Chinchillas as Pets: Not the Best Pet for Everyone

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Chinchilla in cage: Chinchilla FactsAlthough sold in many pet shops nationwide many people know very little about the Chinchilla. In this article we will cover everything you ever wanted to know about the chinchilla including why these furry rodents may not be the ideal pet for you. Read on to find out why the chinchilla is not suited to everyone and how to ensure that your pet chinchilla is a friendly and healthy one.

About the Chinchilla

Before we talk about keeping these rodents as pets, lets learn more about them.

Chinchilla’s are Crepuscular

The chinchilla is recognized by the scientific community as a crepuscular rodent. The term crepuscular refers to a group of creatures that are most active at dawn and dusk. It is important not to confuse a crepuscular creature with a nocturnal creature. Many biologists believe that the crepuscular behavior developed by many creatures was an evolutionary adjustment made to avoid contact with predators that are most active during the night or at mid-day. Some commonly known crepuscular creatures include: dogs, cats, spotted hyenas, mice, deer, moose, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs.

There are Two Chinchilla Species

There are two recognized species of chinchila, the Chinchilla chinchilla (yes, you read that right!) or chinchilla brevicaudata and the chinchilla lanigera. Of the two species the Chinchilla chinchilla has a much shorter tail than the chinchilla lanigera. The Chinchilla chinchilla is also recognizable by its shorter ears and much thicker body and neck. Unfortunately for the bulkier of the two chinchilla species, the Chinchilla chinchilla is currently facing extinction. The smaller of the two chinchilla species, Chinchilla lanigera, is a rare species as well; however, it can be found in the wild. The domesticated chinchilla is recognized as being a descendant from the Chinchilla lanigera species with thinner bodies, longer tails and larger ears.

The Color of the Chinchilla

In nature chinchilla’s are only grey in color; however, when bred in captivity they can be a variety of colors and color combinations. The grey chinchilla is able to use its grey color to hide in its natural territory, but in captivity the more diverse the color the more desirable to many. In captivity chinchillas range in color and include: black velvet, ebony, white, beige, sapphire and violet and variations of these colors.

The Natural Habitat of the Chinchilla

The chinchilla is native to the Andes Mountains in South America. There is little overlap between the territories of the Chinchilla lanigera and the Chinchilla chinchilla with the Chinchilla lanigera preferring the more southern territory of the Andes. These large rodents are similar to ground squirrels in some ways; however, when it comes to living habits, the chinchilla is a terrestrial rodent. Chinchillas create burrows in the ground or live in crevices between rocks. These creatures are particularly agile which allows them to live high in the rocks and they are capable of jumping as high as 6 feet high which provides them the opportunity to escape predators unable to climb in rough territories.

The chinchilla is reminiscent of the prairie dog when it comes to living in social living. Chinchillas live in social groups much like the colonies of prairie dogs; these colonies are referred to as herds. Chinchillas are capable of breeding at any point in the year and after a gestation period of 111 days they give birth to live young. Unlike some rodents, chinchilla’s give birth to small litters with the majority of births being made up of twins. The gestation period of chinchillas is much longer than that of other rodent species and for this reason young chinchillas are born with their eyes open and with a full coat of fur.

Predators of the Chinchilla

Natural predators to the Chinchilla in South America include: skunks, cats (including larger cats,) snakes, dogs (including wild dogs,) and birds of prey. In addition to their ability to move quickly and jump up to 6 feet high the chinchilla also possesses a number of defensive tactics. When the chinchilla is threatened in the wild it will spray urine in an attempt to deter a predator, if this tactic does not work, they are also capable of releasing fur in order to escape if they are bitten or attacked.

The Diet of the Chinchilla

The diet of the wild chinchilla is different to the diet of the domesticated one. In the wild these large rodents are known to feed on seeds, plants, fruit and small insects; however, this natural diet is not suitable for domesticated chinchilas. Domesticated chinchillas commonly experience digestive upset and a diet made up of nuts or seeds can result in disease or death, rather these domesticated rodents should be fed a diet composed of hay.

The Chinchilla and the Fur Industry

The extremely soft fur of the chinchilla is one of the reasons why the Chinchilla chinchilla is facing extinction. The demand for chinchilla fur in the fur industry has been prominent since the 16th century due to the unique nature of chinchilla fur in comparison to the coarser fur of other animals. According to there are approximately 50 to 80 hairs per hair follicle on a Chinchilla which contributes to its soft feel that makes it so in demand for clothing such as fur coats, muffs and hats. While the coat of the chinchilla is particularly soft, it is also particularly small which makes it difficult to create an entire garment out of a single chinchilla. On average it can take 150 chinchilla pelts to create a single garment, it is for this reason that the population of the Chinchilla has dwindled so quickly. The drain that the fur industry has put on the chinchilla population has contributed to the complete extinction of a once known third chinchilla species and put the remaining two chinchilla species at risk.

Today it is illegal to hunt wild chinchillas whether for their fur pelt or not; however, simply because hunting is illegal it does not mean that it does not still occur. While illegal hunting still occurs, the majority of chinchilla pelts that are utilized in fur garment production are produced through domestic breeding.

Keeping Chinchilla’s as Pets

In addition to being bred for their pelts, chinchillas are also bred to keep as pets. Chinchilla’s can make great pets for rodent lovers; however, they are not always the ideal pet choice for everyone. In the wild, chinchilla’s are extremely active and spend their days running and jumping in the mountains of the Andes. It is important that when these creatures are kept in captivity, they are provided an adequate amount of exercise in order to remain healthy.

Dental Care

Exercise is not the only regular requirement of the domesticated chinchilla; these large rodents also require frequent dental care. The teeth of the chinchilla grow throughout their entire lifetime and when refused the ability to chew constantly to grind down their teeth their teeth will grow to the point that the creature is no longer able to feed. Natural chewing behavior allows the chinchilla to wear down its teeth, this behavior is made possible by providing domesticated chinchilla’s with chew toys, sticks and pumice stone to help wear down their teeth. When providing chewing toys and sticks to a domesticated chinchilla it is important to avoid anything that contains phenols, oils or resins because they prove to be toxic. Safe woods to give to a chinchilla include: apple tree wood, willow wood, kiln-dried pine and birch wood.

Climate Requirements

Chinchilla’s are used to the South American climate of the Andes Mountains and it is important to be able to provide a similar climate for a domesticated one. The chinchilla is unable to sweat and so it is important to ensure that when kept domestically these creatures are not exposed to significantly high temperatures. Naturally these South American rodents prefer temperatures under 80 degrees Fahrenheit as temperatures any higher than this can promote overheating and possible death by heat stroke. When keeping a domesticated chinchilla it is a good idea to monitor the color of the ears since when the rodent begins to overheat its ears will turn red. The chinchilla’s natural method of cooling itself is to route blood to their ears where it can be cooled so when the ears begin to get red this is a sign that the rodent is too warm.

Grooming Habits

Another consideration when keeping a domesticated chinchilla is the natural grooming habits that these rodents use to clean their fur. In nature, chinchillas roll in dust that is made from pumice. The naturally created dust comes from volcanic rocks provide the chinchilla with the ability to clean their fur by rolling in this dust, as they roll, the dust sticks in their fur and absorbs oil and dirty that would otherwise dirty their fur. It is impossible for the chinchilla to bathe in water because of how thick their fur is this makes it impossible for their fur to dry and promotes fungus and rot in the fur. Chinchillas require “dirt” baths a couple of times a week in order to maintain their healthy thick coat. If one does become wet it is important to towel dry them immediately, a no heat hair dryer can also be used but it is imperative that they are dried thoroughly as soon as possible.

Are Chinchilla’s Hypoallergenic?

One thing that is commonly mentioned in regards to the chinchilla is that they are hypoallergenic; this is frequently questioned by those with severe allergies. As it happens the chinchilla is believed to be hypoallergenic due to the fact that their fur is so thick there is a significant reduction of loose dander. It should also be noted that the thick fur also makes it naturally resistant to fleas and other parasites.

Chinchilla Food

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The natural diet of wild chinchilla’s has already been covered above in addition to why domestic chinchilla’s should not be fed the same diet as wild chinchillas. So if the domesticated chinchilla is unable to feed on a wild diet, what do they feed on? Domestic chinchilla food is composed of hay based pellets in addition to loose timothy hay. The diet of the domestic chinchilla should be kept on a dry diet so as to avoid a number of health problems that have developed as the wild chinchilla has been domesticated. One of the commonly found problems with a domestic diet that is too high in moisture is bloat. Just as it is with other animals such as dogs, bloat causes bloating and torsion of the stomach that can rapidly result in death. A diet high in moisture can quickly contribute to bloating but a diet that is high in fat or protein can also cause a significant number of problems for the chinchilla as well. As the domestic chinchilla has developed the digestive tract has become increasingly sensitive and when too much protein or fat is introduced digestive upset can result and lead to severe illness or death since these elements are unable to be processed adequately.

In addition to their daily bland and dry diet, many chinchilla owners like to give their chinchilla’s a treat once in a while. It is important to limit sweets or dried fruit snacks to a maximum of once per day because these snacks can lead to digestive upset in the form of diarrhea or diabetes. It is also important to avoid feeding alfalfa hay because it can contribute to liver failure.

Is the Domestic Chinchilla the Pet for You?

The wild chinchila should never be kept as a pet because they are not bred with the temperament or intention of being kept in captivity. Attempting to keep a wild chinchilla as a pet will not only result in an unhappy pet but it can also result in injury since in the wild these creatures can be aggressive in defending themselves. Domestic chinchillas have been bred to be kept in captivity and as such they do not have the aggressive tendencies of wild chinchillas. While domesticated chinchillas are not as aggressive as wild ones they still do not make the perfect pets for everyone because when cornered even domesticated chinchillas will bite.

Chinchilla’s Do Not Carry an Unpleasant Smell and Are Not Noisy

Chinchilla’s do not make ideal pets for small children who are likely to cause the bite instinct by handling them too roughly, but they do make ideal pets for a number of other people. If you are searching for a rodent pet that does not have a significant smell or a short lifespan then the chinchilla may be the pet that you are looking for. Chinchilla’s are also particularly low maintenance pets and are not noisy pets to keep in the home. The domestic chinchilla is also boisterous and inquisitive by nature making them a friendly and interactive pet.

There Are Some More Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Keep Chinchilla’s

It has already been mentioned that chinchilla’s do not make good pets for young children because of their natural response of biting when they are threatened. While there are a number of benefits to keeping a chinchilla as a pet, it is also important to note that there are some negative qualities that do not make the chinchilla the ideal pet for everyone. Chinchilla’s are highly strung and they are not easy to train in any circumstance due to their incredibly short attention spans. In addition, the temperature requirements of the chinchilla have already been discussed and if you live in an area that commonly experiences temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit then a chinchilla will not thrive and could possibly die in your care.

What Else Should You Know About Keeping a Chinchilla As A Pet?

Taking on any new pet can be difficult but if you conduct enough research you will be fully prepared to take on your new pet. There are a number of important things that you should note about keeping a healthy chinchilla:

  • Never allow a chinchilla free roam of the home because they will chew everything and ingest a number of toxins.
  • Always provide a chinchilla with a large enough cage to roam in that does not contain toxins in the paint or metal coatings.
  • Always provide a “dust bath” for your chinchilla to bathe in.
  • Chinchilla’s like to play with and chew on cardboard boxes; these make great toys without exposing them to potential toxins.
  • Never keep a chinchilla in a wire bottomed cage, instead provide a solid floored cage that will reduce the chance that your chinchilla will develop arthritis of the feet.
  • Avoid using cedar bedding for your chinchilla because it can contain a number of natural chemicals that can cause the chinchilla to get sick.
  • Regularly clean out your chinchilla’s cage, it is recommended that cleaning takes place once every two days in order to prevent your chinchilla from being exposed to their own waste and to ensure that they have clean bedding.
  • Always place your chinchilla out of direct sunlight as this can quickly cause your new pet to overheat since they are unable to cool themselves through sweating.
  • Always feed and water your chinchilla in small quantities in order to prevent your new pet from developing bloating or overeating and causing digestive distress.
  • Anything that a chinchilla can chew they will chew, and it is important to ensure that your chinchilla is not exposed to any toxins in their daily life. These toxins can come about in their cages, toys, bedding, or in the home so it is essential that you always keep an eye on your new pet’s behavior.

Video: Things to do with your Pet Chinchilla

Watch this Chinchilla owner show off some fun things you can do with them around the house.

It is important to understand that a chinchilla does not have any understanding of its own special dietary needs and when left alone they will feed on a diet that is far too rich and far too large in quantity for them. As a responsible pet owner it is your job to monitor and regulate your chinchilla’s dietary intake to ensure their health.

Do you think a chinchilla would be the right pet for you?

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