It’s tempting to let your pet roam free without a cage: it’s more natural, and offers much more chance for interaction between pet and owner. But as chinchillas are exotic, is it a good idea?
Do chinchillas need a cage? They do, as they will run away, hide, or could hurt themselves without one. Neither free roaming inside the house nor free range living outside is suitable for a pet chinchilla because of dangers like wiring, heat or cold, and other pets. Your chinchilla should live in a suitable indoor cage with everything it needs inside.
While ideally your chinchilla would live wild and free, it can’t. Pet chinchillas can’t survive in the wild, even in their natural habitat. You have to keep it safe in a cage. Let’s find out why…
Can You Let Chinchillas Run Around the House?
Chinchillas enjoy time outside their cages. Cages are unnatural, and even if you give your pet lots of toys, it would prefer to have more space to roam. That’s why all chinchilla owners let their pets out every once in a while.
When a chinchilla is let out, it’s immediately obvious how happy it is. It will start running around quickly in circles, and jumping up and down (popcorning). This is adorable and is part of why owning a chinchilla is such fun.
This is normally done within the confines of one room, e.g. your bedroom. But there are several issues with letting a chinchilla roam freely around your entire home. Your house isn’t anything like your pet’s natural habitat, and as such, your chinchilla can behave in ways that are dangerous both for you and for it. There’s the chance that it could escape, and any other pets could be a danger, too.
Can Chinchillas Free Roam?
All owners let their chinchillas out of their cages occasionally. But can chinchillas live outside a cage? This is called letting your chinchilla ‘free roam’, and some people do keep their chinchillas this way. The chinchilla will usually have a cage, but not be confined to it, and will only come back for its food and shelter.
Whether this works depends on the temperaments of both pet and owner. But the average chinchilla needs to be kept in an enclosure. Here’s a brief list which describes why letting a chinchilla free roam is a bad idea:
- Chinchillas can escape through open windows or doors
- Chinchillas can hide around your house
- Chinchillas chew on cables and can kill themselves doing so
- Chinchillas chew on carpet, furniture and the walls
- You could accidentally stand or sit on your pet
All of this means that letting your chinchilla live outside a cage is a bad idea, both for you and for your pet. Wild chinchillas can live wherever they want, of course. But this isn’t a problem with your chinchilla, it’s a problem with your home, which isn’t a natural place for an exotic animal like a chinchilla to live.
Anyway—let’s explore each of these points in more depth.
Do Chinchillas Run Away?
Despite being domesticated for a hundred years, chinchillas can and do run away. This can happen in the blink of an eye, with your pet escaping either through an open door or window. Your pet could also try to escape through any holes in the wall, or through the wall or floor cavity.
This is more likely if you neglect your pet. If your chinchilla is unhappy with its living situation, then it will take its chances in the wild. But if its every need is catered for, it’s less likely to take that chance. Needless to say, though, your chinchilla faces many dangers when it’s outdoors like predators and the weather.
Once it’s outside, it’s difficult to recapture a chinchilla. That’s because they hide in burrows and rock crevices. You won’t see where it’s hiding, and you will struggle to convince it to come out even if you do. That’s why trappers would flush wild chinchillas from their burrows by using smoke.
This means that if you let your chinchilla roam freely, it could try to get out. If you’re careful, this won’t be a problem, but it’s something you must be aware of. This problem is made worse if your chinchilla lives outside of its cage full time.
Where Do Chinchillas Hide Around the House?
If your chinchilla doesn’t try to escape, it may try to hide within the house. You can’t keep an eye on your free roaming chinchilla at all times, so this is a distinct possibility.
While this isn’t as bad as losing your chinchilla altogether, it’s surprisingly difficult to tempt your pet out of hiding, and it could get hurt. Chinchillas like to hide in dark places such as:
- Inside and underneath furniture
- Inside kitchen cupboards
- Inside the wall or floor cavities
Anywhere that’s dark is a potential hiding place, especially if it’s somewhere familiar to your chinchilla. While it’s hiding, your chinchilla could chew on wires, get underneath peoples’ feet, or get sat on and squashed—so you would need to find your pet as soon as possible.
Do Chinchillas Chew Wires?
Another reason why it’s not safe to let chinchillas loose without thinking is that they gnaw on cables. This is a natural instinct in all rodents. Burrowing rodents would have to gnaw through plant roots to dig their burrows, and today’s rodents, even ones that don’t burrow, still have the same instinct.
This is a problem because when your chinchilla chews through a wire, it gets an electric shock. This is enough to kill it. This is one of the issues that people address when they chinchilla-proof a room: getting rid of all the cables, or placing them somewhere inaccessible. Doing this is next-to-impossible for an entire house. It’s possible if you chinchilla-proof just one room, however.
And this isn’t an issue that will affect one chinchilla out of ten. Any chinchilla let loose in a room will chew on exposed wires if there are any. There are exceptionally rare reports of chinchillas that don’t, but it’s not worth taking the risk with your pet because the consequences are so severe. So, this is another reason why letting your chinchilla live freely is a bad idea.
Do Chinchillas Chew Carpet?
This may not sound as serious an issue as chewing wires, but it can be. Chinchillas will chew carpet, too, if they’re let loose in a carpeted room. This isn’t a certainty like chewing wires, but it’s common enough to be a problem.
The chinchilla will pick an exposed piece of carpet near the wall. If there is some that has already come away from the wall, your chinchilla might chew it. Alternatively, it might scrabble at the carpet where it meets the wall to pull it up before chewing it.
The reason this is an issue is that the carpet will get stuck in your chinchilla’s gut. It can’t be digested, and if your chinchilla eats enough, it will get ‘compacted’. This is where something in the gut forms a solid mass that’s too big to be passed. This interferes with digestion, so your chinchilla stops pooping altogether. In chinchillas, this is called gastrointestinal stasis and it can kill.
Your Chinchilla Could Get Wet
Something else that might happen is that your chinchilla gets wet. Chinchillas ought to stay dry at all times, because their fur holds onto moisture. This makes it difficult for your pet to maintain its body temperature, and it can die.
There are lots of ways that your chinchilla could encounter water if it free roams. The most obvious place this might happen is in the bathroom. What owners commonly report is that when a chinchilla gets loose and heads to the bathroom, it will jump into the toilet bowl. That’s because chinchillas like jumping to and from platforms, and the toilet looks like a solid platform from its perspective. But if the lid is up, the chinchilla will fall right through. It will then struggle to get out again.
Your pet could also get wet in the kitchen, or if it gets into the yard. While getting wet isn’t a death sentence for chinchillas, it’s an awkward problem to fix that involves lots of towel drying and using a blow dryer on a low setting. It also takes a long time. So, this is both dangerous and inconvenient!
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Can Chinchillas Be Free Range?
There are several definitions to ‘free range’. Most people think of it as letting an animal roam around outside, which is the definition accepted here. This is in contrast to free roaming, which is the more common practise of letting your chinchilla go where it wants indoors.
Letting your chinchilla live free range is an even worse idea than letting it free roam. There are all sorts of hazards it might encounter:
- The weather. Chinchillas need to keep their fur dry at all times, as getting wet interferes with their temperature regulation. Getting a chinchilla wet could kill it. The heat and cold can also kill your pet.
- Other pets. Outdoor pets hunt much more than their owners realize. They could attack your chinchilla when it’s not in its cage.
- Wild predators. There will be wild animals that can attack your loose chinchilla no matter where you live.
- Cars, people and other hazards.
To think that a chinchilla might like being free range where you live is to misunderstand chinchillas as a species. Wild chinchillas can survive outside, but live in a remarkable part of the world, the Andes Mountains and its foothills. This region is unique: high-altitude and dry, very rocky and remote, with lots of hiding places for the chinchilla to make use of. In other words, nothing like your back yard.
Can You Let a Chinchilla Out of its Cage At All?
Do chinchillas have to live in a cage? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t let them out at all. When you do, you have to prepare the room first. This is known as ‘chinchilla-proofing’. This means changing the layout of a room, and what’s in it, to suit your pet. You have to:
- Get rid of any cables where possible. If one can’t be removed, it must be protected with a cable protector.
- Use a play pen if you have one, or can make one. This stops the chinchilla from going anywhere it wants, and protects the walls and trim of your home (which your pet might gnaw).
- Avoid carpeted rooms. Chinchillas can chew on carpet, which causes digestive problems. The easiest fix is to let your chinchilla loose in a room with no carpet.
- Moving wooden furniture out of the room. While it’s safe for your chinchilla to ingest wood when gnawing it, your furniture would be ruined.
- Keeping all doors and windows closed. Also, closing any closet doors.
- Closing off any holes in the wall. Chinchillas are much smaller than they look: they’re mostly fur. They will squeeze through holes in the wall like other rodents do.
One popular option is the bathroom. The bathroom doesn’t typically have carpet or exposed wires in it, or any wooden furniture. But if you choose the bathroom, you must ensure there is no water your chinchilla can come into contact with. That’s because chinchillas shouldn’t get wet. Close the toilet lid as chinchillas can jump inside, and empty the sink and tub of any water too.
Give Your Chinchilla Things to Gnaw On
On top of chinchilla-proofing your room, you can satisfy your chinchilla’s need for destruction in other ways. Chinchillas gnaw on things because they need to trim their teeth, so providing something your pet can chew on will discourage it from ruining your house when it’s loose. You should give your chinchilla:
- Apple wood sticks. These come in bundles that can be bought from pet stores.
- Wooden cage furniture. Platforms, wooden running wheels and wooden decorations can all be gnawed on.
- Dried grape vines. When dried, these become tougher than wood, and are safe to ingest.
You should give your pet these things as a matter of course, because without chew toys, your chinchilla will become ill and unhappy.
So, can chinchillas run around the house? Yes, but they need cages to go back to when play time is over. Without one, both your pet’s safety and your sanity would be at risk!