Choking in Chinchillas: Causes & Prognosis

Choking in chinchillas is uncommon. Even experienced owners have never seen their chinchillas choke. But does that mean it’s impossible…?

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Choking in chinchillas is uncommon. Even experienced owners have never seen their chinchillas choke. But does that mean it’s impossible…?

Can chinchillas choke? Chinchillas can choke, but it’s very rare, and most owners never see it happen. Food, bedding, or gnawed-on materials can get stuck at the top of the trachea (windpipe). Things can also get stuck in the esophagus and put pressure on the windpipe externally, and since chinchillas can’t vomit, they can’t clear the blockage. This is the most common kind of choking.

Many cases of choking due to a case of blocked esophagus resolve themselves as the chinchilla clears the blockage on its own. But if it can’t, there are things you can do or that a vet can do to help. The guide below also explains how to tell when a chinchilla is choking.

Note: if you think your chinchilla is choking, you should take it to the vet as soon as possible. This guide is for informational purposes only, so you can read and learn about this issue when your chinchilla’s life isn’t in danger.

Can Chinchillas Choke?

Chinchillas can choke on bedding, food, and water. Each has an esophagus and a windpipe like other mammals, so if its windpipe is blocked, the chinchilla can’t breathe.

Choking is highly uncommon in healthy chinchillas. If you’re new to owning a chinchilla, your time is better spent reading about conditions you’re more likely to see, such as bloat, gastrointestinal stasis, malocclusion or eye infections. Learning what these look like and how to treat them will be more useful.

However, choking can happen, particularly in chins that are already unwell for other reasons.

How Do Chinchillas Choke?

chinchilla choking
Chinchillas have respiratory tracts just like ours.

There are several ways that a chinchilla can choke. The obvious one is where something gets stuck in the windpipe. Food or bedding can get lodged at the entrance to the trachea, completely blocking air flow. This results in immediate choking and unconsciousness, and eventually death.

It’s also possible for a chinchilla to choke when its trachea isn’t fully blocked. Even if it can still breathe, tiny particles from the object can be pulled into the lungs, particularly in the case of stuck bedding. These particles then irritate the lungs, causing inflammation and fluid build-up, which combines with the object to cause choking.

But in chinchillas, what’s more common is for something stuck in the esophagus to cause choking. The esophagus is the pipe that leads to the stomach, while the windpipe leads to the lungs.

This might not make sense immediately, but it’s true. Chinchillas can’t vomit or regurgitate their food, so anything that gets stuck in the esophagus can be stuck for a long time. Whatever’s stuck in the esophagus will put pressure from inside the esophagus onto the windpipe, cutting off your chinchilla’s breathing.

Choking therefore doesn’t necessarily kill your chinchilla instantly. The windpipe may only be partially blocked, meaning that your chinchilla can take in small amounts of air, but not as much as it needs. So, while choking will likely mean your pet passes away, there is a chance you can take it to the vet.

What Causes Choking in Chinchillas?

So, they can choke… But why do chinchillas choke? What’s likely to cause the problem?

A key cause of choking is eating too fast. Chinchillas normally chew their food thoroughly, because it’s so fibrous. But if your chinchilla is hungry after not eating a while, or if it’s just greedy, it may not chew as much as it should. This can cause blockages in the esophagus.

Another cause is eating the wrong food. Chinchillas should eat nothing but hay, hay pellets, and the occasional suitable treat like rose hips. Unsuitable foods can be too sticky or difficult to break down, causing choking.This is especially the case if the chinchilla is eating fast.

Another cause is malocclusion. This is where the chinchilla’s teeth don’t sit together correctly. They grow in different directions, or they may be too long to form a bite. Either way, this condition means that the chinchilla can’t chew its food, particularly pellets.

The final cause is if your chinchilla is young. Chinchilla kits eat their food faster, especially treats. They also have smaller windpipes, meaning they can get blocked more easily.

What Can Chinchillas Choke On?

As is the case for people, chinchillas can choke on a variety of things. While some things are necessities, so potential choking cannot be avoided, others are from inappropriate materials to have in a chinchilla cage (e.g. plastic). You can therefore prevent cases of choking by avoiding these materials.

Chinchilla Choking on Food

choking chinchilla
Inappropriate materials like cork can cause choking, as can inappropriate foods.

The primary cause of choking is food. When a chinchilla eats too quickly, a blockage can form in its esophagus or at the opening of its trachea.

Foods that expand are of particular concern. Pellets can expand to many times their normal size when they’re eaten, because they’re so dry, and expand when mixed with water/saliva. It’s therefore more likely that your chinchilla will choke on pellets than regular hay.

Chinchilla Choking on Chew Toy

Chinchillas can also choke when they chew on things to keep their teeth trimmed. Because they chew on harder materials, these can get stuck in their throats.

This especially applies to things that chinchillas shouldn’t chew on. Good owners give their chinchillas wood sticks or similar chew toys, but if you don’t, your pet will pick the most appropriate material in its cage and gnaw it. If there’s plastic in its cage, for example, it will chew on that.

This is a problem because unsuitable materials can break up in unexpected ways. A large chunk could break off and get lodged in your pet’s throat. Or, the material might break into sharp shards, which could scrape and get caught in the throat. Or, another alternative, they could break up into dust and irritate the lungs causing choking that way.

Chinchilla Choking on Water/Fluid

Water or fluid entering the lungs is another potential cause of choking.

It’s practically unheard of for a chinchilla to choke on its drinking water. But there are many health conditions that involve fluid building up in the lungs (e.g. respiratory infections and/or pneumonia). When this happens, it reduces the capacity of the lungs, and eventually leads to choking.

This is more common in chinchilla kits than in adults. Kits can easily get fluid in their lungs, which has to be cleared using the methods described below.

Chinchilla Choking on Bedding

Because chinchillas gnaw and chew on their belongings, they may eat some of their bedding. Shredded paper bedding can expand and get stuck in the throat like pellets can. That’s why most owners only use fleece for bedding, as this can’t be chewed and form blockages.

Can Chinchillas Throw Up?

Chinchillas cannot choke on their own vomit… Because they can’t vomit!

Aspiration of vomit is a common cause of choking. This is where a person/animal vomits, and then accidentally breathes in the vomit somehow. This could be because they have a breathing issue, or because they’re deeply asleep. They then choke on it as they would choke on anything else. But it’s impossible for this to happen to chinchillas as their anatomies make vomiting impossible.

This plays into choking in another way, though. Chinchillas can only choke when food gets stuck in the esophagus because they can’t vomit. If they could, it would clear the blockage.

Signs That a Chinchilla Is Choking

If your chinchilla has any health issue, you should try to spot it as soon as possible. Choking has several obvious symptoms that you can immediately see. They aren’t only symptoms of choking, but whatever else they can be a symptom of isn’t good either, so they’re worth checking for.

Chinchilla Drooling

Drooling is a sign of long-term choking, as opposed to instant choking where the entrance to the trachea is completely blocked.

This occurs when something is stuck at the entrance of the trachea, but isn’t large enough to completely block it. The chinchilla can therefore breathe at reduced capacity. But when it does, the breaths it draws in also draw in tiny particles from the blockage. This could be dust from the hay it ate, or from cardboard or paper it chewed on, or from its bedding.

Whatever the case, these tiny particles irritate the lungs. They cause inflammation deep down inside, and fluid builds up too. This is the fluid that’s drooling from your chinchilla’s mouth.

Labored Breathing

If your chinchilla has a blockage in its esophagus, this will put pressure on the windpipe, but not close it completely. This means that your pet will still be able to breathe, but only with difficulty. You will notice:

  1. Shortness of breath. Instead of taking big, deep breaths, your chinchilla’s breathing will be shallow. These sound like gasps.
  2. Wheezing. You will notice a noise when your chinchilla breathes in and out.
  3. Rapid breathing. Because each breath is shallow, your chinchilla will breathe more quickly.
  4. Coughing. This is how chinchillas try to clear blockages in the throat.

These symptoms can also be a sign of respiratory infection.

Chinchilla Choking Noise

On top of your chinchilla’s altered breathing, you may also notice it making retching noises. These are like the noises you make before you vomit. But because of its anatomy, a chinchilla can’t vomit even if it retches. This can also be described as a gagging sound.

Paws to Mouth

Your chinchilla may also paw at its mouth as if it’s panicking and trying to clear the blockage. This may alternatively be a sign of dental disease (malocclusion).

Other general symptoms include listlessness (lethargy), lack of appetite, sitting in a hunched position, and moving the neck and jaw in an unusual way. A combination of all of these symptoms means the issue is likely choking.

What to Do When a Chinchilla Is Choking

Many cases of choking resolve themselves. That’s because your chinchilla gradually manages to clear the blockage in its esophagus on its own. If you’ve ever taken too large a mouthful of something, you’ll know the sensation. So, if your chinchilla is still able to breathe, watch it for a minute to see if the problem resolves itself. Your chinchilla won’t die if it can still breathe.

If the issue doesn’t go away, there are several ways to assist a choking chinchilla. While your best option is to go to a vet, there are things you can do at home if you have no choice (e.g. if the vet is unavailable or far away). The guide below explains what you can do, as well as what you shouldn’t do, even if it seems like common sense.

Take Your Chinchilla to The Vet

First of all, don’t panic. You won’t help your pet by panicking; if anything, you’re likely to make the situation worse. So, stay calm, and remember that choking isn’t necessarily going to kill your pet straight away.

The best thing you can do is take your chinchilla to the vet. They can use their knowledge and experience to help your pet in the best possible way.

This is especially true if your chinchilla is choking slowly, i.e. because of food in its esophagus. You will have more than enough time to take your chinchilla to the vet in this scenario.

How Can a Vet Help a Choking Chinchilla?

One way that a vet could help is by poking a tube into your chinchilla’s esophagus or windpipe. Placing a tube in the windpipe is known as intubation.

In this context, the tube will be placed down the esophagus. The idea is to dislodge whatever food is causing the blockage there, and in turn cutting off the windpipe. The food will be pushed to the stomach. Your chinchilla will be placed under anesthetic for this procedure.

But if your chinchilla is choking because of food in its windpipe/at the top of its trachea, it will choke quickly in the way you’re already familiar with. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be possible to take it to the vet on time. You must therefore take matters into your own hands.

The Chinchilla ‘Baby Swing’

This is like the equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver, and is performed on pets. It’s your best option if your chinchilla is choking quickly and you can’t get to a vet on time.

You may already know it by other names, like the ‘fling’, or a gravitational swing. It was originally developed by members of the Rat & Mouse Club of America as the Heimlich is too dangerous to use on small animals. It’s used on all sorts of pets, and has been used by chinchilla owners successfully. Here’s how it works.

  1. Hold your chinchilla in your hands. Cup it from underneath, holding it securely around its behind and its head. It should be facing away from you with its belly facing downwards.
  2. Stand with your pet somewhere that you have room to swing it. You need at least enough room to stretch out your arms to their fullest extent without hitting anything. Indoors is ideal, but if you don’t have the room, consider going to the yard.
  3. Keeping your chinchilla level, lift it above your head with both hands. Keep your hands in the same place as they were to begin with.
  4. Swing the chinchilla down in an arcing motion. At the end of the arc, the chinchilla’s tail should be up and its head facing down.
  5. Check your pet’s mouth for any pieces of bedding/food/etc that have come up. Repeat the motion if there aren’t any.
  6. While you perform the swing, have somebody call the vet. This is not intended to replace a vet’s care, but instead to keep your pet alive before the vet can see it.

The idea is to use centrifugal force and gravity to dislodge the food that’s choking your pet. The swinging motion is what makes it work, so you have to do it fast, but not so fast that you accidentally throw your chinchilla across the room.

This method has been used successfully on many pets. It’s used by vet techs on small animals. However, you have to make sure you do it safely, otherwise you could do more harm than good.

Can You Stop a Chinchilla Choking By Swinging It By Its Tail?

The idea of swinging your pet by its tail to help it bring up food is a similar one. But it won’t quite work in the same way.

First, while you can hold a chinchilla by the tail, you could hurt it by swinging it quickly to produce the same centrifugal effect. You’re also more likely to make your pet stressed than with the method above.

It’s the downwards swinging motion that makes this method work. You wouldn’t get the same motion by swinging your chinchilla upside down from side to side. You could swing your chinchilla from a height, downwards, but doing so would break its tail.

If you’ve tried the baby swing method, and it didn’t work, consider holding your chinchilla by its tail. Grasp the base of the tail firmly and place a hand under your chinchilla’s chest. Then let it hang upside down. This likely won’t work, but it’s better than doing nothing.

Can You Use a Q-Tip to Stop a Chinchilla Choking?

While clearing the blockage is a good idea, doing it this way isn’t. There are several reasons why.

  1. Doing so will be exceptionally stressful for you, but particularly for your chinchilla
  2. Your chinchilla WILL bite your fingers, and then you have ‘two medical issues for the price of one’
  3. The Q-tip may not reach far enough into the esophagus to clear the blockage
  4. If the blockage is at the top of the trachea, you could push it further into the windpipe, making matters worse

When vets clear blockages in the throat, they do so with the chinchilla under anesthetic. As you don’t have anesthetic, you can’t do the same thing.

Can You Perform the Heimlich Maneuver on Chinchillas?

can chinchillas choke?

The Heimlich maneuver may be the best way to stop a person choking, but it won’t work on your chinchilla.

Hypothetically, it would help. All it does is apply force in such a way that air is pushed quickly from the lungs. This dislodges food stuck at the top of the windpipe.

However, what you may not know about the Heimlich maneuver is that it’s not perfectly safe. Performed correctly on a person, it can clear the airway, but at the cost of breaking ribs. It doesn’t always, but it can. Because chinchillas have such delicate rib cages, you would hurt your pet enough to kill it even if you did stop it choking.

While this is all useful to know, it’s highly unlikely that you will ever have to use this knowledge. Even the most experienced breeders report only one or two instances where they ever noticed their chinchillas choking. And it’s likely that if your chinchilla does choke, it will do so when you aren’t around. If your chinchilla passed away and you suspect it may have choked, have the vet perform a necropsy, and they can tell you for sure.

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