Chinchillas make friendly and loveable companions. To ensure that your chinchilla is living a healthy life, both mentally and physically, it is vital to provide it with the appropriate living environment, including the proper type of housing, bedding, toys, exercise, and socialization.
Chinchillas tend to be much more active than their domestic rodent counterparts. It is important to provide them with a cage that allows them to move around and be active. An optimal chinchilla cage will have multiple levels, ramps, perches, and platforms.
When choosing a cage for your chinchilla, avoid plastic-coated wire. Cages made of wire mesh with a solid tray below the wire are appropriate because they allow the animal’s droppings to fall into the tray. This keeps the chinchilla’s living area free of excrement. The grids on the side of the cage should be no wider than 1 inch by 2 inches, and the grids on the bottom should be no more than 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch. These dimensions will prevent your chinchilla from escaping or slipping through the floor and injuring itself. If you do choose a cage with wire mesh be sure there is an area of solid flooring, which will allow the chinchilla to get off the wire. If a chinchilla spends all of its time on the wire mesh, its feet can become irritated and eventually develop a condition known as pododermatitis.
Clean and disinfect your chinchilla’s cage at least once a week. This helps prevent bacteria from growing and spreading, which could cause your chinchilla to have health issues, including infections. The cage may need to be cleaned more often than once a week if it houses more than one chinchilla.
Providing bedding in your chinchilla’s living space will give it a place to burrow. Kiln-dried pine and recycled paper bedding are both optimal choices. Avoid wood bedding that is toxic to chinchillas, such as pine or cedar (see below).
Safe and unsafe wooden items
Wood material can be used for a variety of objects that are part of a chinchilla’s environment, including parts of the cage, bedding, and toys. However, it is important to purchase wooden objects that are safe. Listed below are types of wood that are safe and also those that are unsafe for chinchillas. If you purchase any kind of wood material and are unsure whether it is safe, contact your veterinarian or a chinchilla breeder before use.
Wooden items made from the following trees are safe:
• Pine [without phenol oils]
Wooden items made from the following trees are unsafe:
• Fresh pine
• Citrus wood [orange, lemon, grapefruit]
Note: Any wooden item that has been treated with chemicals or pesticides is unsafe.
Like many rodent species, chinchillas prefer to have at least one place where they can hide. You can purchase a hiding spot at a pet store or make your own. One way to provide a hiding space is by using small sections of PVC piping. Four-inch T-shaped and Y-shaped PVC pipes provide different hiding spots. The PVC pipe is also easy to clean.
Food and water containers
Both food and water can be given to your chinchilla in bowls. However, it is recommended that water bottles are used to reduce the chance of contamination by food, bedding, excrement, and bacteria. Both food and water containers should be cleaned at least every other day to lower the risk of bacterial contamination. Choosing dishwasher-safe containers allows for easier cleaning and disinfecting.
Dust baths are an important part of chinchilla’s regular routine. Chinchillas use dust as a means to keep themselves clean and groomed, and it is important in keeping their skin and fur healthy. In their natural environment, chinchillas will roll around in areas of soil and dirt to groom themselves. It is necessary to provide your companion chinchilla with a dust bath. Create a dust bath by pouring sanitized commercial dust into a metal or plastic container that will hold enough dust to allow the chinchilla to roll around without the dust flying out. The dust bath should be between 2 inches and 4 inches deep. Your chinchilla should willingly perform the dust bath on its own. Provide the dust bath every day for at least 10 minutes. Remove the dust bath from the cage once your chinchilla is finished using it to prevent contamination from droppings and food particles.
Chinchillas are very sensitive to heat and can easily experience heat stroke if exposed to temperatures higher than 80 degrees F. Because of their sensitivity to heat, do not keep your chinchilla’s housing system in an area where it will be exposed to direct sunlight. While they are capable of adjusting to temperatures of less than 32 degrees F, it best to keep your companion chinchilla in an environment between 50 and 60 degrees F. To ensure your chinchilla is comfortable, keep it in an indoor environment that is dry, draft-free, and moderately cool.
Exercise is important to keep your companion chinchilla healthy, both physically and mentally. There are many different ways to provide your chinchilla with exercise, both in and out of its housing system. Because of their high activity level, chinchillas need a that has plenty of space and toys. Toys can include a 15-inch, solid running wheel, chew toys, and wooden parrot toys. Be sure wooden toys are safe and made of nontoxic materials.
Your chinchilla should be allowed to exercise outside of its cage for at least two hours every day. Always supervise your chinchilla when it is outside of its cage. If left unsupervised, it may chew on furniture, electrical wires, walls, and other items that could be potentially dangerous. Chinchillas enjoy moving around freely and exploring their environment, as well as rolling themselves around in plastic balls designed specifically for them.
Chinchillas are nocturnal animals, meaning they spend most of the day sleeping and are most active at night. Therefore, they should be kept in an area that is quiet during the day and where their activity at night will not disturb the other inhabitants of the house.
Like all small mammals, chinchillas should always be handled carefully and gently. If chinchillas become frightened, overexcited, or are handled improperly, a defense mechanism known as fur slip will occur. Fur slip refers to the animal releasing a large patch of its fur, leaving behind an area of smooth, clean skin. It can take several months for the fur to grow back. Always properly pick up your chinchilla to avoid fur slip, and other stresses. First, move slowly and speak softly as you approach your chinchilla. Then, gently lift your chinchilla making sure to fully support its body. The base of the tail is that part which is closest to the chinchilla’s body. Do not handle pregnant chinchillas unless absolutely necessary.
Chinchillas make great pets if handled appropriately and often. They rarely bite, except in circumstances where they experience stress. Only allow people to handle your chinchilla who will do so correctly and in a positive manner.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D., and Kaycee Points – University of Nebraska-Lincoln