Chinchillas - Owning

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

The chinchilla is a rodent closely related to the guinea pig. They originate in South America, where they live in the Andes Mountains. Their life expectancy is 15-20 years. Chinchillas weigh 400-600 grams, and females are slightly larger than males. They are nocturnal animals, meaning they are most active at night and prefer to sleep during the day. The breeding season for chinchillas is generally from November through April or May. Like their relatives, guinea pigs, chinchillas are born with eyes open, fully furred, and active.

What are chinchillas like as pets?

Chinchillas can make fun, enjoyable pets. They are quiet, shy animals that rarely bite. Because they are fast and agile, they love to climb and jump. They require a cage with a wheel to run in to help them maintain their health and strength.

They occasionally get sick, and their illnesses are often severe. A qualified veterinarian should examine all pet chinchillas within 48 hours of purchase and at least annually thereafter. This first exam is critical to detect signs of disease and help new pet owners start on the right foot. So many problems are caused by misinformation; the first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from doing something wrong that could cause their pet's early death.

Chinchillas have a digestive tract specialized for digesting large amounts of fiber (like other rodents and rabbits). Like all rodents, their teeth grow continuously throughout life. Dental problems are common and require timely attention from an experienced small mammal veterinarian.

"Like all rodents, their teeth grow continuously throughout life."

Chinchillas can exhibit ‘fur slip’, which is the release of big clumps of fur if they are handled roughly, or their fur grasped too tightly. This is a defense mechanism they have developed to get away from predators.

Chinchillas love (and NEED) daily dust baths to help keep down the oil in their coats and keep them clean.

How do I select a healthy pet chinchilla?

Chinchillas are usually purchased from pet stores, breeders, and exotic pet shows. As with any pet purchase, avoid chinchillas that seem too quiet or ill. Chinchillas should be bright and alert and move quickly when startled. Avoid pets with closed eyes or discharge from the eyes or nose. Check the ears for redness or excess wax, which might indicate an infection. If possible, examine the teeth and make sure the incisors (front teeth) are not overgrown. The pet should feel neither fat nor thin. You should be able to feel the ribs with just a small amount of fat over them. Check the anal area for diarrhea or wetness, which may indicate a gastrointestinal infection.

Your chinchilla should come with a health guarantee that requires a checkup by a veterinarian within a few days (usually 48 hours) after purchase. Find a veterinarian experienced with chinchillas.

What happens at visits to the veterinarian?

All pets, including chinchillas, need regular examinations.

The first visit will include a weight check and a thorough physical examination to look for abnormalities. Your chinchilla will be examined for signs of dehydration and malnutrition. A fecal test will check for internal parasites. Your veterinarian may suggest blood testing if a problem is suspected. The veterinarian can also determine the sex of your pet.

"The first visit will include a weight check and a thorough physical examination to look for abnormalities."

At every visit, your veterinarian should examine the front teeth (incisors) and the cheek teeth. Male chinchillas should be examined yearly for penile hair rings (loose fur that becomes trapped on the sheath of the penis). Chinchillas should be examined, and their feces checked at least once yearly.

Do pet chinchillas need vaccinations?

Pet chinchillas do not require vaccinations.

Are there additional handouts I should read if I have a pet chinchilla?

Yes. For further important information about pet chinchillas, please read the following handouts:

  • “Chinchillas – Feeding”
  • “Chinchillas – Housing”
  • “Chinchillas – Problems”
  • “Chinchillas – Health Conditions”
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