Are you thinking about getting a chinchilla as a pet? These adorable little rodents have heart-melting round eyes and big rounded ears. Their tiny noses are framed with bushy whiskers, and their fur is unbelievably plush and soft. Their energetic and curious behavior, like running, jumping and dancing, will keep you entertained in the evenings. However, the decision to get a chinchilla requires a lot of careful thought. Chinchillas have very specific care requirements that must be met if they’re going to live long and happy lives.
Types of Chinchillas
The type of chinchilla that people commonly keep as a pet is the long-tailed chinchilla. There is also a short-tailed chinchilla breed, but it’s an endangered species that’s not typically kept as a pet.
Among the long-tailed chinchilla breed, you’ll find several variations. The differences between them mostly have to do with their coloration.
• Standard / Wild Type: These have gray fur that is often lighter on their undersides.
• White / Pale: This type of white chinchilla is not albino. It has dark ears and black eyes.
• Mosaic / Pied: This type of chinchilla is white with smaller patches of dark fur in random patterns.
• Beige: This coloration is also called Champagne. Beige chinchillas have beige top coats and white undersides.
• Blacks and Browns: These chinchillas are sleek and black or brown with white underbellies.
• Violet: A violet chinchilla is gray with a touch of violet. Its fur is darker on the face, feet and tail, giving it a coloration pattern like a Siamese cat.
Where to Buy a Chinchilla
If you’re looking to get a pet chinchilla, you have a few options for where to buy one, including at pet stores, from breeders and through rescues.
Buying from a pet store can be the most convenient option, depending on where you live. One of the main problems with getting a pet store chinchilla is that they might not get the amount of daily handling that they need to stay friendly to people. Spend some time observing the chinchillas in the store before you decide to buy one.
Buying from a breeder is an excellent choice. The odds are high that the chinchilla has been raised by someone who is an expert in chinchilla care and knows how important early handling is for a baby chinchilla.
Rescuing a chinchilla from an owner who can no longer care for it or from a Humane Society or another rescue is very kind, but you should expect that the chinchilla might have some behavioral problems based on potential past mistreatment. However, in many cases, the chinchilla was well-loved and cared for, but the owner couldn’t keep it for the 15 to 20 years that a chinchilla can live. Getting a chinchilla from a rescue is a cost-effective way to get an adorable new pet while doing a good deed.
Chinchilla Life Span: How Long Do Chinchillas Live?
Chinchillas live from 15 to 20 years with good care. While chinchillas become sexually mature by about three months old, the females aren’t ready to bear young until they’re about eight months of age. Their rate of reproduction is relatively slow–it takes about 111 days from conception to birth. That’s why a female chinchilla typically has no more than two litters per year.
The long gestation is required because baby chinchillas, called kits, aren’t born hairless and helpless like many other rodents. A chinchilla kit has open eyes, a full coat of fur, teeth and the ability to run and jump.
Each chinchilla litter only has one or two babies. Kits nurse for about eight to 10 weeks before they are weaned and can eat solid food exclusively. Sixteen weeks is considered the minimum age to adopt a young chinchilla; it is old enough to live independently and is less vulnerable to sickness than a younger chinchilla.
Caring for a New Chinchilla
Chinchillas are sensitive to changes in their environment, and no matter how tame they’ve become from early and frequent handling by a breeder, they’ll be scared and stressed when they first arrive in a new home. There are steps that you can take to make it as easy on your new pet as possible.
Check out this video on What Owning a Chinchilla is Actually Like:
Prepare the Cage
Make sure to set up their cage before you bring them home so that they can start settling into their new digs right away. Place the cage in a location that is quiet during the day, cool and not open to drafts. A corner of a family room can be a good location if everyone spends time there in the evening when chinchillas are active. Chins feel more secure if their cage is placed at human chest level. That way, the chinchilla can feel like it’s viewing its surroundings from a safe and cozy perch.
Cover the chinchilla’s cage when you first bring it home. It will appreciate the security of the darkness as it adjusts. Remember not to cover the cage with a heavy cloth, like a quilt, because it shouldn’t get too warm inside.
Provide Familiar Food
Whenever possible, find out what food the chinchilla was getting, and try to keep feeding it that same food when it gets home. Chinchillas are very vulnerable to digestive problems, and experiencing a sudden change in diet can be hard on their bodies. If you want or need to change your pet’s diet, change it very slowly and over several weeks, mixing the new food in with the old.
Remember that your baby chinchilla will be very frightened at first. It can take a few weeks before your new furry friend is completely comfortable and able to enjoy some playtime outside of its cage. For now, let it get used to its new living space, and don’t try to handle the chinchilla for the first week. As you feed the chinchilla and give it food and water, talk to it in a soft voice so that it gets used to you. It’s even a good idea to avoid making eye contact with the chinchilla because they can interpret that as a threat.
After the chinchilla seems a little more relaxed, you can try giving it treats through the wires of the cage. It might take some time for the little cutie to muster up the courage to take it from your hand, but with patience, it should happen eventually. Remember only to give your chinchilla one treat a day.
Introduce Your Hand
After the chinchilla has started taking treats, you can introduce it to your hand by placing your hand inside the cage and resting it there. Let the chinchilla approach your hand and check it out. Then, you can place a treat in the center of your palm and see if the chinchilla gets on your hand to take it.
Start briefly petting the chinchilla by scratching behind its ear with one finger and see how it responds. If it runs away, don’t chase after it with your hand. Repeat this approach, and soon, your new pet will let you pet it and give it ear rubs. It will eat from your hand and start running up your hand and arm. Keep in mind that this process can take several weeks, depending on the personality and past handling of your chinchilla.
The best way to pick up a chinchilla is to let it crawl onto you. Never pick it up by the tail or scruff.
Chinchilla Behavior and Temperament
Every chinchilla is different when it comes to temperament, but they share some traits in common. They need lots of attention, especially if you only have one. They love to jump, play and gnaw on things. They are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. In general, chinchillas are nervous as opposed to laid back. Since they are prey animals in their natural environment, they’re always on high alert and are easily started by loud noises. They like to follow a routine and don’t like change.
It takes some time for a chinchilla to get adjusted to life with its human, but once it does, they bond very tightly to that person and may even groom them. They can recognize if a stranger has entered the room and will usually hide from a new person. While not every chinchilla loves being held, they all like it when you pet them.
Chinchillas rarely bite, and when they do, it is often because they mistake a finger for a treat.
Diet: What Do Chinchillas Eat?
Your pet should have a constant supply of commercially formulated chinchilla pellets. Chinchillas eat about two tablespoons of food a day, but they like to graze and should regulate their own consumption.
You also need to add hay to your chinchilla’s diet. They require the fiber it contains to maintain their digestive health. Ideally, keep hay in the chinchilla’s habitat in a hay rack, where it can stay clean and dry away from the floor. Check the habitat daily to remove any soiled hay.
A small amount of alfalfa is useful as a calcium supplement. Limit sugary treats, like raisins and grapes, to only one per week.
Provide fresh, filtered water for your chinchilla. If you don’t have a filter that removes chlorine, you can leave water out for 24 hours so that the chlorine can off-gas.
In the chinchilla’s native environment, they roll in the volcanic dust of the Andes Mountains as part of their grooming routines. Chinchillas should never get wet. Their fur is so thick and takes very long to try, making a wet chinchilla very susceptible to pneumonia. Let your chinchilla have access to a dust bath at least every other day, using commercially formulated chinchilla dust. Chinchilla dust is different from sand in that it is extremely finely ground to make its way through the chinchilla’s thick fur and down to the skin.
You can find dust bath containers in pet stores, but any sturdy container of the right size will do. You only need a few tablespoons of dust placed inside a container that’s large enough for the chinchilla to roll around in. They usually like to bathe for about five to 10 minutes. As long as the chinchilla doesn’t use the dust bath as a potty, you can reuse the same dust several times before replacing it. Remember to remove the dust bath from the chinchilla habitat after your pet is done using it for the day. Otherwise, they’ll chew it up.
Chinchillas prefer cages that are tall because they like to climb and jump. Since your chinchilla will spend most of its time in its cage, get the biggest one that you have space for and can afford. The smallest size you should consider is a cage that is 2 feet by 2 feet. Don’t get any cages that contain plastic or even coated stainless steel because your chin will chew and damage it.
Give the cage a daily refresh of food and water and remove any soiled bedding or hay. You should do a thorough clean once a week by changing out old bedding for fresh and wiping down surfaces with a water and vinegar solution. The cage should get a deep clean once a month. Wash everything in the cage and the cage itself. Here are some of the basics you’ll need for your chinchilla habitat:
• Nest box: Your chinchilla will appreciate a nest box that’s placed on a high platform in the cage.
• Bedding: Wood shavings are the most common choice for chinchilla bedding. Avoid cedar or pine bedding because those types are potentially toxic to chinchillas.
• Hiding spots: You can make the cage feel more secure for your pets by adding in additional places to hide.
• Things to climb: Chinchillas like to climb; try to add some chinchilla-safe branches to their habitat.
• Food bowl and Water Bottle: Add these to the cage for the chinchilla to eat and drink as they please.
• Hayrack: This keeps the hay that chinchillas need to consume clean and dry by holding it above the cage floor.
• Exercise wheel: Chinchillas can run off excess energy at night when they have a chinchilla exercise wheel in their cage.
• Chew toys: Since their teeth are constantly growing, your chinchillas need toys that they can chew on safely, such as wooden blocks that you can buy at pet stores.
Common Health Problems
A healthy chinchilla is bright and alert. Their fur is soft and plush and stands up instead of laying flat. Their eyes should be bright and clear, with no discharge or tears, and the ears should be upright and clean. The nose of a healthy chinchilla is clear, and there shouldn’t be any sneezing or sniffing. A chin’s droppings should be firm and dry.
Dental issues are a primary health concern in chinchillas. They need to chew to wear down their teeth continually, or serious problems could develop that make it hard for your pet to eat.
Here are a few common health problems that chinchilla owners should know about:
• Bites and cuts: If you have male chinchillas living together, bites happen. If a bite breaks the skin, you should take your chinchilla to a vet for treatment.
• Broken bones: Chinchilla bones are very fragile. You need to handle your pet gently, like a bird, and make sure there aren’t any places in their cage or play areas where their feet can get caught.
• Overgrown teeth: Overgrown teeth can cause your chinchilla to develop “the slobbers” because of the excessive drooling that occurs. The teeth will probably need to get trimmed by a vet so that your pet can chew properly again.
• Diarrhea: Make any dietary changes slowly to prevent diarrhea in chinchillas.
• Constipation: Too much protein can cause constipation. Raisins are often given to help with constipation. If you notice your pet straining to go potty, contact a veterinarian because there could be a life-threatening blockage.
• Gas or bloat: You can prevent painful bloating and gas by limiting fresh greens and excess sugar in your chin’s diet.
• Heat stroke: This is a life-threatening condition. Signs of heat stroke include a stretched-out body posture and labored breathing. Try to get your pet to a cooler area right away and apply a cool cloth. Make sure to never let your pet get too warm.
• Internal parasites: Thanks to their super-thick fur, chins don’t get fleas or ticks. However, they can get internal parasites, which can be diagnosed by a veterinarian based on a stool sample.
Chinchillas are social animals and make a variety of noises to communicate with each other and their humans. It can take some time to learn what your chinchilla is trying to say, but here is a general guide to the meaning of chinchilla sounds:
• Squeak: Chins generally only squeak when they’re babies.
• Bark: A bark acts as a “heads up” or distress call, signaling that there’s something to be wary of in the environment; it often signals fear.
• Coo: A coo means the chinchilla is happy.
• Chirp: Depending on the tone, a chirp can mean contentment or act as a gentle way of saying “back off.”
• Whimper: A whimper is usually a non-confrontational request to another chin or a human to leave them alone.
• Cry: A cry is a cause for alarm because it’s usually only heard when a chinchilla is in pain.
Chinchillas also use body language to communicate. They’ll greet you with a wink, and they make a facial expression that looks like a smile, which is another friendly sign.
Chinchillas are adorable and entertaining pets that can provide you with years of companionship and pleasure. Owning a chin is a long-term commitment, so make sure that you’re ready to care for your pet’s unique needs for up to 20 years. If you know that you’re ready, congratulations! You and your chinchilla have a wonderful relationship to look forward to enjoying together.
“Ultimate Chinchilla Care: Chinchillas as Pets: The Must-Have Guide for Anyone Passionate About Owning a Chinchilla,” edited by Thomas Layton, Blep Publishing; 1 edition (January 24, 2014).
“The Chinchilla Care Guide: Enjoying Chinchillas as Pets,” by Dr. Elizabeth Harding, published by Dr. Elizabeth Harding (2014).