Before bringing your chinchilla home:
- Ensure you have a cage set up and ready,
- Be sure that your family is aware your new pet will need peace and quiet to settle into their new home.
- Ensure your chinchilla is not unduly disturbed by other pets such as cats and dogs.
- Ensure that any younger children understand a small animals nervousness and that they will need to be gentle and patient
Setting up a Chinchilla Cage
There are many types of cages which will make a wonderful home for your chinchilla. The one we use is the Midwest Deluxe Critter Nation. As chinchillas love to run around, choosing as large a cage as you can accommodate comfortably would be a wise decision. We don’t feel a cage should be smaller than 24″ x 24″ x 18″ as this allows a single chinchilla some running room. Two-story cages are larger and nice if you are accommodating several chinchillas. You can buy your cage or make it yourself. It is nice to incorporate shelves, a hideaway house, toys and a wheel for exercise. Our preference is to use ½” x ½” on the bottom and 1″ x ½” on the sides and top. This is especially important if you are planning to breed a pair of chinchillas. Babies are great escape artists and can get out of wire mesh that is larger than 1″ x ½.” Also, if you have babies, it is best to have them in a single story cage with no shelves as they can fall or be injured by a jumping adult.
You can choose to have a wire bottom cage or a cage which rests in a pan. If you choose a cage that rests in a pan or has a solid metal bottom, you will want to use natural pine shavings that contain no oils or tars. Do not use cedar shavings as they can be toxic to chinchillas. If you choose a wire mesh bottom cage, the size of the mesh is extremely important. The mesh bottom of the cage should be no larger than ½” x ½.” If the wire is larger, a chinchilla can get a foot caught in the mesh. In its distress, a chinchilla can chew off its foot, break its leg or the leg trauma may necessitate amputation. Why take a chance! If using a wire bottom cage, be sure the chinchilla has areas where it can sit or rest where its feet are not directly on the wire. We use houses or shelves and sometimes wood planks (which we change regularly because they can harbor bacteria). Chinchillas can develop sores on their feet from the continued direct contact with the wire.
A standard chinchilla cage is constructed of strong wire mesh; this mesh should not be coated in plastic which could be chewed and swallowed. Wooden shelving should be provided inside the cage to give them a place to rest off the wire; they will also appreciate a wooden house or box to retreat to.
Accessories you will need include:
- a hay rack (unless one is built into the cage),
- a water bottle,
- a food dish which cannot be knocked over,
- a dust bath,
- food, and hay,
- Chinchilla dust or chinchilla sand. Do not use ordinary sand as this is too coarse.
- Litter – wood based cat litter is ok. Alternatively, you may line the litter tray with newspaper provided the chins can not reach the paper. Do not use sawdust as this is too fine, and do not use cedar wood shavings (cedar is harmful to chins).
- exercise wheel
The cage is best placed where other animals will not bother your chinchilla; away from drafts; not directly in front of a radiator; and not in direct sunlight where they may be at risk from heat exhaustion. A good spot is against the wall, or in the corner of the room where the chinchilla will feel
When your chinchilla arrives home, place them in their new cage and leave them alone for the rest of the day. Before they start to interact with you, they need time to settle in, investigate their home, and become accustomed to all the new smells and sounds around them.
When choosing a wheel, do not select a wire mesh wheel or a hamster wheel. Many chinchillas have had legs amputated or have been killed when caught in these wheels. Choose a wheel that is solid all the way around. The ONLY two that I have found to be safe are the Exotic Nutrition 15″ Chin-Sprint and the 15″ Chin Spin Chinchilla Wheel (Handmade in the USA)
Many good water bottles are available. Heavy glass water bottles are nice because they can be sterilized in the dishwasher, but be sure the drinking tubes are very heavy glass, so the chinchilla does not bite through them. There are also many varieties of plastic water bottles from Lixit and Nivek which also work well. Be sure the bottles do not leak, especially if the chinchillas sit on litter. Damp litter is very unhealthy for the chinchilla. If using plastic water bottles, it is important to put a sheet metal guard between the water bottle and the cage. Chinchillas will chew through a plastic water bottle at every opportunity. We cut a piece of sheet metal large enough to shield the water bottle and make a hole for the water nozzle. This has worked very well. Also, be sure the water bottle is securely fastened to the cage as the chinchillas enjoy unhooking the wires that hold it to the cage.
Chinchillas need access to fresh water at all times. It is important to change their water daily and keep the water bottles clean so as not to breed bacteria.
Chinchillas enjoy chewing and need to chew to prevent their teeth becoming overgrown; chewable toys are therefore ideal for chinchillas. Avoid toys that have small or sharp, metal parts, or have plastic parts. If (or when) your chinchilla chews these they will end up swallowing the plastic
and could end up with a blockage in their intestine.
Many chinchillas enjoy hanging toys with bells on the bottom and wood blocks (usually pine or fir) stacked on the chain. They delight in chewing off the blocks and like the sound of the bell. It is important that chinchillas have adequate items to chew as their teeth continually grow. We often supply wood blocks, hanging toys, pumice blocks, booda bones, etc. If you use any wood in the cage, be sure to change it often as wood can harbor fungus and bacteria.
Be sure your chinchilla has a little hideaway house so s/he can have somewhere to go when s/he needs to feel safe. They do truly enjoy their houses and often feel comfortable lying on their sides or backs totally relaxed.
We like to use stoneware crocks that sit on the bottom of the cage. This allows us to monitor the food intake to be sure the chinchillas are eating well. Although sometimes the chinchillas will soil the dishes and the food, they can be easily washed and refilled. We tend to use different size crocks depending on the number and age of the chinchillas in the cage. Crocks that are 4″ and 5″ tend to work well. There are also metal feeders which hook onto the side of the cage. However, with these, the chinchillas tend to pull out the food, and it scatters over the cage bottom.
[alert style=”warning”]Items which are also suitable to leave in your chinchillas’ cage are:
- hanging parrot toys
- sisal ropes (again designed for parrots, but chins love them)
- pieces of pumice stone
- some rabbit or large hamster toys
- wood or branches, e.g., kiln-dried pine (not fresh pine), apple, pear, or willow.[/alert]
Two words: Hay and Pellets
All a chinchilla needs are good quality hay and pellets; and fresh water – a very basic diet is, without a doubt, the best diet for them.
Hay needs to be available at all times as it is essential in helping wear down their teeth and keep them in trim. If your chinchilla is not eating its hay then reduce the amount of pellets you feed to encourage eating of hay. You can’t give a chinchilla too much fresh hay.
It is also a good idea to provide a cuttlefish bone to chew on as this provides calcium which is essential for healthy teeth.
You will see mix foods which say they provide a well-balanced diet however problems which become apparent when feeding a mixed food are:
- Most mix foods contain treat foods.
- Given a choice, most chinchillas will pick out their favorite food and choose not to eat the rest. Chinchillas can become picky – they will tend to eat more treat foods and less of the other ingredients.
- A diet rich in treats is not considered a good diet for a chinchilla.
- A mix of food is formulated to provide a well-balanced diet based on the assumption that all ingredients are eaten.
We recommend feeding your chinchilla twice per day (morning and evening). Chinchillas enjoy a routine and look forward to being fed at the same time each day. We have used APD-Alffy Pellets (American Pet Diner) and Mazuri pellets. Our chinchillas have maintained excellent health on this diet. We offer timothy hay, hay cubes, and alfalfa cubes.
Always be sure that any food, timothy hay or alfalfa you use is fresh, free of mold, mildew and toxic weeds. If your chinchilla eats “bad” hay, diarrhea often results. This can sometimes lead to intestinal problems which, if untreated, can lead to an untimely death to your pet.
When changing your chinchillas’ diet do it slowly to decrease the risk of digestive problems. Start by mixing in a little of the new food into the existing food, then throughout a one or two weeks (approx.) gradually increase the quantity of new food, and decrease that of the old food.
Although pellets and hay are all that a chinchilla needs they can be given some treats. All treats offered should be low in salt, sugar, fats, and oils. Therefore commercial foods, e.g., biscuits, crisps, crackers, etc. should be avoided. Nuts and seeds should also be avoided or given only occasionally as
they are high in fats and oils, for example, pecan nuts contain approx. 70g of fat per 100g. All treats should be given in small quantities, and only one or two each day as too much fresh fruit, veg, and grains can cause digestive problems. Peanuts and corn should not be given.
Treats which can be given are:
- Fruit, try fruits with seeds, not stones or pits, e.g., raisins, dried cranberries, dried strawberries, dried blueberries, dried rose hips, a banana chip, or a piece of apple, pear, grape, or kiwi.
- Veg, e.g., a piece of carrot, flaked peas, parsley, chard, romaine, a dandelion leaf (small and washed). Avoid anything gas forming, e.g., broccoli, cabbage.
- Dried herbs, if available you can pick herbs, then after washing them, hang them upside down (in bunches) in a warm area until they have completely dried out. Herbs suitable for chinchillas include oregano, comfrey, mint, nettle, dandelion, and raspberry leaves.
- Grain, e.g., rolled oats, oat grouts, healthy cereals low in sugar like Shredded Wheat or Cornflakes.
- Nuts and seeds, very sparingly – e.g., almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds
- commercially prepared, e.g., chinchilla crackers (produced for chinchillas and available in the US & UK), a small piece of dry toast, or an alfalfa-based animal treat.
When introducing a new treat, do it slowly – introduce one treat at a time, and when first feeding it to your chinchilla only give a small piece. If you have just bought a chinchilla and are not sure if they have been given fruit before then start by only give one small piece at first.
Fat/oil content of nuts and seeds
The table below is provided for information only to allow a comparison of different nuts and seeds. The fat/oil content is expressed as a percentage, e.g., sunflower seeds contain 47.5g oil per 100g. I know sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds can be fed to chinchillas – I can not guarantee that all the items listed below are safe for chinchillas to eat!
|Nut or seed type||Fat/oil content (%)|
Possible problems resulting from feeding peanuts
Your chinchilla will benefit from some essential fatty acids provided by nuts and seeds. However, it is believed that too much fat in a chinchillas diet may make them prone to hepatic lipidosis. Hepatic lipidosis tends to occur in animals which cannot metabolize fat well. It is literally fat infiltration into liver cells – fat globules build up in the cells until they are unable to perform their natural function. Severe hepatic lipidosis can cause major problems and even death.
Peanuts may also be a source of aflatoxins. This carcinogenic mycotoxin is produced by certain fungi and is a potent poison. It remained undiscovered until 1960 when 100,000 young turkeys died after eating contaminated feed. Aflatoxins appear to work by modifying the structure of DNA in the liver cells resulting in highly corroded livers. It is thought that there is a link between primary hepatocellular carcinoma and the consumption of aflatoxins. Foods most likely to be contaminated are corn, peanuts, and cottonseed, although it has also been detected on other foods.
While many chinchillas are given peanuts as a treat with no apparent ill effects, it is considered better to avoid peanuts, give seeds as a treat instead, and reserve other nuts as a ‘special’ treat.
Sugar and fiber content of dried fruit
This information is included because a few owners have reported tooth cavities in their pets. While the diet of those animals is not known, it seems sensible to limit the amount of sugar your chinchilla eats.
Dried fruit is often high in sugar because the sugar that is naturally present in the fruit becomes more concentrated by the drying process. It is, therefore, best to avoid feeding fruit with added sugar to your chinchilla.
Information in the table below is based on dried fruits to which no sugar was added. Once again this table is provided for information only to allow a comparison of different dried fruits. The sugar/ fiber content of each fruit is expressed as a percentage, e.g., raisins contain 71.4% sugar, and 5.8% fiber per 100g. All these fruits can be fed to chinchillas – in small quantities, e.g., one or two raisin-sized pieces.
|Fruit||Sugar content (%)||Fibre content (%)|
Changing your chinchillas’ food
Changing your chinchillas’ diet should be done slowly to decrease the risk of digestive problems. Start by mixing in a little of the new food into the existing food, then throughout a one or two weeks (approx.) gradually increase the quantity of new food, and decrease that of the old food.
When introducing a new treat, again do it slowly – introduce one treat at a time, and when first feeding it to your chinchilla only give a small piece. If you have just bought a chinchilla and are not sure if they have been given fruit before then start by only give one small piece at first.
Taming and Handling
A chinchilla can live up to 20 years, so you have plenty of time – take your time getting to know your chinchilla, a weeks progress can suffer a severe setback if you inadvertently scare your pet.
Remember that chinchillas are timid and can easily become frightened; each chinchilla is different and the time it takes to develop trust between you and your new chinchilla will vary with each animal – some animals can take six months or more to trust their owner completely. It is worth remembering that in the wild a chinchilla is a prey animal – and they have evolved to be alert to dangers, and to run and hide if there is something they are not sure of.
Approach the cage slowly and speak quietly and gently to your chinchilla, offer them a raisin or some other small treat. Chinchillas are naturally curious so after a while, s/he should come to the side of the cage and accept the treat. When your chinchilla is happy with this try reaching into the cage and offering a treat, do not pursue your pet – be patient and let them come to you, and allow them to explore your hand and arm. As your chinchillas trust in you increases you can try stroking their back, and in time you may be able to pick them up. It has to be said here that some chinchillas will never like being picked up.
Exercising Your Chinchilla
It is important for chinchillas to have exercise. A safely constructed wheel (not wire) in your chinchilla’s cage provides both entertainment and exercise. A wheel (if your chinchilla enjoys using it) also helps to keep your chinchilla from becoming overweight and lethargic. If you have a spare room, a closet or a bathroom that you can “baby proof,” use this for your chinchilla to run free. They leap, jump and ricochet off the walls with abandon. If you are sitting on the floor, they will use you to leap upon as well. It is important to be there to supervise a chinchilla’s playtime to ensure there are no mishaps. Be sure toilet seats are down; garbage cans are covered, no cupboards open no electric outlets are exposed or cords accessible to the chinchilla. We usually take a few chinchilla toys (toilet paper rolls, PVC pipe tubes, plastic balls, whiffle balls, etc.) and spread them on the floor. Chinchillas are very nosy and love to explore the toys, carrying them around the room. Often your chinchilla plays so hard, s/he wears himself out and then goes right to sleep when you put him/her back in the cage.
Whichever play area you chose you will need to chin proof. This involves ensuring that:
- no electrical (or telephone) wires are available for chewing,
- they cannot get behind or under any gas fires, fridges, freezers, washing machines, etc. where they may become stuck or may come to harm,
- you have no objects lying around that you really don’t want to be chewed,
- the toilet seat is kept down – chinchillas have died or been badly harmed by toilet incidents.
Your chinchilla will need to be supervised at all times. When you leave the room for five or ten minutes, you may walk back in to find your pet has managed to climb up and reach some electrical wires or has discovered the delights of wallpaper stripping!
Use caution – while your pet is outside the cage it is extremely important to know their whereabouts, they can move very quickly, but at other times they can move very quietly – it is very easy to turn around and tread on your chinchilla! Likewise, before sitting down check the seat, your chinchilla may have pinched that spot.
Getting your chinchilla back in the cage can be a challenge. It is a good idea to avoid chasing them, especially if you are still working on gaining their trust. One method is to offer them their bath when they hop in just take them back to their cage.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that by the time you notice your chinchilla is feeling poorly, they may have been ill for some time. If an infectious illness is suspected isolate them from other chins, then take them to the vet as soon as possible rather than try to guess what may be wrong
and possibly give inappropriate treatment.
Having said that chinchillas tend to be healthy animals. Problems that may occur include overgrown teeth, diarrhea, constipation, heat stroke, fur fungus, eye infections, colds, hair ring.
Chinchillas can get overgrown teeth or tooth spurs. If your chinchilla appears to be having difficulty eating, is reaching their paw to their mouth frequently, and particularly if you notice wetness around the mouth or on the chest then take it along to the vet as soon as you possibly can. These symptoms may indicate tooth problems which in some cases can require surgery – treatment is best undertaken before the chin loses too much weight and weakens through lack of food.
Chinchillas can also develop cavities – so beware of giving too many sweet treats!
These can occur due to change of diet, too much fruit, and vegetables, or through illness. Again a visit to the vet is in order. A chin with constipation may benefit from extra exercise, while in the event of diarrhea the following may help: withhold all treats, offer your chin charcoal in the form of bird
charcoal, or extremely well-done toast (completely blackened).
Chinchillas generally will not survive temperatures over 75 degrees for extended periods. They can become very stressed even at 70 degrees if humidity is high. If kept over 80 degrees, chinchillas can suffer heat stroke and die. Keep your chinchilla in a cool place, being careful to avoid drafts. It is important to have a good exchange of air in the room. You should consider acquiring an air conditioning unit if you have chinchillas in your home (and perhaps a backup unit if you have many chinchillas). We repeatedly warn people of the heat dangers to chinchillas since chinchillas cannot perspire as we do. We are adamant about instructing people not to put their chinchillas outside during the summer months because of the risk of heat stroke. If you leave your chinchilla outside in the sun, on a porch or even under a tree during very hot weather, you will be killing your pet. So many chinchillas die from heat stroke every year, and it doesn’t have to happen!
In the book, Joy of Chinchillas, there is a section that talks about heat stroke. The following is an excerpt from that section:
Chinchillas can die from heat stroke, and it is preventable! If temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity add up to 150 (e.g. temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity is 60%, the sum equals 150) then that is dangerous to the chinchillas. The chinchilla comfort zone is 65 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit tops. They can tolerate cold far easier than heat (of course, they have a nice fur coat). Humidity should be around 30% to 40%. Below 25% humidity even humans develop dry cracked skin – so, decrease bathing which causes dry skin if done excessively. Remember, if you are uncomfortable from either heat or humidity, your chinchilla will also be uncomfortable. The rule of 150 goes for humans too, and if the temperature plus humidity is 150 or above you also are in danger of heat problems. If you are in danger, how much more your chinchilla, which cannot sweat nor take off its nice fur coat!!!”
Air movement by fans cools just by circulating the air, so use fans to blow air around your chinchilla. Don’t blow air directly on your chinchilla, but cool the environment instead. Having access to an air conditioner can save your animal’s life. Filling your chinchilla’s cage with jars of ice, or dishes of ice cubes, so they can lie next to the ice to cool off, also helps. (Chinchillas sometimes chew on ice cubes, and though this is thought to crack teeth, it is not as yet been proven.) Other ideas are: soaking them in cool (not cold) water, turning the water sprinklers or misters onto the cage or spraying the cages with water, or putting wet sheets over cages and using a fan to speed evaporation can also cool off your chinchilla. Anything to cool them off will make a difference and can save a life. Heatstroke is fatal…
A chinchilla suffering from the effects of heat may lie on one side and remain motionless, the ears may become pink – this is most noticeable in beige chinchillas or those with pale colored ears. They may also have difficulty breathing.
To keep your chinchilla cool:
Keep the heat out
- If the sun shines in through the window, then ensure the cage is not near the window. Keep the curtains at least three quarters closed when the sun is on the window.
- A thin dark material over the window will help keep out the sun, but let in the air.
- Consider buying curtains or blinds which have thermal properties – these keep out heat in summer and retain heat in winter.
- For a chinchilla room, or chinchilla outbuilding you could paint cool glass on the window. This is used on greenhouses to provide shading and will wash off. Look for it in shops selling gardening products.
Let the heat out
- Opening the windows may cool the room down, however, if there is no breeze you may simply be letting warm air in!
Cool the cage area
Some methods have been suggested to do this:
- Find some really cheap tins of soup/beans etc. Remove the labels and freeze them. When they are frozen run them under a warm tap for a moment to remove the white frosting (the kind your fingers may stick to!), dry them and put them in the cage.
- Fill and freeze ice cream containers, or use frozen tins, ice packs, or terracotta tiles. When frozen place them on top of the cage. Warm air rises and cold air sinks, so the temperature in the cage below should fall. You may want to ensure condensation does not drip into the cage.
- Large beach stones (or similar) can be frozen and put in the cage – your chin can sit on them and try chewing them. Alternatively, use terracotta pots/tiles.
I use ice packs on top of the cage if I am out all day during very hot weather; however, if you use any water-filled plastic container (e.g., ice packs for picnic boxes) then ensure your chin cannot chew the plastic and make it leak! Note that terracotta tiles are best wetted before freezing.
If your chins have fur fungus the vet will prescribe an antifungal powder which can be mixed in with the bath sand – the fungus should start to clear in a few days. Do not confuse this with fur biting – some chins bite their own (or other animals) fur so that it appears short and bristly – it is thought this
can sometimes be caused by stress.
If your chins eye is closed and has a discharge coming from it, then this may be an infection, or it may the result of a scratched eyeball. Until you see a vet you can make the chin a little more comfortable by trying to keep the eye open: make some tea (no milk, no sugar) and allow it to cool,
use some cotton wool dipped in the tea and wipe the eye from the inside corner outwards to clear away the discharge.
Cold symptoms in chins are similar to those in humans, including a runny nose! Ensure your chin is warm enough and is continuing to eat and drink. If the chin has problems breathing or appears to have a fever then see a vet immediately.
A male chinchilla may develop a penile hair ring if they do not clean themselves properly. This can result in severe discomfort and even death, it needs to be carefully removed, either by the vet, or yourself (if you are confident and have a friend to hold the chin). A little lubricant like Vaseline or KY
jelly can help.