Chinchillas as pets : the basics
This is a short checklist of what you must keep in mind. I haven’t thought of the basics in years and write about the more complicated stuff. This will help but to keep it short I might forget a thing or 2.
For who is a chinchilla a suitable pet?
Not for young children. There are very few exceptions but there are kids who grow up with animals and they make good owners. Chinnies are adult pets. Young people that are old enough make good owners but in my experience some lose interest as they get older. It becomes difficult when the kids go to university or college. The best owners are people that already settled down.
Does a single chinchilla make a good pet?
Yes and no. In my opinion, no. They are social and need friends. There are people with single chinnies that are happy but they spend an awful lot of time with them. The owner replaces another chinnie with all the attention. This is not always possible and they are awake when you sleep. They get lonely and bored.
How much attention do they need?
A single chinnie needs an awful lot. With a pair, an hour or so of playtime every evening is fine. The more time you can spend with them, the better. Depending on the cage they need outside playtime for exercise and to prevent boredom. Chinnies are not teddy bears. Very few like being held and cuddled. They will interact with you on their terms, like a cat. A tame chinnie does like attention but they will decide how much.
How tame do they get?
They all have different personalities. How the breeder treats the babies plays a huge role. One doesn’t get tamer than 2, it depends on personality and the breeder. One can become more dependent on you but can even stay wild.
Does same sex pairs work?
Yes, depending on the breeder and personality. 2 Males tend to work better than 2 females. Females who grew up together are fine, it just happens that one can be very dominant and bully the other one. If they grew up in a healthy family environment this is far less common. Males that grew up together will be fine if there are no females around. If they grew up in a colony setup where they learn social behavior the presence of a female in another cage often doesn’t cause problems. This is my personal experience with males I bred and keep together. The best option is to get 2 boys that either grew up together or are paired young, before 16 weeks.
What if I want a breeding pair?
I only pair girls with boys once the girls are at least 8 months old. Males are sexually mature from as young as 3 months and females from as young as 4 months or even younger. Some mutations like Ebony matures slower. The environment also seems to play a role. In a colony setup you tend not to get teenage pregnancies if the male is a few months younger than the female when paired. With Ebony they can be closer to the same age, I just don’t do it. If you want a breeding pair, get the female first and the male a few months later.
Bigger is better. The cage size will also determine how much outside playtime you must allow. My cages are 800mm high, 1200mm deep and 600mm wide. They can be bigger and also a bit smaller. I use welded wire mesh with a gap of 12mm x 25mm. If you do not breed it can be a bit bigger but the risk of a cat getting a paw inside increases. If you breed, the babies will get out if the gaps are bigger than 12mm. A flat cage like a rabbit cage is not ideal. They like to climb and jump. The height makes up for less floor space. The floor must be solid, walking on wire causes bumblefoot, a disease that takes a long time to heal.
There must be a nest box. I use the ones Willie sells because they last a lot longer than the bird nest boxes I used to use. They need shelves to jump. I place the shelves at different heights in the cage and make sure they do not overlap. Babies climb from day one. They will fall off and this way they can’t hit anything. My shelves are all 110mm wide and differ in length from 150mm to 300mm. I use hanging bridges in the middle of the cage, from the left to the right. All the shelves and bridges are made from kiln dried (baked) untreated pine. I use dried mulberry branches and untreated apple wood or sickle wood when I can find it.
It provides both things to jump on and wood to chew on. They must chew on wood to keep their teeth short. I do not use pressed wood or melamine covered wood. The resin they use to bind it is toxic. Pressed wood absorbs moisture, making it a breeding place for mold and bacteria. If they can find a place to nibble it, they will nibble it. Because it makes crumbs, they can ingest some of it. it’s not worth the risk.
All my cages have PVC tunnels inside, fixed to the sides. I use SABS approved drain pipe because it contains no harmful chemicals. They do chew it but don’t swallow it. There is always a debate on this but I have been using it for 9 years without a single problem. I check the poop in every cage 3 times a day. PVC doesn’t digest, you will find it in the poop. I also use fleece hammocks in some of the cages. Some will destroy it, others will just sleep in it. Fleece is far more dangerous than plastic. Fibers can be inhaled and the chemicals used to make fleece is carcinogenic (it causes cancer when digested). They just don’t eat it, they just destroy it. I never read a case study where a chinnie died from chewing plastic but I personally know people who lost chinnies to fleece fibers they inhaled. The chances are just too remote to worry about it. I never had problems.
It is very popular to cover shelves and the floor with fleece. I do not cover the shelves because they want to chew it. I also do not use fleece to cover the floor. I don’t care if it looks neat and cleans easily. I prefer to use what they like. They like hay. The floors of all my cages have a layer of about 5cm of hay. They eat it and dig in it. Some people use wood shavings and I have used untreated pine shavings in the past. It looks neat but it hides moisture very well and mold or bacteria can grow in it. It also contains dust and the only times I ever struggled with eye irritations was when I used wood shavings. I stick to hay because it is safe and they love it. It must just be fresh and dry. I put it in the sun for a few hours before putting it in the cages.
Wooden toys are fine, just make sure it is safe wood. If they can chew it they will. I only use pine, apple, mulberry and sickle wood. This includes bridges, swings and chew toys.
Cleaning the cage
In wet weather I clean cages and change the hay once a week. In Winter, once every 2 weeks. They will poop all over the place but will pick a corner in the cage to pee. I clean this corner more often. It does happen that they will pee on nest boxes or shelves to mark territory. Mine are all settled and they don’t do this. Every 2 weeks the cages are washed. My cages are metal with galvanized sheet floors. I wash them with water and Sunlight dish washing liquid. For Sunlight to cause harm they must digest quite a bit and it will then cause mild diarrhea that will soon pass. There is nothing in it that can cause permanent damage and since they don’t drink it nothing happens. I even wash the wood with it. I just rinse it with clean water and let it dry thoroughly. You can use products like F10, it is good. Do not use anything with an ammonia base, like Handy Andy and do not use anything with a chlorine base, like bleach. This causes permanent damage to skin and especially the respiratory tract. Lung damage is permanent and chinchillas have very sensitive respiratory tracts.
Obviously I feed only Mighty Thor MiniMagic. The secret to good food is not the name, it is the ingredients it is made of, the nutritional values and the balance. You can either research the nutritional needs and compare it to the food or trust a well known brand. In other countries, get advice from good breeders and pet owners who had chinnies for a long time. The effects of bad food takes a few years and a few generations to show. It is irreversible, you can’t fix the damage and you can’t make a weak baby stronger.
Avoid food that contains a lot of treats like dried fruit. They will pick out the treats and leave the pellets. The packet of food will overall be fairly balanced and can contain good nutrients but because they don’t eat everything they don’t receive the benefits. They get fat. As pets, they must eat pellets because we can’t give them an all natural diet. We must just make sure the pellets contain everything they need. What we add to the pellets is part of the diet and in the right quantities. Their staple diet is pellets, not treats. Seeds, nuts, most fruit, maize, etc are poisons. A diet like that kills adults in 4-6 years and it greatly shortens the life expectancy of babies. The more generations, the worse it gets. They love it, just check the nutritional contents and you will realize you are killing your chinnie
Hay is extremely important and they must have free access to hay daily. I give lucerne (alfalfa) daily and use Eragrostis or Teff as bedding. This gives them a choice and they eat both. In other countries it will be Timothy or something else. In season I also give oat hay. They need the fiber in the hay to keep their digestive tracts working. Hay like lucerne also very effectively file down the molar teeth that will grow too long if they don’t have something like this to chew on. Hay must be fresh and stored correctly. If it gets damp it forms mold. The mold makes toxins that causes miscarriage and poisons adults. If it smells like old socks or some weird cheese, it is old. Old hay also makes dust as it degenerates. This causes eye irritations and respiratory problems. Old hay also loses most of the nutritional value. Hay stores well if it is kept dry and out of sun light.
I do not believe in treats. There are healthy treats like rose hip and goji berries. A dried cranberry a week is actually beneficial to the digestive system. The problem is that it doesn’t stay one a week. Chinchillas are extremely cute when they beg so they get treats. My chinchillas are all tame and love attention but they do not beg. They ask for attention and get it because they want it, not for a reward. If they don’t know what a raisin or peanut is they will not miss it. Raisins, peanuts, nuts, the wrong fruit and anything funny causes a lot of damage and doesn’t contribute to their health. I choose health. Killing a chinnie with kindness is not an option.
The dust bath
Chinchillas secrete oil through their skins. It gives their fur an oily appearance and to get rid of the oil they roll in dust. If they do not roll in dust the fur gets matted. I use sepiolite, a natural clay that is also widely used in Europe. It is crushed to my specifications and contains both fine dust and slightly bigger particles. The fine dust penetrates right to the skin and the bigger particles brushes off loose hair. Sepiolite is extremely hygroscopic, it absorbs a lot of moisture. If the particles doesn’t contain dust it doesn’t clean to the skin.
Pumice is widely used in the USA but show breeders are now switching to sepiolite. Sand like play pen sand or reptile sand doesn’t have the absorbency to thoroughly clean them. To increase the absorbency, baby powder and corn flour is added to the sand. Both have been scientifically proven to cause eye and lung irritations. Another risk factor is silica. Silica is a carcinogenic, it causes cancer. Silicosis is a lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to silica. About all sand contains silica, so does pumice. It depends on how much. The safe percentage I found in research is less than 3% per volume. Sepiolite have way less than this if it actually does contain it. It depends on where it is mined and the sepiolite we use contains about nothing.
Some of the imported dust is pumice, some is sepiolite but without dust and very coarse. Some doesn’t specify so I don’t know what it is. The benefits of good dust is that it doesn’t discolor them. Playpen sand tends to make them yellow and white sand contains a lot of silica. Because of the better absorbency they stay cleaner for longer.
There are 2 ways to do it. I leave the dust in the cages. It becomes part of the environment. My chinnies doesn’t pee in it, they got used to it. They poop in it but they poop everywhere. I sift out the poop, top up what they dug out and replace the dust every 2 weeks. This is what they do in nature. They will not bath only once a day, they will bath when they feel like it and will often sleep in the dust.
Most people give them bath time. They put in the dust and remove it after about 30 mins to an hour. They must have bath time every second day and in wet weather, every day. If the dust is good, this will be enough. If it is sand, they will never be really clean. They will roll like crazy but you are bluffing yourself. If they do get clean it is not the sand, it is the baby powder and corn flour.
Imported dust is extremely expensive. The dust we use is a better quality sepiolite that is finer and is a lot cheaper. I can’t see the point in buying lower quality dust at a huge cost just because it is imported. The people who export it here imports it from Spain, re-packs it and sell it to you. The finer it is the higher the price. This is why it is so coarse.
This is the basics. A good cage that is prepared right, good food, no treats, good quality bath dust, wood to chew on and hay. They do not get sick easily and if they do it is often the food, treats or bad care.
All they need is to be loved, understood and well taken care of. Compared to other animals they don’t have to be expensive to care for, they are not that much work and they reward you with a lot of love.
They are just not for everyone so make very sure.