These animals are becoming increasingly popular as pets for homes all over the United Kingdom, often due to their attractiveness and lovely soft dense fur. Because they have been being kept as pets for a short amount of time, scientists and veterinary experts are still learning about the species.
In this Pets4Homes article, we take a look at what it means to look after one of these animals and the commitment that it takes to care for them properly. Only by understanding their needs fully, can they have a great quality-of-life and established themselves firmly as one of the family.
When these first came to be looked after in the UK as a pet they were pretty much unheard of – many people thought a chinchilla was a type of Mexican dish! They are actually a rodent that hails from living in the Andes mountains in South America.
In the mountains, they live in colonies which are referred to as herds and in the wild are now only found in Chile. In captivity, chinchillas are still bred for fur, a practice that dates back to the 16th century. The fur trade and the requirement for garments in historical times even led to the extinction of one of the three types of chinchilla.
This is where the long-term commitment comes in if you have a chinchilla as a pet. With the right care and environment, a chinchilla can live up to 20 years. Of course, this means anyone wishing to have a chinchilla as a pet needs to seriously consider whether one of these lovely rodents is right for them. This is not just in terms of time, but financial considerations as well – some chinchillas may require regular veterinary visits.
The main diet should always be made up of hay, and this should be available to them at all times, allowing them to help grind down their ever-growing teeth. In addition to hay, you can also feed them grass-based chinchilla food each day but following the instructions on the packets carefully as it is easy to overfeed them.
As a treat, they can have a small amount of root vegetable or dried fruit. As there is too much fat in nuts and seeds, these should be avoided in a chinchilla’s diet.
Finally, always make sure fresh water is available for them to drink.
Chinchillas require a good space that is completely ventilated and dry. If they have living quarters where it is too warm (they prefer 10°C to 18°C), wet, or draughty it can make them ill. Ideally, they should have a large metal cage or even a whole room with a solid floor. They need plenty of places where they can climb and jump, so horizontal ledges, branches, ramps and different levels are a must, as they will also rest on these. They also need keeping away from other pets that can easily stress them.
The main problems they seem to get are dentistry issues – and this is where normally the teeth that grow constantly do not meet properly so need trimming regularly. This allows them to eat comfortably but can prove stressful for repeat visits to the vets.
Stress is a big factor in chinchillas, they easily feel stressed if the situation they are in challenges them. They can even become vocal. Other signs of stress injuries include chewing their own fur, hiding, racing around the cage, drinking excess water, also their feeding patterns may change.
Chinchillas are sociable animals and will happily live with another one or more chinchilla friends. They also like human interaction, but do not like being picked up or handled. A chinchilla that is being handled is likely to struggle and may even injure the hand of the person trying to hold them.
They are mainly sociable with other chinchillas during hours of darkness at night, they actually prefer 12 hours of darkness where they explore and feed, as well as socialising with other chinchillas in the living quarters. At times they do like their own company, so should be able to hide away from any companions in their own private area of the cage.
Chinchillas are amazingly athletic, although they look like they don’t move that much, they can jump to a height of 6 foot from the floor. That is the equivalent of them jumping to the top of a fridge freezer! This is why there should be areas within their living quarters to make sure they can exercise like this, without obstacles causing any injury.
Another quirk is that they are easily startled by loud noises – which can cause a stress response. When around chinchillas always use a low voice and do everything calmly to avoid upsetting them.
If a chinchilla does become upset, they may even lose patches of fur as this is one response to them feeling stressed. Stress can be bought on from simple handling of the chinchilla, so if you do handle them make sure they are away from shelving units that they can jump out of your hands and climb up, which can cause injury.
Ideally handling, if it is done, should be near to the floor so if they do struggle, they will not do so from a height.
As mentioned above, chinchillas spend most of their days asleep and are active at night. This means they are not an ideal pet for a young child, rather an older child or adult should take responsibility for looking after them.
One last quirk is that chinchillas like to explore everything with their mouths. This means the environment around them is tasted or chewed to satisfy their curiosity – it’s the way they learn.
If you are thinking of owning a chinchilla, please do some further research, or talk to your vet, other chinchilla owners, or even attend a chinchilla club. With the right care, calmness, and attention a domestic chinchilla makes a lovely pet.