With their beautiful soft fur and gentle ways, chinchillas are exceptionally appealing pets. But before you consider taking on these long-lived rodents, it’s vital you find out as much as possible about these active, agile and fragile animals so you can provide them with all the things they need to live their best chin lives. Here’s what’s covered in our chinchilla Q&A:
- What is a chinchilla, what does a chinchilla look like, and where do they come from?
- When did chinchillas first become pets?
- How long does a chinchilla live?
- How do chinchillas communicate and how do you know if your chinchillas like you?
- What do chinchillas eat?
- Where should pet chinchillas live?
- Are chinchillas social and do they need company?
- Are chinchillas awake during the day?
- Do chinchillas need much grooming?
- Are chinchillas good pets for children?
- What do chinchillas like to do and how high can they jump?
- How do you make friends with a chinchilla?
What is a chinchilla, what does a chinchilla look like, and where do they come from?
Chinchillas are soft-furred rodents with strong hind legs, large ears and a tail which makes up about one third of their body length. They originate from the rocky slopes of the Andes Mountains of South America and are perfectly adapted for life at high altitude. Their dense fur (each hair follicle has 60 to 90 individual hairs – compared to a human’s, which typically has one hair per follicle) efficiently protects them from the cold and their hairless, fleshy footpads helps them grip rocky surfaces.
In the wild, chinchillas are hunted by owls, hawks, snakes, foxes and mountain lions – so it’s no wonder that they have excellent hearing and are easily startled by sudden loud or unfamiliar sounds. They’re also primed to run and hide. As pets, they’ll often try to wedge themselves into a tight space for protection, mimicking their natural behaviour of seeking cover in rocky crevices. Their long hind limbs are designed to help them leap out of harm’s way.
When did chinchillas first become pets?
In the 1920s, an American mining engineer named Mathias F Chapman fell in love with chinchillas (then under the threat of extinction – they’re still an endangered species in the wild) and received special permission from the Chilean government to import a small group into the USA. He slowly acclimatised the animals to a lower altitude and thoughtfully brought along their natural food for the journey. It’s believed that nearly every pet chinchilla is a direct descendant of the 11 ‘founder’ animals Chapman imported.
How long does a chinchilla live?
With the right nutrition, suitable accommodation, company, care and kindness, chinchillas can live long lives of between 10 and 20 years, although the average is 12 to 15 years, so these small furries require a long-term commitment.
How do chinchillas communicate and how do you know if your chinchillas like you?
Chinchillas communicate with each other through a variety of soft, high-pitched grunting noises, chirps, squeals and barks, which is why it is essential that pet chinchillas have another chin to chat to.
As chins like to sleep undisturbed for long periods during the day, evening and night-time is when they’re likely to be more sociable. Apprehensive chinchillas prefer to interact with humans on their own terms and generally don’t like being picked up. A chilled chinchilla who has bonded with you will prefer you to sit on the floor and let them hop all over you, while they make little chattering sounds along with some excited tiny squeaks. Some may even enjoy a little snuggling. A really happy chinchilla will popcorn and bounce around excitedly all over the place.
What do chinchillas eat?
Chinchillas are herbivores and evolved to eat a high fibre, low energy diet. Wild chinchillas like to munch away on grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, roots, stems and seeds, holding the food in their forepaws. These shy, super furry animals also have a very sensitive digestive system and don’t tolerate fruit and veg well, so, as pets, it’s essential to feed them a diet that replicates what they would feed on naturally to help them stay happy and healthy. Always remember to follow the Excel Feeding Plan – 85-90% of your chinchillas’ diet should be good quality hay or fresh grass.
- Hay – Pet chinchillas need plenty of fresh, high-quality feeding hay – not bedding hay, which lacks nutritional value. Constant access to high quality hay will also help your chinchillas' dental health. Their teeth grow continuously throughout their life and need to be worn down and kept at the correct length and shape by chomping on plenty of fresh, tasty hay
- Nuggets – Each of your chinchillas will require an eggcup-full sized portion of tasty Excel Chinchilla Nuggets every day to ensure they are getting all the vitamins and nutrients they need to keep them in tip top health. Steer well clear of muesli-style foods. This is because chinchillas can be fussy eaters, picking out the unhealthy bits and leaving the rest. This selective feeding can lead to an imbalanced diet that’s lacking in calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D and low in fibre, which can have very serious consequences. The unhealthy ingredients in muesli-style foods are high in sugar and starch, which are difficult for chinchillas to digest and can lead to obesity and serious health problems
- Water – Chinchillas also need constant access to fresh, clean drinking water from a suitable water bottle with a metal spout
- Treats – Chinchilla-friendly treats are great for keeping these small, inquisitive pets busy, which really benefits their emotional health, such as Excel Country Garden Herbs. Chinchillas prefer dead and dry leaves to fresh leaves and this delicious blend of herbs and foliage is great to mix through feeding hay to help increase fibre intake and add variety and interest to your chins’ diet. Naturally air dried with no additives. Chomping on Excel Gnaw Sticks, made from 100% natural, wholesome ingredients – willow, apple and hazel – provides great environmental enrichment, keeping your chins occupied, which is brilliant for their emotional health
You can add some extra chewing fun by providing your chins with untreated softwood to gnaw on. Before you give your pets any softwood branches to chew, and give them a good wash and bake them on a low heat for an hour to make sure they’re chinchilla safe. Good woods to use are apple, elm, hawthorn, hazelnut, pear, poplar and quince. Small amounts of dried fruit and root vegetables can be given as treats. Carrots, kale, parsley, dandelion greens, lettuce, strawberries, pears, bananas and apples are a great source of nutrients, but all should be introduced gradually and given in very small amounts.
Chin food facts
- Chinchillas feed in the early morning and late evening and eat by sitting on their haunches, holding the food in their forepaws
- Like rabbits and guinea pigs, chinchillas perform a digestive process called caecotrophy to extract as much goodness as possible from their food. Simply put – they eat their droppings (caecotrophs), allowing many important nutrients to be reingested
- There are several foods that are poisonous to chinchillas, including asparagus, avocado, peas, cabbage, corn, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, rhubarb or rhubarb leaves
- It’s best not to make any sudden changes to your chinchillas’ diet as this may make them very ill. Always introduce new diets gradually. A sign of a healthy chinchilla is when he/she is eating every day and passing plenty of dry droppings.
If you are at all unsure about the best way of feeding your chinchillas or have any concerns about specific nutritional requirements at different times of their life, ask your local veterinary practice for advice. You can also call our expert team on 44 (0)0800 413 969 who’ll be happy to help. They’re available 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Alternatively, you can use our online form to get in touch.
Where should pet chinchillas live?
Although they can survive quite cold temperatures, draughts can be very dangerous for chinchillas, so they should be kept as indoor pets in a quiet, draught-free environment. Chinchillas can’t sweat and are prone to heatstroke, so their enclosures need to be shady with good air circulation, away from direct sunlight and the sight and smell of predators (such as cats or dogs). They also need a selection of snug sleeping boxes where they can safely hide away – either together or to enjoy some ‘me’ time, just chilling by themselves.
When awake, chinchillas rarely sit still and need plenty of space to exercise to keep healthy and fit. The minimum cage size for a pair is around 1m x 1.5m floor space, by 1.3m tall, with shelves of different heights providing climbing and jumping opportunities.
Are chinchillas social and do they need company?
A solo chinchilla is not likely to be a very chipper chinchilla. Chinchillas are highly social and in the wild they live in colonies of more than 100 individuals. Littermates will live happily together but, if they are not the same sex, make sure the male is neutered to prevent the patter of tiny chinchilla paws.
Rescue centres are a good place to find a new chin friend – such as Blue Cross, RSPCA, Wood Green and Greenwood Chinchillas – as the staff will be able to tell you a bit about different chinchilla’s personalities and check they are in good health. If your chin is a confident sort, they may prefer a quieter friend, and vice versa. They’ll also be able to advise you on how to introduce a new chin to your resident chinchilla, which has to done slowly and carefully in stages.
Blue Cross advises: “To introduce a new chinchilla to one you already have, put them in separate cages side by side, about 10cm apart. This way they can smell each other without physical contact. Put their beds at opposite ends of the cages so they feel they have somewhere to escape to. Give each chinchilla its own dust bath, but swap these over daily so that they get used to each other’s scent. Over a week or so, move the cages and beds closer until the chinchillas are sleeping next to each other. It’s important to introduce them slowly to avoid fights. When the two seem to be living happily side by side, put the existing chinchilla into the new chinchilla’s cage. They may take to each other straight away or there may be some initial squabbling. If this seems serious, separate them again for a few more days, but things should eventually settle down. It’s usually easier to introduce animals of the opposite sex (make sure the male is neutered first) or to introduce a young chinchilla to an adult.”
NEVER keep chinchillas with guinea pigs or rabbits as they all have different housing and nutrition requirements. Bullying between species can occur and rabbits can give chinchillas serious diseases.
Are chinchillas awake during the day?
Most active in the evenings and at night, crepuscular chinchillas sleep during the daytime, often while squeezed into very small spaces and usually upright in a huddled position. They will also sleep on their sides and can even sleep upside down!
Do chinchillas need much grooming?
Chinchillas self-groom regularly, which means very little supplemental grooming is ever necessary. Chins require a sand bath (use special chinchilla dust only) to keep their fur clean themselves. Chinchilla dust bathes enable your chinchillas to stay clean in a way similar to how they would in the wild. In their native cold, arid environment, the chinchilla would roll in fine volcanic ash to stay clean. Chinchilla dust, like volcanic ash, sticks to oils and dirt in the coat, and then falls off, cleaning the chinchilla’s fur as it does so. Make sure you provide a bath that’s deep enough for your chins to roll around in without injuring themselves and change the dust at least once a week. Besides dusting, chinchillas clean their face and whiskers with their forepaws. They also groom themselves each other. Chinchillas like to be ‘groomed’ by their humans too, via gentle chin scratches.
Are chinchillas good pets for children?
When handled properly from a young age, chinchillas can become close companions for humans, but due to their skittish nature and fragile personality – they can faint if scared – are better suited to adult carers.
What do chinchillas like to do and how high can they jump?
Chinchillas should be let out for a run at least once a day – but make sure they’re supervised because they like to explore everything with their teeth. Before allowing your chinchillas to run (and jump) around the house, you need to be confident that you can catch them again.
Astonishingly, chinchillas can jump over six feet in height from a standing start. They also have a special defence mechanism called ‘fur slip’ to help them escape from predators. If caught in the wild, the predator is left with a tuft of fur which the chinchilla makes a swift exit. Fur slip can occur in captivity if chinchillas are handled inappropriately.
Wild chinchillas spend most of their waking hours searching for food. You can recreate this for your pet chins to keep them occupied and to encourage their natural behaviour:
- Scatter their daily nuggets allowance around their cage instead of feeding from a bowl. This is also a really good way to feed your chinchillas if one is very protective of the food bowl and often stops others getting their fair share.
- Hide hay, nuggets and herbs in paper bags, cardboard tubes and boxes.
- Try out some special activity toys suitable for small animals, such as maze boards
- and treat ballsthat you can put some of their nuggets in for them to forage for
- Chinchillas love to chew and carry stuff, so why not treat them to aluxury chew pack made from natural, untreated wood, coir and seagrass fashioned into interesting shapes such as balls, wreaths, stars and sticks
- Chins also adore shredding things such as banana Leaves, cardboard, unbleached loofah and coconut shells
- Tasty Gnaw Sticks will keep them occupied as well as promoting good dental health
How do you make friends with a chinchilla?
Always be quiet and gentle around chinchillas – with a little time and training, chinchillas can become tame. When approaching them, crouch down and talk softly and let your pets come to you. Although all chins are individuals, most don’t really like to be picked up, but there are certain times when you need to, such as for grooming and health checks. To pick up your chinchilla, support the whole body on your hand and gently restrain him or her by holding the base of the tail. Never pick a chinchilla up by the tail – this can hurt them and could cause a serious injury.
Here are our top tips for building your bond with your chinchillas:
When your chinchillas come forward in their enclosure, stroke them gently under the chin. Don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat so they don’t associate you with being caught. Once your chinchillas are confidently taking treats and allowing you to stroke them, you can let them out. Start by offering a treat, so your pets learn to come to your hand.
- Am I in danger? Chinchillas think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might), but crouch down to meet them at their level
- What’s happening? Keep your approach slow and steady – small pets can be easily startled and will simply run for cover. Speak to them in a soft, happy voice as you gradually get closer
- That looks like it could be tasty! Offer some yummy nuggets or tasty herbs so they learn to associate your approach with something good happening. If your chins won’t come close enough to take food from your hand, lightly toss the food to them whenever they come in your direction. Wait until they come a little closer each time before offering food again, while continuing to talk to them in a soothing voice.
- I think I’ll risk it... If your pet does take the food, sit beside them and continue chatting to them. Then, offer them another treat. If your pet looks comfortable and doesn’t back off, you could try giving them a gentle stroke. Do this every day and your pet will begin to approach you, creating some magical animal moments.
- On my own terms Timid chins may take a while to gain confidence, but every pet is an individual and it’s essential that they choose to interact with you on their own terms – and it’s that which makes it so rewarding. When your small pet decides that he or she trusts you enough to want to engage in some hand-feeding time with you it’s a great result!
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