PET CHINCHILLAS - A BEGINNERS GUIDE

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Here are some facts about chinchillas you should know before buying one as a pet for yourself.
 
1. Chinchillas are nocturnal -- they will be very active at night.
2. Chinchillas are strictly herbivores.
3. Chinchillas are a very clean animal and they are practically odourless.
4. Their fur does not support fleas or other pests as it is too dense -- 80-100 hairs per follicle.
5. It does not require a huge housing area, but there are some guidelines.
6. It has an average lifespan of 10-15 years.  Some are known to have live over their 20s.
7. A chinchilla can be expensive to acquire and to care for.
8. They are a rodent which means their teeth continually grow, and they leave plenty of small, but firm and odourless droppings
9. Being a nocturnal animal, chinchillas need to be protected from noise and family activity in the daytime.
10. Chinchillas are generally not trainable like dogs.  Do not expect them to respond to commands.
11. Chinchilla can not be tamed to become as friendly as a guinea pig or rabbit.
12. Chinchillas are friendly pets when they learn to trust you well.  This will take time a lot of time and patience.
13. Chinchillas are not meant for petting.  They do and WILL bite if threatened, therefore do not make a particularly good pet for small children. 
14. There is a possibility that an individual might be allergic to chinchilla hair and its bath dust.
15. If you are a light sleeper, chinchillas might not be the pet for you.  They are noisy and talkative animals, especially if you have 2 or more.   They will make a lot of noises at night to get your attention, to express their needs and emotions, move their furniture, jumping about in their cages, running on their wheels, etc.

Bathing dust is important for the chinchilla to keep its fur soft.  It is crucial not to give the animal a water bath as their fur is too dense and does not dry properly, leading to fungal infections.  Many brands of bath dust are available in the pet stores; it has to be a fine gritty powder, often volcanic pumice. The sand should be sieved regularly to remove any droppings, and any clumps caused by urinating should be removed completely.
 
Caging:

The best type of cages for a chinchilla is an all wire mesh cage made from 3/4" x 3/4" 16 gauge galvanized steel mesh. The cage should be kept in damp proof conditions and out of direct sunlight. Ideally there should be a raised mesh floor with a tray underneath to catch droppings or urine, this tray can be lined with newspaper, wood shavings or wood based cat litter. There should be several different levels within the cage so that the chinchilla can hop or climb around the cage, these levels can either be made of wire mesh or wood, which is preferred – it is not uncommon for chinchillas to catch their delicate limbs on mesh shelves whilst leaping around, sometimes leading to amputation! The chins like to nibble the wood to keep their teeth from growing too long, and will often pick a favourite shelf to use as a vantage point. The ideal cage size for 2 chinchillas is either 36" wide x 24" high x 18" deep or 24" wide x 36" high x 18" deep, but if you have the space and budget, go for the biggest cage you can – your pet will appreciate it all the more. Avoid cages with a plastic base, or plastic coated bars – they will get nibbled and plastic fragments can be seriously detrimental to a chinchilla’s digestive system! The cage should have either a fixed food hopper or a solid earthenware dish because the chinchilla will tip over the bowl if it isn't attached or heavy enough. There are a couple of ways to get the water to a chinchilla, by either using a water bottle or a water system. Benefits from using a water bottle are that you can see exactly how much the chinchilla is drinking. Water systems tend to be favoured by larger scale hobbyists or breeders, are not necessary for a one or two cage setup.

Click here to see my hand-made shelves suitable for Chinchilla cages!

Feeding:

The best types of food that chinchillas can be fed are chinchilla pellets - these help to discourage selective feeding and maintain a healthy chinchilla. There are several types of mixed food on the market for chinchillas but as a chinchilla will have to eat all the food to get all the goodness then these aren't recommended as this generally doesn't happen. Chinchilla’s can be very fussy, and even when fed pellets, they will often throw some to the floor in disgust! A fresh supply of Timothy hay or Alfalfa grass every day is also recommended. A mineral chew block or a cuttlebone is not only good for their calcium intake, but also keeps their ever-growing teeth in check.
Any extra feed such as raisins, berries and any other treats should be fed sparingly as these contain a high fat or sugar content and chinchillas shouldn't have too much of this. The same goes also with fresh fruit such as apple and grapes; these can be given occasionally but not everyday.

Temperature:

The temperatures in the chin units shouldn't exceed 22-25 degrees Celcius as this can be fatal to a chinchilla and the lower you can get the temperature then the happier the chins will be. Remember that any air conditioners that have containers to catch the water will fill up and switch off till they are emptied. Think about the rating and power of the unit, a smaller unit in a large space will not work as effectively as a bigger unit in the same space. Try to place the unit off of the ground so that the cold air will have further to fall and therefore more of the room will be cooler higher up. Also remember that if you have a power cut that you go and check that your unit is switched back on, or if you are on holiday that you let the person whose looking after the chins know to put it on as this can be easily overlooked.
Other cheaper ways to keep chins cool can be to get terracotta tiles and place them in the freezer overnight and then put them in the chin cage as they will keep their coolness for a few hours and the chins will most probably sit on them. Marble is also a good cooler and you can buy marble slates called Chin-Chillers. Another way would be to place the ice box coolers above the cage (perhaps wrapped in something so it can’t be chewed) or in a container inside the cage so that they too can help towards cooling the chins.

Exercise:

If you have a place which is chinchilla-proof or that you do not care much for the furniture in your room, you can have the chinchilla running lose in the room, every evening.  However, chinchillas are routine animal, if you agree to let it out at a particular time of the day, be sure to stick to it.  Chinchillas do not like changes.  I let my chinchilla out for her daily exercise every evening for at least half an hour in the hallway, stairs and landing area. All doors are closed, and the front door locked form the inside – just in case! You can chin-proof a single room by:
1. Removing all things that might pose danger to the chinchilla.
2. Hide all electrical cords.
3. Keep detergent and other toxic solutions out of reach.
4. Remove any liquids, such as drinks, vases or humidity controllers, and also ensure the toilet seat is down, should they make a run for a bathroom
5. Keep chinchilla out of reach of anything that is lead-coated.
6. If you have holes behind certain furniture for drainage, you might want to cover it up for safety.
7. Close windows or holes to prevent the animal from escaping.  It is almost impossible to capture an escapee outdoors.

You will be amazed how a chinchilla can squeeze into a gap merely an inch to 2 inches of space.  Don't take any chances.  There are owners who lost their pet because they did not chin-proof the room.  Chinchillas are very curious, they will explore new places or hideout and taste whatever they can find in the room.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Where can I get one from?

There are numerous arguments as to where should buy a chinchilla.  It is generally considered preferable, and normally cheaper, to buy get a chinchilla from a local breeder as pet stores are places where breeders have been known to dump weaker animals that are not breedable or have genetic problems.  Always remember to enquire about the breeding sources and background history of the animal from a breeder.  This will help to eliminate the genetic related problems when you intend to breed the animal as well as avoiding yourself from mating the animal with a related chinchilla.  Pet shops do not normally have any family history, and given that they are open during the day with lots of other noises and kids poking around, it is not the best start in life for a Chin.

If there are no local breeders, then the pet store is the only choice.  When getting a chinchilla from the pet store, be sure to ask how long has the animal been in the store and ask for a contingency to return the animal if it does not pass a medical checkup from the vet or your money back. Chins do not travel very well, and will need time to adjust to new surroundings.

Chinchillas are social herd, i.e., they live in colonies, although they can be kept singly.  Some chinchillas are perfectly happy being alone, with you providing all the needed companionship.  It will be better to keep a timid and submissive animal alone as it may not survive if introduce to a more aggressive mate.  Serious injuries, or worse, can result from mismatched chinchillas.  As long as you provide with sufficient natural activities, you will get a contented little animal. 

Introducing Mates:

If you are getting more than one for the fear that the chinchilla might get lonely or that you are too busy to provide it some company.  It is preferable to get related chinchillas, unless you are breeding them.  A chance of mismatch is reduced with related chinchillas.  Still, always bear in mind that the chinchillas might be incompatible with each other.  It may take some time for the pair to get along with one another, but if you are lucky enough, they might just fall in love immediately and treating like long lost pals upon the first meeting. 
When introducing two new chins, you should observe a quarantine period of 4 weeks – by keeping them in separate rooms. After this, you can then place the cage of each chinchilla next to each other to observe their reaction.  Let them out to play with each other during their playtime and closely observe their reactions.  Let them play like this for a few more weeks, and let them play in each others cage but keep them sleeping in separate cages for at least a week. Assuming that all went well, you can have both chinchillas living in one cage.  But do make sure the cage is sufficiently big for them

Female-Male Pair - If you keep a female and male chinchilla together, you will end up having baby chinchillas.  The chinchillas can mate and giving birth up to 3 times a year.  The litters range from the common average of 1-2 babies and up to a max of 4 baby chinchillas.  Neutering the male is not the simplest of surgical procedures and it is best avoided unless your Vet has successful experience of this.  If you are beginning to keep chinchillas as pet, most owners would advise against having such pair.  It is not an easy task taking care of the mother and baby chinchillas, and proper breeding is a science and skill that has to be learnt. Think long and hard before attempting to breed, and your reasons for wanting to breed.
If you don't mind having baby chinchillas, or can be certain of re-homing them, then be sure to choose a male and female chinchillas that are not related to each other.  Most important, read up more books and talk to breeders to learn how to handle chinchilla pregnancy. Chinchilla breeding is a science, and knowing the history of the breeding pair is crucial. There are certain colour mutations that you cannot mate, such as a pair of black velvets, or a pair of brown velvets.  You should research thoroughly as certain genetic combinations can produce dead or unhealthy babies.

Female-Female Pair - With 2 female chinchillas, you should try getting either a mother-daughter pair or sister-sister pair.  With related chinchillas you should have lesser problems of hostility amongst them.  With 2 unrelated females, you will have to introduce them slowly to each other as described above.

Male-Male Pair - As with the female, it is advisable to get related males like father-son pair or brother pair.  Introducing 2 unrelated males follow the same steps as the females.  Try not to have a female near the cage of the males; the males will fight with each other to mate with the female during the heat cycle. 

Handling tips:

Only pick up your chinchilla when it shows no fear for your hand or your body.  For an untamed chinchilla, you will have to gain its trust and confidence before you are allowed to get close to it.  Taming the animal takes time and lots of patience, as it might take a few months in some cases.  Providing a lot of love and concern for the chinchilla, the animal will in turn trust and love you.  In general, it is easier to tame a baby chinchilla around 3-4 months old than a full grown adult chinchilla; just as it is easier to discipline a child than an adult.

If your untamed chinchilla escapes, try NOT to chase it around the room as the stress and activity could cause it to overheat with fatal consequences.  Instead, try the following suggestion:
• Ask someone in your house to herd the animal towards you.  Be sure that you are sitting still.  The chinchilla will bump into you without realising you are there.
• Place a big glass jar, box or paper basket for the chinchilla to explore.  Such things will help to "trap" the animal, but ensure it is treated like a game and do not unduly stress the animal.
• Use the dust-bath trap – Place the dust-bath near the cage and very few Chinchillas will resist the urge to roll around. When the animal is mid-roll, catch it securely with both hands. A touch messy, but very effective!

Chinchillas prefer to be handled when it initiates first.  When it comes near you, sniff your toes, or climb all over you, this is the best time to stroke and "teach" the animal to not to fear you.  Once the animal is frightened by you, it can remember it for a long time.  You will have to slowly prove to it that you can be trusted again. 

1. Hold it strongly by the base of its tail with one hand while supporting the weight of the chinchilla with the other hand.  If you hold the tip of the tail, it will come off as the animal struggles to break free.  Imagine a lizard or newt; you'll know what I am talking about.  
2. If you are not comfortable with the above method, you can hold the chinchilla like it is standing.  You have one hand securely holding it hind legs, putting your thumb on the base of the tail.  You use the other hand to hold the body, with the animal resting its hands on yours.
3. Try to carry the animal close to your body then away.  It makes the chinchilla feels safer, and hearing your heartbeat will help to relax them.
4. When the chinchilla is frightened, you can either let it burrow its head into your arm or armpit or you can cover its face with your hand.  Chinchilla feels safe when it feel that on one can see it, which is why it hides when frightened.
5. Never ever hold the animal too tight.  Chinchilla will give a warning scream or bark and/or bite if it is held too tightly.
6. Never grab its rib cage; you can easily break its bone without realising your own strength. 


There are a number of discussion forums where you can speak to other chinchilla owners and breeders, including chinwags.invisionzone.com – a popular UK-based, friendly and relatively informal site where a wealth of further information can be obtained.

 

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Click here to see my hand-made shelves suitable for Chinchilla cages!


 

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