Lots of rodents have cheek pouches, which they store food in for later. This is a clever way of hoarding food so that other animals can’t get it.
Chinchillas don’t have cheek pouches, and don’t store food. They do still have stretchy cheeks which can expand outwards, and a small gap where food could go. But a true cheek pouch is a pit that extends along the jaw, even into the neck, which stores lots of food. Chinchillas don’t have these. Behaviorally, they don’t try to store food in their mouths either.
If your chinchilla is pawing its mouth, it may have a health issue affecting its teeth. Read on to find out what it might be…
Do Chinchillas Have Cheek Pouches?
Chinchillas don’t have or use cheek pouches like other rodents do. They do have a gap where food could go, but it’s not as big as those of other rodents. And chinchillas don’t ever try to use it to store food.
You may have thought that all rodents have cheek pouches. But that’s a common misconception. Only select families of rodents do (e.g. Heteromyidae and Geomyidae).
However, your chinchilla does have something like a cheek pouch. It’s difficult to see inside a chinchilla’s mouth. Because they’re so skittish, they don’t like handling, let alone you opening their jaws. But if you ever see one yawn you may see that:
- At the front of the jaw are the incisors
- Behind the incisors is a gap which extends outwards and downwards on each side
- Beyond this section are the premolars and molars
The section of empty space between the incisors and molars figuratively cut the mouth into two sections. On each side is a gap that food could potentially be stored in.
This is what all rodents’ mouths look like. So, chinchillas do have a gap that could act as a cheek pouch. But they don’t use it, and it’s unclear how much food your pet could store in there.
What Are Cheek Pouches?
Cheek pouches are a biological development that are found in some rodent families. They vary in size, but not in function. Their purpose is to store food.
They sit on either side of the mouth, and get bigger when food is put into them. The tissue of the cheek can stretch comfortably to take in more and more food. The animal won’t choke because the pouches the food is stored in are on the other side of the teeth.
But cheek pouches are more than flexible cheek tissue. Between the animal’s teeth and cheek tissue is a small gap. People have this too, and you can feel it with your tongue.
In animals with cheek pouches, this pit is bigger. It extends further downwards and upwards past the teeth.
In some species, the gap extends all the way along the jaw to the neck. The neck space around the jaw can stretch outwards too. These species can even hold their body weight in food in their pouches.
Do Chinchillas Store Food in Their Cheeks?
Chinchillas don’t keep food in their cheeks for later. Other rodent species can fit food in their cheeks until they bulge out bigger than the rest of their heads. But a chinchilla can’t do that.
That doesn’t mean that a chinchilla can’t put a lot of food in its mouth. A chinchilla still has cheek tissue that can expand out further than normal. It still has a gap between the incisors and premolars. But it doesn’t have a large pouch to store food in, and other rodents’ cheeks expand further.
Also, chinchillas haven’t learned the behavior of stuffing their cheeks. All other animals that hoard food store it somewhere, e.g. in the ground or a tree. Storing food in the mouth is unusual, as is putting food in the mouth for a reason other than to eat it.
That being said, there are some sources which state that chinchillas have ‘vestigial cheek pouches’. Animal Diversity Web (ADW) state so in their profile on chinchillas. So, what might that mean?
What Are Vestigial Cheek Pouches?
Something ‘vestigial’ is a leftover from previous evolutionary stages. All animals have leftovers like these.
There are some fish or reptiles with vestigial legs, for example, even though they don’t walk on them. Vestigial legs and feet are small and useless. Other animals have vestigial organs which don’t have a clear use any more.
So, a vestigial cheek pouch is a pouch that isn’t used for storing food any more.
What this means is that a chinchilla’s evolutionary ancestors had cheek pouches that they used. But today’s chinchillas don’t use them.
This is what you’ll see when your chinchilla opens its mouth. The stretchy cheeks, large gap between the incisors and premolars, and the pit around the edge of the jaw could all store food. But today’s chinchillas don’t do so.
So, if you see your chinchilla touching its mouth and pawing its cheeks, there’s something else going on.
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Why Do Chinchillas Paw Their Mouths When Eating?
What might have led to you asking this question is seeing a chinchilla paw at its mouth while eating. It may move its paw from its mouth to its whiskers. It might also grab its whiskers at the base and stroke them to their tips.
This action may look like it’s trying to store food in its cheeks. It can be difficult to tell, because chinchillas hold their hands up to their mouth when they eat. But it’s not.
This behavior can have several sources, none of which are related to storing food.
Chinchilla Cleaning Its Whiskers
Chinchillas practice good hygiene. That’s why they don’t smell as much as other rodents.
One thing they do is clean their whiskers. This explains why your chinchilla is grabbing its whiskers and stroking them. It’s not pushing food into its cheeks, it’s touching the outside of its cheeks.
It will do this during and after eating. Your pet can get food caught in its whiskers, or behind them. To stop the food staying there and getting smelly, your pet rubs it away.
Besides that, it’s important for your pet to keep its whiskers in good condition. Dominant chinchillas will chew off the whiskers of subordinate ones to express their social power. So, it makes sense that your pet would take care of them.
Food Stuck in Vestigial Cheek Pouch
The gap between the premolars and incisors is large. It’s filled with lots of skin and gum. Food could easily get stuck here and cause pain.
If you notice your chinchilla rubbing its cheeks, but also reaching into its mouth, this may be why. It may be trying to dislodge food that’s stuck there.
Your Chinchilla’s Teeth Hurt
If your chinchilla is pawing at its mouth but not doing these cleaning motions, something could be wrong. The issue could be your chinchilla’s teeth.
Chinchillas are rodents, and all rodents have one thing in common. They have teeth that grow continually throughout their lives. This might be surprising, but all rodents also have claws which continually grow, as do we.
Only a gerbil’s incisors do this. The incisors are your pet’s most important teeth, located at the front of the jaw. They are used both for self-defense and for gnawing at things, e.g. food.
These teeth can grow too long. When they do, the tips of the teeth cause cuts in the gume. Unless corrected, these cuts can get larger and become infected. This could kill your pet. They can also become misaligned, i.e. point in the wrong direction.
Signs that a chinchilla’s teeth are overgrown include:
- Incisors are visibly too long
- Preference for soft foods
- Decreased appetite and resulting weight loss
- Excessive drooling, and wet fur around the mouth or front limbs
- Increased tooth grinding
- Signs of pain: reluctance to move, depression, lethargy, hiding and hunched posture
- Ear flicking while eating
- Unkempt coat and lack of grooming
Your chinchilla will paw at its mouth because its teeth hurt. If you suspect your pet’s teeth are too long, take it to the vet. Your vet can trim your chinchilla’s teeth while it’s under anesthetic.
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