Chinchilla basics

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Staff member
Jan 28, 2009
South Dakota
Chinchilla Basics, written by Steph

A few basic necessities when housing and caring for Chinchillas are:

A cage: Chinchillas require a large cage if they will be spending most of their time in it. It should be deep and wide but not excessively tall unless specific precautions are taken (see further down in this section for information on using taller cages). While jumping and perching are vital to a Chinchilla's health and well being, they have been known to injure themselves missing a very high jump. A good rule of thumb is 2x2x2 per Chinchilla. This is a bare minimum of width, depth, and a maximum for height, you can cage Chinchillas in a cage taller than this but please make sure the shelves are graduated so they aren’t jumping from the very top level to the floor as they can break their legs very easily. Kits should never be allowed shelves more than 6 inches off the cage floor. Also VERY important when choosing a chinchilla cage, if there is a wire bottom it MUST have very, very small wiring. Solid steel or sealed wooden, bottoms are the best choice you can make. Chinchillas can get their tiny feet caught in the wires and break their legs causing severe injury resulting in amputation or death. If you are considering a kit then it is important that the side bars also be spaced no wider than 1 inch. I have seen babies squeeze out of wires spaced smaller than you can imagine! Chinchilla cage wire should be galvanized after weld only or have a non-toxic coating. Even some non-toxic coatings can cause health problems in Chinchillas especially those coated with a loose epoxy coating that they can chew off so cages with wire that is galvanized after weld are the best choice. When you first get a new cage it’s a good idea to soak it in a tub full of a mixture with 50% Vinegar and 50% water, this will neutralize any zinc remaining on the cage wires after weld. Cages galvanized with zinc are toxic to Chinchillas, zinc itself is toxic to Chinchillas, cages galvanized after weld are generally not galvanized with zinc but it’s a good idea to neutralize it just in case.

A Sleeping Box: A sleeping box is very important to your Chinchilla. They need a place they can sleep and nest and feel safe and secure. They also need the dark during the day. Make sure your sleeping box is made of wood or metal and that any screws or nails holding it together are fully counter sunk and not visible to your eye. If at any time you do notice a nail or screw you must either counter sink the nail/screw again or throw the house away and get a new one as your Chinchilla will chew it and they could break their teeth on it. If wooden shelves become soiled you can easily sand down the other surfaces and make it good as new keeping in mind the need to watch for screws or nails. Many sleeping boxes/houses are made with non-toxic wood glue or special glue specifically used to build rodent houses. Plastic Igloos and other such sleeping arrangements are not advised because they will chew it and plastic in large quantities is not good for their digestion and can become lodged in their digestive tract and cause an impaction.

A Bath House, Bowl or Box: Chinchillas need their dust baths no less than 3 times a week. We give our Chinchillas their baths every other night during their free time. It is very important not to leave your Chinchillas bath in the cage with them. They will poop, pee, and sleep in it and it can actually have the reverse effect. To keep your Chinchilla looking, smelling, and feeling its best you must offer it a bath separate from the cage floor 3 times a week at the MINIMUM. Super pet makes a very nice bath house for Chinchillas; you can also use a corner litter pan you would find for ferrets, or a small kitty litter box. Another good choice is a pie plate. The 9 inch pie plates are the perfect size. Make certain if you use any kind of glass or ceramic dust bath house/pan that you are there to supervise and NEVER place it on a shelf. For Kits you can use a small ceramic bowl if you prefer. If your Chinchilla is not used to the bath house and you choose to use one you may have to show them what it’s for. Some Chinchillas prefer to not use an enclosed bath house so if your Chinchilla doesn’t seem to get the hang of a bath house after the first couple of tries then you’ll have to go to an alternate method.

Food: A good Pellet food is essential. We use Mazuri Chinchilla feed although we are considering switching to Tradition. Rabbit or horse feeds are really not recommended for Chinchillas as they are often lacking in some of the key nutrients Chinchillas need and sometimes they have more fat or less fiber content than Chinchillas really need or require. A Chinchilla food is much more preferable if one is available to you.

Along with the pellets Chinchillas need Alfalfa or Timothy Hay. You can buy it in bales, cubes, or small portions. We use Alfalfa cubes at present, not my favorite choice, but much better than the alternatives of no hay or moldy hay. I much prefer Timothy Hay but we just don't have it available to us... Please when choosing your hay; make sure it is dry and crisp and not damp or moldy. Reach in to the center of the bail and pull out pieces from various areas, a lot of times we have been able to get a bail that looks good until we get to the inner layers. You can purchase hay online in small quantities, and if you only have one Chinchilla that is a great way to go. If their food is Alfalfa based they should really eat Timothy hay to balance it out but if you’re in an area like we are sometimes that’s just not possible and in that case Alfalfa can be used or you can go with Brome or Blue Grass. Be sure to store your hay properly. Keep it up off of the floor to keep mice and other foraging wildlife at bay. A cardboard box with holes cut in to the side is a great hay storage container. Never seal your hay in an airtight container, if moisture is present in the hay or the container you could promote mold growth in the hay which could be deadly to your Chinchilla.

Food dishes need to be either metal, edible wood, a gravity feeder which hangs from the cage, or ceramic, if you have a ceramic bowl it should be heavy enough it will not get dumped over and never placed on a shelf. I prefer the gravity feeders that hang from the cage because they don't get pooped in and dumped over as easily, we use Terra Cotta herb pots or Chimneas for hay bins again making sure they are not on a shelf and we anchor ours to the cage with wire. You must be sure to clean the pellets out each evening and to not overfeed as they will most likely waste half of it anyway. Never leave pellets in the cage for more than one evening as they too can mold and go bad. Plastic bird feeding trays are not a good idea for the same reason other plastics are not.

Treats: Chinchillas LOVE treats! It is very important however to not overfeed treats as it is simply not good for them. A good rule of thumb is one treat per night. I know 1 raisin seems like nothing but believe me they enjoy it! Our Chinchillas love Cheerios, just plain old Cheerios, not the sweetened kind or a piece of Shredded Wheat, we don’t feed raisins or other similar sugary treats. Do not give treats to chins who are less than 6 months old. Some other good treats are: Rose Hips and Apple Chew Sticks, you can also purchase wonderful oat supplements from many of the larger ranchers and some of the hobby breeders; these make great treats although they are not treats you can feed from your hand. We only give our Chins treats during weigh in or when we need to bribe them to pose for a picture or submit to a hair ring check; otherwise they get different woods and an oat supplement. Again remember not to give them too many treats!!

Bedding: Some people prefer to not give their Chinchillas bedding. Ours have Kiln Dried Pine Bedding. This is a personal choice but you must consider a few things. First of all the Chinchilla will chew it so whatever you purchase MUST not be treated with chemicals. Secondly they will throw the litter if it is within reach. Third, Cedar is a BIG NO! The chemicals in Cedar shavings when mixed with urine and feces can be fatal and if not immediately fatal can cause severe lung damage or damage to the eyes from the phenols put off by the Cedar. I prefer not to buy Pine bedding from the feed store. Although it comes in much bigger bags it is generally not as dried thus it produces more dust and can have a few other goodies in it such as pieces of cardboard, plastic, or anything else that could have gotten mixed in. The smaller the Pine Shavings the better it is as a rule. Be sure to change your litter a minimum of once a week to keep your Chinchilla looking and feeling their best, Chinchillas when properly cared for should emit no odor from themselves or the bedding so if you notice an odor the cage isn’t clean enough!!
Water: Chinchillas must have fresh water daily. A water bottle attached to the outside of the cage is the only acceptable way in my opinion. Chinchillas should not get wet unless it's an absolute emergency, it can be fatal so a water dish in the cage is a bad idea. If you hang their water bottle inside the cage they will chew it until it leaks and this can cause them to get wet. Glass water bottles are wonderful because they are easily thrown in to the dishwasher to be disinfected and they can’t be chewed even by the most determined of Chinchillas. If you have problems with your Chinchillas chewing through the water bottles when placed on the outside of the cage you can slip a piece of sheet metal (galvanized after weld if they have any access to it) between the water bottle and the cage side. Make sure there are no protruding sharp edges your Chinchilla could injure themselves on.

A Wheel and Other Toys: A wheel is quite important to a happy Chinchilla, especially one that is cage bound all of the time. If your Chinchilla is allowed free run time, then this may be foregone if it is absolutely necessary but Chinchillas are very active animals so a wheel is quite preferred. Again, make sure the wheel is "Chinchilla Safe" in that it has a solid running surface so they do not cause injury to themselves and that it has no cross bars a Chinchilla could get a leg or tail caught in. Bucket wheels are the best choice just make sure they are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the Chinchilla when full grown. Other toys in the cage are a good idea as well. Wooden chew toys that hang from the cage are perfect. There are some homemade ones that work very well. Also, wooden hamster and gerbil chews are usually safe. Anything that is made of edible, untreated wood is probably safe but if you are in doubt you should check with your breeder, pet shop, or Vet. Generally anything that is safe for parrots is safe for Chinchillas.

A Trusted, Responsible Pet Sitter: If you go on vacation you must make sure your Chinchilla has its food, water, baths, free time, and treats, since you won’t be there to do so you will need a trusted pet sitter. It’s never ok to leave your Chinchilla home and unattended for more than about 24 hours. If a water bottle was to leak, your furnace was to stop working, your air conditioner should stop working, their food supply became contaminated, your Chinchilla should take ill, or wildlife happened to wander in to your Chinchilla’s habitat the consequences could be disastrous so you must always be prepared. It’s a great idea to have a credit card number on file with your vet in case of emergencies. You can authorize the use of it when you are going to be out of town should your pet sitter come across an emergency or even work something out ahead of time with your vet so they know you will be gone and they can treat your Chinchilla in your absence. It is very important to be prepared for every eventuality, when you aren’t home. A sticker for your window or door alerting emergency personnel you have Chinchillas inside is a must, you can get them from most emergency agencies, ASPCA Offices, Shelters, Humane Societies, and even in some pet stores. It’s also a good idea to make certain a nearby neighbor knows you will be out of town and can keep an eye out for anything odd or emergent going on at your house. Finally it never hurts to make a phone call to your local rescue agencies informing them of the kind of pets living in your home should an emergency arise. If you don't do this you could come home to a very unhappy (or dead) Chinchilla and they can be quite ornery when they are mad!!

Time: Chinchillas need play time and companionship every day if you want them to be friendly and to trust you. I recommend no less than 30 minutes of SUPERVISED free roam time in a "Chinchilla Proof" room per night, (this is a good time to offer their bath). You should never take a new Chinchilla out for free time until they are completely comfortable with you. Chasing a Chinchilla to place them back in their cage is not good for them and raises stress levels which could lead to diarrhea, loss of appetite, lethargy, etc... Not to mention Chinchillas do not forget such things and will continue to be afraid of you.

Vet Care: This is of the utmost importance. You must be able to find a vet that is skilled in Chinchilla care or willing to learn what is necessary to care for them. While Chinchillas are a generally healthy species and with the proper conditions may never need vet care, they can injure themselves by cutting themselves on wires, breaking their legs, getting a cold, watery eyes, etc... Even the cleanest of Chinchilla rooms does not assure you won’t end up with a health problem in your Chinchilla so you must always be prepared. Also a good vet is vital in case your Chinchilla should ever succumb to Malocclusion which can be very expensive and difficult to treat it also takes someone with a lot of knowledge on the working of rodent teeth.
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