Cuttlebones are common cage toys people give to their pets. But what are they for? What even are cuttlebones, and why would your chinchilla need anything from a deep-sea creature it has categorically never encountered in the wild?!
What is a cuttlebone? Cuttlebones are a bone- or shell-like structure found in cuttlefish, a kind of cephalopod. They are made of aragonite, which is a calcium compound, and are given to chinchillas with calcium deficiency. They also serve as a good gnawing toy. You shouldn’t give them to chinchillas without calcium deficiency, as excess calcium can cause bladder stones. You can also use calcium supplements that vets prescribe for the same purpose, and alternative chew toys like pumice stone or apple wood sticks.
The guide below first addresses what cuttle bones are and what they provide. It also covers the symptoms of calcium deficiency—so you’ll know if your chinchilla could benefit from one—and whether chinchillas need cuttle bones at all, and if alternatives are better.
What Is a Cuttlebone?
A cuttlebone (also known as cuttle bone or cuttlefish bone) is a hard, brittle bone-like or shell-like structure found in cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are a kind of cephalopod, meaning they look a little like a fish crossed with an octopus. They’re made of aragonite, a kind of calcium compound. They’re used for bouyancy control, which is important as cuttlefish implode if they swim up from the sea floor!
What Do Cuttle Bones Provide?
Because they’re made from aragonite, a calcium compound, cuttlebones provide lots of calcium. They’re frequently given to caged pets like chinchillas and birds, which can experience calcium deficiency. They’re also good for your chinchilla to gnaw on.
Can Chinchillas Eat Cuttlebones (Or Gnaw Them?)
Chinchillas can safely gnaw on cuttlebones. Your pet won’t eat the cuttlebone as it would eat hay; rather, it will gnaw on it. But that’s good too.
Gnawing is something that all chinchillas, and in fact all rodents, do. It’s where the rodent grinds its teeth on something rough, tough and solid to make them shorter. They do this because all rodents’ teeth grow continually throughout their lives, an adaptation that developed due to how important a rodents’ teeth are. But if they don’t grind them down, the teeth will grow overlong, and can cause difficulty eating and subsequent knock-on effects. When chinchillas gnaw on cuttlebones or anything else, they ingest some of the material they gnaw on, but that’s perfectly safe with regard to cuttlebones.
Nevertheless, cuttlebones shouldn’t be your first choice for chinchilla chew toys. That’s because of their very high calcium content.
How Long Does a Cuttlebone Last?
How long your chinchilla’s cuttlebone lasts depends on how many other chew toys your chinchilla has. If your chin has apple wood sticks, wooden cage furniture and even toys to chew on, then a cuttlebone can last months. That’s because it’s chewing everything in its cage, not just its cuttlebone. But if it only has a cuttlebone, it may last as little as a week or two.
As for how long it lasts in terms of staying fresh, that’s not a problem. Cuttlebones don’t go bad in that sense.
Is Cuttlefish Bone Poisonous?
Cuttlefish bones aren’t poisonous. They don’t contain any kind of poison like cyanide, like apple seeds do. They don’t contain anything that your chinchilla is going to react badly to, e.g. in a case of allergic reaction.
Rather, the problem—as we’ll find out below—is that they contain too much calcium, which can have negative health effects.
Do Chinchillas Need Cuttle Bones?
There is no situation in which your chinchilla will ever strictly need a cuttle bone. The needs that cuttle bones meet can all be met through other means.
What you certainly don’t need to do is to think of them as essential cage kit. Say you’re getting a new chinchilla, and you have a list of things it absolutely needs: a hide, platforms for its cage, hay, and so on. Cuttlebones shouldn’t be on that list. Instead, you should only offer them a) if you know your chinchilla has a calcium deficiency, and b) if your vet advises their use as opposed to other ways of introducing calcium to your pet’s diet.
When Do Chinchillas Need Cuttle Bones?
The only reason you should consider offering your pet a cuttlebone is if it has low calcium levels. A cuttle bone will provide your chinchilla with a small amount of calcium on a regular basis. You can identify calcium deficiency through several signs.
- White teeth instead of yellow or orange teeth. While we want bright white teeth, the same can’t be said of chinchillas. Healthy chins have deep orange teeth, even bordering on red. This indicates that they’re getting the correct balance of minerals in their diet, i.e. calcium and iron.
- Seizures/fits. Having too little calcium makes your chinchilla have fits, especially when it’s eating. It will look like it has flopped onto its belly, with its back legs splayed out. It will be stiff until the fit passes.
- Bloated belly. Calcium deficiency can be caused by pregnancy. That’s because the mother is literally forming the bones of her kit or kits from the calcium she eats. Other forms of bloating like stasis aren’t related to calcium deficiency.
The worse the deficiency, the more obvious and more severe these symptoms are. So, your chinchilla’s teeth will get progressively whiter the less calcium it has. Similarly, the more fits it will have, and the more severe each will be.
Talk To a Vet
Rather than identifying calcium deficiency on your own, we recommend talking to a vet. It’s easy to misdiagnose this condition, especially if you don’t have much experience with chinchillas.
The problem is that it’s dangerous to have too much calcium, just like it’s dangerous to have too litle. Excess calcium isn’t stored for later use by the body. Rather, it’s flushed out in urine, along with waste products and other excess minerals.
The problem is that this can result in kidney or bladder stones. Bladder stones are more common in chinchillas, but they’re the exact same thing as kidney stones, just in a different place. These stones form when the bladder doesn’t fully drain, leaving dregs of urine pooled at the bottom. The minerals in the urine begin to crystallize, and more and more minerals are gradually added to them until they become big. They then can’t be flushed from the bladder or kidneys, as the case may be. They then cause blockages that stop urine from draining at all, making the problem worse; this can kill your pet.
This shouldn’t happen if your chinchilla’s urinary tract is otherwise healthy. If the bladder drains correctly, stones shouldn’t get a chance to form. But urinary tract infections, hair rings and other issues can stop it from draining, making stones form. And, of course, they form much more quickly when your chinchilla gets excess calcium in its diet.
All of this means that if you give your chinchilla a cuttle bone when it doesn’t need one, you’re causing this health issue. That’s why calcium deficiency should be confirmed by a vet before action is taken.
Will Cuttle Bones Cause a Calcium Overdose?
The question, then, is if giving a chinchilla a cuttle bone even when it’s deficient will cause these effects.
This doesn’t seem to be the case. Owners don’t report their chinchillas going straight from a deficiency to an overdose just because of cuttle bones.
However, what we will say is that cuttle bones are much more likely to do this than other calcium supplements. A liquid supplement, one of the alternatives we’ll address in a moment, is fed in only small and controlled amounts. A cuttle bone, by contrast, is essentially a big lump of calcium that your chinchilla can gnaw on and eat as much as it wants. So, if your chinchilla decides it prefers the cuttle bone to its other chew toys, it could ingest much more than it needs. The exact same goes for alfalfa hay, another alternative.
Besides that, another problem with cuttle bones is that your chinchilla will only ‘supplement itself’, so to speak, if it chooses to gnaw on the cuttle bone. While chins gnaw on anything and everything you put in their cages, there’s no saying that it will gnaw on the cuttle bone all that much compared to its other chew toys. It’s therefore a far less controlled way of supplementing calcium into your pet’s diet than the alternatives, especially compared to hand-feeding a mineral supplement.
Alternatives to Cuttlebone for Calcium & Gnawing
So, can chinchillas have cuttlebone? Yes, they can, but it might not be the best choice. Whether you want to find a new chew toy for your pet, or provide it with more calcium, you have lots of options available which may be preferable to you.
Alfalfa Hay (Contains a High Level of Calcium)
What most owners use to control their chinchillas’ calcium levels is alfalfa hay, or alfalfa hay pellets. Your typical fresh hay is timothy hay, which contains roughly what chinchillas need. But some owners find that it doesn’t contain enough calcium.
Alfalfa hay, by contrast, has too much calcium for chinchillas. It can cause or contribute to the formation of bladder stones. But what you can do is either mix a small amount of alfalfa hay into your chinchilla’s fresh timothy hay, or pick a pellet that’s made from alfalfa. Both approaches will increase your chinchilla’s calcium intake.
Vitamin & Mineral Supplements for Chinchillas
If your chinchilla’s vet diagnoses calcium deficiency, they may prescribe supplements to assist with the problem. These typically come in the form of a liquid solution that the vet can prescribe. Some have a generic mix of vitamins and minerals, while others have lots of one (in this case, calcium). You can also buy these online, although we recommend having them prescribed by a vet.
Adminster any supplements according to the directions your vet gives you. Failing that, give them according to the directions on the bottle. It typically involves feeding them with a dropper.
Apple Wood Sticks (for Gnawing)
While cuttlebones do make good chew toys, their high levels of calcium mean that they aren’t suitable except in cases of calcium deficiency. But you still need chew toys, otherwise your pet will develop malocclusion.
One alternative is to offer your chinchilla apple wood sticks. Apple wood sticks are exactly what they sound like: small sticks made from apple wood trees. You can buy them in big, bulk packs that have been treated for issues like fungus or mold, parasites and so on (which makes buying better than harvesting your own). While chins get through them quickly, this is made up for by the fact you can buy so many in a pack. And, of course, this kind of wood is perfectly safe for your chinchilla to ingest.
It’s because of the reasons outlined above, and the alternatives available, that we recommend giving cuttle bones only on a vet’s advice.
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