Chinchillas are known for being delicate, but one health issue that’s hardly ever heard of is arthritis. Can chinchillas get arthritis, and if so, how?
Can chinchillas get arthritis? They can. It occurs when the cartilage lining their joints becomes worn. This makes the bones rub against each other, making bone spurs form and causing the joint to become deformed. As in people, arthritis in chinchillas causes pain and stiffness. It cannot be entirely reversed but may be helped by glucosamine supplements and painkillers. Take your pet to the vet if you suspect it has any health issue, arthritis or otherwise.
The guide below explores this topic in serious depth, first looking at where chinchillas get arthritis, what causes arthritis (and all the different kinds there are!), the various symptoms of arthritis in chinchillas, and finally how to treat it. There may be no easy cure, but there are lots of ways you can alleviate the symptoms and make your chinchilla happy even if it does have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Can Chinchillas Get Arthritis?
Any animal with bones and joints can get arthritis. That includes chinchillas. While the condition is rare, it can occur, and can become debilitating. Arthritis is caused by the connective and protective tissue in a joint wearing down, which makes movement slow, stiff and painful. As you might imagine, it occurs most readily in joints that are used most frequently.
Where Can Chinchillas Get Arthritis?
Chinchillas can get arthritis in any of their joints, but it’s only likely in those joints that are used frequently and to support body weight. That means your chin’s feet and legs are most likely to be affected.
If your chinchilla has an issue with its posture, this can make arthritis much more likely. Say, for example, that your chinchilla lost its front right foot in an accident when it was young. If so, it would have to put much more of its body weight on its front left foot, which could cause arthritis later in life. A spinal issue that makes your chinchilla put more weight on one of its legs would have the same effect, as would bumblefoot.
While arthritis in people is most common in the fingers, that’s not true of chinchillas. It’s common in people’s fingers because we use our fingers for everything we do: working, making things and so on. But chinchillas don’t use their toes as much as we use our fingers.
What Causes Arthritis in Chinchillas?
There are several different kinds of arthritis. They have subtly different anatomical causes, but the end result is the same: swelling and pain in the joints.
Old age is the key trigger of arthritis. As the body gets older, the tissue in the joint wears down even if it isn’t used heavily. Cells in the tissue die faster than they are replaced, making it thinner and weaker. While other rodents aren’t likely to experience the problem, chinchillas are more so, since they have such a long lifespan.
Heavy and repeated use of a joint makes the problem worse because the tissue is manually broken down, although this does take a long time. There are factors that can make joint use more heavy, such as obesity or too much exercise, although neither of these issues is likely to affect your chinchilla. These causes lead to the most common form of arthritis: osteoarthritis. But there are other kinds too.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. While it most commonly appears in older animals, it could potentially appear at any age. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage lining of the joint wears thin. The thinner the cartilage gets, the more the bones rub against each other in the joint, causing small bony spurs called osteophytes. Eventually, the cartilage will disappear completely. When enough osteophytes build up, and enough cartilage is worn away, the shape of the joint is changed and the bones are forced out of their normal positions.
As the cartilage disappears, this affects the movement of the joint. Muscles and tendons have to work harder to move the limbs, fingers and toes; bone rubbing against bone is painful and makes movement stiff. This condition cannot be reversed, but it can be slowed down.
Rheumatoid arthritis is less common, but has roughly the same effects as osteoarthritis. In this condition, the body’s immune system targets the tissue in and around the joint and causes it to become inflamed. This leaves less room for the joint to rotate freely, causing more friction and greater breakdown of tissue. Then, the symptoms of osteoarthritis can occur more readily: the formation of bone spurs, the complete degradation of cartilage, and bone rubbing against bone.
Rheumatoid arthritis is just as painful as osteoarthritis, and similarly, cannot be reversed once begun. But it can be slowed down through lifestyle changes.
Bacterial Arthritis/Septic Arthritis
This condition occurs when bacteria gets into a joint. This can occur after an injury, like a bite to a joint. It also results from sepsis, which is where bacteria gets into the bloodstream. Because of the nature of these causes, bacterial arthritis is less common than the other two kinds above.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Chinchillas
You could likely guess most of the symptoms of arthritis in chinchillas, as they’re similar to the symptoms you see in people. Even if you’re a novice owner, you can likely spot these signs, which are explored in turn below. But even if you think you’re certain, only a vet can diagnose arthritis (or any health condition) for sure.
1) Key Sign: Old Age
This is less a symptom, and more of a sign. Arthritis is highly unlikely to affect a chinchilla unless it’s in its old age. Genetic conditions and injury can induce arthritis earlier in life, but the majority of cases are due to age-related wear. As such, if you have a chinchilla kit, or any chinchilla under the age of 10, arthritis is unlikely to be the cause of its changed behavior/pain/illness.
2) Stiff Movement
As the cartilage lining in the joint wears down, bone rubs against bone, and in rheumatoid arthritis inflammation means there’s less room for the joint to rotate. These problems mean that your chinchilla can’t move its limbs as freely as it would like.
This will become evident when your chinchilla moves around its cage. Whereas before it would leap easily from one platform to another, now it will struggle to make the jump. It may appear hesitant before jumping as it becomes aware of its new limitations. When it hops around, it may move stiffly or with a limp.
3) Signs of Pain
Chinchillas try to avoid showing signs of pain. This is an adaptation they learned in the wild, when they lived in large groups. Predators try to pick off the weakest member of a herd, so by hiding their pain, they make themselves less vulnerable. Nevertheless, as a chinchilla owner, there are still many signs of pain you can pick up on, such as:
- Holding the ears back. The ears will point backwards and downwards rather than being up and alert. Chinchillas do this when they’re sleepy, too, but holding them this way all the time indicates pain.
- Hunched posture. Chinchillas in pain will sit scrunched up, with their legs close by their bodies and their backs arched.
- Placing the body’s weight on the front or hind legs, or one of the front legs/one of the hind legs. This indicates that one of its legs or one of its feet is in pain.
- Defensiveness. Chinchillas feel vulnerable when they are in pain, so are more likely to bite or try to avoid you.
- Sounds of pain. Chinchillas make repeated squeaking noises when in pain. Severe pain causes screaming, a high pitched and very distressing sound.
On top of these signs, if you’re an experienced owner, you can use your intuition. Having spent so much time with your pet, you can tell when its behavior changes and it doesn’t seem its usual self. You can tell if it seems unhappy. If it does, it may be in pain, and that is one sign of arthritis.
You can use this symptom to identify where the pain is located, too. If one of your chinchillas front legs is hurt, it will avoid putting weight on it. You can see this in the way it stands and walks, like how some people walk with a limp. This can help you more accurately diagnose and treat the condition.
4) Lack of Activity
Because your chinchilla’s joints are stiff and painful, it won’t be as active as it used to be. There are several things you might notice, either by comparing the chinchilla with its own past behavior, or by observing it alongside its cage mate:
- Lack of exercise. Your chinchilla will spend less time, or no time at all, on its exercise wheel or saucer.
- Lack of movement during play pen time. Your chinchilla won’t get excited when you open its cage to let it out, or if it does, it will show limited mobility. When in its play pen, it won’t run around, wall surf or popcorn like it used to.
- Lack of interest in handling. Your chinchilla won’t want you to pick it up. If you do, it won’t run quickly from one hand to another or run across your shoulders any more.
- Less playing with cage mates. Chinchillas can enjoy chasing each other and play fighting. A chinchilla with arthritis won’t be as active.
- Not rolling around in the dust bath. Your chinchilla will display limited mobility when rolling onto its back, or it may not bother at all.
You may also notice your chinchilla trying to remain active, but finding it painful and difficult to do so.
If your chin does have arthritis, you’re likely to notice all of these symptoms in conjunction with one another. Observe your pet for a while to see whether its new behaviors continue. If they do, arthritis is likely the issue, and you can move on from diagnosis to assistance.
How to Help a Chinchilla with Arthritis
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for arthritis. Once the lining of the joint is worn away, it cannot be replaced or regrown. That’s why people with severe arthritis have their joints replaced. This means that you cannot fully get rid of the pain and stiffness that your chinchilla is experiencing.
That being said, there are ways to stop your pet’s arthritis from getting any worse.
Take Your Pet to The Vet
Any time your chinchilla has a health problem, your first instinct should be to take it to the vet.
The vet can diagnose what the problem is. If it is arthritis, they can recommend care guidelines that wil stop it from progressing and will lessen your pet’s pain. If it’s bacterial arthritis, the vet can prescribe antibiotics to stop it getting worse. And if it’s not arthritis, the vet can identify what it really is, and help you fix that problem instead.
The vet can’t prescribe medication that will fix the issue, but painkillers would improve your pet’s quality of life. Metacam is a common painkiller that vets prescribe, and it’s safe for chinchillas to take too. Only very small dosages are necessary; talk to your vet about an appropriate dosage rather than figuring it out for yourself. You can either get Metacam from a vet, or over the counter.
In the worst case scenario, it may be humane to put your chinchilla to sleep. If it’s in evident extreme pain, your chin will get no enjoyment from life, and even painkillers wouldn’t help. This is something for you to talk to your vet about.
While it’s annoying to have to pay vet’s bills, your chinchilla’s wellbeing is your responsibility. It’s not fair on your pet for it to be unhappy and in pain for the sake of money.
Glucosamine is a chemical compound found in the body. It supports the health and function of cartilage, the tissue that lines joints. While scientists aren’t quite sure how, glucosamine sulfate may help lessen the effects of arthritis, although it hasn’t been shown to reverse it completely.
Glucosamine supplements are available over the counter, and some people give them to their pets. There are anecdotal reports that vets have recommended it for treating arthritis in chinchillas, although how effective it is isn’t clear. It is recommended for both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Chondroitin is another compound found in the body that helps maintain and restore cartilage, although it’s less well known. You can buy chondroitin sulfate on its own, or supplements that contain both chondroitin and glucosamine.
If you plan on giving these supplements to your pet, talk to a vet first. They can tell you what an appropriate dosage would be.
Change Your Chinchilla’s Cage Layout
Chinchillas with arthritis won’t have as much fun running and jumping as healthy chinchillas. You can make adjustments to your pet’s cage to accommodate that fact.
We don’t recommend removing the platforms from your pet’s cage entirely, as all chinchillas should be able to express natural jumping behaviors if they want to. But what you can do is make everything accessible from the bottom floor of the cage. So, many people hang toys from the ceiling of the cage, for example; or, you might attach a snack food bowl to the side of the cage that’s accessible only from a platform or hammock.
If that’s the case, you should move these things to the lower floor of the cage so that your pet can access them. And consider moving the water bottle further down the side of the cage, so that your chinchilla doesn’t have to stretch to access it. This will mean that your chinchilla experiences less day-to-day pain.
Arthritis isn’t a question of ‘use it or lose it’, i.e. the condition gets worse if you don’t continue to exercise the joints. The opposite is true, as the more you use them, the more the cartilage lining inside is worn down. So, rather than encouraging more exercise and movement, it’s better to encourage less so that your chinchilla isn’t in pain.
Monitor Your Chinchilla’s Weight
Obesity makes arthritis worse. That’s because it increases the load that each joint in your chinchilla’s legs and feet has to bear. If you lessen the load, the lining of your chinchilla’s joints will wear away slower; it will also stop bone from rubbing against bone as forcefully.
Overweight and obesity are rare in chinchillas, because most owners feed their pets a diet of hay and hay pellets. This is all that chinchillas need to thrive. If you frequently feed snack such as nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables then your chinchilla will gain weight over time and become obese. Chinchillas can live happily and healthily without any snacks, so if yours is too big, cut out snacks completely.
Like people, chinchillas come in different shapes and sizes, so there is no one weight that your chin ‘should’ be. But most hover around the 500-600g mark. What’s just as important as its current weight, though, is whether your chinchilla is gaining or losing weight. If you suspect it may be overweight, weigh your pet each week with regular kitchen scales. If your pet won’t sit still on them, put it in a bowl. Then, check whether your chin gains or loses significant amounts of weight and adjust its diet accordingly.
Assist Your Pet in Daily Living
Your chinchilla will find it difficult to do certain things, but you can help it.
Take dust baths for example. A chinchilla with arthritis will struggle to roll around in dust as doing so would be painful. So, instead, you can rub the dust into its fur with your hands. This is just as effective as the chinchilla rolling around in the dust on its own. If your chin still feels capable of bathing on its own, let it, but if it looks painful or if your pet refuses then do this instead.
You could also provide your pet with toys that don’t require much movement. Chew toys are a good example: rather than introducing new exercise equipment to the cage, give your pet lots of new chew toys to play with. Or, consider giving your pet a new hide, new food bowl, or otherwise enriching its environment in a way that keeps it entertained but without forcing it to move and exercise too much.
Other than following these pointers, there’s little you can do. Ensure that your pet is as happy and its environment as suitable as can be. This will at least mean that your pet is happy in its old age.
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