All About Chinchillas
Chinchillas are small rodents native to the Andes Mountain range in South America. They first appeared around 41 million years ago. Chinchillas are incredibly agile and adapted to mountainous and rocky terrain. They can jump up to six feet or 183 centimeters in one go. Nowadays, their curious and independent nature in addition to their soft, luxurious fur make them popular pets.
For centuries, chinchillas were commonly hunted for their fur. In fact, they were nearly hunted to extinction by the early 1900s. However, due to their swift population decline many countries including Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia banned the hunting of wild chinchillas. There are currently two remaining species of chinchillas remaining in the wild, short and long-tailed. Although illegal, excessive hunting is beginning to threaten their conservation once again. Both species are currently on the endangered species list.
Chinchillas are relatively small rodents (23-38 centimeters or 9-15 inches long), similar in size to guinea pigs. They have short forelimbs and long, powerful hind legs that help them be able to jump great heights. They have big eyes, usually black or dark ruby red in color, and large, rounded ears. Domesticated chinchillas typically have long and bushy tails. Chinchillas are very vocal creatures, with at least seven specific sounds.
House-kept chinchillas are thought to be a hybrid between both the long and short-tailed species found in the wild, although their genes are closer to the long-tailed. Domestic chinchillas are also substantially larger than their wild counterparts. Wild chinchillas typically way between 500 and 600 grams (1.1-1.3 pounds), while domestic chinchillas can weigh upwards of 1000 grams (2.2 pounds).
In the wild, chinchillas typically have a mostly grey and brown body with tinges of yellow on their bellies. Through selective breeding in captivity however, many color patterns have been introduced and now you can find several different colors of chinchillas. Chinchilla fur is also incredibly thick, with up to 50 hairs growing from a single follicle.
The most common color pattern is the “standard grey” in which the animal has a dark grey body and a white belly. In addition to standard grey, there are seven other main color patterns: white, heterozygous beige, homozygous beige, violet, sapphire, charcoal and ebony. Some breeders offer other color mutations as well, however they all stem from the main eight.
Wild chinchillas usually live around five years. In captivity on the other hand, chinchillas are known to live upwards of 15 and even 20 years in some cases. This is due to access to proper nutrition and husbandry, as well as the elimination of predators and sometimes harsh weather.
In the wild, chinchillas live very high up in the Andes Mountain range where the elevation reaches upwards of 5000 meters or 16,400 feet in burrows and rock crevices. Due to the high elevation, the temperature can drop down to -5ºC or 23ºF. Their thick, dense fur enables them to survive in these well below freezing temperatures. Chinchillas cannot tolerate high temperatures however. Any temperature above 27ºC or 80ºF or high levels of humidity, and they are at risk of heat stroke and death.
In the Wild
In the wild, they have many predators including foxes, felines, owls, hawks and other birds of prey. The foxes are not native to the region, but were introduced by European settlers for hunting purposes. This has enabled chinchillas to develop a technique called a ‘fur slip’. When a predator tries to grab hold of a chinchilla, it will dislodge some of its fur allowing it to escape. While handling your chinchilla it’s important to make sure they feel comfortable and don’t feel the need to escape, as they can be quite hard to catch once loose. When selecting your chinchillas, look for animals that are well socialized and used to being handled.
Chinchilla as Pets
In captivity, chinchillas need ample space to move and jump. There are several styles of cages designed specifically for chinchillas, typically multilevel. When choosing a cage it’s important to buy one made of metal or another chew-proof material. Chinchillas are known for their chewing habits and we will go over the reason behind this shortly.
Be sure to avoid placing your cage in direct sunlight or in rooms that go above 24ºC or 75ºF. Choose a place low in humidity and free of drafts or other heat sources. Also ensure that the cage is not close to any electrical wires to avoid a potential electrocution. Be sure your chinchillas will not be able to grab anything from outside the cage, as they are very intelligent little creatures.
You will also need to incorporate a lot of enrichment options to keep your chinchillas entertained, as they need high amounts of mental stimulation. Most pet stores will offer toys designed specifically for chinchillas. Toys can include wooden blocks, pumice stones, etc. Many chinchilla owners will also introduce a large wheel, similar to what a hamster would run on. Most chinchillas greatly enjoy them. Try to incorporate these items throughout the habitat and rotate them every so often as to prevent boredom.
Another important factor when designing your chinchilla habitat is that they need access to dust baths. Because their fur is so thick, they cannot get wet. This means in order to clean themselves and free their fur of any excess oil buildup, they need to bathe in dust.
Many pet stores will sell contraptions designed for chinchillas to take their ‘baths’ in while keeping the rest of their environment dust free. It is natural instinct for chinchillas to take these ‘baths’ so don’t worry about training your animals to use the container or bath house. Be sure to purchase proper dust as well. In the wild they use volcanic pumice, so most store bought brands are designed to mimic this as closely as possible.
Chinchillas are crepuscular and nocturnal, meaning they are most active at dawn/dusk and they sleep during the day. They are also incredibly social creatures, often living in colonies of hundreds or more in the wild. This is why it’s crucial to get at least two chinchillas, as they can actually die of depression when kept alone.
When selecting your pair (or more) of chinchillas, it’s important to take into consideration the social patterns between the sexes. Both sexes can be aggressive towards animals of the same sex, unless they are raised together from birth. Most people typically choose to get a male and female pair. Keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to spay/neuter chinchillas, so be prepared for babies at some point if you have a male/female pair.
Wild chinchillas have a relatively limited diet, due to the cold climate and high altitude. They are omnivores who typically consume various grasses, seeds and possibly the occasional insect or bird egg. In the wild, their diets are nearly void of sugar and fat.
On the other hand, domestic chinchillas are more adapted to a wider variety diet. Most pet stores will sell specially formulated chinchilla pellets, but if they are hard to come by, rabbit and guinea pig pellets will work as well. You should also supplement their diet with fresh grass hay. In addition, you can feed your chinchillas various leafy greens and some fruits. Be sure to research any new food before giving it to your chinchillas. Also make sure your chinchillas’ food is always fresh, replace daily if need be.
It is also crucial to remember that chinchillas’ teeth never stop growing. In fact, they can grow upwards of 12 inches or 30 centimeters in just one year. This is why they are such avid chewers and why they will chew anything in sight if they don’t have access to proper chew toys. You need to include ample chew options in your habitat to avoid harmful overgrowth of their teeth.
Caecotrophy for Nutrition
Chinchillas also partake in a process known as caecotrophy. This means that they digest their food two times. The first time is consuming the food fresh. The second time is through their excretions, which they consume to absorb more nutrients. However, caecotrophy means that they only consume caecal feces. This type of feces is typically produced at night and still contains nutrients which the chinchilla then consumes a second time.
As far as water, the best option is typically a glass bottle with a stopper feature. Chinchillas will chew on plastic bottles, rendering them useless. If you can attach the water bottle from the outside of the cage, the material doesn’t matter as much. Be sure your chinchillas have access to clean and fresh water at all times. Remember to clean the water bottle thoroughly every other day to prevent unwanted bacteria or mold buildup.
If you have a male and female pair of chinchillas, chances are you will have babies at some point. Baby chinchillas are called kits and are born fully developed, meaning their eyes are open and they have all their fur. Domestic chinchillas will breed year round, typically producing two litters per year.
The gestation period for a female chinchilla is roughly 111 days. A typical litter can consist of anywhere from one to six kits, the average being two or three. Both parents will help take care of the kits so it’s not necessary to remove the male, like with many other species.
The kits will nurse for six to eight weeks, after which they are considered sexually mature. At this point it is very important to separate the male and female kits from each other as well as from the parents, so as to prevent any inbreeding. If a female mates too early, she can suffer problems with the pregnancy and in delivering the kits as her body will not have yet reached its full size yet.
Fun Chinchilla Facts
- Chinchilla fur is the softest fur in the world.
- Chinchillas have thicker blood than most other rodents, with more red blood cells and therefore more oxygen. This is why they are so well acclimated to high elevations where the air is thinner.
- If a chinchilla mother is unable to produce milk, another female will often step in and raise the kits as her own.
- Chinchillas have poor eyesight, but are able to feel their way around with the help of their whiskers. Their whiskers are incredibly long, usually half the length of their body or more.
- One square centimeter of a chinchilla’s fur can contain over 20,000 hairs.
- Chinchilla fur is so dense that it prevents parasites like fleas from being able to survive in it. They will actually die of suffocation.
- Chinchillas can sleep in many positions. Domestic chinchillas will typically sleep upright or on their side. Wild chinchillas have been known to even sleep upside down.
- Chinchillas have hairless paw pads, which help them to grip the rocky terrain in their native habitat.
- The name chinchilla comes from the Chincha people, who are also indigenous to the Andes. The Chincha people often wore the fur of chinchillas to protect themselves from the elements. The word “chinchilla” literally translates as “little Chincha”.
- Chinchilla fur, in addition to being incredibly soft and dense, also produces very little dander making them hypoallergenic.
- If a chinchilla gets wet, their fur will be unable to dry due to its thickness. In fact, fungal infections and even mold can occur. Therefore, avoid getting your chinchillas wet at all costs. Instead provide dust baths as mentioned previously.
- Chinchillas are unable to sweat, which is partly why they are so prone to heat stroke in high temperatures.
- They have a hearing range similar to that of a human’s, although their ears are much bigger so they are may be more sensitive to sound then we are.
- Chinchillas eat their food upright, holding it in their paws. It’s an adorable sight to see!
- A single fur coat made of chinchilla fur can take as many as 200 pelts. This is part of the reason they were almost hunted to extinction.
- Because chinchillas ears are so similar to ours, they are commonly kept in labs for auditory research and experiments.
- A “Colony” refers to a group of chinchillas.
If you are considering getting chinchillas, be sure to take into consideration their many dietary, environmental and social needs. Also keep in mind their long lifespan, as they will be part of your life for quite some time. Overall, chinchillas are great pets and can thrive in the right conditions.