All About Chinchillas: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

All About Chinchillas: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

Vanessa LeRoux

Experience Level: Chinchillas are best suited for those with pet care experience under their belt and who are ready to invest dedication for many years. They're a great choice for kids over fourteen, though a watchful adult eye is always required and strongly recommended.
Size: These ultra-fluffy companions can grow 25 to 41 cm long.
Lifespan: With proper care, chinchillas are a long-term commitment for a solid 12 to 18 years.
Behaviour: Chinchillas are crepuscular, which means they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours. However, they can also show some nocturnal behaviours, being active at night, especially when their environment is quiet and safe. They do not like their sleeping routine disturbed, so fitting in with them is best. Read on to discover some unique, fun facts about your chinchilla.
Diet: With a diverse palate, chinchillas are herbivores.
Social Life: They love company and get lonely when by themselves, so consider a pal for your chin! Chinchillas thrive in pairs or groups, but it's best if they're either all girls or all boys. They need to live inside your home.

Shopping Checklist: What will I Need for my Chinchilla?

  • Habitat: 90 x 60 x 120 cm or more extensive multi-level habitat with platforms, ramps, hutch, and a solid bottom floor. Chinchillas need plenty of space, and they will make use of the entire cage, including the vertical space. Bars should be no further apart than 2.5 cm. The cage should be wire mesh on at least three sides to ensure adequate ventilation.

  • Food: Chinchilla pellets, hay with a hay feeder, and food ball. Hay should always be available. See the chinchilla menu below.

  • Food dish: Heavy ceramic food bowls that can't be easily tipped over are ideal. An attachable bowl is strongly recommended.

  • Water bottle: A water bottle is the best method. Check water flow daily and clean weekly.

  • Bedding: Hay, shredded paper, fleece material, recycled wood pulp or cardboard litter. Add a fleece blanket for additional comfort. (Don't use a newspaper or pine and cedar shavings.)

  • Bed: A large chinchilla bed or a cat bed is perfect to keep your chinchilla cosy and rested.

  • Hideouts: Chinchillas need a place to retreat and feel safe. Wooden hideouts or nesting boxes offer them a private space to rest.

  • Exercise Wheel: A large, solid (not wire) exercise wheel 30 cm in diameter (or larger) allows chinchillas to run and expend energy.

  • Fun Toys: Offer climbing structures, tunnels, hideouts, cardboard tubes and little balls. Rotate toys, introduce new, different climbing structures, and occasionally offer safe treats to keep the environment stimulating.

  • Hammock: Your chinchilla will love this, and it adds another dimension of space within the cage.

  • Treats: Chinchillas always enjoy a tiny treat twice a week.

  • Dental Care: Keep in mind that chinchilla's teeth never stop growing: gnaw stones and wood chews, natural loofahs, safely sterilised twigs, or softwoods help keep them at the right length. Add a healthy mineral block to help with their teeth and provide essential minerals.

  • Litter Box: Chinchillas can learn to use a litter box, but success varies from one chin to another.

  • Bath and Sand: Chinchilla bathing dust and sizeable open container.

  • Ground Cover: Cardboard or grass matting for the surfaces in the cage. Wire flooring hurts their little feet.

  • Safety: The cage should have a secure latch to prevent escapes. Also, ensure there are no small gaps or spaces where a chinchilla could get its head or limbs stuck.

  • Play Area: While not part of the cage, having a chinchilla-safe playpen or room for supervised out-of-cage time is beneficial for their well-being. If you take your chin outside, it must be a cold day with plenty of shade, water, and careful supervision for the entire adventure.

How Do I Set up a Chinchilla Habitat?

  • Location Choice: Place your chinchilla in a quiet, well-lit area with low humidity inside your home. Ensure the temperature remains between 16-21 degrees. Given their dense coats, avoiding temperatures above 27 degrees is crucial. Do not expose your chinchilla to the elements outside.

  • Bedding Essentials: Line the habitat with the recommended bedding like hay, Aspen shavings and paper bedding. Fleece blankets or liners are strongly recommended for chinchillas. They are reusable, making them an eco-friendly option. Fleece doesn't fray when chewed, so there's no risk of chinchillas ingesting threads. It's good practice to spot-clean as needed and change bedding according to the product's instructions.

  • Hay Setup: Attach the hay feeder to a side of the cage and hang the food ball, ensuring hay easily accessible 24/7.

  • Dish Positioning: Set up dishes and water bottle in areas your chinchilla can easily reach on a platform or shelf, which works to lessen the amount of bedding getting into them.

  • Tiered Design: In multi-tiered enclosures, perhaps place a hay basket on one level and a cosy bed on another. Options like hideaway tubes, toys, or even empty spaces can be added for variety.

  • Relaxation Corner: Hang a hammock inside the cage. It's a cosy spot for them to relax and snooze. Add a hideout to provide them space to retreat and feel safe.

  • Litter Tips: While some parents have successfully trained their chinchillas, others find that their pets prefer to choose their own spots in the cage. It's important to manage expectations accordingly. Clean the litter box with white vinegar and dishwashing liquid.

  • Dental Maintenance: Add a gnaw stone and chew sticks, loofah, sanitised twigs, softwood or wooden blocks to keep their teeth healthy. Don't forget to find a place for their mineral block.

  • Floor Comfort: Measure and fit grass matting pieces or cardboard onto the cage's flat surfaces.

  • Cleaning Routine: Clean the cage from top to bottom twice a week. Use mild, unscented dishwashing liquid and a cage cleaner or a small animal-safe disinfectant like F10SC.

The Chinchilla's Menu: What, When, and How Much to Feed

Hay Essentials: An unlimited supply of Timothy hay or oat grass should be available.

Pellets: The Foundation of Their Diet:
Chinchilla pellets are specially formulated to meet the nutritional needs of these unique animals. They are packed with the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. When selecting pellets, opt for high-quality brands that don't contain added sugars, fruits, or nuts. An adult chinchilla typically requires 1-2 tablespoons of pellets daily. For the first year, they can have an unlimited amount. It’s best to feed them at the same time each day, preferably in the evening when they are most active.

Hay: Essential for Digestion and Dental Health
Hay is a staple in a chinchilla's diet. It provides the necessary fibre for proper digestion and helps grind down their continuously growing teeth. Timothy hay is the most recommended variety, but other types, like orchard or meadow hay, can also be given. Ensure the hay is fresh, free from mould, and dust-free. Your chinchilla should always have unlimited access to hay, so their hay rack, food ball or basket should always be full.

Treats: In Moderation
While chinchillas love treats, they should be given sparingly. Suitable treats include plain shredded wheat, rose hips, and dried herbs like dandelion or hibiscus. Avoid sugary or fatty treats, fruits, and nuts, which can upset their digestive system. As a rule of thumb, offer treats at most once or twice a week and in tiny amounts. Burges Excel Forage and Feast bar, Friendly Farm Crunchers and Timothy balls are all great treats for your chin.

Fresh Water: Hydration is Key
Chinchillas need a constant supply of fresh water. It's best to provide water through a drip bottle to keep it clean. The bottle should be checked daily to ensure it's working correctly and refilled with fresh water. Clean the bottle and nozzle once a week to prevent bacterial growth with an animal-safe disinfectant like F10SC.

Switching Brands: When changing to a different food, you must ‘wean’ your chinchilla onto it by mixing old with new and gradually decreasing the old brand to avoid upsetting the tummy with food he has not had before. Introduce new foods one at a time to see if your chinchilla’s system tolerates it.

Food Storage: Store food in a tightly sealed container in your fridge or freezer to maintain freshness for a lot longer.

Everyday Meal: Hay/Oat Grass Refresh daily Unlimited, constant supply
Pellets Refresh daily 1 to 2 Tablespoons per day
Treats 1 to 1 Times a week Chinchilla recommended
Water Refresh daily Check regularly, keep clean

Safety First for You and Your Chinchilla

Due to potential pathogens, it's vital to thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water and dry them well before and after contact with your chinchilla or its habitat.

Chinchillas are among the most harmless pets one can have. By nature, chinchillas are gentle and shy creatures. They typically steer clear of conflicts and display aggressive behaviour only when they sense a threat to their safety. They won't intentionally approach you or a child with the intent to harm.

However, they might act defensively if they're mishandled, treated poorly, or aren't fond of human interaction. Refrain from handling too much and only by familiar people.

From First Touch to Daily Play: Handling Your Chinchilla

  • Acclimate Your Chinchilla: Spend time near the cage, speaking or reading softly to familiarise your Chinchilla with your voice. Singing softly is also encouraged. Approach slowly and always from the front.

  • Optimal Handling Time: Handle during dawn and dusk, their most active periods. Avoid disturbing them while they are sleeping.

  • Proper Handling Technique: Pick up by supporting under the chest and hindquarters. Never grab by the tail.

  • Safety Precautions: Always supervise children and sit on the floor to minimise drop risk. Watch for signs of discomfort, such as squirming and high-pitched noises.

  • Building Trust: Regular, gentle handling helps in building trust. Avoid reacting aggressively to any nips or bites.

  • Out-of-Cage Time: Allow 2-4 hours daily in a safe, initially confined space like a bathroom. Once comfortable with catching them, expand the play area, remembering their ability to jump six feet into the air. Lower your chin slowly back into their cage if they show signs of discomfort.

Chinchilla Care Essentials: Play Time, Bathing and Well-Being

Playtime Gear: Provide hanging toys, hideouts, and chew items. Chinchillas are naturally curious, agile, athletic and always keen to explore. They are natural foragers, so it's lots of fun for them when you hide some of their food or a tiny treat for them to 'hunt' for in their cage. It provides physical and well as mental stimulation. It's all about a 3D cage experience for them; the more to climb and do, the better!
Bathing Ritual: Chinchillas shouldn't get wet as it takes a long time for their fur to dry as it's very thick, and the underlying skin can become inflamed under damp fur. Instead, they enjoy dust baths every two to three days, rolling in special chinchilla bathing sand for about an hour at a time.
Treat Bonding: Offer mini treats sparingly. Handfeeding them can foster a deeper bond and trust.
Nail Care: Chinchillas should have their nails trimmed routinely, by the pros only, or they can break off, causing pain.

Chinchilla Health Checklist: When to Call Your Vet

Monitoring changes in your chinchilla's behaviour or health is essential. They should have an annual vet check-up, and spaying or neutering them with a vet experienced in chinchillas is recommended. Ensure you have a chinchilla-friendly vet before emergencies. Their daytime sleeping habits can make it hard to detect health issues, so if they're less active or eating less, they might be unwell. Use handling sessions for health checks: look for lumps, cuts and fur changes. Other symptoms to note include:

  • Wetness around the eyes or mouth

  • Sore feet

  • Bare patches in the fur; chewing their fur

  • Quieter than usual; hiding

  • Changes in eating, going to the toilet or over-drinking

  • Making noises such as barking or whistling

  • Reluctance to move or repetitive movements like racing back and forth

  • Ear infections causing loss of balance, head tilting, discharge and odour, redness or swelling and scratching the ear. Lethargy and loss of appetite occur as well.

Fluffy Fun & Extra Information About Chins

Social Companionship: Chinchillas thrive in pairs or groups and can become lonely and stressed when kept alone, emphasising the importance of social interaction.
Nocturnal Vocalisations: Chinchillas can make a variety of noises, such as barks and whistles, primarily at night, to communicate with each other and express their emotions.
Selective Eaters: Chinchillas have a very specific and sensitive diet, primarily consisting of high-fibre hay and pellets, and they cannot process fatty or sugary foods well.
Rarely Overweight: Despite their fluffy appearance, chinchillas are seldom overweight and have a high metabolism, requiring a constant supply of food.
Vibrissae Sensitivity: Chinchillas have highly sensitive whiskers that they use to explore their environment and navigate through tight spaces, allowing them to detect changes in their surroundings effectively.

Whiskered Wisdom: Building a Rewarding and Lasting Bond With Your Chinchilla

Chinchillas are truly unique and enchanting creatures, possessing characteristics that set them apart in the animal kingdom. Their continuously growing teeth highlight the essential need for chews, ensuring their dental health is maintained. It's also heartwarming to note that these animals, with their social nature, thrive best with a companion, alleviating loneliness and fostering mutual comfort.

However, potential chinchilla owners should be aware of their distinct long-term needs. While they might appear robust, chinchillas are emotionally and physically delicate, requiring attentive care and understanding. Embracing these needs ensures their well-being and deepens the bond between parent and pet, making the journey of caring for a chinchilla an enriching experience.