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CHINCHILLA BASICS - Origins, Facts and Figures & Basic Care


 The Origin of the Domestic Chinchilla

Domestic chinchillas originate from wild chinchillas that were captured by Matthias F Champan high up in the Andes in the 1920’s. It took Chapman many years to successfully capture and breed just 11 animals, but these animals are the forefathers of today’s domesticated animals. The fur, which is very dense and extremely soft protected them in the arid, cold climate in the mountains. Chinchillas can therefore tolerate quite cold conditions, as long as it is not damp/very humid. They cannot tolerate high temperatures (which can easily lead to overheating and death) and need to be kept indoors either in the home or suitable outdoor buildings.

The wild chinchilla is the standard grey whose beautiful, extremely soft dense fur was for many years, used in the fur trade (no longer the case or legal in the UK).  The many mutation colours which are available today (e.g. white, beige, blacks, violets etc.) have been developed by breeders over the last 50 – 60 years.  Chinchilla genetics is a quite complex and fascinating subject with both recessive and dominant genes existing. This means that with mutation or mutation carrying parents, they can often produce kits a different colour to themselves (making the arrival of a new litter extra exciting!)

Chinchilla Facts and Figures:-

Classification – Chinchillas are rodents which means the teeth continuously grow and everything they ingest has to pass through their digestive system (i.e.they cannot be sick). Hence the reason you need to be extremely careful of what they are fed and to what they may get access to which they will chew (they need to be supervised when running around the home!). They are also nocturnal so are mainly active during the hours of darkness, although they are also happy to interact during the day.

Weight – can vary enormously. A normal healthy adult chinchilla is usually between 450g (a very small chinchilla) to over 1kg  (900g + being an extra large animal and not that common).  Adult show chinchillas and breeding females should be a minimum of 600g and preferably 700g plus. Females are larger than males and mutation animals have a tendency to be smaller than the standard grey animals (but not always). Although many will reach close to their adult weights by around 10 months, some may continue to grow until 14 – 15 months of age. 

Life Expectancy – on average they live between 8 – 12 years, however, some have been known to reach over 20 years old.

Males and Females – both are equally good to keep (it is down to the nature of the individual animal rather than the sex) although good quality females are harder to find (breeders of high quality chins tend to have a higher ratio of females to males for breeding purposes).

Sexual Maturity – females are capable of breeding as young as 4 – 5 months. However, this is extremely dangerous since the female has not reached full size and is unlikely to be capable of sustaining a normal pregnancy or birth. Females should not be put in a position where they could potentially breed until they are least 10 - 12 months old (if they mature early) and preferably one year plus.

Fur Slip – As a defense mechanism in the wild, if a chinchilla is caught by a predator they will slip their fur to try and get away. This results in a bald patch on their body. Very occasionally a frightened domesticated chinchilla will do this. Other than looking strange and making them unsuitable to show with, it does no harm and will grow back.

What are Chinchillas like as Pets?

As well as their obvious outward charms, Chinchillas are fantastic, fascinating animals to keep. They are intelligent, normally gentle animals and most are happy to be handled and to interact with people. However, they are not suitable as pets for young children (should be teenagers and older). Although they look quite robust, most of their body mass is fur and their bone structure is quite delicate. Therefore, rough handling or grabbing the animal can lead to serious injuries

Noise – other than jumping around their cage they only make the very occasional noise (some are almost silent). A frightened or startled chin will hoot (a warning to the rest of the herd to be on their guard!); mothers and kits will gently make soothing chirping noises to each other; less often you will find a chinchilla that makes a noise almost as though they are grinding teeth and they can make little angry warning noises or even squeal if, for example, one grooms the other too hard. They are nocturnal and because they are active at night and jump around the cage, serious thought should be given if it is intended to keep them in your bedroom - only really suitable if you are a heavy sleeper!

Aggressive/  protective behaviour -  an animal who feels under extreme threat (either from another chinchilla or a human), as well as the hooting alarm to other chins,  will make grunting type noises, rear on its back legs and squirt urine (done by both male and females).  This isn’t common (most will never do it in their life) and it only happens when the animal feels it is in danger or if it is a highly strung chin.Even under these circumstances,most will not bite as long as you show confidence approaching them

Smell – chinchillas do not have a noticeable strong body odour. Like all rodents they produce quite a few droppings, but again these are more or less odourless, However, there is a tendency for the droppings to spread around the cage as they jump about - a chinchilla may not be the right pet for the very house proud! The main smell is from urine but this is only a problem if the cage is not cleaned often enough. As long as the animals are cleaned regularly (maximum every 2 days and preferably every day) they are suitable to be kept in the home (cleaning regularly applies to wherever they are kept). Most of the waste is produced in the evening and night when they are most active, so if the cage is cleaned in the morning it will remain largely clean for the rest of that day.

Above: Tray under cage that was cleaned that morning (2 chinchillas in the cage) - The left picture is the tray at 10p.m. and the right, the tray the following morning. Obviously the trays are normally under the cage and out of sight. Some of the waste is loose hay.

Chewing – chinchillas like all rodents love to chew (they chew far more than something like a rabbit). Things they will chew includes electrical wires, fabrics, plastic etc.  so care must be taken to ensure these are out of their reach when they are in their cage and they need to be supervised if running around the home. Suitable items to chew on to keep their teeth in check should also be available in their cage at all times.   

Moutling /Priming – Chinchillas normally prime (moult) twice a year for approximately 6 weeks at a time. How noticeable this is depends on the chinchilla. Signs of them priming is that there is a bit more lose fine fur than normal in the cage and fur may come off on clothes when held. The animal may also have a noticeable priming line (they prime from the head backwards). In the picture of Lemongrass on her exercise wheel (see below) her priming lines is noticeable on her back end. It is generally not seen as a problem for chinchilla owners unless showing.

Sand Baths – Chinchillas should be given access to a sand bath (use only special chinchilla sand) for 10 minutes each day. Do not leave the sand bath constantly in the cage since they may choose to sleep or lie in it, which can lead to potential drying of the skin and/ or soiling. Sand can be cleaned by sifting, although wet sand needs to be immediately replaced. The baths should not be shared between cages because of the risk of spreading any possible infection.

Basic Care

Housing – Many cages are being sold on the market as being suitable for chinchillas, but they are not. Cages with any sort of plastic (which they can ingest), wire shelving/ ladders (which they can get their foot stuck in when jumping around) or tall cages which mean that the animal can fall from a great height, are not suitable and can easily be lethal. Proper chinchilla cages are normally made from 16g three quarter inch galvanised wire mesh. Chinchillas appreciate wooden shelves to sit and jump on and these should be made of untreated wood of a type suitable for the chinchilla (e.g. pine from DIY stores and NOT plywood, MDF etc. which contains glues). The more places they have to jump on the more use they can make of the available space (as well as full size shelves you can buy sleep'n' ledges or make your own small corner shelves with wood - attaching them to the side using screws and washers) The chinchilla will chew the shelves quite quickly so they should be easily replaceable or have protective metal edging. Care should be taken so that shelves are fixed firmly to the back and side of the cages to avoid their small legs/feet getting caught when they jump down.

Cages are best with a wire floor so that waste can drop through it (normally newspapers and/or an absorbent material such as sawdust is put out of reach underneath the cage to absorb the waste). If you are breeding, then the wire needs to be a maximum of 3/4 inch square otherwsie the new born kits will escape. Solid floors not only stain the animal’s fur, but old contaminated food can collect and, if ingested, can lead to serious and even fatal health problems.

Cages should also have a hay rack, since good quality clean hay makes up a significant part of the chinchilla's daily diet.

Size is an individual choice, personally I believe a reasonable size for a pair of chinchillas is a 36 inch (90cm)" x 18 inch (45cm) " cage or slightly larger.

They require something to chew on to keep their teeth worn down - this can include suitable pieces of clean wood or chew blocks.

Any plastic has to be avoided, even if it is non toxic and being sold as suitable for chinchillas. It can cause a blockage of the gut which more often than not results in the death of the animal. The chin should be provided suitable wood or blocks to chew on since this helps wear down their teeth (they continue to grow throughout the life of the animal). Untreated soft wood sourced from DIY shops is suitable as a chew or for shelving.

Above: Largish cage (3' x 2' x 2') suitable for 2 - 3 animals. Lots of shelving (including corner shelf) to make best use of cage space (in this cage the large shelves have protective metal edging). Hanging chew toy (see below); home made wooden house made with dowels (no glue or screws) which they appreciate sleeping in);marble slab (bought from tile merchant) which helps keep them cool in summer, and the ultimate toy for a chinchilla an exercise wheel.

Toys - Since they are intelligent, inquisitive creatures they enjoy toys to play with. Ones to avoid are those with any type of plastic or material that would be dangerous to them if they ingest it (inevitably they will try to chew them). Also to be avoided is anything with a chain link that is big enough for them to catch their teeth in. Extra care needs to be taken with items like hanging metal feeding/hay balls or any other type of toy they could get limbs caught in. As a minimum, they should be placed over a shelf or other area that the chin can support its weight on if it gets caught (I used the hanging hay balls for many years and one day I found a young animal hanging upside down with it's leg caught in it - I was very lucky other than having a sore leg and being shaken he was fine). Chew toys they find fun with as well as being good for their teeth. The commercially available ones can be expensive and after a day or two will look well chewed, so you may want to make your own hanging toy at a fraction of the price (see below). These hanging chew toys have the advantage of being a bigger challenge to the chin (which they enjoy) and since they are off the floor they are less likely to get soiled.

Above : A priming sapphire chinchilla (Lemongrass) on her exercise wheel ................Above a homemade well used hanging chew toy. To make these all you require is wire used to hang net curtains, strip off the plastic, at one end place a hook and washer, drill holes in suitable chew items (in this case clean pine, apple sticks, cuttlefish and chew blocks. Thread these onto the wire and then attach to the top of the cage with a hook and a washer -the washer being on the outside of the cage. Note: the chew blocks are made from thermalite blocks (NOT BREEZE BLOCKS) available from builders merchants, ensure you buy the white ones some on the market are coloured grey.

My chinchillas love exercise wheels, there are two suitable types available, the flying saucer wheels (see above) and the more traditional solid metal round wheel (for example, made by John Hopewell or Tictac wheels). I started using the flying saucer wheel around 1990, importing them from the US for my own personal use (I don't believe any type of wheel was available in the UK at that time). My chinchillas love using both types of wheels and my original wheels are still going strong after all these years.Do not give them plastic or wire wheels - plastic they can ingest and with the wire types they can easily get their feet caught - both types could be lethal. Remember the wheels also need to be big enough so that their back is not permanently arched when they use it. With both type of wheel, there also needs to be a sufficient gap between the wheel and the side of the cage to avoid the risk of serious injuries if a chin is caught between the wheel and the cage side (especially a danger if there is more than one chinchilla in the cage).

Chins are also happy with simple home made toys such as the inside of a toilet roll stuffed with hay (and a raisin hidden inside). They will spend hours happily tearing it to pieces.

Use your imagination but always think of potential dangers - feet getting caught, unsuitable materials etc ..Chinchillas are inquisitive and get themselves into all sort of scraps so I tend to be over cautious!

Below: Some uses for the commercially available wooden sticks on bending wire (various types are available on the market - including highly coloured ones). Picture one, drill two holes in each of the end sticks and attach it to the top of the cage using thin wire available by the metre in some of the DIY stores. Picture 2: Once the wire holding the sticks together becomes exposed, to prevent injuries, they should be taken down. You can then use it as a hideaways on the floor of the cage (best with a piece of wood on the floor to make it more comfortable for the chinchillas to sit in). Picture 3: Once these become well chewed , cut the wire, remove the stick and drill holes at one end and use them as hanging chew toys (attaching them to the top of the cage with wire for net curtain - plastic stripped -, washer and hooks. Make sure it is attached close to the top of the cage so that legs can't get caught..

Single animals, pairs or polygamous -Chinchillas are normally kept as individuals, male and female pairs, same sex pairs or in a polygamous breeding system (females kept in single cages with collars on with one male having access to several females through a tunnel system – this is the most common method of breeding with larger numbers of animals and for showing). Sometimes they are kept in breeding trios (2 females and 1 male –but never 2 males and 1 female).

Whenever possible, I would recommend any pet chinchilla that is not being bred is kept in a pair. Same sex pairs, male or female, it makes no difference - they are equally good pets is easier/better than having a male neutered. Please note that paired males should not be kept in the same room as adult females since they are likely to become competitive and fight when the female comes into season (which happens approximately once a month). Chinchillas are extremely sociable animals and constantly interact with each other. In my view, a single animal tends to be a lot less active.If possible it is best to purchase your pets as same sex pairs that have been weaned together. However, they can be introduced as older animals. Care should always be taken doing this (true of same sex or breeding animals), since serious injury or death can occur. The introduction period can be reasonable quick, may take a number of weeks and in some cases (although rare) they will not settle with each other. With females in close proximity (i.e. the same room),  mature males should not be kept together, since when the females come into season, the males can become competitive and fight, even though they do not have access to the female. 

Feeding - All a chinchilla requires to remain healthy is a good quality chinchilla pellet, unlimited amounts of good quality hay and fresh water.  Hay is essential for their digestive system and the chewing action aids the wearing down of the teeth.  Any food given must be fresh and free from mould or other contamination. Mixed foods should not be fed as a basic diet since the chinchilla will selective feed and is unlikely to get the balanced diet it requires to be healthy. An unsuitable diet can lead to lower growth rates, breeding difficulties and health issues. 

Pellets - Chinchillas should eat approximately 1 tablespoon of chinchilla pellets each day but appetites vary and they rarely overeat. Don't restrict pellets, adjust the feed so there is just a few left by next feed time. Rabbit pellets etc. do not necessarily meet their nutritional requirements and mixed food can lead to selective feeding with potential health issues.As with all their food, the pellets should be fresh and free from mould or any sort of contamination. They should also be used within the use by date otherwise the vitamin levels could be inadequate. Care should be taken when buying them from bins. Most shops using this method, just top the bins up and hence it is unclear how old the pellets are when you purchase them and there may be nasties (mould etc.) lurking in the bottom of the bin. You can expect some waste (it is not unheard of for them to throw them out of their bowls!) but judge it so you give sufficient pellets that by the following feed time there is a small amount left in the bowl. These should then be thrown (usually there will be droppings in the bowl) and then fresh pellets given. Feeding more than they will eat within 24 hours, means you may not notice if the chin stops eating which is an indication they are not well. Breeding females should be fed a pellet with a Vitamin E level of at least 50ius and preferably around 80ius. Any change of pellet should be done graduallyto reduce the chances of upset stomachs - 90% old/10% new day one - changing it gradually to the new pellet over a week to 10 day period.

Many commercially available chinchilla treats are not really suitable since they are high in sugar. Occasional healthy treats can be fed (no more than one a day). Examples include (no more than a teaspoon a day):-

1) Small quantities of wheat breakfast cereals (shreddies or weetabix) or a few bran flakes

2) Level teaspoon of oats (normal not instant porridge oats are suitable), barley flakes or wheatgerm.

3) A small piece (1inch) of blackened oven dried bread (no mould)

4) A few alfalfa or grass pellets

5) Small piece (1 inch) of original ryvita

6) Suitable herbs include dried nettle, dried dandelion, dried echinea (" )

7) A raisin, they love them but you should not give them more than one twice or three times a week and if the chin is prone to soft droppings they should be avoided all together

8) Beaphar Care + This is a good "treat" food. There are various types of Beaphar Chinchilla food on the market but the Care + is a complete nutritious pelleted food which they love the taste of. It can be fed as their main pellet but is significantly more expensive than most other brands and fed that way it ceases to be a treat food. I sprinkle a small amount (just enough so that they eat it all in one go in 1 -2 minutes) on top of their normal pellet 2 - 3 times a week. Beaphar Care + is also good for chinchillas that have lost their appetite.

In addition to their daily feed of good quality hay (which must be free from any sort of mould or contamination), you can also give them 2 or 3 times a week commercially available dried grass (something like readigrass) or alfalfa/lucerne (cubed or loose) in small quantities (alfalfa is higher in protein than hay so should be limited to a cube or small bowl 2 -3 times a week).

Do not feed any nuts, fresh fruit or vegetables. Their natural habitat it is dry and barren and their digestive systems are unable to cope with these - it could lead to serious health problems.