Chipmunks - A Beginner’s Guide

A chipmunk is a type of small squirrel found almost exclusively in North America, although there is a type found in Asia. They are energetic, curious little creatures that do make great pets, but also require specialist care so may not be suitable as a child’s pet. They are expert climbers – choosing dense forests as their natural habitat and spend most of their time in the wild foraging for food.

All about chipmunks

There are approximately 25 types of chipmunks and in the wild they live for about three years. In captivity however they can live up to eight years so they are a long-term commitment. Like many rodents the chipmunk has pouches inside its cheeks in which it will store food to take to its burrow. Like many small mammals, the chipmunk will hibernate so this should be a consideration when thinking about taking on chipmunks as a pet. They will store food for hibernation so care should be taken to avoid disturbing their stores. Although they are extremely cute, they are tough little critters and will also make escape attempts if given the opportunity – make sure the mesh of their cage is no more than 1” across or you might find chipmunks hidden all over the house and chewing your houseplants!

Housing

Because they are very active little animals they should be given as much space as you can afford. A standard gerbil or hamster cage is not suitable for a chipmunk. They should be housed in a large aviary structure, with plenty of branches and foliage for them to climb and hide in. The minimum size for a chipmunk enclosure should be 4’ x 3’ x 4’ and the cage should have two or three solid sides with a mesh front. The base of inside or outside cages should be solid and covered with an appropriate substrate that can absorb moisture and mask odours. Peat, sawdust or paper is ideal. A double door should be considered to prevent any cheeky escape attempts, and as well as branches foliage for clambering and hiding, pipes, rocks and shelves can also be introduced to provided much-needed entertainment. If you are housing your pets outside they must have access to a covered area so they can escape the worst of the elements. A nest box is a necessity whether your chipmunks are housed inside or outside and one nest box 20cm x 20cm should be provided for each adult chipmunk. Bedding of hay or shredded paper should also be provided and extra bedding should be given if you have a nursing female. Chipmunks can be housed together, but care should be given to mixing males and females if you don’t want unexpected arrivals. Also, males should be separated when they reach maturity to prevent fighting. The cages should be cleaned often and the animals will use one corner as a toilet area – soiled substrate should be removed and replaced with fresh material on a daily basis. Nest boxes should be cleaned twice annually, although they should be left alone completely between September and March as the chipmunks are likely to store seeds in there as they prepare for hibernation. Heating is not necessary, but good ventilation is vital and the cage should be completely mouse-proof to avoid infection.

Diet

Natural foragers, chipmunks will eat a wide variety of nuts, berries, insects, grubs and cereals in the wild and there are many commercial feeds available that replicate this naturally mixed diet. A basic feeding regime of cereals with the regular addition of vegetables and a few nuts, as well as a little bit of fruit. Protein can also be offered in the shape of meat or a little egg. Chipmunks will also thrive on a basic hamster feed, providing it is supplemented with some of the items mentioned above. Some dry dog or cat food can also add additional protein. Certain foods such as peanuts and seeds should only be offered in limited amounts and green leafy vegetables should also be offered in small amounts. It should be noted that chipmunks do enjoy a very varied diet and different, appropriate foods, should be given often although only in small amounts. To keep your pet’s teeth in tip-top condition, dry wholemeal pasta can be given as it makes a perfect gnaw. Fresh clean drinking water should always be available and offered in a gravity bottle or in a heavy based bowl to avoid spillages.

Handling a chipmunk

If you allow your chipmunks time each day to roam around the house they will quickly become used to your presence and many owners report their pets enjoy nothing more than sitting on their owner’s shoulder as they read or watch TV. As they have not been domesticated for very long, chipmunks are considered semi wild. They can resist being picked up – much preferring hiding in the leaves with their friends. Having said that, if they are given the opportunity to spend plenty of time with their owners from an early age, they can be trained to respond to names and the names of foods. Any work taming your chipmunks should be started when they are young, and although they can display very distinct personalities and sometimes even appear a little grumpy. It’s important to remember that a chipmunk will not show the same adoration and loyalty as a pet dog and their personalities cannot be guaranteed. However if you get your animals from a reputable breeder at least you know they will be used to human interaction. As very active prey animals, chipmunks can also be quite nervous. Rapid movement or loud noise should be avoided if you want to tame your pet. They are not animals for those who like to cuddle their pets, although they may come to you at feeding time and enjoy a seat on your shoulder as already mentioned. Remember, chipmunks are social animals so they should never be housed alone and by interacting with their pals they will provide you with hours of entertainment.


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