Chinchillas are susceptible to lots of health issues, bladder stones among them. But what causes bladder stones? And why are they so painful, even lethal?
Can chinchillas get bladder stones? They can. Excess calcium and other minerals are excreted through uric acid (something found in pee). These minerals can form crystals in your chinchilla’s badder that grow bigger and bigger. Chins are susceptible to bladder stones because they don’t drink much water, a problem made worse by decreased bladder function or a high-calcium diet of alfalfa hay/alfalfa pellets. Surgery is necessary to get rid of chinchilla bladder stones, but this surgery is not always successful, and if it’s not then you will have to put your pet to sleep.
The guide below first describes what bladder stones are, and whether they’re fatal. We’ll then look at what causes bladder stones, the symptoms of bladder stones, and how to get rid of them.
Note: If you suspect that your chinchilla has bladder stones, take it to see a vet immediately. This guide is for informational purposes only; that means that while this guide is based on useful information, it isn’t intended to substitute for a vet’s care. So if your chinchilla is sick, take it to the vet, and read this another time.
What Are Bladder Stones?
Bladder stones are hard lumps of minerals like calcium that form in the bladder. They are the equivalent of kidney stones, but which occur in the bladder instead. They form when these minerals crystallize which is especially common if the bladder isn’t fully emptied.
If the stones are small enough, the chinchilla may pass them, so they can be found both in the bladder and in the urethra. They can block the entrance to the urethra from the bladder, or get stuck anywhere along it, and make it difficult/impossible for your chinchilla to pee. Your chin can have many bladder stones at once, and they can grow to the size of a ten cent piece.
Are Bladder Stones Fatal in Chinchillas?
Bladder stones can be, but aren’t always, fatal in chinchillas.
Whether they are depends on several factors. First is when you catch the problem: when the stones are big or small. The bigger the stone, the more likely that complications will occur and that your pet will be in constant pain. Second is whether the surgery to remove them is successful or not, as the surgery itself can be fatal.
If the stones are left in place, they can grow large enough to form a complete blockage. When this happens, the chinchilla cannot pass any urine at all. The urine builds up in the bladder until it ruptures, which is fatal too. But with veterinary care, bladder stones can be flushed out, and the chinchilla make a full recovery.
What Causes Bladder Stones in Chinchillas?
Bladder stones are caused by minerals, typically calcium, that accumulate in the bladder. But there are several things that make this more or less likely to occur.
Poor Bladder Function
Bladder stones are much more likely to form if the bladder remains full or partly full for long periods of time. This gives the minerals in the uric acid time to crystallize, and there are several reasons why this might happen.
The first is a UTI. A UTI is a urinary tract infection, and these happen when bacteria travel up the urethra and infect the lining of the bladder, or even the kidneys. As happens in any infection, the infected tissue becomes swollen. This happens because the body tries to send blood, and thereby more antibodies, to the infected area to kill the bacteria there. The dilated blood vessels and extra blood make the area swollen.
While this is good in that it allows the body to fight infection, it’s bad because in this context, the entrance and exit to the bladder may be cut off. The tube from the bladder to the outside, called the urethra, can get swollen and pinched too. This swelling stops your chinchilla from peeing. The urine therefore stands more chance of forming crystals while the infection is active.
A hair ring can have the same effect. A hair ring is when a male chinchilla gets fur stuck in the sheath of its penis. This pinches the urethra and makes it difficult for the chinchilla to pee.
Your Pet’s Body Conserves Water
The more water an animal drinks, the less likely bladder stones are to affect it. There are two reasons why:
- The proportion of water to uric acid is greater if the animal drinks more water. The more uric acid there is, the greater the concentration of minerals in the urine, so the more likely crystals are to form.
- The more water an animal drinks, the more likely it is that the stone will be flushed out. This is how animals pass bladder or kidney stones naturally.
Unfortunately, chinchillas have developed to conserve as much water as possible. This is something they do because they come from a dry part of the world: the Andes Mountains. Your chinchilla doesn’t drink much in captivity, either, so its pee has a very high proportion of uric acid to water. That’s why its pee is so dark. This makes bladder stones more common in chins than in animals that drink lots of water.
Excess Calcium from Alfalfa Hay & Alfalfa Pellets
While the two issues above make bladder stones more likely, it’s impossible for them to form if the urine doesn’t contain lots of waste minerals. That’s only possible if your chinchilla has a diet high in them.
That’s because minerals your chinchilla’s body doesn’t need are excreted through urine, and end up in the bladder. So, if your chinchilla eats lots of high-calcium foods, any excess that doesn’t go to its bones or teeth goes to its bladder instead. Here, it can form crystals.
Since chinchillas only eat hay and hay pellets, you may not think this is a problem. But different hays have vastly different calcium contents. Alfalfa hay has a far higher concentration of calcium than timothy hay, which is why many chinchillas fed an alfalfa-based diet develop bladder stones (although that isn’t inevitable).
Your pet can also get calcium from certain snacks and chew toys. Cuttle bones make a good gnawing toy for chinchillas that don’t get enough calcium from food. But if your chin gets enough calcium from its hay, and gnaws on a cuttle bone on top of that, it will get too much.
What Are The Symptoms of Bladder Stones in Chinchillas?
Bladder stones are a serious enough issue that they have many symptoms. None of these symptoms are specific to bladder stones, as they can also be signs of a UTI. But while a UTI is easy to treat, bladder stones are anything but. Let’s take a look at the symptoms you’re likely to see before moving on to fixing them.
1) Straining When Peeing
Bladder stones can make it difficult for your pet to pee. They can physically block the entrance or exit to the bladder, or both, meaning the bladder can’t fully empty. Your pet will have to squeeze its bladder harder to pee.
These stones can also get stuck in the pipes that lead to and from the bladder. If the stone is big enough, it can completely block up one of these pipes, making urinating impossible.
This makes the development of bladder stones a kind of vicious cycle. Once a stone forms, it makes it difficult for your pet to pee. As the bladder can’t fully empty, more crystals form, either making the stone bigger or making other new stones.
2) Blood in Urine (Hematuria)
Hematuria is where there’s a small amount of blood in the urine. This makes the urine appear darker than normal. This happens because the stone causes small cuts and scrapes in the bladder/its pipes. These cuts leak small amounts of blood into the urine. Not only does this cause hematuria, but it can precipitate infecetions, too.
This ties in with the first issue of straining when peeing. The more the chinchilla strains, the more likely it is to develop small cuts on the inside of its bladder and urethra.
Bear in mind, though, that chinchilla urine is darker than normal whether it has blood in it or not. That’s because chinchillas conserve as much water as they can. This means their urine contains lots of uric acid and little water, so is a darker yellow or even orange color. When it dries, it can appear red.
3) Signs of Pain
Bladder stones are extremely painful for chinchillas. If you’ve ever had a bladder or kidney stone, or know somebody who has, then you’ll know that already! Being a mammal your chinchilla has all the same organs and nerves that we do, so it feels the same kind of pain that we do when we have kidney/bladder stones.
Your chinchilla will express that it’s in pain through its body language. Chins do their best to hide their pain or illness, so you may not notice these at first.
- Lethargy. Lethargy means inactivity. Your chinchilla will spend more time sleeping than usual.
- Hunched posture. The chinchilla’s back will be arched upwards and its paws held close to its body. Its chin will be tucked in.
- Ears held backwards or downwards. This can also be a sign that your chinchilla is sleepy. But if the ears are held like this all the time, it’s a sign of pain.
- Tooth grinding. Chins grind their teeth together, almost like we clench our jaws when we’re in pain.
- Aggression/defensiveness. Chinchillas in pain feel vulnerable, so your pet won’t want you to handle it. It may lash out if you try to pick it up.
Chinchillas also eat less than usual when they’re sick or in pain.
On top of the physical pain of the stone, bladder stones can cause UTIs. This is where bacteria enter the small cuts that the jagged stone causes. This is a painful condition in its own right, which makes bladder stones even more painful overall.
4) Dribbling Urine
When the bladder isn’t functioning properly due to bladder stones, it leads to a kind of incontinence. This is where the chinchilla can’t help dribbling urine constantly.
The problem is that the chinchilla can’t force the urine out by squeezing its bladder. This is how it normally pees, but the pressure can’t move the stone out of the way. What can happen is that the bladder gets so full that tiny amounts of pee drip past the stone and into the urethra, which they then dribble out of. This is a constant process because the pressure in the bladder isn’t relieved.
The knock-on effect of this is that the fur around your chinchilla’s urethra will first get damp, then wet. When chinchillas pee normally, this doesn’t happen.
How to Diagnose Bladder Stones in Chinchillas
As stated above, these symptoms occur when chinchillas have UTIs as well. That’s because the swelling a UTI causes can block the urethra and make it difficult for your chin to pee the same as bladder stones do. But the treatment for UTIs is completely different to the treatment for bladder stones.
There are several ways to identify bladder stones. The first is to look for the symptoms above: signs of pain, blood in the urine, and so on. This will at least tell you that something is wrong with your chinchilla, if not exactly what. Formal diagnosis is required if you want to know what the problem is, so you’ll have to take your pet to the vet.
The first test your vet will perform is to ‘palpate’ your chinchilla’s abdomen, which means to feel it. If the stones are large enough, the vet can feel them through the belly. The vet will also recognize that touching your chinchilla’s belly where its bladder is causes it pain, which is another sign that bladder stones are the issue.
If they still aren’t sure, the vet can take further steps. An X-ray will tell the vet whether there are stones in your pet’s bladder or not. By imaging the stones, the vet can tell where they are and how big they are, which will determine what the correct course of action should be.
How to Cure Bladder Stones in Chinchillas
If you suspect your chinchilla has bladder stones, you must talk to a vet as soon as possible. The vet can identify the exact problem that’s affecting your chinchilla, be it bladder stones or something else. They can then recommend whatever’s needed to fix your chinchilla’s health issue.
The fix for bladder stones is for your chinchilla to undergo bladder surgery. In bladder surgery, an incision is made in the chinchilla’s abdomen (belly) and the bladder is accessed. It will be swollen both with urine that the chin can’t pass, and with the physical mass of the stone or stones. The vet will first drain the bladder before picking the stones out. The bladder is then sewn back up securely so that no urine leaks into the abdominal cavity.
If the stone or stones were small, they may be part way up the urethra. The fix for this is to flush the urethra with a sterile saline solution. This pushes the stone from the end of the urethra. Stones that are too large to be passed this way are instead flushed back into the bladder using a catheter and removed that way instead.
Bear in mind that the operation may not be successful. Surgery is dangerous both because of the incisions made, and the anesthetic. But besides that, the stone may be wedged deeply in the urethra such that it can’t be flushed out. There’s a kind of surgery called ‘perineal urethrostomy’ that fixes this issue in other pets, but chinchillas are too small and delicate for this to be successful. As such, if this is the case, there is no alternative but to have your pet put to sleep.
Unfortunately, surgery is not always successful. Studies indicate that cystoliths reoccur in roughly half of the chinchillas that undergo surgery to remove them. While this would be much less likely if you properly adjust your chinchilla’s diet following surgery, it does mean that it’s a condition you’ll have to watch out for in the future.
Can Chinchillas Pass Bladder Stones on Their Own?
Your chinchilla can pass bladder stones if they are small. It’s the same as kidney stones in people: the smaller they are, the easier they are to pass. The bigger they get, the more painful and dangerous they are to pass. They can also, of course, get so big that they can’t fit which means the only option is surgery.
The recommended course of action for chinchillas with bladder stones is almost always surgery. That’s because bladder stones aren’t just painful, they can cause complications like cuts and scratches in the urinary tract that cause subsequent infections.
Are There Natural Remedies for Chinchilla Bladder Stones?
People recommend all sorts of natural remedies for bladder stones, but these aren’t very effective. Some have a basis in science, while others don’t, but none are as quick or as frequently effective as surgery.
One way in which kidney or bladder stones can be treated is by increasing the amount of water an animal drinks. This stops further crystals from forming by diluting the uric acid, the part of the urine that contains the minerals. Another way is by dislodging and flushing the stone out, which is easier when more water is ingested. However, you can’t force a chinchilla to drink more urine than normal.
Other remedies may involve the use of herbs, homemade ointments and the like. We don’t recommend using these as they won’t work as effectively as surgery, if they work at all. If your chin has bladder stones, it will be in extreme pain and could potentially pass away, so formal medical intervention is required.
Prevent Future Bladder Stones
The first thing you should do is ensure that once treatment is complete, this issue doesn’t happen again. You can do that by changing your chinchilla’s diet so it contains less calcium.
If your pet eats fresh alfalfa hay as the core of its diet, stop feeding it that. Feed it timothy hay instead. Timothy hay has far less calcium in it than alfalfa. You should also consider feeding a hay pellet that doesn’t contain alfalfa (although you shouldn’t cut calcium from your pet’s diet completely). You can’t stop your pet excreting excess minerals in its pee, because this is a part of normal kidney and bladder function, but you can at least make it so that there are less excess minerals to get rid of.
Last Resort: Put Your Pet to Sleep
Vets frequently recommend euthanasia for chinchillas with severe bladder stones. There are several reasons why they might recommend putting your pet to sleep rather than operating:
- This isn’t the first time your chinchilla has had bladder stones. Repeat surgery on the bladder can make it weaker, and it’s possible that some chins have a genetic disposition towards developing bladder stones.
- Your chinchilla has a weak constitution. If your chinchilla is weak and sickly, then its chances of surviving surgery and the recovery period afterwards may be slim.
- Your chinchilla is very old. If your chin is old, then it will have a weak constitution; it may also be more humane to put an elder pet to sleep rather than have it live out a long and painful period at the end of its life.
- Your chinchilla is sick with something else at the same time. Other health problems make recovery less likely.
Euthanasia may be the most humane option, as after surgery, your chinchilla will take time to recover and the condition may occur again. This is a decision for you to come to by talking to your family and to the vet.