It is important to remember that chinchillas are not like dogs or cats. They are a unique animal that requires special care; they are not the pet for everyone.
Listed below will be common behaviors of chinchillas and what to expect when making one part of the family.
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Commonly, chinchillas are associated with being nocturnal; this is not entirely accurate. Chinchillas are actually crepuscular, this means that they are most active during the twilight hours (right before sunrise or right after sunset). Although this doesn't mean they may not be awake during the day or late at night; just like us, each chin's sleeping habits may vary. It is important to determine their favorite resting times and allow them to sleep. Chinchillas will sleep with their eyes closed in a standing/sitting position, on their side, or on all fours like a "loaf". Some even sleep leaning against something on their back or in their hammock.
Oftentimes we recommend finding a quieter area of the house to keep their cage, this allows them to have the time they need to rest. Do keep in mind, they will make noise when they are awake. It's a good idea to consider this when choosing a location for their cage as they may disrupt their human family's sleeping habits if they are kept in a bedroom.
If at any your chinchilla seems lethargic or limp, this is not a normal sleeping habit and they may require emergency medical attention.
Chinchillas originally are from the Andes Mountains. In this environment, they were a den animal that hid between rocks/crevices to avoid the harsh sun and predators. A majority of their day was spent in these spaces, only coming out in the early morning and evening to eat and drink.
Due to the desert environment they lived in, their bodies have adapted to a drier diet. The foliage in their natural habitat has a much lower water and sugar content. This is why it is so important to not feed fruits and vegetables of any kind. Fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts usually have much higher calories, water/sugar content, and fats. This can lead to diarrhea, bloat (GI stasis), prolapse, and other medical emergencies or complications if ingested.
A high quality chinchilla or rabbit pellet, such as Oxbow Chinchilla (red bag only) or Manna Pro Rabbit, is the best diet to provide. Chinchilla's should also be given a good quality hay such as loose timothy/alfalfa or cubes. Additionally, fresh water should be provided at all times; filtered, purified, or reverse osmosis is best (NEVER from the tap).
Chinchillas need unlimited pellets and fresh water for proper gut health, filling their bowl and topping off their water each day is sufficient. Never deny your chinchilla food for the purpose of a "diet". Chinchillas rarely, if ever, overeat. A good quality pellet, hay, and water will not cause obesity or diabetes. We often replenish food, water, and hay each night before we go to bed.
Providing treats is optional and not a requirement. Always avoid giving unsafe foods of any kind, even as a treat (fruits, veggies, nuts/seeds, potato chips, meat, chocolate, etc.). Raisins and goji berries are not the best option due to the high sugar content, these should only be given once a week if at all. Rosehips, plain cheerios, hay cubes, and apple wood sticks are great treat options. Keep in mind with rosehips and cheerios, these must be given in limited quantity; ideally, 2-3 a week.
A chinchilla's bowel habitats can be a great way to determine their health. Most can defecate up to 250 times a day, this is very normal and indicates good digestive health. Normal chinchilla feces will be firm dark, pellet shapes. If your chinchilla is having soft/mushy poop, diarrhea, air pockets in the poop, or not pooping at all, this can be an indication of an underlying health condition that may warrant a vet visit.
Chinchillas also produce both fecal pellets that are dark/firm and cecotropes. Also called caecel pellets, or night feces, these are light brown/green in color and are a product of the digestive system called the cecum. Caecel pellets are a way for chinchillas to re-ingest nutrients their body did not use and expelled. They are not eating their poop, but actually consuming the materials their body didn't digest the first time. The practice of consuming cecotropes is called coprophagia, this is common in many mammals and a natural process for chinchillas.
So if you see your chinchilla eating what looks like poop, this is a normal practice and is very important for their health/dietary needs.
Socialization, Noises, Biting, Lunging, Spraying
Keep in mind a chinchilla is not like a dog or cat, they are a unique rodent. With that said, each individual chinchilla can react differently to socialization. Some do not like being held, touched, or talked to and there are some that love human interaction. It is best to get to know your chin and their limits. Most will tell you and make it very clear if they do not want you around.
Chinchillas can make several noises to alert you to their intentions. They may "bark" or "kakk" at you to stay away, they may also chatter their teeth as another warning. Some chinchilla's may also make a warning call if they are feeling stressed or see/hear something that scares them. This noise can sometimes sounded like a wheeze or hiccup, this is to alert other chins there is danger nearby. You may even hear your chinchilla squeal if you grab them and pull them out of the cage; this is a sign they are highly stressed and scared, this should be avoided. Some chinchillas may also make soft squeaky noises to interact with each other or you.
If you fail to see these warning signs, your chinchilla may bite or spray urine if they are female. Chinchilla's can bite hard and break the skin, some may even lunge at you to scare you off; they will do this to protect themselves or their home. There are sometimes they may nibble or gently bite, this can indicate they are taste testing you or warning you. Some females can also spray urine with great accuracy to deter predators or unwanted attention. Keep this in mind when handling your chinchilla, they are an animal with personalities and moods that can fluctuate.
The best way to socialize with your chinchilla(s) is to interact with them within their cage on their terms. Speak softly to them during their active hours and only handle them if they want you to. Never squeeze or grab at your chinchilla, this can damage their internal organs.
Just like any animal, chinchillas have the potential to be trained. However, this does take time and can take longer than training a dog/cat. This can also look much different from a cat or dog; your chinchilla may never learn to sit, stay, or roll over, but you may be able to teach them to come to their name or use a litter pan.
With consistency and dedication, some owners have trained their chinchillas to do certain things. It really just depends on the owner and chinchilla. It can be more difficult as treats shouldn't really be given in excess to chinchillas. If you are thinking of training your pet chin, consider using pieces of hay, cubes, or apple wood sticks as "treats". Be sure to not overwork your chinchilla, and never withhold any food/water/hay.
Chinchillas don't really understand discipline; taking privileges away or scolding them doesn't really do much. If your chinchilla is biting, barking, or spraying you, give them some space and allow them to interact with you on their terms. If they are excessively biting or lunging, you can gently blow on them to discourage it but do consider if they are stressed/scared.
Chinchillas sometimes will pick a favorite spot to sit in their cage, they may sit here for most of their lives. Being a den animal in the wild, this is normal behavior and where they will spend most of their time. So if you notice they have a favorite spot in their cage and don't run/jump around a lot, this is normal. Some chinchillas may have a large cage and never even use most of it.
They can also become cage aggressive; this is their home and they will protect it. If they do not like to be grabbed and pulled out of the cage, let them come to you on their terms. They are not like a cat, dog, or ferret; they are a prey animal with instincts to protect themselves. Consider this when adopting additional chinchillas to bond with your current.
Time Outside of the Cage
If your chinchilla is comfortable with it, you can provide limited outside of the cage time. We recommend limiting this playtime to 10-15 minutes a few times a week at the most. Remember, chinchillas are a den animal. In the wild, the only time they run and jump around is when a predator is attacking them. Thus, playtime can induce the fight or flight reaction in some chinchillas and cause more stress than enjoyment.
Chinchillas under 7 months should not be given playtime. Young chinchillas are prone to hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia if subjected to high levels of activity. Thus, it is very important to not let them out for playtime or over-handle them.
If you and your chin are comfortable with playtime, always conduct it in a safe area. Bathrooms, closets, or small rooms are best to avoid over-exertion and to allow for proper supervision. Never leave your chinchilla(s) outside of the cage unattended. They are very good at getting into and chewing things they shouldn't; always put away any electrical cords, plastic, towels, carboard, chemicals, etc. If you see they are chewing on something they shouldn't, take it away or put them back in the cage. If your chinchilla is overly scared, has overly pink ears, or seems to not enjoy coming out, consider spending quality time with them within their cage on their terms.
Free-roaming, or not having a cage for you chinchilla is highly discouraged. Chinchillas are the most safe when they are in their cage; here they should not be able to chew/ingest drywall, carpet, flooring, or electrical cords that are hard to avoid when allowing free-roam. Another concern for this method of housing is overexertion or accidentally stepping on your chinchilla. They are very quick and scare easily, this can cause them to dart under your feet or overwork/overheat themselves into a medical emergency.
Chinchillas do not require time outside of their cage to be happy, this is really up to their owner if they want to enjoy this bonding time. Remember that in the wild, chinchillas do not have playtime. They spend most of their day sleeping in dens/between rocks and only come out to eat/drink. Many times chinchillas are rehomed due to the misconception that they need excessive time out of their cage, this is not true and does not cause them to be unhappy.
Interacting With Other Chinchillas
Chinchillas can live happily alone or with a friend. It is really up to each owner if they choose to bring another into the family. There are several behaviors to keep an eye out for when housing more than one chinchilla.
Some chinchillas may get along, some may not. It's important to always have an extra cage on hand in case they un-bond or start fighting. We recommend Critter/Ferret Nation cages as they can be split into two cages by blocking off the middle section. This is a great way to have two cages without taking up extra floorspace, each top and bottom section can hold 1-3 adult chinchillas. If at anytime you find your chinchillas have un-bonded or fighting, you can easily house them separately this way.
Bonded chinchillas will interact with each other in many ways. You may seem them groom each other's fur or sleep together, this is a good sign of a bonded pair. Their may be some dominance humping, even in female pairs, this is a normal behavior as they are determining who is more dominant. Some may bark or "kakk" to tell the other to back off, this is normal as long as they are not chasing each other or fighting/drawing blood.
There are also behaviors that are not dangerous but can be alarming when seeing it for the first time. Some dominant chinchillas may "trim" the other's whiskers by chewing them off, leaving much shorter ones behind. There are also some chinchillas that "fur chew" as a nervous habit. This is not detrimental to their health, but it can be hard to determine the cause or prevent it. Once a chinchilla has started to fur chew, it almost always is a permanent habit. They often chew the fur on their sides, or their cage mate's fur, leaving a choppy look. This doesn't require a vet visit, but you may want to ensure there are no outside stressors causing it.
If at anytime your chinchillas are attacking each other, pulling out fur, or drawing blood, they need to be separated immediately. Chinchillas can and will fight to the death in some cases. Remember to always practice proper bonding methods when adding a new chin to your family, these can be found on our website here.
Never keep pet chinchillas in opposite sex pairs. Animals that are unpedigreed and not show quality from a reputable breeder, should never be bred. Keeping opposite sex animals together results in a higher chance of fighting to the death from mating, pregnancy, incest, genetic defects, malocclusion, and birthing complications. If you do not plan to attend shows, do not purchase show quality animals from a reputable breeder, and do not have a fund of $1000+ for birthing emergencies, you should not be breeding or housing opposite sex animals together.
Listed below are some abnormal behaviors to keep an eye out for:
Not eating, drinking, or pooping: Chinchillas needing to keep their digestive system always moving. If you notice your chinchilla has not been eating or pooping, a vet visit may be necessary to rule out impactions (blockages) or malocclusion. If you suspect your chinchilla is not drinking, first check the metal ball on the stem to ensure its working properly. Sometimes these do get stuck and need to be manually moved.
Drooling, severe weight loss, weepy eyes, foul smelling breath; overgrown incisors: Chinchillas with these symptoms may have malocclusion. It is best to make a vet appointment and take x-ray images of the teeth/roots to determine if malo is present. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this affliction. The kindest thing to do is humanely euthanize the animal or the teeth/roots will grow into the eye/nasal cavities. Those with unchecked malocclusion will starve to death as it is too painful to eat.
Heavy breathing, panting, lethargy, or unresponsive: A chinchilla with these signs should be taken to a veterinarian immediately as this may indicate a medical emergency. This can be caused by overexertion, overheating, trauma, bloat or GI stasis, digestive system blockages, seizures, or neurological damage.
Bleeding from eyes, ears, nose, or genitals: This may require a vet visit as there may be trauma, injuries, or an intestinal/uterine prolapse about to occur.
Bleeding from feet, missing toes: Bleeding from hands or feet can indicate they caught a toe somewhere or stepped on something. A vet visit is not necessary for this if the bleeding stops and there is no pus, but do ensure their cage is free from any sharp edges and provide a variety of materials for them to stand on. Chinchilla feet are adapted to rocky terrain, thus they need plenty of different surfaces to utilize all parts of their feet.
Overly pink or red ears, heavy breathing: Chinchillas with overly pink ears and heavy breathing may indicate overheating. It is imperative to bring them to a cool area immediately. Do not place them in the refrigerator, use a fan, frozen water bottles, or granite slabs as a way to cool them down. They need a room that is in the 60-70° F range to keep them adequately cool.
Extremely loose/runny poop, diarrhea, bloody stool: If your chinchilla is having severely soft feces, this may indicate a medical issue. Ensure your chinchilla is has not eaten something they shouldn't and has a proper diet. If these are not the cause, a vet visit may be required to rule out Giardiasis. I, please seek medical attention.
Distended belly, excessive stretching and dragging belly on the ground, poop with air pockets when broken open: Chinchillas with these symptoms may have bloat or GI stasis, this is a medical emergency. The best thing to do is purchase baby gas drops (with simethicone) and administer immediately. Chinchillas cannot overdose on simethicone, so it is safe to give them a full dropper every few hours. If the symptoms do not subside, a vet visit may be necessary.
Bleeding from rectum, vagina, or penis; rectal/uterine prolapse: Bleeding from the genitals or rectum is not normal and needs medical attention. In severe cases, chinchillas may have a prolapsed rectum or uterus that requires an emergency vet visit. If you see this, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Prolapsed penis: A penis that will not stay in the sheath may be a sign of pain or hair ring. Hair ring checks are not recommended unless the penis will not stay sheathed. In this case, you will need to unsheathe the penis fully to check if any hair is built up around it. If there is no fur present and the penis will not stay sheathed, the animal may be in pain from something else and a vet visit is required.
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