Most owners will tell you that chinchillas don’t get lice or other parasites. But that’s not entirely true, even if it is rare.
Do chinchillas get lice? They do, although infestations are rare and not serious. Symptoms include red skin, white skin flakes, and small white and black dots. Your chinchilla will begin scratching and barbering its fur excessively. You can treat them with Frontline or other treatments approved by your vet.
People think that chinchillas can’t get lice because it’s so rare. Their fur does, indeed, act as protection against parasites. But that protection isn’t complete, so they can get infestations on occasion. Find out what the signs of lice in chinchilla fur look like, and how to get rid of them, below!
Can Chinchillas Get Lice?
Chinchillas can get lice, but it’s rare. Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult says that it’s uncommon to see a chinchilla with any kind of external parasite.
This is contrary to what many sources will tell you, including pet shop staff and experienced chinchilla owners. There are some myths and misconceptions regarding chinchilla parasites which this post will clear up.
What Are Lice?
Lice are a kind of blood sucking insect. Scientifically speaking, they’re ectoparasites which means they’re a kind of parasite that lives on rather than inside the body. They don’t fly or jump, but rather crawl along hairs on the body. They reproduce by mating and laying eggs. They have six short legs and a large rear. They’re small enough that they’re just visible to the naked eye, but their details can’t be made out.
There are many, many, many different species of louse: some affect only one species of animal, while others are generalists that live on whichever animal they choose. There are at least two species of louse that specialize in feeding on chinchillas. These are Polypolacidae cuyana and Polyplacidae lagidiophthirus.
These species feed on wild chinchillas. If there are lice infesting your chinchilla’s fur, it’s likely that they’re a generalist species picked up from another pet or from your house. These species all look and behave in broadly the same way.
Why Do People Think Chinchillas Can’t Get Lice?
A chinchilla’s protection against parasites is its fur. Its fur is thick enough that parasites struggle to infest it. People say that the parasites ‘suffocate’ inside the fur, but this makes no sense; fur traps air against the body, which is how it keeps an animal warm. So, this isn’t true.
Rather, what stops parasites from living in a chinchilla’s fur is that they can’t reach the skin. The fur’s extraordinary density physically stops the parasites from reaching the skin to feed. It’s possible that they can, but it’s much harder than doing so on other animals.
Another reason for the confusion is poor quality advice from pet shop owners and vets. Not all vets specialize in small animals or exotic animals, so while they can help with general health conditions like conjunctivitis or respiratory infection, they don’t know every tiny detail about an animal like a chinchilla. As such, many experts will make a best guess as to why something is the case or not.* Similarly, many pet shop owners are business owners rather than animal lovers and experts. That’s why they might offer you things like exercise balls that aren’t suitable for chinchillas.
*Note: you still need to follow the medical advice that a vet gives you. This is relevant more to non-health related facts about chinchillas, rather than the health conditions that affect them.
Signs of Lice in Chinchilla Fur
If you suspect that your chinchilla has lice, don’t panic. They aren’t a major issue, although it is, of course, better to get rid of them than to leave them. The first step to getting rid of them is to search for the symptoms they cause.
Begin by picking up your chinchilla. Hold it in your hands and look at it without touching it at first. You’re looking for:
- Small white flakes of skin (a sign that the skin has been irritated)
- Small white dots (these are the lice and their eggs)
- Tiny black dots (lice feces)
You may see some of these without even searching for them. But if you can’t, take a closer look by combing through your chinchilla’s fur. You can either use your fingers or a fine-toothed comb. In doing so, check your chinchilla’s skin for signs of redness, too, which is another sign of irritation.
Pay particular attention to the hair around 1/4 of an inch up from the skin. This is where lice lay their eggs.
Abnormal Behavior in Chinchillas with Lice
You can also tell that a chinchilla has lice from its behavior. When the lice bite, they use tiny amounts of saliva to numb the bite site. The saliva contains sialome, a potent cocktail of proteins that act as anesthetic. This stops the chinchilla or other animal from scratching immediately and dislodging or killing the louse.
Once the effect of this compound wears off, the body realizes that it’s there. This causes inflammation as the body recognizes it and gets rid of it, which causes itching. This is the root cause of the chinchilla’s changes in behavior, which are:
- Excessive fur barbering. The chinchilla will comb through its fur or bite at it to try and get rid of the lice.
- Excessive scratching. Itching causes scratching. Some scratching is normal in chinchillas, but constant scratching is not.
- Lethargy and other health issues. Parasite infestation can be associated with neglect. Neglected chinchillas can be lethargic, meaning they hardly move, even to eat.
Sit with your pet for half an hour or so to see what it does. If you have more than one, compare the behavior of one to the other to see if it’s behaving normally.
Consult a Vet
These signs should be easy to spot, but infestations are small and chinchilla fur is thick, so finding lice is more difficult on chinchillas than it is on other pets. So you may benefit from talking to a vet about the problem.
The vet will perform the same searches as you have, but will use their experienced eye to spot signs you may have missed.
If the vet can’t find lice with a visual inspection, they’ll do something called a trichogram. This is where the vet pulls out some of your chinchilla’s hairs to inspect them. They’re looking either for lice or their eggs. This is a more thorough way to check for lice, as it is done under a microscope.
How to Get Rid of Lice in Chinchilla Fur
Most people rely on Frontline, Advantage and similar brands to kill lice on their pets. These are pesticides which are applied to the pet’s fur. The pesticide can either get into the pet’s bloodstream or its oil glands, so any lice will die when they climb a hair or feed on the skin.
However, these treatments may not be suitable for rodents. There are many different accounts as to its use on rodents, although none relate specifically to chinchillas. Research by rat owners states that their pets may experience complications with the use of several different brands. But research by scientists states that Frontline, at least, is safe for rats.
As for chinchillas, forum and blog posts by experienced users claim that treatment is possible. But this isn’t clear as hardly anybody has tried them, in turn because chinchillas almost never get lice or other parasites. As such, stick to the advice of a vet and don’t try any treatment without consulting one first.
Home Remedies for Lice in Chinchillas
There are many home remedies people suggest for lice. These are used both on pets and kids alike. Most of them don’t work, although some have a grain of truth to them; but none are suitable for chinchillas.
Don’t try any kooky home remedies like vinegar/apple cider vinegar, mayonnaise, Coca-Cola, hair dye or Vaseline. These don’t work and you will ruin your chinchilla’s fur, and you could kill your pet by getting it wet.
What will help is to give your chinchilla more frequent dust baths. The physical action of the dust can be enough to dislodge the lice and their eggs. If you do choose this option, make sure to:
- Dispose of any bathing dust rather than reusing it. The lice and eggs can survive inside it.
- Don’t allow any other chinchilla to bathe at the same time. They will catch any lice or eggs that your infested chinchilla leaves behind.
- Have your chinchilla bathe somewhere far away from its cage, and that can easily be cleaned. The bathtub or sink would be good.
You can also comb your chinchilla’s fur to manually get rid of lice and eggs. While chinchillas keep their own fur clean, so you don’t need to groom a chinchillas, there’s nothing wrong with doing so that would hurt your pet. Use a fine-toothed metal lice comb or a chinchilla show brush.
Clean Your Chinchilla’s Cage to Kill Lice
Unlike certain other parasites, lice cannot live away from their hosts. They cannot, for example, live in a corner of the cage and only come out to feed on the chinchilla.
What is possible is for a louse to survive roughly 24 hours without a host. Say a hair falls from your chinchilla’s coat with a louse attached; it will try to find another host, and if it can’t within a day, it will die.
This is an issue when you treat your chinchilla for lice because it can be reinfested from its own cage. As such, regular cleaning is needed.
If possible, have one person watch over the chinchillas bathing while you clean the cage. If you don’t have somebody else to watch over your chinchillas, have them play in a play pen while you clean the cage instead.
Use bleach on solid surfaces because as well as being antibacterial, it kills adult lice. Launder the fleece lining of the bottom of the cage and replace it with a fresh one. This is good practice even if your chinchilla doesn’t have lice!
Separate Your Chinchillas to Treat Them for Lice
If you have more than one chinchilla, separating the pair for the time being may be necessary. One might have lice while the other doesn’t, which signifies a recent infestation.
Don’t put the pair in different rooms. Have them in individual cages that are close enough that the pair can still communicate. The pair won’t be ‘heartbroken’ because a) they don’t mate for life, and b) they can still see each other anyway!
Other than this, follow good care guidelines. Regular handling will enable you to spot the early signs of infestation. Regular cage cleaning will prevent most parasites. Not handling your chinchilla around other pets will ensure its safety, and prevent infestations too.