Chinchillas are rodents that are originally from the Andes mountains in South America. They are tolerant to colder temperatures and enjoy lounging on pieces of cool granite, but they are also very sensitive to heat. Many animals would choose to cool off by taking a bath but chinchillas do their own thing. Instead of water baths, chinchillas take dust baths. These dust baths may seem counterproductive to those who do not understand the skin and fur care of these rodents but chinchillas know what they're doing. Water baths can actually do more harm than good to these incredibly soft pets, so it's vital to their health for owners to understand their unique needs.
Why Do Chinchillas Take Dust Baths?
Chinchillas take dust baths because they naturally secrete a lot of oils from their back. If a chinchilla isn't able to take a dust bath, its fur will become oily and matted. Chinchillas have extremely fine and dense fur so it's easy for moisture and oil to build up and cause a skin infection. The dust bath absorbs this excess oil and keeps the fur dry and soft, thus preventing excess moisture from building up and infections from occurring. Dust baths are recommended at least twice a week and either Fuller's earth or commercial dust bath products are most commonly used to keep chinchillas clean. Chinchillas love taking dust baths and will spend all their time in their dust bath houses or bowls if allowed. This is why, unlike a bottle of water, the dust bath house or bowl should only be left in your chinchilla's enclosure for 10-15 minutes, each time you want it to take a bath.
Why Don't Chinchillas Like Water?
Chinchillas instinctively know that they should roll around in dust to keep their fur clean and fluffy. Taking a bath in water is simply not something chinchillas do since they have other means to cool off and stay clean. The Andes mountains are rocky and arid in many parts, including where chinchillas naturally live. They are built to withstand cool, dry climates so excessive moisture and heat will only cause them problems. Chinchillas cannot pant or sweat so they rely on their large ears that don't have much fur to cool off. But just because chinchillas don't like warm climates and taking water baths, doesn't mean they don't drink water. In the wild, these rodents get most of their water from cacti and other plants but as pets, chinchillas need water bottles to stay hydrated.
What Happens if You Get a Chinchilla Wet?
If a chinchilla gets wet, the fur is so dense that it does an excellent job of holding the moisture in. The fur therefore takes a very long time to dry and, if the moisture stays in it long enough, fungi can start to multiply and cause a skin infection. This infection is not to be confused with the other fur problems that can occur in chinchillas, like fur-slip and fur-chewing. Fur fungus is the result of your chinchilla's fur staying wet for too long; fur-slip is a defense mechanism where your chinchilla releases its fur in an attempt to escape being captured; and fur-chewing occurs when a chinchilla chews on its own or another chinchilla's fur. Additionally, if the fur stays wet and your chinchilla gets too chilled, it could develop a respiratory infection. Fur fungus requires antifungal treatments and it can cause hair loss, itching, and crusting of the skin. Plus, your chinchilla may even spread the infection to other animals and people.
What Should You Do If Your Chinchilla Gets Wet?
If your chinchilla accidentally gets wet, gently towel dry it as best you can. Place your chinchilla on towels in front of a fan set on low or a hair dryer that has a cool setting to provide constant, cool airflow. This may take a long time depending on how wet your chinchilla was. Make sure your chinchilla does not get too cold during this slow drying process, though. Once your chinchilla feels dry, let it take a dust bath to help absorb the excess moisture on the skin.
Is It Ever Okay For a Chinchilla to Get Wet?
While a drop or two of water isn't going to cause a problem, you should avoid soaking your chinchilla's fur whenever possible. Occasionally, there are emergency situations that require a chinchilla to get a water bath. These situations usually involve your chinchilla getting urine, cleaners, or other potentially harmful products on them that require rinsing.
Donnelly TM, Brown CJ. Guinea pig and chinchilla care and husbandry. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. 2004;7(2):351-373.
Rees RG. Some conditions of the skin and fur of chinchilla lanigera. J Small Animal Practice. 1963;4(3):213-225.