Related to guinea pigs, chinchillas are rodents who proudly sport the softest and densest fur of all the world’s animals. They hail from South America, where they have lived in the Andes mountain range since antiquity. Today they are popular pets, but they do require some specialised care in order to stay happy and healthy.
The natural colour of the chinchilla is grey, with hues of light, medium and dark, but over time breeders have introduced many mutations, from the lighter shades of beige and white to ebony, a deep black. But many new colours were created by breeding programmes and we are lucky in South Africa to now have most of these – grey, beige, pastel, black velvet, black ebony, violet, white mosaic, pink white, predominantly white, multi-coloured or pied.
Scientific name: C. Lanigera
Origin: South America
Height: about 30cm
Lifespan: 10-20 years
Appearance: The lanigera chinchilla is a common pet and the only domesticated chinchilla available in South Africa. He is a large grey rodent with a small, mouse-like face and pointy head shape. They have slim necks and shoulders. Lanigera chinchillas have long ears, long, furry tails and large, round eyes. The lanigera has dense fur that is soft to the touch
Temperament: Character and temperament vary in individual animals. This is often related to upbringing. If chins are handled by their breeders from an early age, they can become as tame as a house cat. Their temperaments are very cat-like – they like attention on their own terms but don’t like to be restrained in the arms or cuddled. They are as intelligent as marmoset monkeys
- Keep meals healthy
Keep your chinchilla’s diet the same without chopping and changing. To prevent health problems, chinchillas should be fed quality chinchilla pellets. Never feed them rabbit pellets. (Rabbit pellets can be very harmful, causing long-term problems, and can also eventually cause premature death in chinchillas). Timothy hay, eragrostis grass and/or teff should be available at all times to help with digestion. Make sure the hay is fresh and not mouldy. Feeding them the right pellets and a constant supply of hay will sufficiently meet all their dietary needs. Some breeders and pet shops do supply very good quality chinchilla pellets. A small amount of sunflower seeds (about five seeds per day per chinchilla) can be given. The seeds have essential oils, giving the chinchilla’s fur a shiny and smooth texture. The best time to feed your chinchillas is in the evening when they are most active.
Fresh water should always be available. Water forms an important part of the chinchilla’s health management. Water bottles should be cleaned at least once a week to prevent harmful bacteria from growing inside the bottle. Some owners use bottled water and never give their chinchillas water from the tap; others use boiled water that’s been cooled down.
- They need exercise
Active and inquisitive by nature, chinchillas need to spend some time outside of the cage every day (around half an hour to an hour a day and always under supervision, as they’ll chew furniture and electrical cords). They need to exercise and to satisfy their curiosity. Big cages are also advisable so they can run and jump as they like. Please note that chinchillas are routine animals – if you agree to let him out at a particular time each day, be sure to stick to this time. Chin-proof a room by removing all things that might pose a danger to your chinchilla. Hide all electrical cords. Keep detergents and other toxic solutions and chemicals out of reach. Close windows and holes to prevent your chinchilla from escaping. Remember that chinchillas are very curious and will always explore and taste whatever they can find in the room.
3. A dust bath a day keeps the doc away
Chinchillas enjoy a regular bath, but only in chinchilla dust. Chinchillas clean their fur by taking dust baths several times a week. They roll around in the container with the dust to make their fur soft and beautiful. You can also brush their coats out once a week with a soft brush. Do not leave the dust in the cage for too long though – five minutes are sufficient. Dust baths should be given at least twice a week.
Chinchillas must never get wet. If they do, they should be carefully dried as quickly as possible, because any moisture in their fur will cause harmful fungi to grow in the fur. Chinchillas have no noticeable odour and their fur is too thick for insect or parasite infestation. Being nocturnal, chinchillas should be kept in a quiet place, protected from noise and family activity during daytime.
- Keep it cool
Chinchilla cages must have good air circulation at all times. They cannot sweat and should therefore always be kept in temperatures lower than 25°C. Recommended temperatures range between18 and 20°C. Chinchillas who overheat can suffer from heatstroke, which is fatal. Always keep your chinchillas out of direct sunlight and make sure fresh water is always available. An air-conditioned room is best, otherwise you can use frozen containers of water, placed in the cage so they can lie up against these if necessary. Wet towels can also be used to cover one side of the cage. Heatstroke should be a primary concern to all chinchilla owners. They can tolerate cold temperatures far easier than heat. If housed in an air-conditioned room their coats thicken and improve. Chinchillas should preferably be kept indoors where the temperature can be controlled and monitored.
5. Make your chinchilla comfy
Wire cages are more hygienic but chinchillas cannot live on a wire floor all day. It is important to have solid sections in the cage so they can rest their feet. Chinchillas can be housed with others of the same sex, as long as they do not fight. Fighting or getting along depends on the individual animals. Conflict can be reduced by introducing chinchillas when they are still young. Males and females will get along well, although they must be spayed or neutered to avoid reproduction.
Chinchillas should have a large area with shelves or other obstacles such as platforms and ramps on which they can play and run around in. The cage should be taller than it’s wide, as the chinchilla’s natural environment is very mountainous. Chinchillas also need some form of stimulation such as hanging wooden toys, wooden sticks and chew toys made from pine. Plastic toys should be avoided at all times. Remember that chinchillas are rodents and will chew almost anything. Pine is a good choice for shelves and toys as this wood is safe for chewing.