Chinchillas have precise care requirements that you may struggle to meet. If so, would it be less cruel to free your chinchilla and let it live in the wild?
Can you release a pet chinchilla into the wild? You shouldn’t, as it likely won’t survive. The temperature and humidity are unlikely to be suitable, and there will be predators and other pets that could attack it. What’s less cruel is to give a chinchilla you can’t look after to a shelter or an experienced breeder if one is available. You could also try to improve the standard of care you provide by following easy steps like spot cleaning and free feeding, which make your life easier and your chinchilla’s life better.
The guide below looks at what happens if you release a chinchilla to the wild: whether your pet could find a suitable diet, would be attacked by predators, and would find somewhere safe to live (the short answer: it would have a bad time). We’ll also cover what you should do instead of releasing your chinchilla to the wild, i.e. rehoming it with an experienced breeder or shelter.
Can You Release a Pet Chinchilla Into the Wild?
If you have a pet chinchilla you can’t take care of any more, you may think to release it. After all, chinchillas have survived in the wild for thousands of years.
However, if you live in the United States or in Europe, this would be a bad idea. Your chinchilla would be unable to survive and thrive in its new home, and would likely die a quick death. If it doesn’t, it would likely suffer for a long time in inhospitable conditions that it’s simply not used to. Let’s take a look at what would happen to your chinchilla if you released it.
Wild chinchillas don’t have highly selective diets. It’s thought that they eat most of the plants in their environment. However, it’s not a given that there will be a suitable range for it to choose from where you live.
Chins mostly eat leaves and plant roots. But the nutritional content of each plant is slightly different. Some have high levels of calcium, others don’t; some have lots of vitamins, and others have next to none. As such, it’s possible/probable that your chinchilla wouldn’t get a suitable diet were you to release it into the wild.
This is one of the least of your pet’s problems, though. A chinchilla released to the wild wouldn’t get a chance to suffer nutritional deficiencies, because something else would kill it first.
Temperature & Humidity
The first issues your pet would encounter are unsuitable temperature and humidity. Chinchillas have adapted to the unusually cold and dry climate of the Andes Mountains. They live high up on hillsides and mountainsides, and shelter in burrows to avoid the worst of the cold.
The ideal temperature for a chinchilla is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 10 to 15 degrees Centigrade. They can easily survive below freezing, although, of course, they’re most comfortable in a normal temperature range. This is roughly the temperature of the Andes: it’s 50F/10C or lower in winter, and hardly ever gets higher than 65F/18C.
It’s high temperatures that chinchillas can’t handle. They have thick fur to deal with freezing temperatures, so if the weather’s hot, they can quickly overheat. What makes things worse is that they’re so unused to hot temperatures that they have only one mechanism to deal with overheating (cooling blood down in the ears); they can’t pant and can’t sweat. This means that your chinchilla will likely overheat in spring, summer or even fall/autumn.
Chins are just as susceptible to humidity. They don’t like humidity levels above 50%, because they need to keep their fur dry. If it gets wet, it’s difficult to get dry, which can cause matted patches, fungal infection or even hypothermia.
Predators & Other Pets
Chinchillas are prey animals in the wild, and it’s likely that your chinchilla would end up as prey (if it didn’t succumb to the elements first).
In the wild, chinchillas are eaten by birds of prey, foxes (the culpeo) and more. If you released your chinchilla where you live, similar native animals would attack and eat your pet. Besides them, there are other pets to contend with: cats, and dogs of any size. Even small dogs could kill chinchillas easily, especially those bred to hunt for rats and mice. As your chinchilla could feasibly live for several more years as a happy pet, in the right care, it’s the most humane thing to do to ensure that that happens—rather than it being attacked and even killed.
It’s Bad For The Environment
Even if your chinchilla does manage to survive, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You shouldn’t introduce a new species to an area because it upsets the ecosystem. This is one of the key reasons why should you never release pets into the wild.
The problem is that there are already animals that eat the same foods that chinchillas eat. The new competition, in the form of a hypothetical herd of chinchillas, could mean that the other species that feed on the same plants die out. On top of that, animals like birds of prey that feed on things like chinchillas would thrive; there would eventually be too many of them, which would further put pressure on other species.
This is so much the case that some countries and states have made it illegal to release pets into the wild. Hawaii, for example, has made it illegal to import let alone release non-native animals into the wild. That’s because Hawaii’s ecosystem is as fragile as it is unique; thousands of species have already died there since people arrived, and the state government is trying to stop that happening. In the U.K., the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has similarly made it illegal to release exotic pets into the wild.
How Do Chinchillas Survive in The Wild?
Given all this, it’s a wonder that any chinchilla can survive in the wild. So, how can they thrive in the Andes but not anywhere else?
Some animals are adapted to very general climates: they can survive in heat or cold, sunshine or rain. We are one of the best examples, but so are rats and mice, and dogs and cats. But other animals are highly specialized and can only survive in very specific climatic conditions, like polar bears or penguins (in the cold), or camels (in the heat).
Chinchillas are one such animal. They have developed very thick fur to survive well below freezing. It’s so rare that it’s hot in the Andes that this isn’t a problem. But at the same time, it’s very unlikely that it will rain. Chins and their thick fur can therefore only survive in places that are both cold and dry, of which there are few.
What to Do With a Chinchilla You Can’t Take Care Of
If you don’t think you can look after your pet any more, don’t worry. Chinchillas are more difficult to care for than many new owners realize. Rather than beat yourself up, accept the situation and do something about it—it’s the least you can do for your pet. Below is a list of ideas, presented in order, that you can work through to find care for your pet.
1) Change How You Care For Your Pet
Some circumstances can’t be changed. So, say for example that you’re moving to a country where pet chinchillas are illegal; well, you’ve no choice but to give up your pet. But most owners who struggle with their chinchillas struggle because they don’t know what’s right and wrong for their pets.
As such, if you take active steps to improve how you care for your chinchilla, you may feel more in control and you may provide better care. Following just these basic guidelines can make your chinchilla thrive:
- Feed only hay and hay pellets. Chinchillas don’t need snacks. You can feed unlimited amounts of fresh hay, and some owner even feed unlimited pellets to save time.
- Keep your chinchilla’s cage clean by spot cleaning. This takes only five minutes per day. Switch out soggy fleece lining, sweep up old hay and poop, and wipe down anything that needs to be wiped down.
- Take your chinchilla to the vet for a checkup. They won’t judge you or think you’re a bad owner; they just want to help your pet live a full and happy life. Checkups only cost $30-50, depending on where you go.
- Spend time with your pet. Let it run around the room in a pen. This will stop it from getting too stir-crazy, and is the most fun thing about owning a pet.
- Don’t pick up your chinchilla when it clearly doesn’t want to be picked up. It’s possible to force the issue to the point where the chinchilla learns not to fight back, but for the time being, just leave your pet be if it doesn’t feel secure in your hands.
- Provide your pet with dust baths. Your chinchilla can keep its coat clean on its own, without your help, just by rolling around in mineral dust.
If your chinchilla isn’t experiencing health issues, it’s worth trying to follow these guidelines just for a while. If you are organized in how you care for your chinchilla, owning one becomes much easier and much more reqarding.
2) Take It To a Shelter
Just as there are shelters for dogs and cats, so too are there shelters for chinchillas. Shelters look after pets that nobody else can, and they do all they can to rehome those pets. They are often staffed by volunteers who do their jobs solely because they care about animals and want to provide somewhere safe for neglected pets.
We don’t recommend giving your chinchilla to a shelter that accepts any animal. Chins are highly skittish, and don’t enjoy being around other pets. Being around big dogs and cats, which are stressed themselves, would be very difficult for your chinchilla to endure. Not only that, but since chinchillas have detailed care requirements that most people don’t know about, it’s possible that a general shelter would accidentally neglect/mistreat your pet. So, try to find a shelter that specializes in chinchillas or at least rodents.
3) Give It To a Friend
If you have a friend who owns chinchillas then you could ask them to look after your pet for you. This happens very often in the community, as any group you look at will have stories of owners who took in their friends’ pets. This is a good idea because:
- You can likely trust your friend to take care of your pet well for you
- If your circumstances change and you’re able to look after your pet again, you can take it in
- You can check on your pet periodically to see how it’s doing
- You can help your friend care for your pet, e.g. by providing them with the chinchilla’s food, money for its vet care, and so on
We would recommend giving your pet to a shelter rather than to a friend. Your friend may not be capable of looking after their own pets, plus your pet. This is made more likely as their good intentions, their natural inclination to help, may make them take on your pet even if they know deep down that they can’t care for it. But if your chinchilla is in unsuitable conditions in your care, giving it to a friend who can help for the time being is better than nothing.
4) Rehome It Through an Online Group
If you can’t find a shelter near you, and you have no chinchilla-owning friends, you still have options. There are many groups online dedicated to chinchillas and their care. While some like our site are informational in nature, others are for talking to other owners: forums like chins-n-hedgies.com, for example, or groups on Facebook and other social media sites.
Through these groups, you can find lists of shelters. While many don’t allow posts about rehoming, some do, so you could ask about individuals willing to take chinchillas in as well. Many are known for doing this, since they already have the space, food and expertise, and they like to give back to the community.
If an individual owner offers to take care of your chinchilla, it might not be a good idea to give it to them. There’s no guarantee that they’re a good owner, unless they’re very well known to the group in general. As such, if you can find a breeder or a shelter, we recommend giving to them instead; but if there’s nobody else you can find, an individual owner will have to do.
5) Take It To a Vet
If you can’t find any alternative, you should take your chinchilla to the vet. The vet may be able to help you care for your chinchilla: they can fix any health problems it has, give you advice on how to house and feed it, or put you in touch with shelters, breeders or others who can care for it if you can’t.
And if there really is no other option, you can have your pet chinchilla put to sleep. This may be the most humane way forward, especially if your pet is sick and unhappy all the time. This is something for you to talk about with your vet, as if your chinchilla would otherwise live a happy life, you shouldn’t have it put down.