- Male: – Buck
- Female: – Doe
- Young: – Kittens
- Sexual maturity: – 4-5 months
- Gestation: – 111 days
- Litter size: – 2-8
- Weaning: – 12 weeks
- Longevity: – 20 years
A Brief History
Chinchillas originate from the arid slopes of The Andes in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile. The name Chinchilla came from the ‘Chinca’ Indians who first used these animals for both food and clothing as far back as the fifteenth century. The Chinca Indians were later conquered by the Inca’s who laid down laws forbidding the Chincas to wear clothes made from Chinchilla fur, only Inca nobility were allowed this luxury. In the sixteenth century the Inca’s were, in turn, conquered by the Spaniards who were delighted to discover this beautiful and luxurious fur, the like of which they had never seen before. The Chinchilla was then hunted by the Spaniards in South America so vigorously that they were reduced to near extinction. In 1918 the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile passed a law prohibiting the hunting and trapping of these small animals.
In 1922 a mining engineer by the name of Mathias F. Chapman came across the Chinchilla whilst working in Chile. He soon realised their value, and at the same time was appalled by the decrease in population. He sought permission from the Chilean government to trap enough animals to take back to the U. S. to raise in captivity. He hired Indian trappers to obtain the necessary stock, it took four years of scouring The Andes to collect enough specimens, as the population had decreased so badly. Many of these animals did not survive the long journey home, many more died because not enough was known about their care and diet. However, some did survive and went on to breed successfully in captivity. The Chinchilla industry went on to become very profitable, selling pelts and breeding stock. Today, there are very few fur farms left as it is no longer considered acceptable by modern society to wear animal furs. All pet chinchilla’s available today will be descended from the original handful brought to the U. S. by Mathias Chapman.
Chinchilla’s are best known for their luxurious fur, it is the densest fur of any animal in the world. It is so dense that ectoparasites (fleas and lice) are unable to survive in it. The Chinchilla has 80,100 hairs per follicle compared with 2 or 3 in other furred animals. The original colour is blue-grey, known as ‘standard’. Today there are many other colours available due to selective breeding, white, beige, silver, violet, charcoal, black, brown, chocolate, ebony and mosaic to name but a few. The more elaborate and the more recent a colour the more money you will have to pay for it.
There are two recognised species of Chinchilla, the Chinchilla ‘ Laniger ‘ and ‘ Brevicaudata ‘. Chinchilla Laniger is the species that is most often available as pets. Chinchilla’s are friendly, quiet, clean and have no odour. They are nocturnal rodents although they do have periods of activity during the day. They have short front legs and use their paws as hands for eating, whilst sitting up on their haunches just like Squirrels. They have small round ears, long whiskers and a long bushy tail. Chinchilla’s, being a rodent, have continuously growing teeth that they need to keep in shape by gnawing. They have two incisors both top and bottom with a varying number of molar teeth. There is a space either side of the incisors before meeting the molars, this is called the ‘diastema’. When a Chinchilla gnaws it draws its lips in to the diastema to stop debris from being swallowed.
They are very agile, athletic little creatures that love nothing more than to climb, run and jump about. In the wild they have been seen to jump as high as 25 metres.
Chinchilla’s are not yet widely available in this country but they are definitely on the increase, unfortunately their rarity makes them expensive as pets, compared to other rodents. Chinchilla’s do not make suitable pets for young children as they are shy, sensitive and very easily frightened by rough handling and noise, also their nocturnal life style is not in keeping with a child’s routine.
The young are born fully furred with eyes open and are fully functional. Never buy a Chinchilla younger than 12 weeks, as with all animals the period spent with it’s mother is invaluable. It will need to learn to feed and care for itself and also how to behave socially. They are communal animals and need company of their own kind so do not keep one alone. Two females or two males will usually live peacefully together, trouble usually only starts when the living quarters are too small.
When buying your animals here are some important points to look out for;
Fur – should be thick, even, soft, clean and with no bald patches. Eyes – should be clear and dry. Watery or milky discharge suggests an infection. Ears – should be clean and dry. Dirt or discharge suggests ear mites or an infection. Teeth – The top incisors should fit neatly over the bottom ones with the top pair being slightly longer. Adult teeth should be orange in colour. Adults with pale teeth may have a calcium deficiency. Broken teeth or misalignment will require ongoing veterinary care. Vent – should be dry and clean. Wet, suggests a possible urine infection or kidney problem. Soiling suggests a digestive upset. Droppings should be dry, oval and consistent in shape and size.
It is most important that you spend some time choosing the housing for your pets. Remember Chinchilla’s live for up to 20 years so will be spending a long time in the cage. The cage you choose should be a home for your pets not a prison, as with all animals the cage should be as big as possible.
It is not natural for any animal to live permanently on wire floors; this causes calluses on the feet. A way around this, as most ‘small animal’ cages are made entirely from wire, is to cover some of the shelves with pieces of wood and to provide wooden nest boxes. Another option is an indoor aviary. This is ideal as the chinchilla’s will have plenty of space to climb and run around. An aviary gives you plenty of room to design all sorts of different climbing frames and hide-outs for your pets. When building the aviary remember to fix the wire to the inside of the supports, chinchilla’s will soon gnaw through the wooden structure.
Both cage and aviary will need branches for the chinchillas to climb and to gnaw on. These can be willow, hazelnut or apple but do make sure that they have not been treated with any chemicals. In the wild chinchillas hide in crevices between rocks, so lots of hiding places will be needed. Cardboard boxes with holes cut out, cardboard tubes (obtainable from your local carpet store), plastic drainage pipes and natural willow baskets will provide your Chinchilla’s with hours of amusement. Be imaginative when designing your cage, bearing in mind that Chinchillas are active, inquisitive and intelligent. Provide them with plenty of space and toys, change things around occasionally, and you will have happy healthy pets.
A dust bath is essential, this will keep the fur in tip top condition. A deep dish of special pumice sand must be provided each evening for about 20 minutes. The Chinchilla’s will roll about in it to clean and condition their fur. If the dish is left in any longer it will be fouled. If this happens the sand can be sieved and used again. Change the sand completely about once a month or earlier if necessary.
A heavy based bowl for feed, a water bottle (not a bowl as it will be fouled and can easily be knocked over and under no circumstances should your Chinchilla’s fur be allowed to become wet), and a metal water bottle protector are all necessary equipment.
The floor of the cage or aviary can be covered in wood shavings and must be cleaned out weekly and thoroughly disinfected monthly.
Little is known about the wild Chinchillas diet other than they eat grass, fruits and tree bark. Because they come from a desert-like environment they need very little water to survive (although clean fresh water should be available to them at all times), they rely on the morning dew on the grass and water taken from the centres of native cacti for their refreshment.
Many commercial feeds are available specifically for Chinchillas today. Most breeders maintain pellets are better than mixed feed. If you choose to feed the mixed, do make sure that your pets eat all that is in the bowl before you replenish it. If the Chinchilla’s are allowed to pick out the pieces that they like and discard the rest, they will not get a balanced diet and their health will suffer. Only refill the bowl when it is completely empty or it has been fouled. Only buy as much feed as you will comfortably use in three months as the vitamin content of the feed will deteriorate with age.
Only very small quantities of green foods should be offered daily as the Chinchillas digestive system is adapted to cope only with the very sparse vegetation of the Andes. An average daily portion should be no more than two dandelion leaves and a small slice of apple, per animal. Green foods that can be fed safely include dandelion leaves, soft thistles, rosehips, apple, pear, carrot and fresh grass. These can be mixed to vary the diet.
Fresh hay should be provided in a hay rack at all times. Never feed damp, dusty or mouldy hay.
If you want to feed your Chinchilla’s treats do not buy the sticky seed sticks and shapes that are widely available, choose natural treats like peanuts, sunflower seeds, raisins or small cubes of bread baked hard in the oven. Treats should be fed in moderation or your pets will become obese. It is all too tempting to give your pets too many treats or overdo the green foods, but remember your Chinchilla’s digestive systems are not designed for such richness and you will be doing them more harm than good.
No matter how big your cage is your Chinchilla’s will need to have some daily ‘free time’, out of the cage. First make sure that all the windows and doors are closed. Put all other pets out of the room. No matter how friendly your dog or cat may be if your Chinchilla’s come face to face with them they could easily die of shock. Remove all house plants, and ensure that all electrical appliances are switched off and unplugged, electric and gas fires turned off and fireplaces securely guarded, or better still, blocked off. A Chinchillas natural reaction when encountering a new object is first to sniff, then to gnaw, so if you have any valuable or sentimental items remove them to a safe place. Provide your Chinchillas with some special ‘out of cage’ toys to distract them from your furnishings. Be innovative, design a climbing frame with ladders, ramps, platforms and tunnels.
Although the Chinchillas will not be comfortable with excess handling, if you sit quietly on the floor they will come up to you and climb over you and to encourage this offer them a titbit from their daily allowance.
Chinchillas are naturally robust and healthy animals. Provided you care for and feed them correctly you should have very few problems. However, if you are unlucky enough to have a sick Chinchilla here are a few common problems.
Fur Biting – If your Chinchilla has bald spots in the fur it is a sure sign of stress. He may be plucking out his own fur or his companion may be doing it to him. Either way it is more than likely down to stress. Consider carefully any changes that may have occurred, likely causes are; boredom, tension between playmates, a new family pet that is frightening him, excess noise (building work etc.) in the house or nearby or disturbances in his routine. Once you have found the problem and corrected it the fur biting should stop. If after all this it continues, consult your Vet. Diarrhoea – Check the hay, make sure it is not damp or mouldy. Make sure the water bottle is free from algae. Consider any recent changes in diet. To correct diarrhoea, take away any feed concentrates. Feed only fresh hay and small amounts of hard baked bread or pieces of burnt toast. When the stools are firmer gradually introduce small amounts of concentrate and fresh greens until a normal diet is resumed. If the diarrhoea does not show signs of improvement within 24 hours consult your Vet immediately. Teeth – If your Chinchilla has problems eating, check his teeth for damage or irregular growth. If the Chinchilla is wet under the chin and shows signs of drooling, overgrown back teeth are to be expected. Broken, overgrown or misaligned teeth will require Veterinary treatment. Eyes and Ears – If dirt or discharge of any kind are found in either eyes or ears infection is suggested. Your Vet will advise you of the best course of treatment.
Spend time every week to have a thorough examination of your Chinchilla’s. Check all the points mentioned in the ‘Buying Chinchillas’ section, if you are not entirely happy with any aspect consult your Vet immediately as small animals can deteriorate very quickly.