Raisins, bits of fruit and fruit roll-ups should be reserved as occasional treats and training aids or not given at all.
I have never read that chinchillas needed vitamin C. Guinea Pigs do require vitamin C. However, many owners feed rose hips to chinchillas. These should be OK in minute quantities (no more than 10 iu ascorbic acid per day).
Training Your Chinchilla
Chinchillas are relatively easy to train. The secret is in using food treats as encouragement. They should quickly learn to come to the scent of a raisin. Next, use a cupped hand as a cradle for the animal while coaxing him with a raisin in the other hand. Soon it should trust you enough to hop into your outstretched hand and hop to your shoulder and let you pet him/her.
Chinchillas are creatures of habit with strong internal clocks. Play with the pet at the same time each day and let him know what to expect.
You may want to clip the hair surrounding your pets anus to prevent soiling. Generally, chinchillas with soiled posteriors are chinchillas that are eating too rich a diet. Any change in consistency of their droppings is a cause for concern.
Because chinchilla teeth grow up to 10 inches a year, tooth apposition problems are relatively common. Some feel this problem is genetics; others feel it is due to improper calcium/phosphorus content of their diets. Both factors probably play a part in this condition.
Lead paint ingestion in houses constructed before the late 1960’s can also be a problem. Beyond these problems, chinchillas generally have healthy long lives. This is another reason they make great pets.
I occasionally see Chinchillas with ringworm. Sometimes, the pet's fur coat appears normal - but it is the owner who develops a ringworm lesion. Another form of ringworm is also common in large chinchilla farms - particularly those supplying the fur trade. It is caused by a similar fungus, T. mentagrophytes. Chinchillas with this problem loose their hair and develop and scabby red spots on their nose, feet, and around their eyes. Two medications, griseofulvin or itraconazole will cure it.
Intestinal Problems (Enteritis)
This is caused by feeding the wrong diet, crowding or poor sanitation. Pet shop stress can also be a factor. When the pet's diet does not contain sufficient fiber or contains too much carbohydrates, their "good" bacteria die and organisms such as E. coli, salmonella, pseudomonas or giardia take advantage of the situation. Treating them is a challenge because they are so small and have minimal body reserves to fall back on.
Pneumonia, sneezing and upper respiratory infections and eye drainage are problems associated with poor sanitation, crowding, improper temperature and a deficient diet. You can avoid these problems by purchasing your pet from a reliable source. Once the pet has this problem, only TLC and antibiotics might cure it. Even once your pet has recoverered, it may still harbor the bacteria for a long time. So you must continue to keep it in a low stress situation.
When a chinchilla's teeth do not line up properly they will overgrow and cause the pet to drool and loose weight. This is called malocclusion. In many cases, the problem is genetic. In others, it is due to an early mineral-deficient diet. If your pet developes this problem, its teeth will need to be clipped or sawed off periodically.
This is only a problem when several chinchillas are kept together in close quarters. It is the chinchilla without the missing fur that is the culprit. It it do to boredom and stress.
Because these pets are native to the cool, dry Andes Mountains of South America, they do not take heat or humidity well. They do best in the United States when their quarters are well ventilated, shaded and air conditioned during hot weather. Sudden colapse or weakness in a hot environment may signal heat stroke. These pets will be breathing rapidly and may feel hot to the touch. They should be misted off and massaged immediately with cool water to which a drop of dish washing soap has been added.