Chinchillas

The Spanish invaders of South America were the first Europeans to discover the chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera) back in the 1500s. The dense pelts of these rodents were being made into cloaks and other garments by the native people to protect against the intense cold in the Andean mountains. Chinchillas have a very thick coat, with 70 or more hairs growing out of a single hair follicle.

Demand for their fur began to grow in Europe, and by the early 20th century, their survival was in doubt because they had been so heavily hunted. A mining engineer called Mathias Chapman then decided to try to breed chinchillas on a commercial basis for their fur, but it was a slow quest, because by then, hardly any could be found. In 1923, he left South America to return to the USA with just 11 chinchillas, collected over four years. They settled in well, however, and soon started to breed, marking the start of the chinchilla fur-farming industry.

As their fur fell out of fashion, so it was not until the 1960s that chinchillas started to be kept as pets. They have always been relatively costly, compared with other rodents, as is still the case today, particularly in the case of rarer colours which have now emerged. This is also partly a reflection of their breeding biology. These South American rodents belong to the caviomorph grouping. Their young are born in an advanced state of development, with their eyes open, and they are able to feed almost from the outset, but significantly, their litters are also much small, compared with myomorph rodents such as rats and mice.

Housing

chinchillas and nestboxThe relatively large size of chinchillas needs to be reflected in their housing. Their active nature means they require plenty of space, especially if two are being kept together, which is usually to be recommended, in view of their social nature.  It is now possible to purchase special chinchilla cages, which are available in flat-pack form for home assembly.

The design of their quarters needs to be relatively tall, because chinchillas like to climb. Their powerful incisor teeth, as with most rodents, mean that they can be very destructive and require a metal-framed enclosure, although some designs of indoor aviary are sufficiently robust to meet their needs.

Traditionally, chinchillas used to be kept in cages with floors made from wire mesh, but you need to ensure that their cage comes with a floor tray that can be pulled out and cleaned easily. It is a good idea to fix a wooden shelf in their quarters, and a nearby nestbox which they can hop in and out of will be essential. The entrance hole here should be at least 15cm (6in) in width to give the chinchillas easy access to the interior. This helps to mimic the rocky retreats which these rodents inhabit in the wild.

The floor covering in their quarters should consist of ordinary wood shavings sold specifically as pet bedding.  Do not use sawdust, because this is likely to cause severe irritation if it enters the chinchilla’s rather prominent eyes, and newspaper as a cage lining may stain their fur, and might be harmful if eaten.

Climbing branches, which the chinchillas will gnaw as a means of keeping their teeth in trim, should also be provided. These can be cut from non-poisonous trees, such as fruit trees, provided the branches have not been previously sprayed with chemicals. The branches will need to be washed off with a clean scrubbing brush, in case they are soiled with wild bird droppings or contaminated with green algae.

Always use fresh wood, rather than fallen branches which are more likely to be affected by fungi. Thick branches are preferable, but leave the side twigs on, as the chinchillas will enjoy chewing these off.  It is very important that they are fixed securely in place, so they cannot fall down and cause any injury to the chinchillas. As the branches are gnawed down, so you may need to adjust their positioning for this reason.

It is very important that the position of their quarters is not in direct sunlight and the chinchillas are kept cool in hot weather, because they are vulnerable to heat stroke, which can be fatal.

Feeding and general care

chinchilla eatingThe natural diet of chinchillas is basically comprised of herbage. Their digestive system is adapted to allow them to eat large amounts of poor quality food, in order to meet their nutritional needs. Chinchillas must have a high fibre diet, and should always be offered special chinchilla pellets as their main food item. These are now available quite easily from many larger pet stores in particular, as the popularity of chinchillas has grown. One of their main ingredients is a special type of grass, called alfalfa. A chinchilla will typically consume about 30g (1oz) of pellets daily, so they are not expensive pets to keep.

Extra fibre should be offered too, in the form of high quality meadow hay - this must be fresh, and not dusty or full of thistles. It should be placed in a special hay rack in the chinchillas’ quarters, rather than being scattered on the floor, where it could easily become soiled. Allow about a handful for each chinchilla every day. 

Store the pellets and hay so they cannot become damp. It is also important to use the pellets before their recommended “use-by” date, to ensure the chinchillas are not at risk from a possible vitamin deficiency. There is actually no need to use any vitamin and mineral supplement, because these pellets normally provide a well-balanced diet.

Take great care not to change a chinchilla’s diet suddenly, sticking to the same brand of pellets if possible. Changes should be made over two weeks or so, adding progressively more of the new food to the old. This in turn gives the bacteria which are vital in breaking down the plant matter in the chinchilla’s intestinal tract time to adapt accordingly. A sudden switch in diet can easily lead to a serious if not potentially fatal digestive disturbance. 

Special heavyweight ceramic feeding bowls can be used to provide a chinchilla’s pellets, as these containers cannot be overturned easily, now will they be damaged by the chinchilla’s teeth. Another option will be stainless steel food pots that can be held in a hook on the side of the cage.

Drinking water must be supplied in special drinking bottle, which attaches to the side of the cage. Chinchillas adapt almost instinctively to a drinker of this type but check that it is clipped firmly in place, so that it cannot be dislodged. It also needs to be positioned so they can access it easily.

Chinchillas can also be offered very small amounts of fresh food each day. These can be useful for taming your pet to feed from your hand, and are most likely to be accepted when the chinchilla wakes up in the early evening, after its daytime sleep, when it is likely to be hungry. Avoid cabbage plants of any type - a small piece of fresh parsley is a good option, and you can grow this herb easily at home in a pot. This guarantees a fresh supply, even if you do not have access to a garden.

Never be tempted to give a chinchilla any human foods such as chocolate. There are safe chinchilla treats available from pet stores which should only be offered in small amounts, while a small cube of sweet apple given each day is another option. Chinchillas nibble their food, holding it in their front paws.

The chinchilla’s remarkable coat requires regular grooming, with special combs being available for this purpose. Start by combing the coat along your pet’s back, and then down the sides of the body. Chinchillas must also have the opportunity to dust-bathe regularly. You will need to purchase special dust powder for this purpose, along with a bath, which takes the form of tray.

Comb the chinchilla first, opening up the texture of the coat, and then allow the chinchilla to bathe, as the dust will then penetrate well better. They need to bathe daily, for up to 10 minutes, although a bath should be withheld from pregnant females just before they give birth. You can tell if the chinchilla needs a bath, as its coat tends to become flatter than usual and develops a slightly greasy feel.  

Varieties

The traditional form of the chinchilla has a coat which is greyish in terms of its overall colour, with the coat of some individuals being darker than in others. It is known simply as the standard. If you look closely at the individual hairs, these are banded along their length with alternating light and dark areas, with this patterning being described as agouti.  

There are now a number of other colours available, some of which are still quite rare and may only be available from specialist breeders.

The earlier colour varieties emerged in litters bred on the fur farms back in the 1950s. They tended to be named after the breeder, such as Wilson’s white. There are several white-coated chinchilla variants now in existence. Wilson’s has dark eyes and ears, unlike a true albino which has no dark melanin pigment, so its ears are pink and the eyes are reddish.

Mosaic chinchillas have very individual markings, with dark and white areas of fur apparent in their coat. Littermates will vary quite widely in appearance. Just as there is a variation in the depth of coloration in the case of the standard chinchilla, so there is too in some of the colour forms like the Willman’s beige. The lighter-coloured individuals have an almost creamy appearance, and are called pearls, whereas those with dark beige colouring are  described as pastels.

There are also darker chinchilla varieties today than the standard. The black velvet was the first member of this group, bred back in 1956. The charcoal is similar, but recognisable by the greyer tone to its fur, again with pale underparts. There is also a brown velvet, and an ordinary brown variety now in existence as well. New colours are also being developed, notably the so-called sapphire, which is a variable shade of gunmetal blue and again, has white underside to the body.

Breeding

Female chinchillas will be mature by 6 months old, although it is better to wait until they are 9-12 months old before allowing them to breed. They have a long gestation period, lasting around 111 days, and may produce up to four young in a litter. Young chinchillas can go to a new home at two months old. Males at this age have a longer gap between the genital opening and the anus, where the testes will start to become evident as a swollen area once they are about three months old.

Health problems

Provided that they are kept in clean surroundings and not fed unsuitable food, chinchillas rarely fall ill, and have a potential lifespan of 15 years or more. This is much longer than any other pet rodent. Diarrhoea can be a serious problem however, although in most cases, this is caused by dietary changes, rather than infectious illness. It is actually quite difficult to treat a chinchilla with antibiotics for an ailment of this type because these drugs are likely to have harmful effects on the large number of beneficial microbes resident within its digestive tract, which help to break down its food. 

Chinchillas can suffer minor injuries to various parts of their body, which may be caused by problems with their housing, or by fighting. Their ears can be easily damaged and may bleed. Look for any sharp projections in their quarters. If there is a discharge from one of the eyes, it may be a piece of hay has caught the chinchilla here. In cases where both eyes are affected, it is more likely to be a generalised infection.

Damage to the fur is usually conspicuous, and this too can be the result of bullying, with a dominant chinchilla chewing the fur of its companion, which is often described as “barbering”. The other possibility, which is very rare but more serious as it can be spread to people, is the fungal disease known as ringworm. Seek veterinary advice without delay should you suspect this ailment, which usually causes circular areas of hair loss.

If your chinchilla appears to be having difficulty in eating, or saliva is running on to the chin, causing the fur here to be permanently damp, this is usually reflective of a dental problem. It may be that the incisor teeth at the front of the mouth have become overgrown, or alternatively, a tooth may have been chipped.