The ultimate guide to happy, chilled chinchillas
What do your chinchilla chums need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our chinchilla top tips!
Famed for their soft, dense fur and gentle nature, chinchillas make fascinating pets, providing you understand what's involved in caring for these timid, highly active animals.
Chinchillas originate from the rocky slopes of the Andes Mountains of South America and are perfectly adapted for life at high altitude.
- Their luscious coats are designed to help them survive in the chilly temperatures of their native environment. Each hair follicle has 60 to 90 individual hairs – compared to a human’s, which typically has just one hair per follicle.
- They have large ears and sensitive hearing, which is attuned to listening out for predators. Chins are easily startled by sudden loud or unfamiliar sounds, which is why they prefer to live in calm and quiet households.
- They have long, strong hind legs which are adapted for leaping away from trouble. Amazingly, they can jump over six feet in height from a standing start!
- Their hairless, fleshy footpads enable them to be extremely agile and maintain their grip on rocky surfaces.
Veterinary charity PDSA says: “Chinchillas are highly active, especially in the early morning, evening and during the night. They can live for up to 15 years and have very specific needs. They're wonderful to watch as they explore their enclosures and make use of any toys, levels, hammocks and next boxes.”
Keep reading to find out:
- Health – how do you know if your chinchilla is in good health?
- Behaviour – what activities does your chinchilla need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
- Companionship – does your chinchilla need a friend?
- Diet – what should you feed your chinchilla?
- Environment – what housing does your chinchilla need?
- Chinchillas are clean, quiet and attractive rodents that don't smell.
- They're quite shy and are more appropriate as pets for adults and older children.
- Chinchillas are nocturnal, meaning they're most active in the evening and at night.
- Their long hind limbs are adapted for leaping – pet chinchillas have been reported to jump onto the top of refrigerators!
- Highly social, in the wild, they live in colonies of over 100 chinchillas.
- Chinchillas are prey animals and their natural response to a perceived threat is to freeze or cower and dart for cover. Pet chinchillas will often try to wedge themselves into a tight space for protection, mimicking their natural behaviour to seek cover in rock crevices. As a result, chinchillas will sleep whilst squeezed into very small spaces. They usually sleep upright in a huddled position but will also sleep on their sides – and can even sleep upside down!
- Their teeth grow constantly, so they need to eat lots of hay, which is abrasive, to help wear their teeth down.
- Chinchillas communicate through a variety of soft high-pitched grunting noises, chirps, squeals and barks which act as social messages to other chinchillas.
As with all pet animals, every chinchilla owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:
- Health– Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
- Behaviour – the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
- Companionship– to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like chinchillas, rabbits, guinea pigs and gerbils, or to be housed alone for solitary species such as Syrian hamsters.
- Diet – a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
- Environment – a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.
PDSA advises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”
1. Health – how do you know if your chinchilla is in good health?
A healthy, happy chinchilla will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around them.
PDSA advises: “Once you get to know your chinchillas, you’ll soon learn what’s normal for them. This will help you spot any signs of when they might be feeling under the weather.”
Check your chinchillas every day for any signs that they’re unwell. As prey animals, chins will hide signs of ill-health or pain, so annual vet visits are essential. Chinchillas are exotic pets that need specialist care, so search out a vet with experience in chinchillas.
Things to look out for include:
- Behaviour: The best time to observe your chinchillas is in the evening or at night. Keep an eye out for any signs of stress. This can include hiding, chewing their own or their housemate’s fur, pacing up and down or making lots of noise.
- Body:When stroking your chinchillas, check for any swellings or lumps and if your chinchillas seem to be in pain when you touch them.
- Eyes:Check regularly for runny eyes.
- Feet: Watch out for any injuries to your chinchillas’ feet.
- Mobility:It’s fun to watch your chinchillas play! When you do, keep an eye out for any signs of limping or if they seem to have less energy than usual.
- Nose:Make sure there’s no discharge coming from your chinchillas’ noses.
- Skin and coat:Check regularly for any open wounds or fur loss.
- Teeth:Keep an eye on your chinchillas’ teeth for any signs they are overgrown or misaligned.
If your chinchilla’s behaviour or their eating and drinking patterns change, take your chinchilla to the vet as soon as possible.
2. Behaviour – what activities does your chinchilla need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
Chinchillas love to play together – so always keep more than one chinchilla and provide them with lots of suitable toys.
You’ll need to make their home interesting and exciting because chins love to explore and, if they don’t have enough to do, they’re likely to get bored, which is no good for their health and wellbeing.
Two of a chinchilla’s favourite things to do are chewing and jumping, so it’s important that their accommodation provides plenty of opportunities to enable them to exhibit these natural behaviours.
- Wooden platforms enable chinchillas to show off their jumping skills by hopping from level to level. Place a variety at different levels so that if your chins accidentally fall off a platform, they won’t drop more than 60cm.
- Boxes, tunnels and tubes will give your chinchillas a safe place to hide – ensure there are no sharp edges to avoid injuries.
- A large exercise wheel with a good solid base (not one with rungs) can help your energetic chins get extra exercise.
- A dust bath – allow your chinchillas access to a wide and shallow ceramic or metal container filled with special chinchilla dust several times a week to keep their fur and skin healthy. Place the tray in their enclosure for 24 hours at a time – don’t leave it in there all the time as they may start using it as a toilet!
- Apple, pear or willow tree twigs and branches are fun to chew on and wear down their continuously growing teeth.
- Paper bags, toilet or kitchen rolls stuffed with yummy hay will go down a treat. Also stock up on Coconut Leaf Twistsand Banana Leaf Balls wrapped in seagrass string for a whole mess of shredding fun.
You can also stimulate their natural foraging behaviour by hiding tasty chinchilla nuggets around their enclosure for them to search out.
Regular, daily playtime out of their enclosure is essential – but make sure it’s safe to let your pets out as they’ll chew anything in sight. A small pet playpen is useful as you can keep an eye on them whilst they play.
3. Companionship – does your chinchilla need a friend?
A solo chinchilla is not likely to be a very happy chinchilla. Chinchillas are highly social and need the company of their own kind. 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 – such as Blue Cross, RSPCA and Wood Green – are a good place to find a new chin friend as the staff will be able to tell you a bit about their different personalities. If your chin is a more 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.
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.
4. Diet – what should you feed your chinchillas?
Chinchillas are herbivores and have evolved to eat a high fibre, low energy diet. The best chinchilla diet should replicate what they’d eat in their natural environment. Wild chinchillas like to munch away on grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, roots and stems. Pet chinchillas need to eat food that’s high in fibre and is similar to what they would eat naturally.
Chinchillas feed in the early morning and late evening and eat by sitting on their haunches, holding the food in their forepaws. They have a very sensitive digestion, and their diet should comprise:
- 85% -90%high quality feeding hay – as a guide, provide each chin with at least their own body size in fresh feeding hay every day.
- Nutrition-packed nuggets– around one egg cup a day per chinchilla will help ensure your chins get all the vital vitamins and minerals they need.
- A small portion of chinchilla-safe leafy greens, herbs and dried forage. Mimicking what they’d eat in the wild, pet chinchillas prefer dead and dry leaves to fresh, so try mixing some dried leaf-based forage, or dried wildflower forage in with some tasty, nutritious feeding hay with hedgerow herbs.
- Fresh water – chinchillas need constant access to fresh, clean drinking water from a suitable water bottle with a metal spout.
You can also include some yummy, healthy nature snacks such as a Forage & Feast Hay Bar or Meadow Munchies to add enrichment to your chinchillas’ diet. These are great for hand feeding, helping you to build your bond with your chinchilla chums.
As autumn steals its way in with misty mornings, tumbling leaves and a distinct nip in the air, your small furries will be hoping for some extra tasty hay to snuggle into and munch on. BRING ON THE HAY! >>
Chinchillas can eat very small amounts of fresh food, but you need to be extremely careful as fresh fruit and vegetables can cause serious dietary upsets. PDSA advises that you could occasionally offer a small cube of carrot, celery, potato, pumpkin, squash or sweet potato.
Foods to avoid include apples asparagus, broccoli, blueberries, cabbage, sweetcorn, lettuce, oranges, rhubarb, spinach, nuts, sunflower seeds, avocado and rhubarb. If you’re ever unsure about a particular food item, always check with your vet.
5. Environment – what housing do your chinchillas need?
When they’re not snoozing in a hairy huddle, chinchillas are naturally very active and need plenty of space to explore, run and jump around in indoor accommodation that’s placed in a calm, quiet part of your home. House them well away from noises and vibrations from TVs and music systems, which can make these small pets stressed.
- Chinchillas need lots of space to exercise to keep healthy and fit. The minimum cage sizefor a pair is around 1m x 1.5m floor space, by 1.3m tall, with shelves of different heights providing climbing and jumping opportunities.
- Draughts can be very dangerous for sensitive chinchillas, so they should always be kept as indoor pets in a 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 hunch up and hide away – either together or to enjoy some ‘me’ time, just chilling by themselves.
PDSA advises: “We recommend giving your chinchillas a large indoor enclosure or, if possible, giving them their own room in your house. It’s also good to give them a safe and secure exercise area outside of their enclosure. This will provide them the space they need to exercise, explore and act naturally.”
At Burgess, all our high quality chinchilla food is nutritionally balanced and made at our factory in the heart of Yorkshire, using only ingredients that meet our stringent specifications. With a long tradition of supporting British famers, we actively source all our ingredients as close to our mill as possible.
Recently posting a FIVE STAR review, customer Elizabeth told us: “Pellets are crunchy, and my chinchilla likes the ones with mint. She eats every scrap.”
Our exceptionally tasty feeding hay is fresh and fragrant, nutritionally rich, barn dried and dust extracted to protect respiratory health. The Excel Meadow Hay Box is our biggest hay pack yet! Perfect for chinchillas, it comes in a handy, resealable and fully recyclable box!
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your chinchillas from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It's all here >>
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