You will not be surprised to learn that chinchillas have a lot of predators in the wild. Their natural instincts and fearful nature carry over into captivity and you may see a range of defensive behaviors.
These can range from defensive to attack minded behaviors, depending on the situation. You should be aware of fear triggers and the behaviors you may see. Rest assured, though, that there are measures you can take to make your chinchilla feel safer in their home.
What is a Chinchilla’s Defense Mechanism?
Every animal has their own unique “defense mechanism”. A defense mechanism refers to a set of behaviors or characteristics that the animals use to protect themselves. For chinchillas, this is mostly behavioral, though their design definitely helps them out a bit.
With chinchillas, most of their defense mechanisms come down to behavior. They exhibit both defensive and offensive type behaviors. For instance, more defensive behaviors include fur slips, jumping, barking, and escaping. More offensive, or attack minded, behaviors include those such as spraying and biting.
Chinchillas use these defense mechanisms when they are stressed or startled by various stimuli. In the wild, chinchillas are prey animals so they can be spooked by strange or sudden noises, smells, and sights.
How Do Chinchillas Defend Themselves?
There are several main ways that chinchillas can defend themselves. They will use these based on the exact nature of the threat. For instance, some of these are more escape minded methods which are used when they are already caught. Some of the other behaviors, though, serve as a warning against threats or predators. These defense mechanisms include:
- Fur slip
- Urine spray
Fur slips are a great way for chinchillas to escape attackers should they be grabbed or bitten. Fur slips can also occur if chinchillas are mishandled or if they knock themselves against something forcefully. This can sometimes be mistaken as shedding, though shedding is a natural process and not cause for concern.
Fur slips will leave a bald spot in the area of the slip but this fur does grow back. This defense mechanism allows the chinchilla to immediately shed the patch of fur that is grabbed or bitten by its attacker. This gives the chinchilla a chance to escape while the attacker is left with just a tuft of fur (source).
In captivity, you can prevent fur slips by building trust before handling, handling in a slow, gentle manner, and removing any possible stressors from the area.
Unlike some other types of pets, both male and female chinchillas can spray urine. Females tend to spray more often and are typically more accurate than males. The male’s spray also usually doesn’t reach as far as a female’s does. Both sexes use this as a defense mechanism.
Chinchillas may or may not go into a warning stance prior to spraying. What this means is that they will stand on their rear legs and shift their pelvis toward the threat. If their attacker doesn’t back off, then they will spray. This is not always the case, though, and chinchillas may spray immediately if feeling threatened.
Chinchillas can also exhibit a similar behavior to urine spraying. This is more of a warning than an actual attack but chinchillas may sometimes release scent glands. These glands give off highly unpleasant smells that ward off predators. For instance, these smells are said to be reminiscent of burnt almonds or vitamins.
Jumping Really High
Chinchillas are incredibly agile creatures with the ability to jump up to 6 feet in height and length. They can also jump onto furniture and cling to various surfaces which could cause injury. So, you will need to be careful about not scaring them and also providing a safe environment.
Chinchillas jump mainly in a defense manner, since this behavior is often used to flee a situation. Prior to jumping, they will stand up very tall so you will likely know when it’s coming. Chinchillas may also jump at one another or attackers in a more aggressive manner if they are threatened. This is a less likely use of this ability because, again, chinchillas are prey animals. So, their natural instinct is generally to try to flee a situation.
Chinchillas make a lot of noise and these various noises are used either to communicate with each other or to express an emotional/condition. These noises include cooing, barking, crying, and teeth chattering. Barking is used for several reasons such as a warning or distress call to other chinchillas, a way to ward off predators, and expressing anger or dominance toward each other.
A chinchilla bark will sound similar to that of a dog but in a much higher pitch. You can tell the bark from other noises by the sharpness of the sound as well as the number of barks. Generally, chinchillas will bark multiple times in quick succession when under duress.
This can be used in both an offensive and defensive manner. For instance, in a display of dominance, they will bark directly at one another or a predator and act aggressively. On the other hand, when threatened, they may bark to warn others and then go hide.
Great Escape Artists
Chinchillas are fantastic escape artists both in captivity and in the wild. When faced with danger, their first instinct is to try and escape. In the wild, their natural habitat is generally in rocky or mountainous areas. Following suit with this environment, chinchillas in captivity will try to escape into any small hole or burrow they can find.
Because of this defense mechanism, you will need to take special care in chinchilla-proofing your home. If they are out of their cage, be careful about letting them have access to any small spaces. They may also hide in furniture. In their cages, make sure they have rocks, faux burrows, and other decorative items that they can use to hide.
In addition, chinchillas are also very speedy little creatures that not only have the ability to find these spaces but they also have the speed to reach them quickly. Many chinchillas learn to keep their tails tucked as they are escaping to increase their speed and avoid being grabbed by predators.
Last Resort: Biting
Despite being prey animals, chinchillas can be tough little creatures when they need to be. When a chinchilla fights with an attacker or other chinchillas, they can cause some pretty severe damage and even death. Their bites are very strong and can easily draw blood from an attacker. Their teeth are also long and very sharp.
Chinchillas tend to bite more in captivity than in the wild because there is less chance of escape. Chinchillas will bite the source of the threat if they do not have an escape option.
For chinchilla owners, it is very important to provide them with hiding places and a chinchilla house with multiple exits. In addition, do not reach into the house and do not reach for the chinchilla suddenly. Even with a lot of trust built up, this may scare them and cause them to bite you.
What are Chinchilla Predators in the Wild?
Chinchillas do have it pretty rough in the wild. They are quick, smart, and defensive animals but they have a lot of predators to look out for. Depending on their specific habitat, they face danger from both the land and sky.
Owls and hawks will swoop down and pick them up while foxes, cougars, and snakes hunt them along the ground. Sadly, one of the chinchilla’s greatest predators of all is actually humankind. Chinchillas are unfortunately hunted for their fur (source).
In captivity, these natural prey instincts do not go away. Chinchillas will continue to be fearful of other pets, such as cats, dogs, and ferrets, as well as new people (RSPCA).
Chinchillas are prey animals and have a lot of defensive skills to keep them safe. In the wild, chinchillas face off against some fearsome predators and these defense mechanisms have carried over even into captive lifestyles. Some of these behaviors include fur slips, urine spraying, jumping, barking, escaping, and biting.
As a chinchilla owner, you will need to take precaution in setting up the environment. Take time to build trust with your chinchilla and continue to handle them with care if you want to avoid these behaviors. Chinchillas will also let you know when they do not want to be interacted with or when they want to be put down.
They may put their paws up as a way to “block” you from picking them up, vocalize, or nibble. You likely won’t see any overly aggressive behaviors as a result of this but ignoring these signs can lead to your chinchillas becoming quite defensive.
Chinchillas are great communicators and very friendly when they aren’t frightened. As long as you limit interaction with strange people or pets, odd smells and sounds, and sudden movements, you should not be seeing any of these defensive behaviors.