Chinchillas are small rodents who originated in several areas of South America, although today they can only be found wild in Chile.
They’re intelligent, curious and fun-loving creatures who make great pets for a dedicated person. However, chinchillas require special care to maintain their health and happiness.
If you plan on adding a chinchilla — or a herd of them — to your household, one of the most important considerations is their habitat. This is where your chinchillas will spend most of their time, and they do have some special requirements to keep them happy and healthy.
Familiarize Yourself With Chinchillas
Before bringing the little chinchilla home, research all aspects caring for your exotic pet and make sure their needs fit your lifestyle. This includes:
- Medical needs
- Habitat requirements
- Common behaviors
- Grooming requirements
Also, find a local veterinarian who has experience with these rodents and is willing to take on a new patient.
Once you have done all of the above, you’re ready to prepare the perfect habitat for your chinchillas.
Chinchillas love to play and jump, and they require a good amount of space to do so.
“The dimensions of the cage should be at least 30 inches long, 18 inches deep, and 30 inches high — with chinchilla cages, the bigger the better, up to 4 feet high or so,” advises Donna Anastasi in Chinchillas: A Guide to Caring for Your Chinchilla.
Thinking about an open pen instead of a cage? Anastasi says, “Some chinchilla lovers even create a permanent play area by fencing off a closet or a corner of the room with a very high dog pen. Chinchillas are amazing leapers, so an open pen would have to be 6 feet or even higher — all the way to the ceiling — to keep a chinchilla inside.”
Chinchillas love to chew, so the best type of cage for them is wire, not plastic. Ensure that the mesh on the cage is no larger than 1 inch by 2 inches or less to prevent escape.
The interior of the cage may have a ramp included when you purchase it — this ramp should be removed. “Ramps are the number one cause of broken legs in chinchillas, with wire levels and flooring coming in a close second,” warns Anastasi.
Instead, she advises, use “wooden shelves to make ledges for the chinchillas to leap from level to level (which they do with ease). Wood is solid, so it’s easy on the animals’ legs and feet. Ledges should be staggered on opposite or adjacent sides of the cage at about 12-inch intervals.”
The bottom of the cage should be a solid metal slide-out tray for easy cleaning. Mesh should not be used for cage bottoms because your chinchillas can get their feet or legs stuck in the mesh and break them.
Include a deep pan (around 4–6 inches) of litter if you can, but if not, then cover the cage bottom in at least 2 inches of litter.
Be sure to use safe litter. “Cedar or non-kiln dried pine (check the package) can cause respiratory or liver problems,” says Anastasi.
Keep your chinchillas’ habitat off the floor to avoid drafts. And know that chinchillas are intimidated easily by height; by placing the chinchilla habitat on a stand or a sturdy bureau or table, you’ll be closer to eye level and thus less scary.
Chinchillas have specific temperature requirements. “The temperature in the chinchilla room should never exceed 79 degrees Fahrenheit and should be maintained at temperatures in the range from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, at most,” says Anastasi. “Chinchillas do not deal well with humidity either, and do best in a cool, dry location.”
Keep a thermostat and humidistat in your chinchillas’ room and check them frequently during temperature fluctuations. High heat and humidity can cause heatstroke, but temps and humidity that are too low can cause health issues and dry the fur.
Look at all these ways a chinchilla can be the best pets ever:
Once a week, clean the chinchillas’ habitat. Remove the sliding tray, bowls, water bottles and any metal toys, and wash them in a safe cleaning solution, like a weak bleach-and-water mixture or a vinegar-and-water mixture. Avoid dish soaps — they usually leave a residue.
Discard all old litter and replace it with fresh. Inspect wooden shelving to ensure it’s not too damaged or stained. If the chinchillas have chewed the wood down close to any metal screws, it’s time to discard the shelf — metal will easily chip teeth. If you have plastic shelving purchased from a pet store, simply remove it and wash it in the same cleaning solution used for the other parts of the cage.
A few times a year, take the entire cage outdoors and wash it from top to bottom, inside and out, with a mixture of bleach and water, and let it air dry.
Cage accessories are a must with chinchillas. According to Anastasi, these should include:
- A litter box containing 4–6 inches of litter.
- Heavy and tip-resistant food bowls and glass water bottles (chinchillas will chew plastic).
- A nesting box big enough for the chinchilla to easily stand up and turn around in. Got 2 chinchillas? Make the box big enough to accommodate both comfortably. The back of the box should be open for ventilation, there should be a hole in the front to allow the chinchillas to creep in and out; there should also be no floor, otherwise the chinchillas will urinate on it.
- A chew block or 2 made out of untreated wood. This is important — it helps keep chinchillas’ teeth healthy and prevents overgrowth.
- A dust bath bowl. Chinchillas should not get wet or be bathed in water. Instead, they need a smallish ceramic bowl half filled with “chinchilla dust” that they will then use to “bathe” in.
- Toys: The traditional wheel works well for some chinchillas, provided it is solid and not mesh. Another handy and inexpensive chinchilla toy is the cardboard tube from a paper towel or toilet paper roll.
“Don’t assume that an item is safe just because there is a picture of a chinchilla on the packaging,” warns Anastasi. “Many manufacturers are primarily interested in profit; others just don’t understand how creative chinchillas are at using toys in ways other than intended.”
In summary, your considerations for a chinchilla habitat should include cage size, temperature, materials, accessories such as food and water containers, toys and special needs like chinchilla dust. It’s quite a bit to manage, so take your time and get it perfectly set up before bringing your chinchillas home.
Do you have chinchillas or habitat ideas? Share them in the comments!
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Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of our guide to caring for chinchillas. To read Part 2, click here.