Chinchillas are unusual and entertaining pet rodents. They need a great deal of interaction and have some specific care requirements. Knowing how to care for a chinchilla includes understanding what to feed them, how to house them, and how to spot when they need veterinary care.
Chinchilla Care Overview
When considering a chinchilla as a pet, it's important to know what to expect from their size, lifespan, and basic requirements. Review this condensed chinchilla care guide to get an idea of what to expect from this affectionate small pet, then discover an in-depth guide to each area below.
- Size: 9 to 14 inches long (not including the length of their tail) and 1.1 to 1.8 pounds in weight.
- Lifespan: 9 to 15 years, on average.
- Temperament: These small pets are generally curious, playful, and intelligent. Your chinchilla can be an affectionate and gentle companion who may enjoy being carried around or cuddled with proper socialization. Some owners train their chinchillas to perform tricks and even to use a litterbox.
- Diet: Timothy hay, hay-based chinchilla pellets, and fresh leafy greens.
- Housing: Require a large, multi-level wire-mesh cage; minimum size of 4- by 4- by 3- feet.
- Temperature: Chinchillas can overheat when ambient temperatures are above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The ideal temperature range for this pet is between 60 and 70 degrees. Use air conditioning or cooling stones (but not fans) to keep them healthy and comfortable.
- Activity level: Crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk); moderately active and need supervised play time out of the cage every day.
- Grooming: Minimal grooming needs; must take a supervised dust bath two to three times each week.
What to Feed Your Chinchilla
Chinchillas have sensitive digestive systems, so it's important to provide them with an appropriate diet to keep them healthy. They're also herbivores and need a high-fiber diet consisting primarily of high-quality grass hay, such as Timothy, orchard grass, meadow hay, or oat hay, though it's important to confirm the hay is low in calcium.
Supplement this with a small amount of commercial alfalfa pellets that contain at least 10 percent protein and 18 percent crude fiber. Your pet will also benefit from a small amount of leafy greens. With a balanced diet, your chinchilla shouldn't need any supplements or additives.
How Much to Feed Your Chinchilla
- Hay: Keep clean, fresh hay available at all times. This should make up approximately 75 to 80 percent of their diet.
- Pellets: Limit your pet's pellet intake to one to two tablespoons per day.
- Leafy greens: Offer up to 1/2 cup of leafy greens for every 2 pounds of body weight daily, but make sure you avoid feeding cruciferous greens and high calcium-containing greens. Romaine, bib, and red leaf lettuces are the safest choices for chinchillas.
- Clean water: Fresh 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
Chinchillas are crepuscular, so they will do the majority of their eating during the twilight hours around dawn and dusk. Plan to replenish your pet's food and water around dusk, so it is available when they wake up hungry, and remove any leftover greens first thing in the morning.
Chinchillas Eat Their Own Feces
Many potential chinchilla owners are alarmed to discover these pets eat their own feces. This is a natural and healthy habit for this species. Chinchillas are known as "hind-gut fermenters," which means 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.
The stools they eat are called caecotrophs, and they don't look like typical chinchilla droppings; instead, they're very soft, sticky, and smelly. You may never see your chinchilla's caecotroph because they're usually produced and eaten at night.
Housing Your Pet Chinchilla
Make your chinchilla's environment safe and comfortable with the following suggestions:
- Experts recommend a cage size of at least 4 feet wide by 4 feet tall and 3 feet deep.
- Your cage should have a minimum of 2 square feet of floor space per chinchilla.
- 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 or cause sores on the feet.
- Stick with solid ramps instead of using ladders to give your pet access between levels. 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 75 degrees Fahrenheit. A temperature between 60 and 70 degrees is ideal. Always keep a thermometer to measure the ambient temperature in the enclosure.
High humidity can also be an issue, because chinchillas come from an environment that is arid and cool, so aim to keep the humidity level around 40 percent and no more than 60 percent. Excessively high humidity levels can make it harder for your pet to stay cool, so monitor their behavior and condition closely.
If you chinchilla's ears turn pink or red, they appear to be unusually fatigued or lethargic, they are panting or drooling excessively, or their body feels warm to the touch, your pet may be suffering from heat stroke. If you observe these symptoms, you need to act quickly, yet delicately. Even though this situation is urgent, you need to carefully and gradually reduce your chinchilla's body temperature by moving them to a cooler area.
Take care in how you cool your chinchilla down. Some sources recommend standing in front of an open refrigerator (without cuddling your chinchilla, to improve airflow), or administering a cool (not cold) water bath, but seek professional assistance as soon as possible. Monitor them closely and call your veterinarian for advice on how to safely manage this potentially life-threatening condition.
Safe Bedding for Chinchillas
Recycled paper, aspen shavings, or bedding products like 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 Chinchilla Cage
Remove droppings 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 bedding. You'll need to clean the cage at least twice a week if you have two chinchillas housed together.
Chinchilla Grooming Needs
Chinchillas don't require much grooming, but dust baths are essential. A dust bath is exactly what it sounds like: chinchillas give themselves a bath in volcanic ash dust. This is your chinchilla's natural way of cleaning their fur and skin. In fact, their fur is not meant to get wet, so a traditional bath can be harmful to your friend. Be sure to purchase special chinchilla dust as well as a bath house for your pet, and let them take a dust bath about three times a week.
Chinchillas have a lot of energy to burn, so giving them a couple hours of out-of-cage playtime each day is necessary. Arrange this in a safe area and always supervise them. As for in-cage exercise, you can provide your pet with an exercise wheel, such as the Chin Spin, which is designed specifically for a chinchilla's body type.
Your chinchilla will also need chew toys; both for enrichment and their oral health. Their teeth grow continuously, so your chinchilla will need to keep their teeth down through chewing. Provide them with plenty of appropriate wood chewing toys made from safe woods, such as aspen, manzanita, willow, and bamboo.
Socializing Your Chinchilla
Socializing your pet provides them with much-needed mental and physical stimulation. Chinchillas also need regular interaction with their human companions to keep them tame. Plan to spend at least 30 to 60 minutes a day holding and interacting with your pet.
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 their chest and one hand under their rump. Hold them close to your body so they feel secure and don't struggle.
Keeping Chinchillas in Pairs
Because chinchillas are very social creatures, it can be beneficial to have more than one so they always have a companion. You can choose to purchase two chinchillas at the same time, or introduce one later. They generally do well in pairs of the same sex or opposite sex. Just know, if you have a male and female and one is not altered, there's the potential for mating, and you may end up with chinchilla kits.
Beware of 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 them outside of their cage.
Chinchilla Health Care Needs
Schedule a checkup for your chinchilla when you first get them, then follow up with yearly wellness exams, unless your pet shows signs of illness. In that case, take them to the vet as soon as possible.
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: Chinchilla teeth grow continuously, and this can interfere with eating. Watch for drooling and an inability to chew or eat. Giving your pet plenty of wood chewing toys and feeding them a proper diet of Timothy hay and pellets should help keep that growth in check, but you may need to have your vet trim their 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.
How to Take Care of a Chinchilla
Chinchillas are fascinating creatures, but they aren't the perfect pet for everyone. Before acquiring one, make sure you can be satisfied with a pet you can typically only play with in the evening, and the sounds of their nocturnal gymnastics won't keep you awake at night. Spend some time handling one of these adorable little rodents to see if they're a pet you can enjoy for many years to come.