Chinchilla Care: Food
Chinchillas makes wonderful pets. They are curious and very intelligent. However, it’s important to remember that they need extremely specialized care in order for them to thrive in captivity. One of the most important aspects is chinchilla food and diet. Without proper nutrition, chinchillas can develop serious health problems and even die.
1. Diet: wild vs domestic
1.1 In the wild
Wild chinchillas have a relatively limited diet, due to the high altitude and cold climate in the andes mountains. Chinchillas are technically omnivores, though their wild diet consists of primarily grasses, roots, seeds. On occasion they will eat an insect or bird egg if it’s available. In the wild, chinchillas have very little fat or sugar in their diet.
1.2 In captivity
Domestic chinchillas that live in cages have adapted to allow a wider variety of foods in their diet, though they should be strictly vegetarian, just like guinea pigs. This being said, they still have very strict dietary needs. Their diet in captivity should consist primarily of specially formulated chinchilla pellets and fresh hay. Treats such as various fruits and veggies can also be given in moderation.
2. Chinchilla food and dietary needs
2.1 Chinchilla eating patterns
These rodents are crepuscular and nocturnal. This means they are most active at dawn and dusk, and sleep during the day. Dawn and dusk are also their primary active hours where you can let them out of their chinchilla cages. This will be the best time to hand feed your pet, or reward them with their favorite chinchilla dust bath.
You should plan to feed your chinchillas everyday at one of these times, though they should have access to fresh chinchilla food at all times. Chins like consistency in their feeding as well, meaning they adapt to routine well. Once you start feeding your chinchillas at the same time everyday, you may start to notice that they get very excited and/or greet you at the cage door.
If you leave pet food inside the chinchilla cage, try not to place it with near a chinchilla exercise wheel as the food might be covered by the dust that flies around.
2.2 Nutritional requirements
Small pets like chinchillas have very specific dietary needs. Their diets should consist of 30 percent fiber, 14-16 percent protein, 35 percent carbohydrates, 3.5 percent fat/oil, 4 percent sugar, 6 percent minerals and 7 percent moisture/trace elements. While this may seem confusing, all you have to do is buy nutritious pellets that are as close to these requirements as possible. Be sure to offer fresh hay at all times to meet fiber requirements as well.
2.3 Kits vs adults
For the first six to eight weeks, a baby chinchilla will nurse from its mother so you don’t have to worry about any special diet regimen for them. After weaning however, you should start introducing small amounts of pellets and fresh hay into the kits’ diet. They will typically eat about ½ to ¾ tablespoons or 7.1 to 10.6 grams of pellets per day, in addition to a small amount of hay.
Pellets are an essential part of your chinchillas’ diet. You should provide your chinchillas with fresh pellets every day at your regular feeding time. Pellets also help to wear down your chinchillas’ teeth and prevent them from becoming overgrown.
3.1 Types of chinchilla pellet food
It is important that you buy pellets labeled for chinchillas. If need be, you can also feed rabbit food or guinea pig food though there is a chance that your chinchillas nutritional needs won’t be met. Chinchilla pellets are typically alfalfa or timothy based with added vitamins and minerals.
When buying food for your chin, it’s important to steer clear of pellet mixes. These mixes often have additives such as seeds, corn and dried fruits. Other than dried fruit in moderation, these other added foods are extremely unhealthy for chinchillas. In addition, chinchillas are known to be picky eaters. This means that when given mixes, they tend to pick out the tasty items and leave the pellets behind. This can cause extreme nutritional deficiencies and early onset health problems.
There are many companies that produce chinchilla food pellets, though not all are created equal. The most popular brands of plain chinchilla pellets are Oxbow and Kaytee. Remember you should buy plain pellets, regardless of what the brands or pet store employees to try to tell you.
Oxbow is a great choice because it is high in fiber and low in fat, two crucial parts of a balanced chinchilla diet. It is alfalfa based. However, this chinchilla food is a little higher in protein than the recommended amount. Kaytee is another great option as it has the perfect amount of protein, low fat and high fiber. This food is timothy based rather than alfalfa. The moisture content in Kaytee food is a little bit higher than the recommended amount which also means it tends to not stay fresh as long.
3.2 Amount to give
Most chinchillas won’t overeat, so it’s important that they always have access to fresh pellets. On average, an adult chinchilla will eat 1 to 2 tablespoons or 20 grams of pellets a day. If you have several chinchillas sharing one habitat it can be helpful to spread out food bowls so they all get equal access to the pellets. Although, as mentioned previously, chinchillas seem to have a built in knowledge of when to stop eating so this isn’t always necessary provided your chinchillas are okay with sharing.
4. Chinchilla hay
Hay is the other crucial component in any healthy chinchilla’s diet.
4.1 Types of chinchilla hay
There are several types of hay, so it can be hard to know which one is best for your chinchillas’ health. Typically the best choices are timothy and alfalfa hay. The best brands for hay are the same as for pellets: Oxbow and Kaytee. Oxbow offers both timothy and alfalfa grass hay. Oxbow hays are what small animals and exotic veterinarians typically recommend. They are advertised to be hand picked and packaged to retain its freshness. Kaytee also has both timothy and alfalfa grass hay available. Kaytee hay is naturally sun-cured. Both brands are preservative and additive free.
4.1.1 Timothy hay
Timothy hay is perfect for healthy adult chinchillas. This hay has long sturdy stalks and is very helpful in keeping chinchilla teeth in check. It is lower in protein and energy, so it’s great for adult chinchillas who need to maintain their weight.
4.1.2 Alfafa hay
Alfalfa hay is higher in calories, and therefore provides chinchillas with more energy.
There are many stages in a pet chinchilla’s life where they have increased energy needs. During these periods it would be best to switch to alfalfa hay.
For example, pregnant and nursing mothers need significantly more energy than typical adult chinchillas. Not only will the mother need to keep her own weight up, she will need to support the life growing inside of her or the production of milk for her kits. Once the kits have stopped nursing you can switch back to timothy hay provided the mother is at a healthy weight.
Kits also require more energy, so they require alfalfa hay as well. They need these extra calories and energy to grow properly. After kits reach maturity around one year, they can switch back to timothy hay. Try to wean them off alfalfa hay before this point by mixing in timothy hay so their digestive systems aren’t shocked.
Sick and/or rehabilitating chinchillas as well as geriatric chinchillas can also benefit from alfalfa hay. Sometimes chinchillas in these conditions have a harder time keeping weight on and need more energy to function properly. For sick/rehabilitating chinchillas, extra energy is crucial in helping the body recover. For geriatric chinchillas, appetite may decrease as they age. Alfalfa hay can help to maintain a healthy weight by providing more calories and energy when they choose to eat.
Some adult chinchillas are incredibly active as well. They bounce around all day without stopping. These chinchillas can benefit from pet products like alfalfa hay a few times a week typically.
4.2 Amount to give
Again, chinchillas will not overeat so make sure to provide fresh hay at all times. Typically a chinchilla rodent will eat about a handful of hay every day, though offering more will not hurt. Make sure you replace the hay every day or every other day to ensure it stays fresh and void of excess moisture. If your hay becomes damp or smells musty/moldy at any point, throw it away immediately.
4.3 Ratio of hay to pellets
Chinchillas should eat more hay than pellets to maintain a balanced diet. On average a typical adult chinchilla will eat about a handful of hay every day. Hay is also a healthier choice over pellets for your chin’s digestion. Pellets are generally more fattening if given more than enough.
You don’t have to worry too much about providing a perfect ratio of hay to pellets as your chinchillas will determine this on their own. Make sure your chinchillas always have access to fresh hay and pellets and they’ll do the rest.
5. Chinchilla treats
5.1 Fruits & veggies
A chinchilla can eat several ‘human’ foods like fruits and carrots, just like a ferret or hamster. However not all are safe. As a general rule of thumb, small amounts of most dried fruits and root vegetables are okay for your chinchillas to consume. Most grocery stores sell dried or freeze-dried fruits with no additives or preservatives which are generally safe for your chinchillas.
5.2 Purchased from pets store
There is a large variety of treat mixes available at pet supplies stores for chinchillas. However, most of them are extremely unhealthy. If you choose to purchase treats from chinchilla supplies stores, make sure you avoid any mixes with nuts and sunflower seeds as they are high in fat. Chinchillas only require a small amount of fat in their diet which is usually achieved through their pellets. Dried fruit mixes are generally safe.
5.3 Words of caution
Treats should be given in moderation as they can easily disrupt the delicate nutritional balance that chinchillas require in their diets. Whenever possible, we should try to give hay as the primary diet because of the fibre that helps with the digestive system. Not all treats are bad though. I have heard that giving oats can help to grow really nice chinchilla fur.
A treat in controlled amount will ensure that your chinchilla remains happy and healthy. If you ever notice your chin having indigestion or diarrhea problem, do not hesitate to bring the pet to a vet.
6. Chinchilla chewing toys
6.1 Why the need for chew toys?
Chinchillas have open rooted teeth. This means that their teeth never stop growing. In fact, chinchilla teeth can grow upwards of 12 inches or 30 centimeters in a single year. This is why they are such avid chewers. You may have noticed that the chin will chew anything in sight and reach. You must provide your pets with adequate chinchilla food and additional chews to wear down their teeth.
If they do not have access to proper chew toys for chinchillas, their teeth can become overgrown and cause a multitude of health problems. In fact, their teeth can actually grow into the soft tissue of the mouth if not worn down. Visible symptoms of overgrown teeth include drooling, trouble swallowing, weight loss, lack of appetite, bad breath and protruding teeth. Chinchillas can starve to death if it is left untreated.
6.2 Types of chew toys
6.2.1 Wooden chinchilla hanging toys
Wooden chews are typically the safest choice for chinchillas, though certainly not the only one. Chew toys and wood chews will help to wear your chinchillas’ teeth down while providing enrichment and entertainment, which are crucial for their health as well. You can easily purchase one of these in a pet shop.
Here is a list of several chinchilla safe woods:
• Any wood from a fruit tree where the fruit produces seeds (apple, pear, etc.)
• Oven dried white pine
• Rose hip branches
• Crab Apple
7.1 What is caecotrophy?
Caecotrophy is the process of consuming ones own feces. Chinchillas digest their food twice through this process. The first time, the chinchilla food is fresh. The second time, it is partially broken down but still has remaining nutrients. Chinchillas only eat caecotrophs which are a special kind of nutrient dense feces that are typically passed at night and are darker in color.
7.2 Why do chinchillas do it?
Chinchillas partake in caecotrophy to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from their food. The caecotrophs are nutrient dense which is why the chinchillas eat them. If you see your chinchillas performing this process, don’t be alarmed as it is perfectly natural for them to do.
Fresh water needs to be available to your chinchillas at all times. Typically the best option would be a glass water bottle with a stopper feature. If you are able to attach a water bottle from the outside of the cage, then plastic is an option too. Plastic bottles are easily chewed up which renders them useless and can pose a potentially serious health concern for your chinchillas if the plastic is consumed.
Make sure you clean the water bottle every day or every other day at minimum to prevent unwanted bacteria and/or fungus from growing. Be sure to use a non toxic soap or pet safe solution such as apple cider vinegar mixed with warm fresh water.