The first thing you learn when you read up about chinchillas is that there’s no shortage of opinions. New owners disagree with old owners, breeders disagree with regular owners, and some people are just downright wrong! The list below looks at the most common myths you’ll find when you research chinchillas. There really is no shortage of them…
1) Chinchillas Can’t Get Wet
Myth: chinchillas shouldn’t ever get wet. It’s practically a death sentence because of how thick their fur is.
Fact: you can water bathe chinchillas a) if it’s necessary and b) if you know how.
Perhaps the top myth that we see is the idea that chinchillas can’t get wet.
As you likely already know, chinchillas take dust baths. In the wild, they roll around in volcanic ash to keep clean. The dust you use at home is intended to mimic this natural bathing. And it’s true, it’s typically all a chinchilla needs to keep clean. But your chinchilla won’t die if it gets damp, or even if it takes a water bath in select circumstances, provided you dry it properly.
There are lots of popular resources out there that take this myth seriously:
While it is true that chinchillas do best in dust baths, it’s not true that you should ‘never’ get a chinchilla’s body ‘even a little bit wet’. There are times when you have no other choice, or when the chinchilla gets wet on its own, such as when it drinks water and gets some down its front; or, when it has densely matted and stained fur, in which case a proper bath may be necessary not just for its appearance but its health.
Another variation on this myth is that bathing a chinchilla in water is essentially a death sentence:
While we don’t recommend giving water baths instead of dust baths as a regular means to keep your chinchilla clean, this simply isn’t true. There are plenty of experienced owners and experts that all bathe their chinchillas in water if it’s necessary. Doing so correctly doesn’t impact the chinchilla’s health in any way. To bathe a chinchilla in water, you have to:
- Keep the water at a lukewarm temperature. Chinchillas shouldn’t get over 70 degrees Fahrenheit/21 degrees Centigrade or they overheat. Similarly, your pet should stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit/10 degrees Centigrade.
- Only bathe your chinchilla for ten minutes or so. This will stop the water getting too cool, and cooling down your chinchilla.
- Manually bathe the chinchilla. Your chinchilla won’t know how to wash itself in water as it knows how to bathe in dust. Use gentle, unscented baby shampoo in your chin’s fur.
- Towel dry your chinchilla immediately after bathing. It may take a while, but do so until it’s almost dry.
- Blow dry your chinchilla on a cool setting. Never use hot air as this will make your chin overheat.
- Give your chin a regular dust bath to ensure its fur is 100% dry.
If you follow these guidelines, your chin will be perfectly fine.
2) Chinchillas Need Vegetables
Myth: Chinchillas are rodents, and rodents love vegetables.
Fact: Vegetables (and fruits, too) are bad for pet chins.
Chinchillas are rodents, and look like they might be related to rabbits. Rabbits and rodents are fed vegetables—right?
The problem is that giving rodents vegetables is outdated advice—if it ever was advice, and not just an assumption people made from watching too many Bugs Bunny cartoons. Vegetables (and fruit, too) contain far too much water and too much sugar for chinchillas to eat. And no, rabbits shouldn’t eat carrots and the like either (only leafy greens).
If you do choose to feed your chinchilla vegetables or fruits, there are lots of things that can go wrong:
- Bloating. Chinchillas have trouble passing lots of gas. Because their guts aren’t used to vegetables, they cause lots of the stuff. This isn’t just embarrassing: bloating can make the stomach or intestines rupture, which would kill your chinchilla.
- Diarrhea/soft poop. This is another side-effect of your chinchilla’s digestive system not being geared up to break down vegetables. What makes it worse is that fruit and veg contain so much water.
- Weight gain. Fruit especially contains lots of pure sugar (fructose) which your chinchilla doesn’t need. This can cause it to gain weight over time. Plus, fruit and veg are much easier for your pet to eat than hay, so they’re comparable to candy.
- Diabetes. Another side-effect of eating too much pure sugar.
- Nutrient deficiencies. Fruit and veg don’t contain the right amounts of fiber, protein or fat for your chin.
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. While fruits and vegetables do have lots of vitamins and minerals, they don’t all contain the same amounts. You could potentially cause a deficiency if you don’t feed the right kinds.
Instead, chins should be raised on a diet of hay and hay pellets. They can live their whole lives happily without ever eating snacks, but if you do want to give your pet snacks, make them something suitable like rose hips or sweet hay.
3) Chinchillas Are Hypoallergenic
Myth: Chinchillas don’t trigger allergies.
Fact: You can be allergic to chinchillas, their hay, their urine, and have asthma attacks because of their bathing dust.
Chinchillas are touted as a great pet for people who are allergic to other pets like cats or dogs. That’s because they supposedly don’t give off dander. But how true is that?
The first thing to clarify is what exactly dander is. Dander is made of skin flakes shed by animals. A person can either be allergic to the dust mites that feed on the dander, or allergic to proteins in the saliva of an animal that cleans its skin with its tongue. When the dander comes away from the rest of the skin, it can take these proteins with it.
All mammals have skin cells that die and are replaced with others, causing dander. So, chinchillas do have dander; the difference is that chinchillas have such thick fur that it doesn’t easily get into the air. And as they don’t clean their skin with their tongues, this makes allergy less likely. But that doesn’t mean chinchillas are hypoallergenic. If you have allergies, you can still be allergic to:
- A chinchilla’s hay. Hay gives off tiny particles you can hardly see, but which trigger allergies.
- A chinchilla’s urine. Many of the same proteins that make people allergic to dander are found in urine, too.
And as a quick note, people with asthma canhave their symptoms triggered when their chinchillas bathe in blue cloud dust. This isn’t strictly speaking an allergy, as allergies can only occur in response to organic matter, while chinchilla dust is made of minerals/rocks. What actually happens is that the microscopic dust irritates the lungs and causes similar symptoms. That might sound like splitting hairs—and it is! But it does mean that if you have asthma and hoped a chinchilla would be the perfect pet for you… Well, it’s not.
4) Products Marketed as “Suitable For Chinchillas” May Not Be
Myth: Pet brands have the interests of you and your pet at heart.
Fact: Pet brands sell what they think people want, and sometimes what people want isn’t suitable for their pets.
There are lots of brands out there that make things supposedly suitable for chinchillas, but which actually aren’t.
Take Kaytee’s ‘Mega Run-About’ exercise ball, for example. In its product description, it claims that it’s suitable for chinchillas; it even has a picture of one on the box, alongside the text ‘For Chinchillas, Rats or Other Small Animals.’ And if you don’t know how to get duped in English, they’ve even translated that into French (Pour les chinchillas, rats, et autre petits animaux). Here’s a screenshot taken at the time of writing:
Experienced owners know that exercise balls are unsuitable for chinchillas for a whole host of reasons. First off, put yourself in your chinchilla’s shoes for a moment: if you were stuck in a cage all day, would you be happy to be put in a ball so you could roll around uncontrollably? Have you ever tried walking around in a gigantic rolling ball? You can’t control it to go where you want; you can’t stop it, so you keep bumping into things and flying around inside; and on top of that, you get all hot and sweaty. Do you think that with your poor, blurry chinchilla-vision, you’d have any idea why you can’t control your body, move around as you want, or feel the ground?
While you could at least argue about the experience your pet has, you can’t argue with these facts:
- Chinchillas can overheat when they exercise. That becomes much more likely when they’re stuck in thick plastic balls.
- Chinchillas need to go to the toilet. Being inside a rolling ball, they’ll get covered in their own urine.
- Chinchillas’ toes can break easily. The slats in the ball above are perfect for catching and breaking your pet’s toes and feet.
- Chinchillas have poor vision. Instead, they navigate the world with their senses of smell and hearing, both of which are stunted by the ball. It’s like if you had to walk around, having lost control of your body, with a blindfold on. Your chinchilla won’t feel like it’s exploring because it can’t use its senses to explore.
- Chinchillas don’t walk, they hop. They can’t hop inside an exercise ball.
Another example is this exercise wheel. Again, it’s got a picture of a chinchilla on the packaging, so it must be fine!
It even says it’s ‘super safe’ and ‘safe for toes and tails’, and that it’s ‘Perfect for pet rats, chinchillas and hedgehogs’. Unfortunately—well, it’s not.
There are three problems you can spot right off the bat just from looking at the picture. The first is that it’s only 11″ in diameter. That’s too small for your chin. The pictured chinchilla looks like it can use the wheel well enough, but that cardboard cutout must be around six or seven inches long (much smaller than your real pet). If your pet was there, it would have to curve its back to run in the wheel, which is bad for its back. The second problem is that the wheel has a central spoke, making that problem even worse.
The third problem, which is the biggest of them all, is that the wheel has a wire surface. The gaps between the wires, just like the slats in your chinchilla’s deadly exercise ball, will break its toes as it runs; or, it could accidentally catch its toe in one as it falls and break its feet that way. That’s not even addressing how flimsy it looks!
To cut a long story short, if you’re a chinchilla owner, you have to use your brain before you buy anything marketed towards you and your pet.
5) Males CAN Live Together
Myth: Males will fight if you house them together.
Fact: Male pairs are fine if you introduce them first, and it’s actually females that are more territorial.
This is an older myth that you don’t see so much anymore, but is worth addressing anyway. Same sex pairings of males or females are both perfectly safe, and if anything, are preferable as you won’t be left with kits you don’t know how to take care of.
This idea stemmed from thinking that the males would fight over territory, females (even if there aren’t any in the cage), or just because they want to. But that’s not true; in fact, females are much more territorial than males.
In the wild, females form the core of each chinchilla group. It’s the males that go off to live on their own, or switch from one group to the other in search of mates. This means that females are the ones that have more of an interest in protecting food or water sources. This territoriality hasn’t yet been bred out of captive chinchillas, so female pairs will fight more than male pairs do. But even then, keeping chins in pairs is safe so long as you introduce them first.
Perhaps what fueled this myth is owners putting two males in a cage with one female.
6) Chinchillas Are Nocturnal
Myth: Chinchillas are only active at night.
Fact: Chinchillas are active throughout each 24 hour period, and eat most of their food at night, but are most active at dusk and dawn.
While chinchillas are slightly more active at night, that doesn’t mean they’re nocturnal. The more accurate description is crepuscular. This is an uncommon term that you may not have heard of, likely because most animals are either nocturnal (active at night) or diurnal (active during the day). Here’s a graph that shows when chinchillas sleep throughout each 24 hour period to explain:
What this graph shows is that chinchillas take frequent periods of sleep throughout the day and the night. They’re most active roughly at dusk and dawn, which makes them crepuscular.
People thought that this is something to do with chinchillas being prey animals, as this 24-hour cycle of quick naps with no deep sleeps is unique to small animals like chins. But scientists found that chinchillas need to take such frequent sleeps because they can’t get much energy from their food. They therefore need to eat around the clock to keep going, unlike bigger animals that can have large meals, then sleep them off.
What’s even more interesting is that pet chinchillas can buck this trend. Many owners report that their pets adjust their sleep schedules so that they’re awake more in the day. It’s thought that this could be to spend more time with the owner and to get more stimulation overall. The only time you should worry about your chinchilla’s sleeping habits is if
7) Chinchillas’ Tails Will Fall Off If You Grab Them
Myth: If you lift a chinchilla by its tail, it will snap off or become detached (like a lizard’s).
Fact: Chinchillas aren’t lizards, so can’t detach their tails in the same way. Chinchillas can be safely lifted by their tails if you know how, although it can be considered cruel.
This is an assumption that some owners make. It has a grain of truth to it, as it does apply to other pets like rats. Lift a rat by its tail for example, and it can break, or even snap its spine.
You can, however, lift chinchillas by their tails if you do so in a certain way. You have to hold by the very base of the tail—not the tip, or halfway up. You need to take a firm grip without pinching. And when you do lift your pet, place a hand around its front so that you can support part of its weight there rather than solely on its tail. Breeders lift their chinchillas this way to groom them, and experienced owners may do it to pick their chins up when play time is over and they won’t go back in their cages.
That being said, there are good reasons for thinking this might be cruel. The only experience chinchillas have with being lifted off the ground is by birds of prey, so no doubt this would cause your pet to panic/get stressed. Imagine if you were picked up in a way that you lost control of your own movements—you wouldn’t like it either. So while this won’t make your chinchilla’s tail fall off, it’s probably not a good idea, unless it clearly doesn’t bother your chin to be lifted this way.