Originally kept and bred for their fur, chinchillas became popular as pets due to their cute appearance and relatively low maintenance care.
They are easy and cheap to feed and unless you get one which develops tooth problems they are very hardy and in my experience rarely need to see a vet.
I have kept three chinchillas of my own and also cared for many others as part of my former job. This article will cover how to care for chinchillas on a daily basis and also consider the pros and cons of them as a pet.
It's important to get a proper chinchilla dust or sand for your chinchilla
What Does a Pet Chinchilla Need?
Food - The best diet for chinchillas are chinchilla pellets or a mix which has been especially formulated for them. They need a high fibre and low fat, low sugar diet. They should also be given good quality meadow hay. They need to do a lot of chewing to keep wearing their teeth down and the hay will help with this.
Treats - For treats, and particularly useful when you are taming or training your chinchilla, You can give a few (around 3) raisins or tiny pieces of carrot or apple. Chinchillas have quite a sweet tooth and will really enjoy these, but too much sugar can lead to them developing diabetes, so be quite stingy with the treats.
Water - They should always have access to fresh water, ideally in a water bottle.
Chinchilla Sand/dust - one of the most endearing things about chinchillas is how they keep their coats in top condition. They do this by taking a daily sand bath. You need a very fine, soft grain sand - not beach sand or builders sand! Make sure you buy proper chinchilla sand. You can put this in a proprietary chinchilla sand bath or use an old biscuit tin. The sand should be about 1/2 an inch deep. Once a day put the bath in with the chinchilla for about 10 minutes and watch them squiggle around on their back kicking their legs about merrily as the sand works through their fur and removing excess oils and grease from you handling them. After the chinchilla has bathed, remove the sandbox and sieve the sand to remove any droppings.
Toys - Chinchillas are deceptive - during the day they snooze and appear chilled out and lazy, but they are nocturnal, so it is the night time when they get active. They enjoy toys which they can climb into and over and also toys they can destroy safely by chewing. Wooden and cardboard toys such as tubes and boxes will be appreciated as will sisal and woven hay toys.
Bedding/litter - chinchillas aren't really into making a nest for themselves for sleeping so there's no need to provide them with a box filled with bedding to snuggle in. This is probably because they are already wearing the equivalent of a very snuggly duvet in the form of their fur which is soft and dense. If you have a solid based cage, a layer of wood shavings or a wood or paper based cat litter will suffice to soak up urine.
Company - Chinchillas are quite sociable and most will enjoy the company of another chinchilla. Two females, either siblings or who have been introduced at a young age will usually get on. It is sometimes possible to introduce older females to each other. Male siblings who are reared together quite often get on together. Alternatively a neutered male and female is a good combination.
Old Style all Wire Cage - Chinchillas were originally bred for their fur and the traditional chinchilla cage which made its way into the pet industry too was a wire mesh box with a slide out tray underneath it which could be covered in newspaper to catch droppings and absorb urine. Inside the cage would be a wooden shelf for the chinchilla to rest on.
The advantage of the all wire cage is that the chinchilla can't chew through it. They are prodigious chewers and will eventually chew through a plastic cage base. Another advantage is that it is very easy to keep clean. The disadvantage is that it is rather a dull environment for the chinchilla and they will want to spend most of their time on the wooden shelf rather than on the uncomfortable wire floor.
Modern Chinchilla Cages - Modern cages come in a range of designs and materials. Some have a plastic base, which is comfortable for the chinchillas but as already mentioned they are likely to chew through it eventually. Some have a metal removable tray as a base which you can cover in shavings and then slide out to clean - this is really convenient and should survive much longer than a plastic base. Some have wire shelves, others plastic or wood shelves. The advantage of wood shelves is that they are comfortable for the chinchilla, it gives them something to chew on and they are easy to replace once chewed through.
It is worth getting as big a cage as you can afford. Chinchillas are really active and will leap about the cage athletically and enjoy climbing up to different levels.
Should I get a Pet Chinchilla?
Chinchillas are entertaining pets and can become quite tame and reasonably affectionate. However, although they look soft and cuddly most don't want to spend long periods of time being cuddled and sitting quietly with you. They like to be exploring and active, so don't get one if you want a cuddly pet, do get one if you like to watch your pet exploring out of its cage.
Chinchillas live a long time. Most live at least 10 years, some as long as 20 years old. This can be an advantage and a disadvantage. If you take on a chinchilla you need to be reasonably confident that you can give it a home for its life time.
Chinchillas are noisy - they don't make much sound with their mouths other than an occasional plaintive cry if distressed, but they make a lot of noise clattering about in their cage at night. There aren't many people who can sleep through the noise of an active chinchilla living in a cage in their bedroom. Chinchillas need to be kept inside because they don't like damp or wet conditions. I would advise against getting a chinchilla if it will have to live in your bedroom.
Chinchillas will chew things - they love to be out of their cage exploring but beware of electrical wires in particular because they're dangerous when chewed. Anything else in the room will be seen as fair game by your chinchilla. Either you can accept that kind of thing or you can't!