Chinchillas are small rodents native to rocky, arid regions in South America. They are typically active and playful as pets. And, with gentle handling from a young age, most chinchillas can become quite tame and bond closely with their owners. But don't expect them to like being held and cuddled like many dogs and cats. They usually don't, though they'll often express their affection for you in other ways. Pet chinchillas require a moderate amount of care, as they have some specific housing and dietary needs.
Common Names: Chinchilla, long-tailed chinchilla
Scientific Name: Chinchilla lanigera
Adult Size: 9- to 14-inch body, tail adds another 3 to 6 inches
Lifespan: 10+ years
Chinchilla Behavior and Temperament
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. And while they are mostly quiet animals, their nighttime movements might keep some people awake if their enclosure is close to your bed.
Pet chinchillas don't often bite, especially when they are handled from a young age. You must be gentle and consistent to gain the trust of a chinchilla. It can take some time to get a chinchilla used to your hands. And some chinchillas will never really like to be held much. They'd rather be exploring, or they might prefer to climb on you rather than being restrained. But by moving slowly and being patient, you often can get even the timidest chinchilla used to handling.
Chinchillas can be kept singly and will usually do fine in same-sex pairs, especially if the two chinchillas are littermates or are introduced at a young age. Keep chinchillas away from other household pets to avoid any stress or injuries.
Watch Now: Are Chinchillas Good Pets?
Chinchillas usually stretch around 9 to 14 inches long with their tail adding a few more inches. They typically weigh less than 2 pounds, with the females being slightly larger than the males.
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. The temperature should remain between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. While chinchillas are tolerant to cold, heat stroke can occur in warmer temperatures.
For your chinchilla's cage, choose a multilevel home with platforms, solid-floor ramps, and perches. The cage at minimum should be 4 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet. But the larger the cage, the better. Wire cages are the best material to allow for ventilation. Choose one with a solid floor that's easy on chinchilla feet.
Within the cage, add a chinchilla exercise wheel (with solid flooring, not bars), pet-safe chew toys, a nest or shelter of some sort, and food and water dishes. In addition, a "chinchilla block" or pumice block can be provided for chewing, and this will aid in keeping the chinchilla's teeth in good condition.
Specific Substrate Needs
Line the cage with a few inches of dye-free paper bedding. Avoid pine and cedar shavings, as they can irritate a chinchilla's respiratory tract. Spot-clean soiled bedding daily, and do a full bedding change weekly when you wash everything in the enclosure with mild soap and water.
What Do Chinchillas Eat & Drink?
Chinchillas are herbivores and have specific dietary requirements. They require a lot of roughage, so their diet should mainly consist of good-quality grass hay, such as timothy hay. Feed an unlimited amount of hay each day, making sure some is always available. You can use a special hay feeder called a hopper, or simply pile it on the enclosure floor.
To supplement the hay, offer a commercial pelleted chinchilla food. Discuss the best quantity with your vet, as this can vary based on factors such as size and activity level. Place a day’s worth of pellets in a ceramic bowl in the chinchilla’s enclosure. Dispose of any uneaten pellets after 24 hours before adding the next day’s portion.
You also can offer certain fruits and veggies as occasional treats, but you should run the types of food and quantities by your vet first. Place any fresh food in a separate dish in the enclosure, and remove it after a few hours to prevent spoilage.
Finally, always have fresh water available to your chinchilla. You can use a small water dish, but a water bottle is easier to keep sanitary. However, make sure the chinchilla is using the bottle before removing the dish. Refresh the water daily.
Common Health Problems
Chinchillas are subject to a few common health problems, including:
- Respiratory infections
- Digestive issues
- Heat stroke
- Skin problems
- Overgrown or impacted teeth
- Bite wounds and other injuries
If your chinchilla is showing signs of illness, immediately consult a veterinarian. Meanwhile, keep it in a quiet spot and avoid handling it to reduce stress.
The most common training people do with chinchillas is hand-taming. To do so, always move slowly around your chinchilla, as sudden movements can startle it. You can attract it to your hands by holding a favorite treat. Get your chinchilla accustomed to gentle petting before attempting to pick it up. To attempt picking it up, let it walk onto your hands. (It helps if you're holding a treat.) Then, carefully lift it with both hands, so it feels secure.
Chinchillas need lots of activity to keep them mentally stimulated and physically fit, warding off health issues such as obesity. This means you'll need a variety of toys for chinchillas to keep them busy and active. And you'll especially need safe items for chewing to wear down their continuously growing teeth. Besides toys marketed specifically for chinchillas, some wooden parrot toys also are good for them, as are the willow balls and rings that you often can find for rabbits. Make sure the toys don't have small and/or plastic parts that could be ingested.
Moreover, exercise wheels can be excellent for chinchillas to burn some energy. 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.
Out-of-cage time also is key for exercise. However, avoid the plastic exercise balls that you often see for other small animals, such as hamsters, as these pose an overheating risk for chinchillas. Instead, chinchilla-proof a small room by removing electrical cords and other hazardous items, and allow your chinchilla to explore the space under your supervision ideally for a few hours per day.
Chinchillas should never be bathed in water. As natives of arid climates, chinchillas need access to a dust bath to maintain a healthy coat and skin. The sand mixture absorbs excess oils and removes dirt. Purchase commercial chinchilla dust, and add a couple of inches to a container that your chinchilla can easily fit in. Place the container in the enclosure for about 10 to 15 minutes per day. Change the dust weekly to keep it sanitary.
The primary regular costs for a chinchilla will be its diet and bedding. Expect to pay around $25 per month, depending on the varieties you choose and how large your enclosure is. You’ll also regularly have to replace chew toys and other worn items at a cost of around $10 to $20. Plus, be sure to budget for routine veterinary care and emergencies.
Pros & Cons of Keeping a Chinchilla as a Pet
Chinchillas are interesting pets that can be entertaining to watch and friendly when properly socialized. They’re also fairly quiet and don’t take up a lot of space. However, many chinchillas do require lots of patience and effort when it comes to taming them. And they sleep during the day, so they wouldn’t be a good companion for someone who wants to interact with a pet during the daylight hours.
Similar Exotic Pets to the Chinchilla
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Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your new pet.
Purchasing or Adopting Your Chinchilla
You can find chinchillas at many pet stores. However, it’s typically better to acquire one from a reputable breeder or rescue group. They often have better information on the animal’s health, history, and temperament. Expect to pay between $50 and $200 on average, though this can vary depending on factors such as the animal’s age.
Check with local exotic animal veterinarians for recommendations on a good chinchilla breeder or rescue group. The main benefit of a breeder is you’ll likely have a wider selection of younger animals. However, chinchillas at rescue groups are often already tame.
Ask to see the animals before selecting one to make sure they’re kept in a sanitary environment and appear to be in good body condition. And if you’ll be bringing home more than one chinchilla, make sure they’re the same sex to avoid accidentally becoming a breeder.
Does a chinchilla make a good pet for kids?
Chinchillas can be good pets for older children who are able to handle them gently and with patience.
Are chinchillas hard to take care of?
Chinchillas require a moderate amount of care, including daily feedings, regular cleanings, and consistent socialization.
Does a chinchilla like to be held?
Some chinchillas can learn to be comfortable with being held while others prefer to climb on their humans instead.