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An Introduction to Chinchillas

Updated on March 7, 2015

Chinchillas in the Wild

The Chinchilla is an active rodent type animal, similar to a squirrel. They weigh 400-600grams and are 10-14” long. They usually live 10-15 years in captivity. Sometimes they will even live as long as 20 years.

Chinchillas are from the Andes mountains in South America and live in colonies at high altitudes of around 14,000 ft.

They used to live in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Chili. Now, they only live wild in Peru and Chili. The name comes from the Chincha people and means ‘little Chincha’. These people used to make clothing from the Chinchilla’s fur. Chinchillas are still used for fur today, but most of them are domestically farmed rather than being hunted. This is because over hunting has caused the wild Chinchilla to become an endangered species.

Wild Chinchillas live in rock burrows where they are protected from birds, skunks and snakes, as well as various wild cats and dogs. They are omnivores, and eat leaves, seeds, fruits and insects. Chinchillas breed year round and have a gestation of 111 days. This is extremely long for a member of the rodent family. A mother Chinchilla will usually have two babies, which is also unusual for a rodent.

Early Breeding

The Chinchilla fur trade began in the 16th century. It takes about 150 chinchillas to make a full length coat. This is why they were almost hunted to extinction. The fur is extremely soft because the animals have 60 hairs growing from each follicle and the hair is a very even, consistent colour.

The first attempts of breeding in captivity were started in 18th and 19th centuries, but they were not overly successful. The new breeders didn’t know much about the Chinchilla’s habitat or dietary requirements. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Chinchilla ranching started to succeed in America. This was when a Mining Engineer named Matthias F. Chapman started breeding about a dozen Chinchillas in Californian. All domestic Chinchillas can be traced back to these original 12. Today, millions of Chinchillas are raised on farms.

Chinchillas are often used in the lab for hearing tests because their cochlea, and general hearing is very similar to humans.

Basic Care Considerations

Chinchillas need exercise and stuff to chew. They can chew most types of wood, but conifers should be avoided because the oils are toxic. Fruit, birch and willow trees are good choices. Often, problems with the incisors are simply a result of not having enough to chew. Problems with the molars are hard to treat and can cause infections in the gums. Chinchillas with dental problems shouldn’t be used for breeding stock because these traits are hereditary.

Chinchillas can’t tolerate a lot of heat because they don’t sweat. They cool themselves through their ears. In the wild, they are accustomed to cold nights, and hot days, but are sheltered from direct heat by their rock burrows.

A wild Chinchilla is grey, but in captivity, other varieties, such as white, black and beige have been bred.

Chinchillas need to be able to dust bath in fine pumice to clean the oil and dirt from their fur. They can’t bathe in water, because their fur is too dense for air drying. The fur also traps dander and resists parasites, so the Chinchilla is considered hypoallergenic.

Feeding

They need to be fed very specific diets because they have sensitive stomachs. Pellets are ideal, because they ensure the Chinchilla gets the proper nutrients. If they are fed a mixed ration, they may sort out the tastier items and skip the healthier options. Pellets over four months old should not be fed because their nutritional quality will be low.

Besides the pellets, the Chinchilla should have an unlimited supply of good quality hay, such as Timothy. They shouldn’t eat fresh vegetables or fruits because the high moisture content may cause the Chinchilla to bloat. They can have dried fruits and vegetables, but in limited amounts. Too much sugar can cause diarrhea, or even diabetes in the long term. Too much protein could cause a liver problem, so avoid high protein hay like Alfalfa.

Chinchillas rarely get too fat, but they can become too thin.

The Cage

Chinchillas require large cages. The cage needs to be made of strong wire mesh without any plastic coating. Chinchillas will chew off the coating, and it may make them sick. The cage should have a wide door so food and water dishes, and the dust bath can be easily removed. The bottom tray should be metal. An aviary cage for birds can be a good choice.

Place the cage in a draft free, quite place in the house. The Chinchillas will be most active at dusk and dawn, and awake through the night. They will need a quiet place to sleep during the day. Pick a bright location, but don’t place the cage in direct sun.

In addition to the cage, the Chinchilla will need a hay rack, water bottle, a sturdy food dish that won’t be easily tipped over, and a dust bath. They will also need branches to chew and climb on, platforms to sit on, and a sleeping box. The sleeping box can be constructed from wood and mounted at the top of the cage, attached to the top sleeping platform. If the Chinchilla seems more interested in sleeping on the cage floor, a clay drainage pipe that is 6” wide and at least 8” long can be provided instead of a wooden box.

The Chinchilla needs a dust bath every evening. To reduce the amount of dust flying out of the cage, and to keep the dust cleaner longer, just put the dust bath into the cage for about 30 minutes. Use a container that is slightly larger than the Chinchilla, and is sturdy enough that it won’t be chewed.

Training

When the Chinchilla arrives home for the first time, it should be carefully removed from its carrying box and left alone. It needs a quiet environment during the day so it can sleep. If it is disturbed a lot during the day, it will become stressed.

Once the Chinchilla is settled in, you can begin taming it. Spend time with it in the evening, while it is awake. Start by trying to feed it a few treats through the cage bars. When it will come to the edge of the cage to take the treats, you can open the cage door and feed it a treat. Eventually, the Chinchilla will be tame enough to jump onto your arm if you place a treat there.

When the Chinchilla is completely tame and comfortable with you, you can start allowing it to run free while it is being supervised.

Breeding

A Chinchilla reaches sexual maturity at 4-5 months, but should not be bred until they are 8-9 months. A breeding pair will need an extra large cage, and a sleeping box that is large enough to accommodate the mother and babies.

The female will have up to three litters a year if the buck is left with her. Does normally come in heat between December and February, and in mid-summer. Therefore, litters are usually born in late spring or fall.

During late pregnancy, the female may sleep on her side and look dead, but this is normal. Usually the litter is born at night, or in the early morning. The female may have her babies in different areas of the cage, but they will follow her, seeking her warmth. Baby Chinchillas are born with their eyes open, though sometimes they may have their eyes stuck shut. If this is the case, spread salve on the eyelids and gently open the eyes.

Sometimes the babies are born very rapidly and the mother doesn’t have time to lick one off before the other is born. The babies will die of hypothermia if they are not dried. It should be dried carefully, then returned to the mother.

After six weeks, the babies will be weaned from milk, but should stay with their mother for another two or three weeks. If there is enough space in the cage, the babies can stay even longer.

When young Chinchillas are separated from their mother, their food intake needs to be closely monitored to prevent overeating.

A Chinchilla is a very unique pet, and this article is only a brief overview of their care and training. Before purchasing a Chinchilla, do plenty of research and decide if this pet is truly for you.

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