Natives of the South American Andes at 10,000-20,000 foot altitudes, Chinchillas are gentle, friendly, soft, low-maintenance, simple feeding and easy to handle pets. Being rat relatives, they are raised for fur, stock, and breeding pets. They are small and playfully inquisitive, but they have a long memory, are shy, and don't trust easily. Careful attention is a must. Chinchillas are nocturnal, herbivores, clean, almost odorless, flea (and other pests) resistant and require little housing space.
Chinchillas are rabbit-sized, crepuscular rodents native to the Andes mountains in South America. Along with their relatives, viscachas, they belong to the family Chinchillidae. The animal (whose name literally means "little Chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who wore its soft and dense fur. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised.
In their native habitat, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are agile jumpers and can jump very high, up to 5 feet. Predators in the wild include hawks, skunks, felines, and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defense tactics including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten. In the wild chinchillas have been observed eating plants, fruits, seeds, and small insects, though this diet could irritate the digestive system of a domestic chinchilla whose diet should be primarily hay-based.
Domestic chinchillas can be kept as pets. Chinchillas are nocturnal and typically do not like to be disturbed during the day, which may make them less favorable as pets to some people. Chinchillas are naturally very skittish creatures and generally do not like to be held, although they may become very attached to their owners if they grow up without a cage mate. Because of their high-strung disposition, they are not usually considered to be good pets for small children. However, chinchillas can be very friendly animals if sufficient acclimation to human touch, making them excellent pets for patient owners. Male chinchillas tend to be easier to handle because they are not subject to temperamental fluctuations due to estrus cycles. Males also lack the ability to spray urine as a defensive mechanism, unlike the females.
Captive chinchillas commonly live 15 years, but some have been known to live up to 20 years or more. As of 2008, the world’s oldest chinchilla is 27 years old and resides in the UK. The oldest chinchillas in the U.S. lived to 26 years.
Chinchillas make a variety of vocalizations, including chirps, squeaks, and barks. They use these sounds to express themselves, from a calm, loving chirp given to a potential male to aloud, aggressive bark when threatened. Since they are active at night, it is not uncommon for them to vocalize in the early hours of the morning. If irritated or frightened the female chinchilla may cluck loudly and spray urine at the offender.
Chinchillas can be housed with others of the same sex; however, it is possible that they may fight. Fighting or getting along depends on the individual animals. If the chinchillas are introduced when young, or gradually introduced when older, conflict can be reduced. Males and females usually get along well together, although they must be spayed or neutered to avoid reproduction. However, reproduction rates are low with up to two litters per year of 1-3 kits (3 being rare).
Since chinchillas are very active animals, it is best to house them in a very large enclosure, such as a room of their own instead of a small cage. If kept in a cage, the chinchillas need to have a large area replete with shelves or other obstacles on which to play. The cage should be taller than it is wide, as the chinchilla’s natural environment is very mountainous. Chinchilla need other forms of stimulation, such as hanging wooden toys, large wheels (over 16 inches in diameter and not contrasted of mesh. as chinchillas toes and legs can easily get caught), or paper towel tubes. Wooden sticks and chew toys are also good options, but conifer wood (especially cedar) should be avoided because of high content of resins that are toxic to chinchillas. Birch, willow, apple tree or manzanita are all safe woods for chinchillas to chew. Plastic in the cage should be avoided at all times. Chinchillas are voracious chewers, and any ingested plastic can cause blockage in the intestine. As with most small animals, red cedar bedding should never be used sue to its toxic nature. The cage must have good air circulation. The chinchillas lacks the ability to sweat; therefore, if temperature gets above 25 degrees C (80 degrees F), the chinchilla could get overheated and may suffer from heat stroke. Active and inquisitive by nature, chinchillas need to spend some time outside of the cage (around a half hour a day and always supervised) to exercise and to satisfy their curiosity. Chinchillas will chew on inappropriate things including electrical cords.
Chinchillas can be found in a variety of colors including the standard gray (the only color found in nature), beige, ebony, and many other colors. They instinctively clean their fur by taking dust baths several times a week, in which they roll around in a container full of special chinchillas dust made of sand or fine pumice. The dust gets into their coat of fur and absorbs oil. Chinchillas do not bathe in water because the density of their fur retains moisture close to the skin, which can cause fungus growth or rot.
Chinchillas eat and digest desert grasses and cannot efficiently process fatty foods or too many green plants. A high quality, hay-based pellet, and a constant supply of loose hay will sufficiently meet all of their dietary needs. Chinchillas have very sensitive GI tracts that can be easily disrupted so it is important to maintain them on a healthy diet. Some chinchilla feed includes raisins as part of the mix. Fresh vegetables (with high moisture content) should be avoided as these can cause bloat in a chinchillas, which can be fatal. Chinchillas also eat and drink in very small amounts therefore, overfeeding is easy. This can lead to diarrhea, or long term diabetes. Nuts should be avoided due to their high fat content.