Can Chinchillas Get Hairballs?

Hairballs commonly affect pets—but not all pets. With chins having such thick fur, it would make sense if they did too. So can chinchillas get hairballs when they groom themselves or each other? Or when they fight, or when they shed loose fur?

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Hairballs commonly affect pets—but not all pets. With chins having such thick fur, it would make sense if they did too. So can chinchillas get hairballs when they groom themselves or each other? Or when they fight, or when they shed loose fur?

Can chinchillas get hairballs? They can, but they aren’t passed by being brought up, only pooped out. They look like large poops that are made mostly of hair, but will have some feces mixed in. Hairballs are very rare but can occur after lots of fur slip, barbering (chinchilla fur chewing), fighting or loose fur from shedding. If there’s something that resembles a hairball in your chinchilla’s cage it’s likely a regular tuft of fur, but if you aren’t sure, observe your pet to see if it ‘produces’ any more.

Our guide below first explores why hairballs occur, and how frequently you’re likely to see them. Then we’ll look at how chins produce fur balls (because they can’t vomit—and there’s only one other way!)

Can Chinchillas Get Hairballs?

Chinchillas can get fur balls, but it’s very uncommon, and they aren’t passed in the same way as other animals pass them.

What Are Hairballs, and Why Do Hairballs Form?

Thick chinchilla fur.
Despite your pet’s coat being so thick, it’s highly unlikely to get hairballs. Image courtesy of © Salix / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL

Hairballs are big clumps of hair, sometimes interspersed with partially-digested food. Most animals bring them up by coughing and retching so that they don’t have to go all the way through the gut. They appear as medium-to-large slimy looking slugs. They can look a little like poop, but hairier.

Hairballs form when fur gets stuck in the gut. Fur/hair is made from keratin, the same material that nails/claws are made from, so it can’t be digested. The reason the hair isn’t passed all at once is that it can get caught in the twists and turns of your chinchilla’s gut, e.g. in its cecum, which is where the majority of digestion occurs. The cecum is a pouch at the end of the large intestine just after the entrance to the small intestine. Fur can accumulate here and may only pass once enough has built up.

While hairballs do affect chinchillas, they don’t have as much control in how and when they bring them up.

What Do Chinchilla Hairballs Look Like?

Chinchilla hairballs look like regular poops, but much larger, and with lots of hair mixed in.

They are larger because they have so much hair in them. They may be almost entirely hair. The hair can’t pack together as densely as your pet’s poop, hence the size. Because of the color of your chinchilla’s fur, and its lower density, a hairball will also be a different color to a regular poop.

Hairballs look different to regular tufts of fur, too. A hairball will look dirty and perhaps slimy, although if it’s old, it will have dried out more. If your chinchilla’s fur is a light color, the hairball will appear darker.

Why Are Hairballs So Uncommon in Chinchillas?

To produce a hairball, your chinchilla first has to ingest fur to form it. It stands to reason that if chinchillas hardly produce hairballs, they must only rarely ingest fur in significant quantities.

It’s easy to see how this might be the case if you look at another pet—one which gets hairballs all the time. Cats groom themselves by licking their coats, which chinchillas don’t do; they bathe in dust instead. While chinchillas do nibble at their fur to groom, they don’t lick in the same way, and even if they did they have much smaller tongues (both absolutely and relatively speaking). On top of that, a cat’s tongue is very rough, so acts almost like a comb as it runs across its coat, so it’s little wonder they ignest so much hair.

There are only select circumstances in which chinchilla owners report their pets getting hairballs. In one example, they occur after a chinchilla has to groom its sick cage mate; they can also happen after fighting when there’s lots of fur slip and barbering going on. Or, your chinchilla might be stressed, so nibbles and gnaws on things that aren’t suitable such as clumps of fur that it finds. But in healthy chinchillas, they’re practically unheard of.

How Do Chinchillas Pass Hairballs?

Chinchillas don’t bring up hairballs by vomiting, regurgitating or retching. Instead they poop them out. They aren’t the only animal that does this; household pets that can pass hairballs can pass them both ways. But chinchillas can pass them in only one way.

Can Chinchillas Bring Up Hairballs?

chinchilla hairball
Chinchillas can’t regurgitate or vomit, so they can’t bring up hairballs that way.

Chinchillas can’t bring up hairballs because they can’t bring anything up. They completely lack the capability to regurgitate or vomit.

Perhaps surprisingly, they aren’t the only rodent that can’t vomit—no rodent species can. That’s why rat poison is so effective, because even when the rat eats deadly baited food, it can’t bring it back up again. It’s thought that this serves as an advantage in some ways, even though it’s a disadvantage in others. Because rodents so frequently have to scavenge food, sometimes they need to eat food that’s gone bad; by having an ‘iron stomach’ they can deal with any infection that might occur, but still get the nutrients they need.

This has even been backed up in laboratory studies. Scientists have found that when rats eat ’emetics’, which are chemicals designed to make you vomit, they don’t have the same reaction as we do. Not only do their muscles not contract like ours do, but they don’t even get the same brain activity that’s thought to trigger retching and vomiting. While no studies have been done specifically on chinchillas, they don’t vomit either, so it’s likely that this applies to our furry friends too.

So, if your chinchilla has somehow produced a hairball, it hasn’t done so by bringing it up.

Can Chinchillas Poop Out Hairballs?

So, your chinchilla can’t vomit its hairballs. That means there’s only one other way for them to come out, and that’s through your pet’s rear end. This is why, if you see one, it will be mixed in with poop rather than half-digested food.

Passing a hairball may be difficult for your pet. That’s because a) the hairball is bigger than the average poop, and b) it’s low-density so can’t be pushed out as easily.

Air Hairballs Dangerous?

While blockages of the gut are dangerous in chinchillas, hairballs don’t seem to be. That’s likely because of their lower density, and because they clump up. Things that typically cause stasis such as plastic can’t form large clumps so can’t easily be passed. This is perhaps why hairballs are rarely recorded in necropsies. This is also why owners don’t typically do anything to help their chins pass hairballs, or to prevent them in the first place.

The only way in which hairballs can be dangerous is that they’re awkward to pass. This might make your chinchilla strain to push the hairball out, which could potentially cause a proplapse. No owners that we’ve found have recorded this happening—although it’s possible.

If you are concerned about their potential effect on your pet’s health, watch it for a while to see if you can observe any other signs of illness (e.g. lethargy, hunched posture and backward-pointing ears from pain). And if you ever think there’s something wrong with your chin, take it to a vet.

Causes Other Than Hairballs

Chinchilla hairballs don’t look a lot like regular hair. That’s because they’ve been all the way through your chinchilla’s digestive system and out the other side. But if you’re not familiar with the way hairballs look, you may mistake them for regular fur, or mistake regular fur for them. Here is a brief list looking at all the other potential causes of loose fur in a chinchilla cage:

  1. Your chinchilla is shedding. Chinchillas naturally shed fur at various points in the year. This is known as ‘priming’, and it can cause large tufts of fur to fall from your pet’s coat.
  2. Your chinchilla is barbering its fur, or the fur of its cage mate. Barbering is like grooming, but aggressive. When stressed or undergoing dominance issues, chinchillas can pull out their own fur, or the fur of their cage mates.
  3. Your chinchillas have been fighting. Chinchillas can also pull the fur from their cage mates’ coats when they fight.
  4. You accidentally handled your chinchilla too roughly. This causes ‘fur slip’, which is where small patches of fur come out of your pet’s coat during rough handling or when it is attacked.

None of these things cause anything that looks exactly like a hairball, but they do cause loose fur in the cage. This fur may either be in small clumps or individual hairs, like when your chinchilla is priming. Or, the clumps may be larger and stuck together, as happens in fur slip.

If you aren’t sure what’s causing loose fur in your chinchilla’s cage, monitor your pet for a while. Eventually you will either see your chinchilla barbering its fur, your pet fighting with its cage mate, or one of your chinchillas pooping out a furball. You can then address whatever the problem is, e.g. by putting fighting chinchillas in separate cages or removing the source of stress that’s causing fur slip.

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New owner, don't know where to start? Or do you need a handy chinchilla reference guide? Check out our Chinchilla Care 101 eBook, or get what you need from our online store!