How to Care for Chinchillas

Kelly Roper
Chinchilla eating a pellet

Chinchillas are unusual and entertaining pet rodents. These little creatures have a life span of 12 to 20 years, according to the Michigan State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital (MSUVTH), but that's only if they receive outstanding care. This includes knowing what to feed them, how to house them, and how to spot when they need veterinary care.

Feeding Your Chinchilla

Chinchillas have sensitive digestive systems, so it's important to provide them with an appropriate diet to keep them from becoming sick. It's also important to understand that these creatures are what is known as "hind-gut fermenters." What this means is that they don't fully digest their food the first time it goes through their system, so they will eat some of their feces in order to render all the nutrition from it.

What to Feed

According to Chicago Exotic Animal Hospital (CEAH), chinchillas need a high-fiber diet that mainly consists of high-quality grass hay, such as Timothy, supplemented by a small amount of commercial alfalfa pellets that offer about 18 percent protein. Your pet will also benefit from a small amount of leafy greens.

How Much to Feed

  • Hay: Keep clean, fresh hay available at all times.
  • Pellets: Limit your pet's pellet intake to two tablespoons per day.
  • Leafy greens: Offer up to one cup of leafy greens daily, but make sure you avoid feeding cruciferous greens because the can cause gassy digestive upset. According to Oxbow Animal Health, romaine, bib, and red leaf lettuces are the safest choices for chinchillas.
  • Clean water: Water should be available at all times. Equipping your pet's cage with a water bottle will keep the water cleaner than if you simply use an open crock.

When to Feed

Chinchillas are nocturnal, so they will do the majority of their eating at night. Plan to replenish your pet's food and water around dusk so it is available when he wakes up hungry, and remove any leftover greens first thing in the morning.

Avoid Feeding Seed and Grain Mixes

Seed and grain mixes can be fattening, and your pet will tend to fill up on them instead of the high fiber diet he's supposed to have. If you absolutely can't resist giving him this type of food, limit it to one teaspoon once or twice a week. Giving him any more than this risks upsetting the delicate balance in his digestive system.

Housing Your Pet

Make your chinchilla's environment safe and comfortable with the following suggestions.

The Ideal Cage

MSUVTH recommends a minimum of two square feet of floor space per chinchilla, and they feel that multi-level cages are best because they offer these active creatures plenty of opportunities to run, jump and exercise. Cages with solid bottoms are best because wire flooring can lead to injuries and cause sores on the feet. Stick with solid ramps instead of using ladders to give your pet access between levels because ladders can also lead to injuries.

Place the cage in a draft free area that receives bright, indirect light.

Temperature and Humidity

Chinchillas are also subject to heatstroke, so the temperature in your pet's environment should never exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. High humidity can also be an issue, so CEAH recommends keeping the humidity level around 40 percent.

Safe Bedding

Straw, aspen shavings, or Carefresh make suitable bedding, but you should avoid using pine or cedar shavings because the fumes they emit can be toxic to chinchillas.

Cleaning the Cage

Remove dropping whenever you notice a buildup. Once a week, plan to clean the cage thoroughly with a 50:50 solution of vinegar and water, and change all the bedding. You'll need to clean the cage at least twice a week if you have two chinchillas housed together.

Common Accessories

Your chinchilla will appreciate having the following accessories.

  • A hiding box that will give him privacy while he sleeps
  • A dust bath house
  • A heavy food crock or a crock that locks in place
  • A water bottle with a sipping tube
  • A hammock
  • Plenty of appropriate wood chewing toys made from safe woods like aspen, manzanita, willow and bamboo

Exercise Needs

Chinchillas have a lot of energy to burn, and Small Angels Rescue recommends giving them a couple hours of out-of-cage playtime in a safe area. As for in-cage exercise, the rescue recommends providing your pet with an exercise wheel, such as the Chin Spin, which is designed specifically for a chinchilla's body type.

Grooming Needs

Chinchillas don't require much grooming, but dust baths are essential.

Dust Baths

Chinchillas are very furry, but their skin is also oily, which can lead to matting. To keep your pet's fur in good condition, let him take a dust bath about three times a week. It's best to let him do this in an area other than his cage so the dust doesn't wind up all over his cage.

  1. Fill his bath house with about one inch of bath dust, and set it in a large storage tub.
  2. Put your chinchilla in the tub, and watch to make sure that he goes inside the bath house.
  3. Allow him to rustle around in the dust for about 5 minutes, and then remove the bath house.
  4. Give him a few minutes to groom the excess dust out of his coat before you put him back in his cage.

Socializing Your Chinchilla

Socializing your pet provides him with much-needed mental and physical stimulation.

Holding a chinchilla the correct way; © Anna Yakimova | Dreamstime.com

Spend Time Together

Chinchillas need regular interaction with their human companions to keep them tame. Plan to spend at least 30 minutes a day holding and interacting with your pet. This will generally need to happen in the evening since, as already mentioned, these creatures are nocturnal.

Your pet will also become more accustomed to people if you keep his cage where he's around people in the early evening.

The Correct Way to Hold a Chinchilla

Chinchillas are wiggly, so it's important to hold them correctly to prevent injury. Always pick your pet up with one hand under his chest, and one hand under his rump. Hold him close to your body so he feels secure and doesn't struggle.

Beware Other Pets

Chinchillas are social and love the company of other chinchillas, but it's not safe to let them interact with other pets. Dogs and cats are definitely not safe companions for chinchillas, so keep them away from your pet, especially if you play with him outside of his cage.

Health Care Needs

Schedule a checkup for your chinchilla when you first get him, and then follow up with yearly exams unless your pet shows signs of illness. In that case, take him to the vet as soon as possible.

According MSUVTH, chinchillas are prone to certain health issues, including:

  • Gastrointestinal upset: Watch for lack of appetite, lethargy, constipation or diarrhea.
  • Respiratory illnesses: Watch for labored breathing, sneezing, runny nose, and coughing.
  • Heatstroke: Watch for lethargy, rapid breathing, and any other unusual behaviors.
  • Ringworm: Watch for hair loss around the ears, feet and nose. You may also notice scaly patches in your pet's fur. Have your vet treat your pet immediately because ringworm can be transferred to people.
  • Overgrown teeth: Chinchillas' teeth grow continuously, and this can interfere with eating. Watch for drooling and an inability to chew. Giving your pet plenty of wood to chew, as well as feeding him a proper diet of Timothy hay and pellets, should help keep that growth in check, but you may need to have your vet trim his teeth occasionally.
  • Urinary tract blockages: This is more prevalent in males. Watch for blood-tinged urine and any signs your pet is straining to urinate.

Do Your Research First

Chinchillas are fascinating creatures, but they aren't the perfect pet for everyone. If you can be satisfied with a pet you can typically only play with in the evening, and the sounds of his nocturnal gymnastics won't keep you awake all night, spend some time handling one of these adorable little rodents to see if it's truly a pet you can enjoy.

How to Care for Chinchillas