by Dianne Cook, LVT
March 23rd is National Chinchilla Day! As any chinchilla parent will quickly point out, it’s no surprise these enamoring little herbivores have their own holiday. Intelligent, social, and oh-so-soft, chinchillas are fun, endearing companions. To ensure they live the happiest, healthiest life possible, however, it’s essential to address the species’ unique quirks and specialized needs. Keep reading to learn all about these amazing animals.
The domesticated chinchillas we know and love as companions are not that far removed from their wild ancestors. Though endangered, there are still a few colonies of wild chinchillas who make their homes in the cracks and crevices of the rocky, arid peaks of the Andes Mountains in South America. Th+ey live in familial herds that can consist of a few chinchillas upwards of 100 individuals.
To combat the often-frigid temps of life at such a high elevation, chins’ characteristically silky coat is amongst the densest in the animal planet, boasting an average of 60-70 hairs from each follicle (as opposed to one hair per follicle for humans). Agile and athletic, chinchillas use their powerful hind legs to leap up to 6 feet in the air to help navigate the rocky terrain and evade predators. Crepuscular by nature, they are most active at dawn and dusk when they emerge to feed on the scarce alpine vegetation.
Chinchillas may boast the softest fur of any mammal, but these extraordinary rodents are so much more than the adorable little puff balls they appear at first glance. Chinchillas are known for being incredibly intelligent, inquisitive creatures with a propensity for mischievousness. Their sweet faces and charming antics can bring an unparalleled sense of joy and levity to any home, but just like humans, each chinchilla is unique in the way they express themselves. If pet parents take the time to “listen” they will find their furry friends display clear preferences and experience an array of thoughts and emotions.
Despite generations of domestication, chinchillas remain highly social animals who need meaningful companionship to live their best lives. Despite our best intentions, chinchilla pet parents are rarely able to provide the level of companionship their little ones need, especially during the times of day they are most active. Sharing your home with a bonded pair (or group) of chinchillas is often preferable as it ensures they are never alone, and the comfort of constant companionship will make them feel more secure and increase their ability to cope with stressful situations.
Enough Love to Go Around
Even if bonded to a buddy (or two) of the same species, chinchillas have plenty of love to share. As prey species, chins are often fearful and dismissive when they’re first introduced to a new environment, but with gentle, consistent handling (and plenty of patience) most chinchillas will develop a deep, meaningful bond with their favorite humans.
Set realistic expectations, take time to learn your chinchilla’s unique mannerisms, and be consistent. Though it likely won’t happen overnight, developing a pleasant, positive routine will ensure your sweet chin will learn to view you as friend instead of foe.
Food for Thought
With appropriate care, chinchillas can live well into their teens, with some reaching ages of 20+! A huge component of a long, healthy life requires feeding a high-quality, species-appropriate diet.
As hindgut fermenters, chinchillas require significant fiber intake to keep their specialized digestive tracts running smoothly. As with other small herbivores, like rabbits and guinea pigs, 70 - 75% of a healthy chinchilla diet should consist of a variety of grass hays. In addition to an always-available source of hay, chinchillas should be fed a measured quantity of a high-quality, uniform, species-specific pelleted diet free from added fruits, nuts, or seeds.
Providing species-appropriate fresh greens and veggies is a wonderful way to maximize nutritional enrichment, but it is essential to remember that chinchillas tend to be more sensitive to sugars than other small mammals, so moderation is essential. Speak with a chin-savvy veterinarian to determine which varieties of produce are most appropriate for your specific chinchilla's needs.
A Safe and Happy Home
Just like their wild cousins, domesticated chins are incredibly athletic and love to display their acrobatic agility through impressive leaps and bounds. As a result, it is important to provide them with a tall, multi-level enclosure that provides ample space for climbing, jumping, and exploring. The more space they have, both horizontally and vertically, the happier your chinchilla will be.
Choose a well-lit, draft-free area of your home to place your chinchillas’ enclosure. Though it may come as no surprise, with all that fur, chinchillas can easily overheat, so their enclosure must be set up in a low-humidity, temperature-controlled environment (60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal) out of direct sunlight. If the household is extremely active or noisy during the day (when most chinchillas prefer to sleep), it may be best if the enclosure is placed in a quiet room, away from the hustle and bustle to avoid unnecessary stress.
Enrichment is Essential
Regardless of how large a chinchilla’s enclosure may be, living day-in and day-out within the same four walls can lead to boredom and can be very stressful for these incredibly smart, active animals. It is imperative chinchillas are allowed plenty of time outside of their enclosure every day to run, play, jump, and explore in a safe, pet-proof area. In addition to the benefit of a trimmer waistline and better overall health, providing ample time outside their enclosure is a wonderful way to increase the human-animal bond.
In addition to plenty of daily playtime, make sure to provide your chinchilla with a variety of species-appropriate enrichment items (in both their enclosure and play area) to help satisfy their instinctual behaviors of exploring, playing, chewing, and hiding. Simply switching out hides, rearranging the levels of their enclosure, or adding some enticing new chew toys can go a long way to ensuring your furry family members stay mentally fit.
Chinchillas’ enviably plush coats are so thick, they do not dry easily. As a result, it is best to avoid getting them wet as moisture can get trapped close to the skin, leading to painful irritation, inflammation, or infections.
Instead of using water, chinchillas bathe by rolling around in volcanic ash which helps evenly distribute natural oils, clears debris, and keeps their fur silky and smooth. Dust baths should be offered 2 – 4 times a week for 3-5 minutes at a time but should not be a permanent structure in your chinchillas’ habitat. To learn more about why dust baths are so important for chinchillas, please read Dust til Dawn: Chinchillas and Their Dust Baths.
In Conclusion... Chinchillas Are Wonderful Pets!
Whether you’re a new chin parent, a seasoned pro, or interested in adopting your first pair, it’s easy to see why these charismatic, entertaining, and wickedly smart animals have been awarded their own auspicious holiday. Though chinchillas come along with some unique quirks and species-specific requirements, if cared for properly, their charming personalities and silly antics will provide joy and meaningful companionship for many years.
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