Chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) are a small rodent native to South America, found in rocky, arid areas in the mountains. These cute balls of fluff live about 15 to 22 years, with a body that measures about 10 to 14 inches and a tail that adds another 5 or 6 inches.
They are active and playful and, with gentle handling from a young age, most chinchillas become quite tame and can bond closely with their owners. But don't expect them to like being held and cuddled like dogs and cats. They usually don't, although they'll express their affection for you in other ways.
Chinchillas can be kept singly and will usually do fine as part of same-sex pairs, especially if the two chinchillas are litter mates or are introduced at a young age.
Habits and Routine
Chinchillas are largely nocturnal, which means they will be most active at night. Sometimes they are called "crepuscular," meaning their activity peaks at dawn and dusk. In any case, they should be kept in a fairly quiet area during the day. They prefer a consistent routine for handling and feeding and may be stressed out by changes to their routine. Since they are so active and playful, chinchillas need a roomy cage for exercise as well as daily playtime. Warm temperatures are more of a concern for chinchillas than cool temperatures, and owners should take precautions to make sure their pet chinchillas do not become overheated.
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Feeding and Diet
Feeding chinchillas cannot be done haphazardly because they have specific dietary requirements that are different than those of other rodents. They must be fed a high-quality, chinchilla-specific food or their health will suffer. Chinchillas require a lot of roughage, and the diet should mainly consist of a good-quality grass hay along with pellets made for chinchillas. Treats should be offered in moderation (no more than one teaspoon per day). The digestive system of chinchillas is fairly sensitive so any diet changes should be gradual.
Pelleted diets are better than a mixture of loose items. Commercially available loose mixes with chinchilla pellets, seeds, corn, and other food may be nutritionally balanced while they are in the bag, but your chinchilla may not eat all of the parts of the mix. Chinchillas are, in fact, prone to picking out and eating just what they like from a mix, making it less nutritionally balanced. Instead of a loose mix, look for a pelleted diet, formulated specifically for chinchillas that are 16 to 20% protein, low in fat (2 to 5%), and high in fiber (15 to 35%).
Cages and Environment
Chinchillas are perhaps best known for their incredibly soft, thick, luxurious fur. In the wild, this fur protects them from the elements, but in captivity, it makes them somewhat susceptible to overheating. This must be considered when deciding where to place your chinchilla in the house. A cooler, quiet area of your home is the best place to put a cage for your chinchilla. Summertime temperatures must be monitored to make sure the ambient temperature is not much more than 77 F (25 C).
Chinchilla cages must be large, multilevel homes with platforms, ramps, and perches. The larger the cage, the better. The minimum floor space is about 24 by 24 inches, and a tall cage is best; if possible, get one with shelves and ladders that allow this mountain native to climb. A wire is the best cage material; avoid plastic cages or accessories because chinchillas chew and destroy plastic readily. The tray can be lined with wood shavings, preferably pine; avoid cedar and hardwood shavings, such as aspen, and newspapers. Many chinchilla cages have a wire floor, which is nice for cleanliness, but the wire can be hard on chinchilla feet so it's best avoided. Wire floors or shelves can be covered with wood to give the chinchilla's feet a break. A nest box, made of wood, should also be provided.
Furry chinchillas, who hail from arid climes, need regular access to a dust bath. Keep in mind that It takes regular dust baths to keep your chinchilla's soft, thick fur in good condition. Chinchillas should never be bathed in water. The fine chinchilla dust provided for a dust bath penetrates the thickness of the chinchilla's fur, where it absorbs oils and clears away dirt. Not only do dust baths keep the fur of chinchillas in tip-top shape, but they also really seem to enjoy having a vigorous dust bath.
Chinchillas like to chew, run and jump, and hideout. This means you need a variety of toys for chinchillas to keep them busy and active, especially items for chewing to keep the incisor teeth in good condition. Blocks of wood and tree branches that are free of pesticides make good chew toys. Some wooden parrot toys are also good toys for them, as are the willow balls and rings that you can find for rabbits. It's important to provide toys that do not have small or plastic parts that could be ingested. In addition, a "chinchilla block" or pumice block can be provided for chewing, and this will aid in keeping the teeth trim.
Wheels can provide excellent exercise, although you may find that unless the chinchilla is introduced to the idea at a fairly young age it may not take to running on a wheel. Look for a 15-inch wheel (anything smaller will be too small for most adult chinchillas), with a solid running surface and an open side with no cross supports as there are in wire wheels, which can be dangerous to feet and tails. The risks of overheating make the use of plastic run-about balls undesirable; your chinchilla would much rather run around in a secure, chinchilla-proofed room with no exposed electrical wire or plastic to chew on.
Handling and Taming
You must be gentle and consistent to gain the trust of a chinchilla. It can take some time to get any chinchilla used to your hands and being handled, especially if they are older and haven't been handled much. Some chinchillas will never really like to be held much. They'd rather be exploring, or they may prefer to climb on you rather than being restrained, but being able to handle and interact with your chinchilla will make your relationship extra rewarding. Some simple steps can help get the timidest chinchilla used to being handled. Be calm, slow-moving, and patient in the taming of your chinchillas, and they will eventually respond.