Everything You Need to Know About Caring for Chinchillas
Chinchillas are probably some of the cutest and most loving small mammals you can choose for a pet. Each of them has a unique personality, and most are happy to cuddle up in your pocket or perch on your shoulder.
I am the proud owner of two adorable chinchillas and have only good things to say about them. Here are some of the things you should know to keep your chinchillas happy and healthy.
Tips for Purchasing a Chinchilla
Chinchillas Are a Big Responsibility
Before buying one, you should know that they require quite a bit of work on the part of the owner. They are not the right pet for a small child or a first-time pet owner. They are very delicate and sensitive to abrupt changes.
They Are Social: You Need to Get Two
Before choosing this pet, you should also know that they are fairly expensive, generally going for about $100 - 200 (US). This is even more expensive considering you must buy at least two chinchillas. This is very important.
Chinchillas are social creatures that form close bonds with their friends. If you own a single one, he will most likely suffer from severe loneliness (poor little guy). This loneliness can actually lead to lethargic behavior and even death.
I guarantee you that it is worth adopting two. I get hours of entertainment from watching my two chinchillas cuddle and talk to each other. They even use each other as pillows when they nap!
Adopting a chinchilla online is also a cheaper alternative and a good way to help a chinchilla in need of a home.
- When you're in the store, you should pay careful attention to the chinchilla's personality. Always handle them before adopting. A calm chinchilla should be content to sit in your hands. This personality type will probably be happy on your shoulder or in your pocket like I mentioned earlier.
- If you're looking for a more energetic pet that will run around your playpen and chinchilla-proofed room, you'll want to choose the chinchilla that's hopping around the cage and squirming to get out of your hands to explore.
- Keep in mind that chinchillas have different sleeping habits than us, so their personality might not be very apparent if you've just woken them up.
- You should also keep in mind that chinchillas do not get the optimal amount of socialization in a pet store. If they're a little shy when you first meet them, they may very easily change. After taking them home, wait a few days to hold them. I know this is hard since they're the most adorable things ever, but this will give them time to adjust to their new surroundings and prevent stress.
After Bringing Them Home
After a few days, you can begin socializing them. With lots of care and treats you can earn the trust of even the shyest chinchilla.
Cages/Houses and Environmental Enrichment
Chinchillas Are Active and Need a Cage With Levels
Choosing a cage is very important and can greatly affect the quality of life your chinchilla lives. They are very active and love to climb and jump. Because of this, a simple rabbit or guinea pig cage will not do. Chinchillas need multiple levels in their home to get the exercise they need.
How to Choose a Cage
When buying a cage, you need to choose one with a solid bottom and shelves. This is very important. If the shelves have slits in them or are some kind of wire grid, your chinchilla will get hurt. Their thin feet and paws can get caught easily. Please do not let your chinchillas into a cage that will damage their delicate paws.
For my chinchillas, I purchased a metal cage with plastic shelves from PetCo. This is what I suggest. It has the durability of the metal outside with the warmth and safety of plastic on the inside. You should be aware, however, that chinchillas love to chew more than anything else in the world.
- They will most likely chew on your shelves and ramps. Although this is annoying, it shouldn't harm them. You can try to prevent this by buying them hundreds of chew toys but the fact is that they are rascals and will probably do it anyway. They will appreciate the toys though.
- As chinchillas poo a lot you may want to look for a cage with side guards or a pull-out bottom.
- If you live in an area that gets warm, I highly recommend putting some small slabs of granite on the bottom of their cage. When your chinchillas get too warm, they love to curl up on these slabs to cool down.
Cleaning and Potty Training
Chinchillas are a cleaning-intensive pet. They poo about 200 times a day and much of that is going to get flung out into your room when they're playing.
You'll probably have to clean their cage at least every two days.
My semi-solution to this was to get a large piece of wood to put their cage on. This allows for easy vacuuming and sweeping. Of course, if you already have a tiled or wooden floor area this won't be as much of a problem. But beware of putting your chinchilla's cage on dark hardwood. The poos will be very difficult to spot.
When it comes to potty training, you're in luck. Chinchillas will automatically pee on pet bedding before peeing on your nice clean shelves. I found a nifty little potty box at PetCo (I'm sure it can be found at other pet stores too) that's shaped to fit in the corner of the cage.
Basically, all you need to do is keep the box stocked with clean bedding and your chinchillas will do the rest. Unfortunately, you cannot train them to poo only in one box so get used to vacuuming it up everywhere.
Choosing the Right Bedding
Choice of bedding is very important. You should avoid wood shavings and other bedding like that. The best choice is a fiber pulp bedding. I believe the main supplier of this is "Carefresh," which is available at most local pet stores. This brand comes in large packages that will last you quite some time.
Some people choose to cover the entire bottom of their cage with bedding but I highly recommend buying the corner potty as it will save you a lot of time and money.
Dust Baths and Grooming
Why They Do It
Taking a dust bath is probably the cutest thing your chinchillas will do. This is partially because it is so unique and partially because they look so ridiculous.
Chinchillas take dust baths to keep down the level of oil in their fur. With healthy fur they are able to maintain the appropriate body temperature. Dust baths also keep their fur incredibly soft.
What Kind of Dust Bath Container to Get
There are all sorts of containers for dust baths. I like the one I use because it's durable and there is just barely enough room for two chinchillas. Watching them both try to squeeze in and roll around is hilarious.
Any type of dust labeled for chinchillas is fine to buy. I haven't noticed much of a difference in brands. However, there is an interesting brand that sells scented dust. It does make them smell pretty good but only one of my chinchillas will use it. The other guy is much too manly to bathe in cucumber melon dust.
How to Use It
- Be sure to only leave the dust bath house in their cage for as long as it takes them to both take a good bath. If you leave it in longer than 10 or 15 minutes, they may start to use it as a pee box.
- If, after their baths, there is still fine dust and no pee or poo you may be able to reuse it once more. I prefer to give my chinnies a fresh bath but this may help save a little money.
- Chinchillas should get a bath at least twice a week but would be happy to have a bath every day.
Grooming these animals is not really required unless you plan to enter them into a competition of some sort. You should note that when a chinchilla becomes scared he will often let loose tufts of fur. If you see your chinchilla with loose tufts don't worry. This often happens when they play fight.
How to Feed a Chinchilla Properly
Choosing the right food is very important and can be difficult. I have tried just about every type of chinchilla food and have discovered that most of them are useless.
What Kind of Food to Get: Pellets
Most of the food you find in pet stores has attractive and fun labeling with words like "food fiesta!" Don't be fooled. This food looks fun and delicious because of all the cute little shapes mixed in but it isn't always the healthiest choice. By feeding your pets an all-pellet diet, you can also feel less guilty about giving them a bunch of treats!
In my experience, if you buy the "fun" food with all the shapes and treats mixed in with the pellets, your chinchilla's diet will be unbalanced. They will most likely pick out all the treats and leave the pellets untouched.
The easiest solution is to buy food with only pellets. I know this will sound like a product plug but I'm going to give you my honest advice anyway. The food I've found to be the best that I use is called Mazuri chinchilla diet. It is all pellets and provides a good healthy balance for your chinchillas. You can buy this brand online or purchase it at a pet store.
Don't Switch Food Abruptly
It's important to know that chinchillas have very sensitive digestive tracts. Because of this, you cannot switch their food abruptly. You must gradually mix the current food and the new food until their little bodies get used to the new kind.
When you first buy your chinchillas, you should ask what type of food they were being fed at the pet store. Buy a small bag of this food and slowly mix it in with the kind you will be feeding them.
In addition to slowly changing their diet, you should carefully research any other type of food or treat before you give it to them. Even a small amount of some foods can kill a chinchilla.
Finding the Right Kinds of Treats and Toys
It is fairly simple to find treats and toys for your chinchillas as there is usually a whole section in the pet store dedicated to fun things for small animals.
Each chinchilla likes different things so I can't advise you on exactly which treats to get. Try out whatever they have in the store that catches your eye. You'll soon learn what your new friends like and dislike.
Alternatives to Store-Bought Treats
There are some other things you can buy in addition to store-bought treats. My chinchillas' absolute favorites are dried cranberries and raisins. They go crazy for them! They also love sunflower seeds and almonds.
Just make sure that these things are pure natural, unsalted and unsweetened. This is very important. Giving them the nuts with the shells on or half cracked also gives them something fun to chew and destroy.
Go to the Bird Section for the Best Chew Toys
As far as toys and chew things go I've found that the small mammal section in most pet stores is severely lacking. They usually have a few small wooden toys, maybe even some with treats hidden inside. These are great but as I've said before, chinchillas looooove to chew.
They'll go through these wimpy little hamster and bunny toys fast. If you really want to find good toys, go to the bird section. This is the best advice anyone has ever given me for my chinchillas.
The bird section is full of perfect toys because birds like to explore and chew just as much as chinchillas. There are countless colorful-wooden-hangy toys to choose from. Just make sure to remove the bell that's on most of them because it's annoying and not great for them to be chewing on.
My chinchillas' favorite wooden chew toys are the ones with the bark still on the wood and I highly recommend trying these with your pets.
My chinchillas also love the small twigs and pieces of wood that come with bark still on them. They like having little chew toys that they can hold in their paws. They especially like the apple branches.
The Best Toy of All: The Chube
Every chinchilla should have the joy of playing with the simple toy that is the Chube. It is probably the simplest of all toys but it is absolutely perfect for chinchillas. A "chube" is a chewable tube.
It's basically an over-sized toilet paper roll with veggie dyed paper on the outside. Chubes are fun to eat and sleep in. The only problem with the Chube is that it rolls off shelves. But because my chinchillas had so much fun with these I found a solution.
Simply poke a hole on the very edge of the Chube and attach it to the cage with one of those metal screw-on things that almost all hanging toys have. It's the thing that's kind of like a carabiner. This should help solve the falling off problem.
Tips for the Right Kind of Housing
I've tried out a lot of different houses for my chinnies over the years and have found that there's not much you can do wrong.
- Make sure the shelter has more than one exit or entrance so your chinchillas don't feel trapped and they'll be sure to love it.
- The funnest houses are of course the ones they can chew on.
- My favorite shelter is something I like to call the "rainbow house." It consists of multiple colorful logs of wood held together with wire so you can change the shape of it.
- There are a lot of good chinchilla houses out there. The most common house I see is the round plastic hut with the castle-like top. While this is cute, it is not the best because it only has one entrance. Before I cut a second hole in it my chinchillas refused to sleep there.
- If you do decide to buy one and cut a hole in it like I did, be sure to smooth the edges.
Types of Chinchilla HousesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Chinchilla Abuse and Anti-Fur
I'm assuming that most people visiting this site are anti-fur but I'd just like to remind everyone out there that wonderful, sweet, loving chinchillas are being killed everyday for their fur. Please support any and all rescue programs.
I'm confident that after experiencing the joy of owning a chinchilla, you will feel as passionate about the anti-fur movement as I do.
A Dedication to Charlie
I would like to dedicate this article to Charlie the chinchilla. I adopted him not knowing that he was sick and he passed away only a few months later. I will always love and miss him. His grave rests upon a peaceful hill overlooking a canyon and I like to think that he's hopping around chinchilla heaven right now.
Please pay close attention to your chinchilla's health. They often show only very slight signs of being unwell. Keep your eyes out for any signs of lethargy or anti-social behavior as this is their way of letting you know something's not right. Rest in peace, Charlie. I miss you.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.