Written by Dianne Cook, LVT
Chinchillas are one of the most intriguing (not to mention adorable) exotic companion mammals we have ever brought into our homes. With thick, ultra-plush fur, a squirrel-like tail, and big, soulful eyes, it’s nearly impossible to not become completely enamored with these docile little creatures. Adding a chinchilla (or better yet, two) to your furry family is certain to bring years of entertaining companionship, but there are a few unique facets to their care necessary to keep them healthy. One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of chinchilla pet parenthood is a chinchilla’s need for regular access to dust baths.
Chinchillas maintain their enviable, luscious locks thanks to sheer density. They boast an average of 60-70 hairs sprouting from each follicle, awarding them the title of densest fur of any land mammal. In comparison, the majority of mammals, including humans, only produce one hair per follicle! As you can imagine, that thick, luxurious coat serves multiple key functions but does not dry easily. As a result, is best to try to avoid getting chinchillas wet, as moisture can get trapped close to the skin which can lead to multiple types of skin disease, including pyoderma (infection of the skin) and dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). In lieu of soap and water, chinchillas “bathe” in fine dust which helps evenly distribute natural oils, clears away dirt and debris, and keeps their fur silky soft.
In their native, arid habitats in the mountainous regions of South America, chinchillas use volcanic ash to keep clean. Though most chinchilla parents do not live in an area which provides natural access to this specialized type of ash, pre-packaged products are available. Just like nutrition, however, it is important to select a product that is not only appropriate for your chinchilla’s needs, but is also high-quality. It is essential to find a product that is 100% volcanic ash and has been sourced and produced without the use of chemicals. There are many chinchilla dust products of varying quality on the market. Some have a coarser consistency, similar to sand, but it is important to choose a quality product with finer, silky particles. Sand is not nearly as effective at absorbing the natural oils chinchillas produce, and the grains can get trapped at the base of their hair, potentially causing skin irritation and/or infections. Due to this, it is important to only utilize high-quality volcanic chinchilla dust, and never use sand or dust-like products packaged for other exotic companion animals, regardless of how similar they appear.
Chinchillas are active and agile creatures by nature, and when provided a dust bath, they instinctually flip, roll, and shimmy, kicking up generous plumes as they work the dust from hair tip to root. They are so efficient in their dusty dance, in fact, that one inch of dust in the bottom of an appropriate dust bath enclosure is all that is needed to ensure complete coverage. Many pet parents use bowls or litter pans for their little ones’ dust baths, while others opt for enclosed plastic or wooden bathhouses to help keep the dust somewhat contained. When choosing a dust bath container, the most important aspects are ensuring it is both stable and a little larger than the chinchilla itself so there is ample room for their dust-wielding acrobatics.
Over-bathing can cause chinchillas’ skin, feet, and ears to dry out, so it is important to limit bath-time to 2 – 4 times a week based on each individual chinchillas’ needs. In very hot, humid weather or climates, chinchillas often need access to their dust baths closer to 4 times per week. In cold weather or otherwise dry environments, they may only need to bathe twice a week. It is also important to control the duration during which your chinchilla has access to their bath. Typically, 3 – 5 minutes at a time is sufficient. If a dust bath is left within a chinchilla’s enclosure for too long, it is often mistaken for a litter box, so it is best to remove the dust container as soon as your fur baby is done bathing. It is perfectly acceptable to reuse dust for multiple baths, but it should be discarded as soon as it starts to clump or if it becomes soiled.
Beyond the hygienic reasons discussed above, dust baths also offer a great source of mental and physical enrichment for our fun little friends and provide a great way for pet parents to strengthen that ever-important animal-human bond. It is also important to remember that each pet is unique, and should your chinchilla ever develop a skin or coat concern, it is always best to consult a trusted veterinarian. Happy bathing and let the dust fly!