Chinchillas are exotic pets. So, if you’re a new owner, don’t assume that your chinchilla will be easy to care for. It’s certainly not like caring for other pets!
How to look after a chinchilla: chinchillas need food (hay) and water from a bottle. They should be kept in a tall cage that’s well ventilated. They need companionship either from you or another chinchilla. Your pet should have frequent vet checkups to ensure that it’s healthy. They need chew toys to stop tooth overgrowth, and the temperature in their cage needs to be strictly regulated.
If that sounds like a lot, well, that’s not all there is to it! There’s a lot more you need to know that could be the difference between neglecting your pet, and enjoying its company for years to come.
This guide is intended for complete beginners, so if you’re somewhat familiar with chinchillas already, some of the points below may seem obvious or basic. We’ve also included lots of links to our more detailed guides if you need more information.
How to Care For a Chinchilla: The Basics
Chinchillas may be exotics, although they’re not so exotic that they have bizarre, unheard-of care needs. But they’re definitely delicate, and not meeting one of these needs will mean your pet becomes depressed or unhealthy.
So, what do chinchillas need? This is a quick list of the absolute basics.
- A cage to live in safely
- The right environment (humidity and temperature)
- Access to unlimited hay, plus hay pellets
- Access to unlimited water
- A way of exercising
- Companionship of some kind
- Something to gnaw on safely
- Occasional vet care
- Cage Cleaning Supplies
These aren’t unusual care requirements, so a chinchilla isn’t much harder to look after than any other pet. In return for good care, most chinchillas will respond with affection, and can live to ripe old ages (twenty years or more is not unheard of).
1) Where Do You Keep a Chinchilla? (Chinchilla Cage Setup)
Pet chinchillas live in cages. They can be allowed out occasionally for exercise, handling and bonding, but shouldn’t be allowed to free roam at all times. If it does, it could get hurt or try to escape.
This cage should have different levels to it that the chinchilla can hop to and from. That’s because wild chinchillas hop between rocks, and pet chinchillas thrive if they can exhibit natural behaviors in captivity. Other things the cage needs include:
- A hide. Chinchillas are naturally skittish and benefit from having somewhere to run to when frightened.
- A water bottle. Chinchillas need water. Water dishes get dirty, so a bottle is a must. Distilled or filtered water is necessary, too.
- A hay rack. This is a special thing you put your chinchilla’s hay in. Again, food bowls get dirty so aren’t suitable.
- An exercise wheel or exercise saucer. Chinchillas cannot exercise in regular running wheels. They need extra large ones (16″ at least). Exercise saucers are like flat wheels made especially for chinchillas.
- Bedding and/or fleece lining. This catches any pee or poop. If you use bedding, use one that’s safe for chinchillas like kiln-dried pine.
The cage itself should be kept in the right room. The room shouldn’t be too humid (over 50% humidity is bad for a chinchilla’s fur and can cause respiratory infections). The cage also shouldn’t be in direct sunlight. The room should be kept at normal room temperatures year round: not too hot, not too cold. Chinchillas cannot be kept outside in hutches.
2) Chinchilla Temperature & Humidity Basics
Because chinchillas are from a cold place in the wild, they need to keep cool. The room your chinchillas live in should be between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 10 to 21 degrees Celsius. Any higher and your chinchilla could overheat and pass away. The higher the temperature, the quicker that happens, so 72 degrees Fahrenheit/22 degrees Celsius will only cause issues gradually.
To ensure a correct temperature, you can either:
- Run an air conditioner
- Place the chinchilla cage in a cool room, e.g. a basement
- Don’t put the cage in direct sunlight
You also have to keep your pet at the right humidity. Humidity is the amount of moisture in the air. It should be below 50% at all times. Any higher and your chinchilla’s fur can get damp and claggy, and can develop a fungal infection.
To measure temperature and humidity, you need gauges. A thermometer is for temperature while a hygrometer is for humidity. You can buy digital combination gauges which show both temp. and humidity levels.
3) What Should I Feed My Chinchilla? (Hay, Hay & More Hay)
This is a point of confusion for many new owners. Chinchillas only need to eat hay. Your pet’s diet should consist of unlimited fresh hay and 1-2tbsp of hay pellets each day. No snacks are required, although occasional supplementation e.g. with a cuttle bone or fresh alfalfa may be required for calcium.
Most new owners find this unusual, because we’re all told how important a varied diet is. Well, a varied diet is important to human health, but isn’t necessarily important for other animals. Chinchillas get all of the carbohydrates, fat and protein they need from hay.
There are lots of different kinds of hay available. We recommend timothy hay, which is what most owners feed their chinchillas. You can mix this timothy hay with small amounts of orchard grass hay or meadow hay if your chinchilla doesn’t like timothy on its own.
Many foods you may think are suitable actually aren’t. Fruits and vegetables aren’t chinchilla-safe because they contain too much water and too much sugar. The sugar in these foods causes bloating, which can be dangerous for chinchillas. Safe snacks include rosehips and flower petals (cute, right?)
You may have noticed that we mentioned unlimited hay above, and that’s correct. Chinchillas should get as much hay as they want. Hay is low on calories per gram, so chinchillas have to eat lots of it. It’s impossible for them to become overweight if all they have to eat is hay, so unlimited hay is fine. This also means you won’t have to refill the hay as often.
Chinchillas need pellets, too, which are also made from hay. These may be fortified with certain minerals to keep your chinchilla healthy. Buy from a reputable brand like Oxbow that experienced chinchilla owners trust. Don’t buy pellets that are intended for other small pets; only ones marketed for chinchillas are suitable. There’s also no need to buy pellets or hay mixes that have seeds, nuts, dried fruit or anything else in them; plain hay and pellets are perfect.
4) Can Chinchillas Have Tap Water?
This is a point on which some owners disagree, but we recommend filtered water or distilled water for chinchillas rather than tap water.
Tap water can contain giardia, which is a kind of micro-parasite. While this has no major effect on people, it can cause diarrhea in chinchillas, so is best avoided.
Whether this is a problem depends on where you live and who supplies your water. Tap water in the U.S. is of a lower quality than in many other countries, which is why so many people have to have bottled water. So, if the water smells bad or tastes bad to you, you probably shouldn’t give it to your chin either. But if you live in an area with fresh, pure tap water, it will likely be fine.
People also have concerns about things like fluoride, although this isn’t a real problem. Distilled water is purer than filtered water, but regular filter water is OK too. You could also use bottled water although this would be very wasteful because of all the plastic you’d throw away.
5) Chinchilla Exercise & Play
The easiest way to play with a chinchilla is to build it a play pen. A play pen is a safe area outside the cage that the chinchilla can run around and have fun in. When it does, it will run around fast, jumping up and kicking away from walls. Chinchillas can jump up to five feet in the air, so be prepared for this!
You can also handle chinchillas, although not all chinchillas enjoy this. They’re naturally skittish, so they have to be very brave to let you hold them, and only will once they trust you. Light cuddling is okay so long as you don’t squeeze your chinchilla. That’s because they have delicate rib cages, with ribs that can easily snap.
Play will give your chinchilla some exercise, but it also needs a way to exercise on its own. A chinchilla-safe exercise wheel is best for this. The wheel has to be at least 16″ in diameter to be big enough, otherwise your chinchilla will hurt its back running on it. It should also be made of metal or wood, not plastic, as plastic is unsuitable for chinchilla cages without exception. A wheel with bars or slats is unsuitable because chins can break their feet between them; you need a wheel of solid construction instead.
6) Do Chinchillas Need Companionship?
Wild chinchillas are social animals that live in herds. When they weren’t endangered, these herds could number a hundred or more. As such, they thrive when they have companionship of some kind.
It is possible to keep a chinchilla alone only if you spend lots of time with it. Otherwise, it will get lonely and depressed. You can let your chinchilla out of its cage for exercise and spend time with it then; or, you can sit next to your pet’s cage talking to it in a low voice. It might not understand what you’re saying, but it will respond well all the same.
The better way to give your pet companionship is to keep it with another chinchilla. This is what most owners do. Chinchillas should live in same-sex pairs (male and male, female and female) unless you are an experienced owner and are prepared to look after kits (baby chinchillas).
You must introduce the chinchillas rather than putting them straight in their cage together. That’s because they will fight otherwise. To introduce the pair, place them in two separate cages side by side four inches apart. This way they can smell each other but not fight. Eventually, they become friends.
7) Chinchilla Chew Toys
This is something non-negotiable that your chinchilla can’t do without. For other pets, chew toys are just that: toys. But for chinchillas, chew toys serve a very important purpose.
Chinchillas have teeth that continually grow, the same way that fingernails do. All rodents’ teeth do this. In the wild, your chinchilla would gnaw on natural plant materials and soft rocks to stop its teeth growing too long. That’s because if they do, your chinchilla will get sick, develop mouth infections, and can stop eating.
Chew toys stop your pet from gnawing its cage furnishings. Perhaps the most common are apple wood sticks. These can be bought in bulk, and your chinchilla needs to have some at all times. Beware: they get through them quickly!
8) Can Chinchillas Get Sick? (Checkups & Surgery)
Chinchillas will occasionally get sick. Common issues include eye infections, respiratory infections and overgrown teeth. When it gets sick you should take it to the vet.
Unfortunately, chinchillas are good at hiding the fact that they’re sick. It’s thought that this is an adaptation from the wild, where showing weakness can mean you’re targeted by a predator. This makes it all the more important to take your chinchilla to see a vet if you ever notice anything strange. Potential symptoms of sickness include:
- Crusty, dry or closed eyes (eye infections)
- Damp or wet fur
- Difficulty moving or getting up
- Not passing poop any more, or not eating (gastrointestinal stasis)
- Big, bloated belly (bloat/stasis)
Vets offer checkups for the average price of around $30-50. We recommend seeing the vet once a year, unless there is something clearly wrong with your pet’s health, in which case you should take it immediately.
Ideally, you should take your chinchilla to an exotics vet. Exotics vets are usually better with chinchillas than regular vets as they have more experience with them. However, you may find that your regular vet is experienced and competent enough.
9) Chinchilla Cage Cleaning Supplies
Your chinchilla can’t keep its own cage clean. You have to do that for it. You won’t need much that you don’t already have:
- A scrubbing brush
- Soap and bleach
- A rag for wiping the cage down
- Rubber gloves
- A handheld vacuum cleaner
There are two kinds of cleaning you’ll have to do. These are spot cleaning and deep cleaning. Spot cleaning is where you clean a tiny bit each day to get rid of soiled bedding. That takes ten minutes a day, and includes sweeping up poop and hay, replacing soiled bedding, and changing the water in the water bottle.
Spot cleaning is when the handheld vacuum cleaner comes in handy. You can vacuum up poop and hay without having to touch it. If you don’t have one, you can pick up hay/poop and soiled bedding with rubber gloves on (or no gloves, provided you wash your hands well afterwards).
The second kind of cleaning is deep cleaning. This doesn’t need to be done as often; most owners do it every six months or yearly. This is where you take everything from the cage, clean it with soapy water, and then put it back. While you wait for everything to dry, you wipe the cage down with bleach. This kills any germs in the cage, stopping smell from building up or your pet’s fur getting dirty.
What Can You Do With Chinchillas?
While chinchillas are lots of fun, they aren’t as smart as a bigger pet. They can nevertheless be handled and even trained, to an extent.
Training involves using treats to get your chinchilla to display certain behaviors. An example is training your chinchilla to come to you when you call. What you do is hold a treat in your hand, and tap the floor next to you. You can also call your pet’s name. When it comes to you, give it a treat: it’s as simple as that. After a few times, your chinchilla will have learned to come when you call.
That being said, chinchillas can’t learn to do complex things. They aren’t as smart as bigger pets. There are a few ‘don’ts’ of chinchilla care, too. Doing these things would endanger your pet’s health and well-being. So, for example:
- Don’t take your chinchilla outside. If you do, it may try to run away. It could also pick up parasites like fleas.
- Don’t squeeze and cuddle your chinchilla too hard. They have delicate rib cages that can easily break.
- Don’t let your chinchilla play with other pets. Even if your other pet is well-behaved now, it could attack your chinchilla when you don’t expect it to.
- Don’t pester your chinchilla if it clearly wants to be left alone. All that will do is teach it that you’re mean.
Stick to good care guidelines and you can’t go wrong. Remember, your pet is like a little person with its own personality, wants and needs: you should respect them.
Do You Need to Groom Chinchillas?
Grooming is possible, but isn’t typically necessary. You can brush your chinchilla with a special chinchilla grooming brush, or with a flea comb. Regular brushes and combs can’t deal with how thick a chinchilla’s fur coat is.
Chinchillas keep their own coats clean by shedding throughout the year. They should also take regular dust baths, twice a week, in Blue Cloud dust or similar. This keeps their coats in top condition so it doesn’t need to be brushed.
Many chinchillas don’t like being brushed. Whether because they find it painful or stressful, they’ll squeal, sequirm and try to get away from you if you brush them. If yours does that, don’t persist. Instead, try getting your hand damp and running it along your pet’s back to pick up any loose hairs.
How to Keep a Chinchilla Happy
Chinchillas may be exotic, but they’re simple creatures: if you meet their needs and treat them kindly, they’ll be happy. The most common reasons why a chinchilla could be unhappy include:
- If you fail to meet any basic need such as food, water or space
- If your chinchilla doesn’t get companionship, either from you or from another chinchilla
- If your chinchilla gets sick
Part of keeping a chinchilla happy is learning how to tell if your chinchilla is happy. Chinchillas are social and communicative creatures, so you can instantly tell when one is annoyed with you, or is happy to see you. It shows what it feels through a mixture of body language and noises. The rest of this guide will tell you exactly what to look for.
Happy Noises & Angry Noises
Chinchillas communicate with each other through sound. There are lots of different noises they can make. Some you’ll hear only when your pet is very happy; others when it’s frightened.
When a chinchilla is happy, it will make low, gentle squeaking noises. This is as cute as you’re likely imagining. You can contrast that with noises like barking, that they make when they’re frightened. These noises are louder and more urgent sounding. You can learn how to tell the difference between these noises in time.
If your chinchilla doesn’t want to spend time with you, it will let you know by making noises. These noises are best described as a kind of grunting or ‘kacking’ sound. Once you’ve heard them a few times, you’ll be completely familiar with them. If your chinchilla makes them, leave it alone for a while before trying to handle it again.
You can also tell whether a chinchilla is in pain from observing its body language. A chinchilla that’s in pain will hunch its back, tuck its forepaws in, and hold its ears back against its neck. If the pain is in its mouth, whether because of an ulcer or because of malocclusion, it might paw at its mouth as well.
Talk To a Vet
Chinchillas need veterinary care like any other pet does. Vets can identify common health issues, prescribe medications for them, perform surgeries, and lots more.
But just as importantly, they can tell whether your chinchilla is in generally good health or not. Just from a basic checkup (which should only cost $30-50) they can tell you whether your chinchilla is getting the right food, whether it’s in pain, whether its cage is set up right, and lots more.
Sometimes the issue is something that you’ve accidentally caused, e.g. by feeding the wrong food. But other issues can occur out of nowhere, and aren’t anybody’s fault. That’s why it’s so important to get vet care.
While it’s annoying to have to pay the vet money, they’re your and your pet’s best friend. If you care for your chinchilla correctly and get it prompt vet care when necessary, it could live up to twenty, even twenty-five years.
Besides that, there’s still lots more to learn. But learning much of this comes with time and experience looking after chinchillas. If you’d like to take a shortcut—and learn more through accessible guides written for new owners like you—then use the search bar at the top of this page to find what you’re looking for, or look through the latest posts on our homepage.
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