This article deals with the somewhat “controversial” topic of diet and nutrition.
There is a lot of contradictory information regarding the feeding of chinchillas, and many breeders tend to have their own methods and opinions of what to feed and what not to feed. But one thing that all breeders will agree on is that chinchillas require a low fat, high fiber diet to maintain optimum health.
Chinchillas CAN eat the following, however only the top two can be given in unlimited quantities! All other foods on this list are in severe moderation.
Fruit: fruits with seeds, not stones or pits, e.g.,
- dried cranberries
- dried strawberries
- dried blueberries
- dried rose hips
- a banana chip
- a piece of apple
- a piece of pear
- a piece of grape
- a piece of kiwi.
Herbs such as
- raspberry leaves
- a piece of carrot
- flaked peas
- dandelion leaf (small and washed)
Nuts and seeds, very sparingly
- sunflower seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- flax seeds
- rolled oats
- oat groats
- healthy cereals low in sugar like Shredded Wheat or Cornflakes
- a small piece of dry toast
- an alfalfa-based animal treat.
Really, all a chinchilla requires is a very basic diet of good, quality chinchilla pellets and good quality hay – and that is it! I could really end the article here, as that pretty much covers it, but I will continue with a more thorough explanation.
The majority of illnesses that a pet chinchilla will suffer from will be directly or indirectly caused by dietary intake, so it is, therefore, useful to get a basic understanding of the correct nutritional requirements.
Chinchillas Dietary Adaptations
Chinchillas originally come from a region with low-flora designed for low-energy food such as dry grasses, twigs, leaves, cacti, and herbs. Due to this specialization of the digestive tract, no commercial rodent food may be fed indiscriminately in captivity. Optimal health of your chinchilla can only be achieved by being rich in fiber and low in fat. To extract as much goodness from their food as possible, a chinchilla will eat some of their droppings. This practice is called coprography.
Coprophagy helps to maintain the correct balance of intestinal flora within the gut, and also enables the chinchilla to absorb B Vitamins that are produced in the caecum (part of the gut).
Chinchillas in the wild will eat a variety of plants, shrubs, and grasses. They will consume stalks, stems, leaves, shoots, fruits, seeds and roots, depending on what time of year it is. It is also reported that they may eat the odd grub too, but I believe that this is probably more by accident than design, as chinchillas would not take the time to wash their food.
This tough, fibrous diet that chinchillas have evolved to deal with requires a pretty good set of teeth, and this is where rodents excel. Chinchillas have 20 teeth, all of which grow continuously throughout the chinchilla’s life. A chinchilla requires the kind of food that requires much chewing, just as they would receive in the wild. Often a diet that is too low in fiber will result in the teeth not getting worn down correctly, and dental problems may result. Plenty of fiber is also essential for the chinchilla to maintain healthy digestion too.
Therefore, it stands to reason that we need to give a domestic chinchilla a high fiber diet in captivity also, to maintain health.
Chinchilla Pellets – The food of Choice
Chinchilla pellets are considered to be the best type of food concentrate, but they must be of good quality and fed fresh (within their best before date), otherwise the vitamin content may have deteriorated with age.
The feeding of chinchilla mixes is not considered to be the ideal food. Although they contain a reasonable balance of protein and fiber, they are full of ingredients that really should be fed as occasional treats only, and should not be included in the staple diet.
Chinchillas are total junk food addicts and will stuff themselves with food that tastes nice, with no regard to its nutritional content. If fed a mixed food, they invariably will eat all the “goodies” from it and refuse the healthier pellets, simply because they do not taste as good. This picky and selective eating may mean that the chinchilla is not receiving an optimum diet and in the long-term, this may cause health problems.
I have heard many chinchilla owners say that they cannot get their chinchilla to eat pellets, as they are always ignored, and therefore they are forced to feed a mixed diet! Well, of course, this is going to happen if a chinchilla is given a choice between pellets and a mixed food – as the mixed food contains so many treats!!
Try cutting out the mixed food (gradually) and increase the number of pellets fed, until the chinchilla is fed pellets only. No healthy chinchilla will voluntarily starve itself, and if they are hungry, they WILL eat the pellets. Never change a chinchilla’s diet too fast, most dietary changes should be done gradually to avoid stomach upsets.
You may have to shop around a bit, to find a quality brand of pellet that your chinchilla prefers, as they can be quite variable in quality. If in doubt, ask a breeder what brand of pellets they use. Every breeder we have talked to has said to use Oxbow Essentials Pellets.
An average chinchilla requires about an ounce (heaped tablespoon) of pellets a day. It is not good practice to just fill up a bowl with food and then leave it for days until it is emptied. Just feed enough pellets that your chinchilla will eat in one day, there should be just a few pellets left in the bowl by the next feeding time. That way you are always feeding your chinchilla fresh pellets, you can easily spot if a chinchilla is off its food and you are not wasting any food either.
Hay – the Fiber Provider
In addition to the pellets, it is essential that a chinchilla eats at least a good handful of good-quality hay daily.
In captivity, hay is the main source of fiber in a chinchilla’s diet. It should be of good quality, sweet smelling, and definitely not moldy, damp or dusty. Hay maintains good digestion, helps to ensure correct tooth-wear and may also help to prevent cage-boredom too.
Baled hay for horses is usually very good. I have found that some hay sold in pet-shops is very short-chopped and will just fall through the bars of the hayrack. Hay is now available in various varieties, some being more suitable than others.
Out of choice, I give my chinchillas Timothy Hay as it has good ADF fiber content and my chinchillas love it.
There are two types of fiber found in feeds/hays etc…
ADF’s (acid detergent fiber) – are the least digestible – and found in the stems and stalks. NDF’s (neutral detergent fiber) is more digestible – and found in the leaves of grasses.
Fiber is made up of different components: cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and lignin – the lignin bit is the least digestible ADF.
Chinchillas seem to do better (gut and tooth-wise) on a type of diet higher in ADF (acid detergent fiber). Timothy hay contains a minimum of 32% fiber of which @ 25.10% is ADF.
There are some chinchilla owners that tell me that their chinchillas will not eat hay. I find this quite worrying, as it may be a sign of an underlying health problem. A diet lacking in hay may well be indicative or even causative of digestive or dental anomalies in the long-term.
A chinchilla must be encouraged to eat hay by cutting down on treats and concentrates if necessary. However, if for some strange reason a chinchilla cannot eat hay, then there are a few alternatives you can try.
Spillers Readigrass or Burgess Supa Forage Excel are both dried grass products. Although they contain slightly less fiber than hay, they are correctly calcium to phosphorus balanced and contain other nutrients too. They are ideal as an addition to hay and can be fed a couple of times a week, ideally. Chinchillas usually find them very palatable.
They can be fed INSTEAD of hay – and some breeders prefer to do this.
Chinchillas, as with any animal, require a suitable and correct balance of vitamins and minerals in their diet. Many minerals work with other minerals and vitamins (i.e., iron and vitamin C, calcium and vitamin D3, etc. etc.) – so balance really is the key
Although a well balanced diet of top-quality pellets and hay should provide adequate vitamins and minerals, without the need for any extra supplementation, there may be times in a chinchilla’s life when a little extra may not hurt, such as with breeding or convalescing animals.
Complete vitamin and mineral supplements specially formulated for herbivores may be useful for addressing any imbalances, but should never be overdone. Arkvits (available from Vetark Professional 0870 243 0384) comes highly recommended for ill, stressed, breeding or growing chinchillas. Please follow instructions on the tub.
I have decided to deal with the topic of treats rather thoroughly as 99% of chinchilla owners give their chinchillas treats on a regular basis.
As I have said before, chinchillas are junk food addicts, but their digestion is not very good at coping with rich foods, therefore treats should be kept to a minimum.
Never feed so many treats that the chinchilla does not want to eat its staple diet. Healthy treats may be fed IN ADDITION to the normal diet, in small quantities.
Some treats (such as raisins) are really best used as a remedy for very mild constipation or a hand-taming aid and may be fed while the chin is being handled so it can associate handling with something pleasant.
Treats can be divided into three categories; healthy treats, treats that should only be fed occasionally and treats that should really be avoided.
- Apple Tree Twigs/Branches – should be cleaned in warm water. Once cleaned, the bark should be left on. You can give a twig or two daily, but branches will last a little longer. Chinchillas love to strip off and eat the bark, which provides an excellent fibrous treat that is good for the teeth. It closely resembles their natural diet too. Willow and hazel and other kinds of fruit tree wood (as long as the fruit DOES NOT contain stones) may also be given instead of apple wood. Hawthorn is relished too.
- Alfalfa Hay – May be given once or twice a week. High in calcium and protein too. A tasty and healthy treat.
- Readigrass or Supa Forage Excel – freeze-dried grass. Naturally contains the correct balance of calcium to phosphorus. A good source of fiber. An ideal treat and may be fed once or twice a week.
- Natural Licorice Root – A very tough, fibrous treat, great for the teeth. A length about an inch or two long may be given once a week if your chinchilla likes it (not all chinchillas do).
- Dried Herbs – a good pinch per chinchilla can be fed a few times a week too. Some herbs are full of phytonutrients and can provide a good source of vitamins and minerals. However, they can also have medicinal uses, so do check the suitability of your chosen treat before feeding it. Introduce all new foodstuff slowly, as usual.
Treats that may be given Sparingly:
- Raisins and other dried fruit – Chinchillas will sell their souls for a raisin or other kind of fruit. However, they are usually preserved in a little vegetable oil, and if fed too much, the chinchilla may develop slightly soft or runny droppings. In fact, because of this, many breeders treat them as more of a medicine than a treat and will give them to chinchillas who appear to be slightly constipated. Only the equivalent of a couple of raisins should be given weekly. The raisins (or other fruit) can be split into smaller pieces, to make them go a little further.
- Baked Dry Bread – I sometimes put sliced wholemeal bread into the oven and bake it until it is dry and crunchy. I feed about a quarter of a slice per chinchilla as an occasional treat. Although the bread is actually quite a healthy treat, it should only be given occasionally as it is quite filling and the chinchillas may not eat up all their staple diet if too much is fed too often.
- Fresh Apple – If fed in excess can have slightly laxative properties. However, a thumb-sized piece once or twice a week is relished by most chinchillas.
- Human Food – some cereals that have no added fat or sugar make suitable treats for chinchillas if fed in moderation, such as Shredded Wheat, All Bran, etc.
Treats to Avoid:
Sunflower Seeds/Peanuts – Although some breeders say that they can be fed as a very occasional treat, I personally avoid them totally. Most seeds and nuts, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts, coconut, millet, etc, ar.e actually very high in fats and oils. Chinchillas should not be fed a diet that is high in fats, as it is too rich for their delicate digestive system. With so many other more healthy alternatives, there should be no need to feed them to chinchillas at all, and chinchillas will certainly not miss them. If they simply must be fed as a treat, then do so a sparingly as possible, as infrequently as possible.
- Green Foods – Foods such as broccoli, lettuce, and fresh grass, etc., should not be fed to chinchillas. They can (and have) caused bloat in chinchillas and therefore, should be avoided.
- Commercially Made Treats – Some types of chinchilla treats available in pet shops are actually quite unsuitable. Try to avoid anything that contains seeds, nuts, oils, and sugars as these will not be healthy for your chinchilla.
- Human Food – Once again, although chinchillas LOVE biscuits and cereals etc., please use your common sense when feeding them. Biscuits are extremely high in fat and sugar, and you are not doing your chinchilla any favors if you feed them regularly. Some sugar-coated cereals should be avoided too.
Finally, just to reiterate, a basic staple diet of pellets and hay is all a chinchilla needs to stay healthy.
However, healthy low-fat, high-fiber treats, fed sparingly, will add a little variety to the main diet and that, together with an occasional vitamin and mineral supplement (if necessary) should ensure the health and wellbeing of your chinchilla.
Any changes or additions to a chinchilla should be done gradually to avoid stomach upsets.
“All About Chinchilla’s: Diet And Nutrition.” bloggingchinchilla. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2018 <http://bloggingchinchilla.blogspot.com/2008/01/diet-and-nutrition.html>.
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