Chinchillas are small rodents who originated in several areas of South America, although today they can be found wild only 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 two 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.
Next, we discuss their feeding, socialization, medical requirements and habits.
Socializing Your Pet Chinchilla
When it comes to dealing with people, chinchillas enjoy being handled and cuddled, provided they are well socialized.
Socializing chinchillas is most successful when they are young.
“A baby chinchilla can be socialized to accept handling, but physical contact between humans and adult chinchillas that haven’t been trained to interact this way can be extremely stressful for the chinchilla,” says Eve Adamson in Adopting a Pet for Dummies. “An adult chinchilla may never be comfortable with being handled.”
With young chinchillas, a little patience goes a long way. Invest a little time every day toward socialization.
Start small — simply sit outside their cage and talk to them. Gradually begin offering treats, like small pieces of carrot, first placed on the floor and then on your hand.
As they become more comfortable with you, you can begin touching and picking them up. Just be careful not to squeeze — chinchillas have fragile rib cages and squeezing too hard can cause injury.
Small children and people who cannot be trusted to be gentle should never handle chinchillas.
Socialization With Other Chinchillas
In the wild, chinchillas can live in colonies of up to 100 animals or more, but their territory is much larger. Obviously, there is limited space when they are in captivity.
“A male chinchilla may accept a male cage mate if they are introduced to each other at a very young age; less than 9 months is ideal as chinchillas reach maturity around that age,” advises K.J. Tenny in Lovely Chinchillas: A Guide to Pet Care and Breeding.
“Female chinchillas may accept another female chinchilla as a cage mate if they have been introduced at a very young age; less than 9 months is ideal.”
Chinchillas are nocturnal animals, meaning that they will be most active at night (factor this in when you determine where to place their habitat).
They are also tremendous chewers, which is why you should steer clear of anything plastic.
Wooden blocks, cardboard tubes and specially made chinchilla toys are your best bet. Chinchillas will need to have items to chew on at all times — this is how they maintain their teeth.
Unlike mice and rats, chinchillas can live 10–20 years, so be sure you’re ready for that before committing to the little guys.
Chinchillas, as a prey species, tend to be nervous. Providing nesting boxes for your chinchillas allows them a safe place to hide and peek out at the world when they get scared.
Be patient with them, and never allow anyone to handle them if they are scared, may handle them roughly or might shout or otherwise harm your chinchilla.
Feeding and Nutrition
Chinchillas must have access to clean water, preferably in a glass bottle mounted outside their cage.
This water should be checked at least a couple of times a day to ensure freshness and that they have enough. According to the RSPCA, the chinchilla has a few other dietary requirements as well:
- Good-quality hay
- 1–2 tablespoons of grass-based chinchilla pellets per chinchilla daily
- Small amounts of dried fruit and root vegetables
- Avoid nuts and seeds; they are high in fat
The RSPCA also advises to avoid sudden dietary changes and to monitor chinchillas’ food intake versus their elimination output daily.
“If your chinchilla’s eating or drinking habits change,” the RSPCA says, “the number or size of droppings gets smaller or they stop, talk to your vet straight away as they could be seriously ill…. Chinchillas produce two kinds of droppings — hard dry pellets, and softer moist pellets that they eat directly from their bottom and which are an essential part of their diet.”
Here are some more helpful tips on chinchilla care:
Chinchillas tend to keep themselves relatively healthy when they are provided with the right tools.
Good chewing blocks will help chinchillas maintain their own teeth while the right diet will contribute to overall health. A healthy chinchilla will eat, drink, eliminate, play and socialize normally.
A sick chinchilla, however, may display some of the following symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
- Depressed or struggling respiration
- Discharge from the eyes or nose
- Skin lesions
- Overgrown teeth
If your chinchilla is displaying one or more of the above symptoms, seek veterinary care.
However, so much of the chinchilla’s health depends on you. By placing their habitat in the right temperature-controlled area, providing them with their dust to keep clean, offering plenty of clean water and feeding them the right foods, your chinchilla is likely to stay healthy.
Before bringing your chinchillas home, research their requirements and determine whether your lifestyle will allow you to comfortably fulfill them. It would be difficult to rehome these little guys, so make sure you’re ready to commit.
Part of that homework includes finding a veterinarian who is comfortable and qualified to handle what is considered an exotic pet.
These creatures are fascinating, intelligent and fun. They deserve the very best home we can offer them. If you have chinchillas or you’re about to add some to your household, have fun and enjoy these wonderful pets.