In the last few years, more and more pet lovers have had their heads turned away from classic domestic animals like rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, and instead have become quickly enamoured with the exotic beauty and impossibly cute ways of the Chinchilla.
Native to the Andes in South America, the Chinchilla is a robust rodent with a thick, pillow-like coat which is ultra-soft and the densest fur of any land mammal! It’s therefore hardly surprising that animal enthusiasts everywhere are desperate to raise one as a pet!
If that wasn’t enough, Chinchillas have also soared in popularity due to the fact they are clean, quiet and odourless creatures, something that a lot of other pets have serious trouble with (sorry pets, but it’s true!)
Although popular with children, they are very sensitive and shy creatures and so are typically more suitable pets for adults and teenagers. This is also due to the fact that caring for one is a big responsibility, and reasonable steps need to be taken to ensure high quality of care.
Sadly, a lot of misinformation about the care of Chinchillas exists due to them only having been kept as domesticated pets for a short time, so if you’re considering bringing a chinchilla home, you need to do your research! – And that’s where we come in!
To help you avoid such mistakes and provide the best care possible, we’ve put together this in-depth, trustworthy guide, to clue you up on everything you need to know on the needs and lifestyle of the chinchilla!
- Lifespan: 10 to 20 years
- Average Height: 23 – 28 cm
- Average Weight: 500 – 800 g
- Popular Breeds: Long-Tailed, Short-Tailed
- Diet: Fresh Hay, Grass, Chinchilla Pellets, Fruit & Veg (Small Amounts)
- Origin: South America
IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Before you decide you really want a chinchilla, you need to consider these important caregiving factors:
- Chinchillas are social animals – Chinchillas live in herds in the wild, and so ideally need to be paired up with another chinchilla to be happy!
- Chinchillas can live up to 20 years – That’s a seriously long time, and a seriously big commitment, so make sure you are serious!
- Chinchillas need space – Chinchillas need fairly large enclosures, with the minimum cage size for a pair being around 1 m x 1.5 m. The cage also needs to provide different levels.
- They need a high fibre diet! – Chinchilla’s teeth continuously grow and so they need a diet of strong hay that is abrasive and helps wear down their gnashers!
- They need regular ‘baths’– In the wild, chinchillas clean their fur using sand, and so you need to provide them with ‘dust baths’ so they can do the same in a domesticated environment!
- They are mainly active at dawn and dusk – So don’t expect to have much fun with a chinchilla during the day, as they’ll be asleep!
- Males may need neutering – If you’re planning on getting a male and female chinchilla, the male should be neutered to prevent any unwanted babies from arriving!
- Chinchillas don’t like being cuddled – If the main reason you’re considering one is for a nice snuggle, it’s probably not a good idea. They can be trained to tolerate handling, but will rarely enjoy it!
WHERE TO BUY A CHINCHILLA
Once you’re sure chinchillas really are the pet for you, your next question is probably where to buy one from. Thankfully, chinchillas are a much more widely available animal than they used to be and can be bought from many pet shops, breeders and rescue shelters.
We would recommend contacting local animal shelters first, as there’s no question that the best thing you could do is rehome some unwanted chinchillas! Bigger animal rescue organisations like the RSPCA and Blue Cross will also often be looking to rehome chinchillas if you’re unable to find any locally.
However, we’re aware that some owners will want to raise their chinnie from a young age, and if so you’re best bet is to go with a breeder who will hopefully have a lot of knowledge about the animal and may well have already done some training, and taming from a young age to get them used to human interaction.
You need to make sure though that whoever you buy your chinchillas from is reputable, and that they’ve housed the animal correctly before they come home with you. This applies to animal shelters as well as pet shops and breeders, as the lack of experience people have with chinchillas means they sadly are more likely to have been kept in unsuitable environments.
Before purchasing a chinchilla, make sure you have explored their current facilities and observed their caregiving so that you can see how well the animals are being treated.
The reason for this is because chinchillas living in poor conditions could easily be carrying illness or infection, which would cause you and your family needless distress or grief should you purchase a suffering animal.
In pet shop environments, they also may not have been separated properly by sex, which could mean a lot of breeding has occurred, and you may be purchasing an already pregnant animal.
You therefore ideally want to see your potential chinchillas in a non-cramped, spacious environment where they are being given clean water and food, and have been separated by their sex. The animals themselves must also appear clean and healthy, and be living in an enclosure that is not dirty.
Be sure to also ask a lot of questions of your seller. A breeder, pet shop handler or animal rescue handler should be able to correctly identify the sex of a chinchilla, know their current diet, and be aware of their current health state.
You can also perform some basic health checks or observations of your own which we will elaborate on further within this guide. Take care to also be suspicious of any other chinchillas that are sharing their environment who look unwell, as even if you chosen animal looks fine, they could be carrying the infection!
CHOOSING YOUR CHINCHILLA
Before choosing your little fluff balls, you first need to make sure they are in good health and ready to be given a new home.
Healthy chinchillas should have been bred and raised in a clean environment that has plenty of space, with good access to food and water. So if you’re witnessing anything other than that upon purchase from a seller, your alarm bells should already be ringing!
If you can, make sure you examine chinchillas personally before making any firm decisions.
First, check their fur to make sure their coat is fluffy, smooth and free of bare patches. Then assess whether there are any weight issues, such as them being too fat or too skinny, and be sure to also observe their rear end for any signs of soiling or diarrhoea.
Although slightly more difficult to assess, you should also observe whether they’re teeth are overgrown and that it’s breathing is quiet and easy.
Common signs of illness or injury may also include sore-looking feet and wetness around the mouth or eyes.
Chinchillas can also be easily frightened or stressed which can make them ill. A chinchilla who is aggressive or hiding could well be displaying stressed behaviours.
All in all, you want to pick chinnies that are displaying an active attitude around the enclosure, moving around without stiffness or lameness. If possible, also try and single out squeakers who don’t seem anxious or upset by the approach or touch of humans.
However, even if your chosen chinnies appear fine, if they are sharing a cage with several others that appear to be in a sickly condition, it’s best not to take the gamble. Chinchilla diseases are very contagious, and so it’s likely choosing a furball from the same enclosure as an ill one will only lead to a heartbreakingly similar fate.
One of the main risks with buying chinchillas is making sure you avoid purchasing one’s that are too young, which you won’t be able to look after properly.
Baby chinchillas, or kits as they are known, tend to move onto solid foods from around the age of 8 – 10 weeks. However, the process of weaning is really dependent on the mother chinchilla and so a baby should never be separated from its parent until successfully weaned.
To be safe try and choose chinnies that are at least 14 weeks old. This way, you will definitely know they are old enough to be separated from their mother, and that they have also had a few weeks to adapt and fend for themselves (sort of!).
If your seller doesn’t seem sure of their age or has clearly separated a very young chinchilla from their mother, you should probably avoid buying!
Some people want certain sexes of chinnie when looking for a pet, and many of you will also be looking to avoid the possibility of mating when pairing up.
If you feel the seller perhaps isn’t quite as clued up as they should be, you can determine the sex of a chinchilla yourself, however, it may be a little tricky if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
Have the seller show you the chinchillas genitals, by holding them loosely and close to their body and then cradling them on their backs. Chinchillas don’t particularly enjoy being held on their backs and so make sure you’re quick to get identifying!
If it is a female chinchilla, they will have a uterine cone, it will have a slice from top to bottom, which is the vaginal opening.
If it is a male, they will have a penile cone, which will have an opening at the tip.
Believe it or not, telling the difference between the two of these is actually quite difficult and so we would recommend trying to gauge whether or not there is some anogenital distancing instead.
By this, we simply mean how large the gap is between the chinchilla’s genitals and their anus.
If it is a female there will be virtually no distance, and the genitals will sit very close to the anus.
Conversely, If it is a male, there will be some distance, of approximately an inch.
If you are not really too concerned about what sex your chinchilla is and are simply ensuring there is no chance of pairing a female and male together, perhaps enquire as to whether the seller has neutered their males, or considering getting a male you purchase neutered.
Chinchillas can form wonderful bonds with their owners, however they can react nervously towards handling and definitely tolerate being picked up more than they actively enjoy it.
They instead much prefer to explore and move around by themselves, and in fact can be quite easily injured if not handled with extreme care.
Chinchillas are prey in the wild and have several unusual ways of defending themselves from predators – which they may well use against you if you don’t treat them with enough consideration.
When feeling threatened, chinchillas can perform something known as a ‘fur slip’ in which they rapidly shed patches of fur to escape predators who attempt to grab them and will even potentially shed their own tail to get away! Their tail will also never grow back, so it’s not something they really want to be wasting on an overly grabby owner!
Therefore it’s vital that if you want to build up a relationship and tame your chinchilla to respond to you, you have to learn to be gentle and safe when handling them.
To pick up a chinchilla, place one hand securely under their chest area and then lift and support their hind legs with your free hand.
So that they feel secure, hold them close to your body and keep them upright to protect their spine which is very delicate.
This is obviously something you may have to get better at, and so it’s best to start out very slow, and not force your chinchilla into anything it doesn’t want to do!
In general, young children shouldn’t pick up a chinchilla at all due to the sensitive and secure manner it needs to be done. Instead, let children feed chinchilla’s treats or let them pet them gently.
While there are two breeds of chinchilla, (short-tailed or long-tailed), it’s the long-tailed which are most commonly bred as domestic pets, as short-tailed breeds have been hunted to the point of extinction in the wild due to their soft fur.
However, although you cannot choose a specific breed, you can choose certain varieties if you go through a chinchilla breeder. Chinchilla’s main attraction is their beautiful, well-kept coat and they have been known to be bred in many different colours.
The most common colour is a natural silvery grey shade, but there are also known varieties of chinchilla whose fur is black, white, brown or even a purplish hue!
Similar to guinea pigs and rabbits, it’s also recommended you provide them with an extra exercise area outside of their main cage, essentially creating two areas – one for living in and one for playing in. This will allow them to help bring out their natural instincts to explore and jump around (which they do a lot!),
Having a cage with lots of levels and platforms for exploring can also help keep them entertained and stave off boredom, but make sure these aren’t ridiculously high! As a general rule, you don’t want a chinnie to fall off anything which is over 60 cm in height to prevent injury.
Most important though is the size of the cage, as it needs to be able to accommodate at least two chinchillas, all their toys, a dust bath, and of course, food bowls and a water bottle!
A good cage or enclosure will be a minimum of 2 m by 2 m, with a 1 m depth. This should allow ample space for your pets to separate and be in their own company should they wish it, as well as enough room to run around in.
Of equal importance is also the security of the cage. Chinnies have sharp teeth which when combined with sharp wits can help them out of any situation – including chewing their way through a cage! You therefore need to make sure their enclosure is fashioned from a durable material that is indestructible and easy to clean like wire.
However, any wire cage must have solid flooring, as standing on the bare wire for long periods of time can cause swollen and painful feet for chinchillas!
No house is complete without some bedrooms and so you will need to supply your chinchillas cage with nest boxes to provide them with a space to sleep or hide in.
As chinnies are often the prey of other creatures in the wild, they mainly live in areas which provide them with plenty of hidey-holes and locations that keep them feeling safe and secure. Therefore nest boxes help to preserve some of their natural behaviours and prevent any subsequent stress that might occur due to a lack of hiding dens!
A good nesting box should be lined with clean, dry bedding on a regular basis and be around 25 x 25 x 25 cm in size.
Entertainment & Exercise
Despite their quiet nature, chinchillas are actually incredibly active and jumpy animals who love getting up to no good in their cage!
This means that a cage on its own isn’t really going to cut it when it comes to helping chinnies keep up their mischievous ways and so you’re going to need some interesting extras to encourage exercise and entertainment!
These can be things like wooden branches to chew on, interactive foraging toys as well as boxes and tunnels to hide and play in!
Much like hamsters, it can also be a good idea to get them a fairly large exercise wheel which will help take up a good deal of their daily exercise.
Simple changes like these which make a cage slightly more interesting can actually end up being crucial for a chinchilla’s long term health, as boredom and a lack of things to do in their life can actually cause stress and illness!
Keeping your chinchillas comfortable and ensuring their cage stays clean is paramount to their health and happiness and so you need to provide them with plenty of good quality and absorbent substrate.
This should be comfy to walk on, efficiently soak up urine, and also be edible, as should your chinnies accidentally chew or nibble on some, we don’t want it to be dangerous!
Popular bedding includes shredded recycled paper, hemp and occasionally fabrics. Some owners also prefer to use wood chipping material such as aspen shavings. However beware that these can be slightly dustier which isn’t good for chinnies, and that softwood materials like pine or cedar can make chinchillas ill due to their natural oils.
Also never use fluffy bedding, as it can get caught on a pet’s limbs and won’t dissolve properly when eaten, causing digestive issues.
Conditions & Temperature
A house can be a strange environment for a chinchilla, as there are so many aspects of their surroundings they may find confusing. It’s therefore your aim to ensure these confusing things don’t become actively distressing or frightening for your pets!
Firstly try and place a chinchilla and it’s enclosure as far away from the hustle and bustle of your house as possible. Choose a room or spot that is calm and quiet, that is going to be stress-free with very few people and loud noises. It’s especially important to keep them away from speaker systems and television sets which can make them stressed due to the sounds and vibrations they create.
In terms of temperature, it’s important to keep your chinchilla’s area fairly cool, especially in hotter summer months. Due to the very thick coats of a chinnie, they can overheat very quickly and so temperatures of around 10 – 15°C should be perfect, making sure to keep their enclosure out of direct sunlight and draughts.
If you’re finding it difficult to keep an area cooler, perhaps consider purchasing a fan to help lower temperatures, as anything over 30°C could be potentially fatal for your chinchilla!
As chinchillas live in large groups in the wild, it’s advised you keep them in at least a pair to prevent them becoming bored or depressed.
But how are you meant to go about choosing more than one new pet?
Well, the recommended pairings are one neutered male with a female or two of the same sex.
If you are introducing a new chinchilla to another one in an existing enclosure, you also need to proceed with a degree of caution.
Two chinchillas who are not from the same litter are unlikely to play happy families if you force them to live together on day one, and instead you need to create a patient and gentle introduction for them.
First up, put them in separate cages beside each other, keeping the cages at a slight distance of 5 – 10 cm. This means they will definitely be able to smell each other, but will be unable to get at each other between the cages should their first meeting be a little heated! Try to also put their nesting areas on the far side of their cages so that if they want to hide away from their new potential roommate, they can escape and be in their own company with ease.
The real key to bonding the pair is through their scents, as rodents often use their smells to communicate with others. A clever way to do this is to give them both a dust bath, but then swap the baths every day so that they bathe in each other’s scent and get used to one another.
Then, very gradually (over the course of a week or so), begin to move their beds from the far corner of the cage towards the centre, and then a little bit more after that until they are past the centre and essentially sleeping right next to each other in separate cages.
Once they are behaving without incident and practically best buds, you can move one chinchilla from their enclosure into what you deem to be the biggest or best-suited cage.
It’s unlikely they’ll have any issues, but there might be some fighting and testy behaviour at first. If this behaviour seems overly aggressive or is worrying you, separate them and repeat the process.
This kind of territorial behaviour is a lot more common in chinchillas of the same sex, and so that’s why the recommended pairing is a neutered male and female. It’s also often easier to introduce young chinchillas to adult ones without incident.
A chinchilla’s cage or other form of living space needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent your chinnie living in squalor and becoming ill!
You will need to do daily spot cleaning to ensure their enclosures are rid of soiled bedding and faeces and then will need to do a more thorough clean once a week and once a month.
We recommend doing all of these cleaning routines at night when your chinchilla is awake and active, as doing them during the day will just simply wake your chinchilla up and probably upset them.
You also need to be made aware that like a lot of rodents, chinchillas rely on scent to communicate with each other and so being surrounded by their own smells in their enclosure is comforting and helps them feel at home. Therefore completely cleaning out their enclosure can potentially be very stressful, as they may suddenly feel like they are not in their safe place when the recognisable scents are wiped away!
The easiest way to combat this is to hold back as much old, unsoiled and well-kept bedding as you can when clearing out their cage, and then replace it along with new bedding once the cage has been disinfected with pet-safe cleaner. This will ensure some of the natural chinchilla scents remain in the cage after cleaning, ensuring they stay happy and settled in their home!
Here’s a quick guide as to what your daily, weekly and monthly routines should be:
First remove any soiled, dirty bedding and any disregarded, uneaten food. Then remove their food and water containers, clean them and refill them.
First, remove all soiled and dirty bedding and replace with new bedding, leaving any old but unsoiled bedding still in the enclosure. Be sure to dust off any levels or platforms too.
Remove your chinchillas and place them in a pet carrier. Then remove all bedding entirely, throwing away soiled substrate and putting old but still clean bedding to one side.
Scrub the enclosure with a pet-safe cleaner to remove any harmful bacteria and then wait for it to dry before adding new and old bedding, and returning your chinchillas!
The ideal chinchilla diet should be based around some hearty helpings of grass, hay, and chinchilla pellets. You can also then supplement this diet with small portions of veg every day. It also goes without saying that your little pets will need constant access to clean drinking water, taking care to replace their bottle with fresh water every day.
Chinchillas are herbivores, meaning they only eat plants, so don’t get any ideas about feeding them any meat products. Give them simply as much hay or grass as they want to help keep teeth short and digestion smooth and top them up with around 25-50 g of chinchilla nuggets every day. Chinchilla’s are also allowed around a teaspoon a day of fresh greens or fresh herbs and leafy greens.
Remember, if you are considering making any changes to your chinchilla’s diet, do not just chop and change as you like! Sudden switches in diet can be very upsetting for a chinnie’s digestion and can occasionally make them very ill! Try and make any changes you do want to make gradually and in small amounts.
While vegetables are obviously great choices of food for a chinchilla, some can cause an upset stomach.
So that you feel confident in the food you’re providing your chinnie, consult this list of safe and suitable veg:
- Sweet potato
But what about things like fruit? Surely chinchillas can eat them too, right?
Well, due to their natural habitats, fruits aren’t really something that chinnies need in their diet, and their high sugar content means that they should only ever be given as a treat to avoid teeth and weight issues.
If you do want to give them a taste of something special, raisins and dried fruits are considered the best option for chinchillas – giving no more than a teaspoon a day! However, we really don’t recommend this and would suggest you are limiting such treats to three times a week.
Try and move away from fruits and commercial treats when looking to light up the life of your pet, and instead go for things which give additional health benefits without any negatives.
We suggest rose hips, which are full of vitamin C and healthy nutrients!
Things To Chew
The ever-growing teeth of a chinchilla mean that the act of gnawing and chewing is an instinctive quality, and as well as hay and grass, you may want to provide them with even more chewing opportunities around their enclosure.
In terms of shredding and playing, chinnies can get particular enjoyment from tearing up:
- Banana Leaves
- Unbleached loofah
- Pumice stone
- Coconut Shells
- Hay Cubes
- Mineral Lava
In terms of gnawing, owners often give chinnies softwood branches after they have treated them. By baking softwood twigs on a low heat for an hour and then washing them, you’ll remove any harmful bacteria and have a super cheap gnaw toy ready to go:
- Elm & Red Elm
- Grape & Grapevine
Poo Eating – Is It Normal?
Occasionally you might spot your beloved chinnie chowing down on a piece of their own poo, which naturally might make you recoil in horror.
Surely their faeces is dirty and unhealthy, otherwise, why would you have to clean their hutch out so much?!
Well, it turns out that this behaviour is actually totally normal, and strangely, even quite healthy for chinchillas!
Chinchilla’s actually produce two types of poop, the hard dry pellet you scoop up during your daily spot clean, and a shiny, smelly pellet known as a caecotroph.
These special poos contain all of the goodness from their high fibre foods, and so when your chill dude eats it, they’re simply re-digesting the healthy stuff!
Foods To Avoid
You’d be forgiven for thinking your chiller is fine to eat any fruits or veg you throw its way, but you need to be very careful!
As previously stated, chinnies are very sensitive creatures, both in personality and stomach, and there are a few foods you definitely shouldn’t feed them if you want to keep their teeth and guts healthy!
Rodent muesli mixes are very popular, however, due to chinchilla’s being very selective with their food, they have been known to ignore the healthy high in fibre parts of the mix and instead just opt to eat the bits that are high in sugar. This completely defeats the point of trying to give them a balanced diet and can cause teeth and weight issues in the long run.
Here’s a list of a few other things considered unhealthy or harmful for your little pipsqueak:
- Sunflower seeds
As chinchillas aren’t the most communicative of creatures, it can be incredibly difficult to spot whether they are suffering from pain or illness.
It’s therefore vital that you get to know your little chinnies behaviour and can spot when something’s not quite right, as well as understand some of the symptoms you need to be looking out for if you suspect they are ill.
Caring for a sick chinchilla is an incredibly distressing and upsetting process which you’ll want to avoid and so the best thing to do is be able to spot any issues early on so they can be treated promptly or examined by a vet as quickly as possible
You can do this by examining them daily, ensuring you are on the lookout for anything that is out of sorts with their normal behaviour or physical health.
Spotting Symptoms & Health Checklist
Watch out for any of these signs of illness on a daily basis to ensure your chinchilla is happy and healthy:
- Skin conditions
- Overgrown teeth.
- Changes in your Chinchillas’ behaviour can also be a sign of illness.
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Unusual bleeding
- Signs of pain, such as sensitivity to touch
- Runny eyes or nose
- Drinking much more or less than normal
- Lack of energy/sleeping more than usual
- Unusual swellings
Keeping Clean (Dust Baths)
However, it’s not exactly what you’d expect.
Rather than bathing in water, chinchillas in the wild use the natural sandy terrain and dust of their South American habitats to care for their fur, helping to stop their natural skin oils from matting their hair.
Therefore you need to provide your chinchilla with what’s known as a dust bath!
Make sure they have a small tub/bath that’s large enough for them to roll around in and then fill it about 4 – 6 cm deep with specialised chinchilla sand which can be found online or in pet stores.
Make them one of these baths daily, but limit their time in them to just ten minutes to prevent them using it as a toilet and to prevent them from getting a lot of it in their eyes.
The teeth of a chinchilla never stop growing, which unfortunately means if they are not provided with sufficient food or items for chewing, their gnashers can become overly long.
This can result in a lot of pain and sometimes abscesses. They may also become misaligned or broken which can affect their ability to eat correctly.
Symptoms of teeth issues include lack of eating, dribbling and loss of weight. And of course – big teeth!
If you suspect they have teeth issues, only a vet will be able to correct them, so take them there as soon as possible.
Or you could just avoid dental issues altogether by ensuring your chinnie eats a healthy balanced diet! A gnawing block or some softwood branches also provide easy ways for them to naturally wear their teeth down.
Chewing their own or a cagemates fur is a habit sometimes seen in chinchillas, and naturally is a great worry to any owner!
It is usually a sign of poor diet, boredom or stress, and so you’ll need to do a little evaluation to work out what the cause might be.
If you are keeping a chinchilla on their own, they may be lonely and depressed and need a partner, or if they haven’t got enough entertainment to keep them from becoming bored you might need some toys or chewing implements to keep them occupied. As for a poor diet, if your chinnie isn’t getting enough fibre due to a lack of hay or grass, they may begin to nibble their own cagemate’s fur to try and make up for it!
Other causes of stress-induced fur chewing will usually include things like a loud, noisy environment or a sudden change in location such as if you move house, or where you place their cage.
Unfortunately, fur chewing is a behavioural habit, not an illness, and so stopping chinchilla’s doing it can be tough, even when you figure out and solve the problem!
It’s therefore important you are completely clued up on your chinchilla from day one, as if you’re caring for them correctly, not many of these issues will ever actually occur!
When To Go To The Vet
You should seek the help of a veterinary professional as soon as you suspect or notice your chinchilla in pain, ill or suffering.
However, chinchillas aren’t like every other animal and so seeking veterinary help is not as easy as popping to the local vet surgery.
Make sure you are prepared for the worst and already have your pet registered with a vet who specialises in chinchillas should they ever become ill.