Hello, and welcome to LoveMyChinchilla.com—the home of everything chinchilla-related. But what are chinchillas, and why have we dedicated our site to them?
What are chinchillas? Chinchillas are small-to-medium sized rodents from the Andes Mountains in South America. They look big, but only because they have very dense fur. They have large ears and long whiskers, and long bushy tails. They were hunted for their fur for hundreds of years so are almost extinct, so today’s pet chinchillas have all been bred in captivity. They make fun and cuddly pets and can live for twenty years. The purpose of our site is to educate owners new and old, improve the welfare of pet chinchillas, and discourage the breeding of chinchillas for their pelts/fur.
The guide below answers every basic need-to-know question you might have: from what is a chinchilla? to why chinchillas are kept as pets. We’ll also give a brief overview of what it takes to care for a pet chinchilla (as they’re needier than other pets!)
What Is a Chinchilla?
Chinchillas are a small-to-medium sized rodent from South America. There are two species: the short-tailed and the long-tailed chinchilla. There are also regional sub-types, although these aren’t currently recognized as subspecies.
What Is The Scientific Name for a Chinchilla?
Chinchillas have several scientific names.
The short-tailed chinchilla is seen by some as the ‘type’ of the species, meaning it’s the most representative of what a chinchilla is. When a species is a type species, its scientific name is repeated, so the short-tailed chinchilla is sometimes known as Chinchilla chinchilla.
You might also see the name Chinchilla brevicaudata, which is the same species. This second name is the more common. ‘Brevicaudata’ comes from Latin, with ‘brevi-‘ meaning short and ‘caudata’ meaning tail. You can see why it’s called the short-tailed chinchilla in the diagram.
The long-tailed chinchilla is known as Chinchilla lanigera. Interestingly enough, the term ‘lanigera’ isn’t related to the word ‘long’ as you might imagine. Instead, it’s the Latin word for ‘woolly’. While chinchillas aren’t woolly, their fur was used for clothing, which was the meaning that the person who named the species was trying to impart. Ironically enough, it’s the short-tailed chinchilla that has the nicest fur and was hunted the hardest by trappers; so perhaps it’s time to think of a new scientific name!
Are Chinchillas Rodents?
Chinchillas are rodents, so they share a family with rats, mice, squirrels and other similar small animals. Rodents are characterized by their teeth, specifically their incisors, which are the four central teeth at the front of the mouth, two on the top, two on the bottom. In rodents, these teeth are long and continually grow throughout the animal’s life. This applies to chinchillas and all other rodents like rats, mice and so on.
Are Chinchillas Marsupials?
Chinchillas aren’t marsupials. Marsupials are a group of animal species which have pouches for carrying young in. This is necessary because the young are born relatively underdeveloped.
However, chinchillas don’t have pouches they can carry young around in; they aren’t closely related to marsupials. Marsupials and rodents are both within the mammal family, but aren’t in the same broad groupings (order, family, genus etc.)
What Do Chinchillas Look Like?
The first thing you’ll notice when you look at a chinchilla is its fur. The chinchilla has the densest fur of any animal, at around 70 or 80 hairs per follicle. This dense fur makes them look much bigger than they actually are.
Underneath its fur coat, the chinchilla looks like a surprisingly average rodent. You can tell from the skeletal diagram that they look almost like a squirrel or a big rat. The long tail, large head and big teeth mean that if you were just looking at a skeleton, you’d probably guess it was a large rat species.
Chinchillas also have big, rounded ears: especially the long-tail chinchilla. These help it to hear predators coming from a long way away. They don’t have the best eyesight, so this is a big advantage!
How Big Are Chinchillas?
Long tailed chinchillas and short tailed chinchillas aren’t the same length. Long tailed chinchillas are 10in/22cm long. Short tailed chinchillas, though, range between 11 and 19in/24.2 and 41.8cm long.
Both kinds of chinchilla look bigger than they really are, though. They look rounded and stout, especially short tailed chinchillas. But underneath all that fur, they’re only the size of a regular rodent like a squirrel. Breeders try and breed as large chinchillas as possible as this is thought to be a quality trait.
What Are Chinchillas Related To?
While chinchillas are unique and fascinating creatures, they aren’t so unique and fascinating that they’re unrelated to any other living species.
You can tell what chinchillas are, and what they’re related to, from looking at their family tree. Here’s how scientists classify chinchillas:
- Kingdom: Animalia. This is the kingdom that all animals are placed in, as opposed to plants, fungi and bacteria.
- Phylum: Chordata. This is the grouping of animals that have spinal cords, many of which have spinal columns made of bone.
- Class: Mammalia. Mammals are animals that give birth to live young and feed them with milk.
- Order: Rodentia. Rodents are mammals that have large front teeth that grow throughout their lives.
- Infraorder: Caviomorpha. Previously not considered to be rodents; a grouping of rodents based on skull types, all from the Americas.
- Suborder: Hystricomorpha. Animals that have the same the same body structure as a porcupine (but without necessarily having the spines).
- Family: Chinchillidae. A small group of animals including the long and short tailed chinchillas and the viscachas.
- Genus: Chinchilla. The grouping of the two chinchilla species.
The further down this same tree another species is, the more closely it’s related to the chinchilla. So, the phylum Chordata for example contains lots of different animals, including people and fish. Clearly animals in the same phylum aren’t necessarily close cousins. But animals in the same genus, subfamily or family are closely related, while those in the same order (here, rodents) are reasonably close.
Particularly closely related is an animal called the ‘viscacha‘. This looks like a cross between a rabbit and a hare, and it’s found in the same places that chinchillas are. Strictly speaking, the viscacha is a kind of chinchilla, since it’s in the family Chinchillidae; but when people talk about chinchillas, they only mean the long-tailed and short-tailed kind.
There are two kinds: the mountain viscacha and the plains viscacha. The mountain viscacha looks especially like the chinchillas people keep as pets. In fact, they look so similar that travellers frequently mistake them for actual chinchillas!
Another species that’s a lot like chinchillas is the aptly named chinchilla rat.
Chinchilla rats are gray and have similar soft fur to chinchillas. But what sets them apart is that their body structure is smaller, so they look more like fluffy rats. But the similarities don’t stop there. Chinchilla rats also live in the Andes, just like chinchillas do, and live in burrows like chinchillas too. They’re herbivorous, so they eat lots of the same foods as chinchillas do. They’re even social and live in large groups like chinchillas, too.
Chinchilla rats are part of the infraorder Caviomorpha, but aren’t so closely related that they might be considered the same species or genus.
While all rodents are grouped in the same order, that doesn’t mean they’re all equally as related to each other. While members of the same genus within the rodent order are of course closely related, a genus isn’t as closely related to every other genus as it is to another. So, for example, rats are closer to mice than they are to beavers.
One species that’s particularly closely related to the chinchilla is the guinea pig. Despite the name, guinea pigs come from South America, just like chinchillas do. Guinea pigs are in the same infraorder as chinchillas (the caviomorpha), making them more closely related than, say, chinchillas and rats.
Where Do Chinchillas Come From?
Chinchillas come from South America. They were native to Chile, Peru and Argentina although population decline due to trapping now means they’re only rarely seen, with the population in Chile now seeming to be the only stable one left.
As for pet chinchillas, they all come from Chile originally. By the turn of the twentieth century, chinchillas had become endangered in South America. A man called Matthias Chapman got special permission from local governments, who had by then banned hunting chinchillas, to gather a small group of around twelve long-tailed chinchillas and export them to the U.S. All pet chinchillas are descended from this small group.
The Chinchilla’s Natural Habitat
If you know anything about Chile, you’ll know that it’s where the Andes Mountains are. This is the world’s longest mountain range, and it runs from the southern tip of South America up through Chile, through Peru and into Colombia. The entirety of the west coast of South America is dominated by these mountains.
The Andes shape the region’s weather conditions, too. They’re so tall that they stop weather systems from crossing them, causing something called a ‘rain shadow’. This is an area where rain doesn’t fall, which is why the Atacama Desert (which is next to the Andes) is the driest place on the planet. All of this means that chinchillas are used to a dry and cool environment.
When you think about it, this makes sense. It’s because the region is so dry and so cool that chinchillas have such a thick coat of fur.
Why Are Chinchillas Kept as Pets?
Given that chinchillas are almost extinct in the wild, it’s odd that they’re so popular as pets. But when you learn about their history, it makes sense.
Chinchillas have long been prized for their fur. Before the Spanish conquered South America, the Inca and other peoples from Peru, Chile and nearby made great use of chinchilla fur. They gifted furs to the conquistadors, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the next few hundred years, the trapping of chinchillas became more and more common as demand for their furs increased. It commanded incredibly high prices, much higher than other furs, and was a staple of nobility and royalty. Come the end of the nineteenth century, the chinchilla’s wild population had been decimated. This had the unfortunate effect of making their fur even more valuable. It became clear that there would be nowhere near enough supply to meet demand if trapping continued.
It was at this point that two things happened. The first is that the national governments of South American states banned the trapping and export of chinchillas. The second is that a man called Matthias Chapman trapped and exported a small group of chinchillas to begin the world’s first breeding program for the animals. The exact nature of these trapping expeditions is unclear, and while sources state he struck some kind of ‘deal’ with the Chilean and/or Peruvian governments, the exact nature of this deal or whether there ever was one isn’t known.
Either way, Chapman brought the chinchillas to the U.S. and began breeding them for their fur. For many decades, chinchillas were kept solely for profit, and it was long frowned upon to sell chinchillas to people who wanted to own them as pets. Today, though, the situation is reversed: most owners and owners’ groups approve of keeping them as pets, but not for profit.
Are Wild Chinchillas Still Endangered?
Even though trapping chinchillas was made against the law a hundred years ago, the wild population of these animals still hasn’t recovered. The exact numbers of wild chinchillas aren’t known for several reasons:
- There are hardly any left, so it takes lots of work to find them.
- Chinchillas live high up in the Andes Mountains, somewhere that’s hard to access. It’s difficult for scientific teams to get there.
- Chinchillas are secretive animals that live in burrows. Even if you go to their natural habitat, you would struggle to find them.
- Chinchillas used to have a broad range that spanned several countries.
- Money doesn’t grow on trees, and to send a scientific team out to Chile to count all the chinchillas there would cost lots of money.
What’s clear, though, is that the population hasn’t bounced back to its previous level. Chins used to live in herds of up to a hundred animals. Today, groups of this size simply cannot be seen.
How Do You Care for a Pet Chinchilla?
This section of the guide is necessarily short. Caring for a chinchilla is a complicated business, as there are lots of things they need; a complete guide would take far too long to read. That’s why we’ve made a summary of the most important things you need to know…
Cage & Environment
Your chinchilla needs to live in a cage. If it doesn’t, you could accidentally injure it or it could escape. If it escapes, it could easily pass away, as chinchillas are highly sensitive to temperature and humidity. Chinchillas do best when they live in same-sex pairs, but can live alone if you spend lots of time with them. The cage should be tall, e.g. 2×3′ base and 4′ tall.
You need to monitor both the temperature and the humidity in the cage. The humidity shouldn’t get above 50%, and the temperature shouldn’t get above 70 degrees Fahrenheit/15 degrees Centigrade. You should put the cage in a room that can meet these requirements, and not anywhere that will get direct sunlight. Needless to say, you should also pick somewhere that won’t have lots of loud noises, bright lights and similar stressful things.
The cage needs to contain several things:
- A hide for the chinchilla to hide in. Wild chins like to hide in burrows and rock crevices, so your pet chin will feel stressed if it has nowhere to hide.
- A hay rack to store hay in. Chins eat hay. Hay racks are better than bowls because the chinchilla can’t pee on its hay.
- A large water bottle. Self-explanatory.
- Suitable exercise equipment. Chins need special wheels that are much larger than you might expect. Hamster wheels, even big guinea pig wheels are nowhere near big enough. And chinchillas can break their feet in wheels with slats or bars, so it has to be a solid material like metal or wood.
- Platforms to jump to and from. Chins spend much of their waking hours hopping from one rock to another. Again, your pet would feel unhappy if it couldn’t express this behavior.
That, of course, is far from all you need to know. The section of our site on Cage Setup can help you learn more.
Correct vs. Incorrect Diet
Novice owners frequently make the mistake of thinking chinchillas need to eat vegetables. But that’s not true.
Chinchillas need to eat hay and hay pellets. While we need lots of variety in our own diets, chinchillas don’t: they can eat the same hay for their whole lives and get all the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals they need. Hay pellets are made from the same kind of hay as fresh, just compressed down, and sometimes with fillers like soybean meal added.
An incorrect diet isn’t just bad because it’s nutritionally deficient, though. Feeding unsuitable foods like fruits and vegetables can cause diabetes or fat. In the short term, they can cause dangerous levels of gas and bloating which can rupture your chinchilla’s stomach or gut lining. This means it’s better to avoid experimenting with new foods and snacks, and stick to foods owners already know works.
Chins need play time, otherwise they’ll get bored. Put yourself in a chinchilla’s shoes: if you had to sit in a cage all day, you’d go stir-crazy too. That’s why you need to give your chinchilla toys and outside-the-cage time.
But you can’t let a chinchilla loose to do what it wants. You have to chin-proof your room first. That means making it safe for your chinchilla to run around. In short, you have to:
- Fully tidy away any wires, or get rid of them completely, so your chinchilla can’t chew on them
- Block off any entrances and exits to the room so your chinchilla can’t escape
- Block off any gaps under furniture, or ideally, pick a room that doesn’t have any furniture in it for your chin to hide under
- Don’t let any other pets in, and ideally, pick a room that other pets are never allowed in
Only once you’ve done these things should you let your chinchilla out. So long as it’s supervised, it can stay out as long as it wants, although most owners limit playtime to half an hour. Don’t put your chinchilla in an exercise ball, as your pet will overheat inside one and could even pass away.
Your chin also needs things to keep it entertained while it’s inside its cage. Chew toys are the best for this, but suitable exercise wheels and platforms keep it entertained. If you put any toys in its cage, pick ones that aren’t plastic or cotton.
Aside from this, there’s still lots more to learn. But that’s what our site is for. We’ve researched in scientific journals and read through thousands of pages of owners’ experienced so that you don’t have to—so that you can give the best possible care to your pet. Use the search bar at the top of the page to find the answers to any question you might have, or look through our related posts below!
Below, you can find our chinchilla quiz, new posts for further reading, and a signup for our Chinchilla Newsletter!