Do Chinchillas Need a Running Wheel?

The first thing you put in a pet rodent’s cage is a running wheel. But chinchillas are exotic, so do they need exercise wheels at all?

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The first thing you put in a pet rodent’s cage is a running wheel. But chinchillas are exotic, so do they need exercise wheels at all?

Do chinchillas need running wheels? They don’t necessarily need wheels; what they need is exercise. Your pet can also get exercise from hopping/jumping, or running around a pen. But an exercise wheel built for chinchillas (large size, solid metal construction, no central axel) is an effective means of getting your chinchilla to exercise.

But because chinchillas are big and delicate, you can’t buy a regular exercise wheel. You need a specific chinchilla exercise wheel, built just for chinchillas. Otherwise your pet could injure itself when exercising.

To learn how this might happen, and why chinchillas need to exercise at all, read our guide below.

Do Chinchillas Need Exercise?

Pet chinchillas have the same needs as wild chinchillas. One of these needs is for consistent exercise. The issue isn’t that your chinchilla will get fat without exercise; because these pets eat fibrous hay, it’s difficult for them to gain weight beyond the average.

Rather, the issue is that your pet will become stressed and unhappy if it feels confined. This is the case for all pets kept in cages, not just chinchillas. How owners allow their chinchillas exercise varies, but exercise equipment like a wheel is one way.

How Much Excercise Do Chinchillas Need?

There is no straightforward answer to this question, but yYour chinchilla needs lots of exercise. In the wild, it would spend most of its day:

  • Going from place to place looking for food to forage
  • Running in and out of its burrow
  • Running from predators
  • Hopping from one rock to another

This all adds up to a significant amount of exercise. This helps the chinchilla keep its muscles toned and maintain respiratory and circulatory health. It also serves as a means of defusing stress.

All of this means that your pet needs to spend time each day being active. Whether this is in a wheel or outside of the cage is up to you as an owner. But, the more exercise your pet gets, the better.

Can Chinchillas Use Exercise Wheels?

Chinchillas can use exercise wheels, but they cannot use the same wheels that other pets use. That’s because chinchillas are much bigger than other rodents, so a wheel which fits a smaller rodent would be far too small.

However, there are several kinds of exercise wheel made specifically for chinchillas. These are larger in size, and don’t allow the chinchilla to trap its feet between any wire bars or wood joins. One example is the Silver Surfer, a solid metal wheel that looks like a cake tin on its side; the ‘Chin Spin’ is a similar design. Both have good reviews.*

Another design is the Flying Saucer. This is like a bowl: rather than sitting on its side, it lies at an angle in the corner of the cage. Because of this fact, the chinchilla doesn’t have to bend its back to get inside it, like it does with small exercise wheels. All of these products are available to buy online. 

Do Chinchillas Like Running Wheels?

Not all chinchillas like running wheels, because all chinchillas are different. Some are more active than others, while some like to be active in different ways to others. So, there’s no guarantee that your pet will enjoy running on a wheel.

Most do, though, because they allow for strenuous exercise. They not only allow your pet to run, they allow it run at full speed. This is something your pet can’t easily do in any other way when in captivity. Running wheels therefore fulfil a need that other means of exercise cannot.

Furthermore, the use of a wheel may help alleviate stress. A paper published by Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews, an academic journal, states that “Wheel running activity interacts with brain reward systems.” This implies that rodents can improve mode and alleviate stress by running on a wheel.

Safe vs Unsafe Wheels

Regular running wheels aren’t safe for chinchillas. Your pet might use one, but its health will be compromised if it does. Unfortunately, few pet shops stock suitable wheels.

Below are all the issues that chinchillas have with regular running wheels.

Slats vs No Slats (and Mesh)

Your chinchilla’s feet can break between these bars.

Regular wheels are a hazard because of their structures. Metal wheels usually have bars which the rodent’s foot can slip through. This is a hazard when travelling at speed, or if the chinchilla falls awkwardly into it when the wheel isn’t in use. A chinchilla’s feet can easily be broken in this way.

The same applies to wooden wheels with gaps between the slats. Mesh is another option which is slightly better, but can still cause the same issues.

Instead, chinchilla running wheels have a flat surface. This means that your pet can’t get the same purchase when it’s running, but it’s either that, or your pet injures itself.

Central Axel vs No Central Axel

Some exercise wheels have an axel in their center. This is what the wheel revolves around. You should avoid any wheel which has one.

The reason why is that the chinchilla will have to arch its back to avoid it. You want the wheel to allow your pet to run at full speed in a natural posture. Anything which makes it arch its back more than it normally would is a bad thing.

Imagine if you were doing jumping jacks, but you couldn’t lift your arms fully because things were in the way: you could a) injure your arms, and b) hurt your back because of unnatural posture. Fortunately, there are many kinds of wheel which don’t have a central spoke like this.

Plastic vs Wood vs Metal

Running wheels come in all sorts of materials. However, there is a clear winner and a clear loser which you should avoid at all costs.

You should never put anything plastic in your pet’s cage. Chinchillas love to gnaw to keep their teeth trimmed. Natural materials like wood are perfect for this, because they’re the right mix of solid but not tough, and can be safely ingested. Plastic can be gnawed, but is too tough and solid, so can result in malocclusion. It’s also bad for your chinchilla’s digestive system.

Not only that, but the fact that it will get chewed means you’ll have to replace it. So, plastic wheels are bad for your chinchilla and bad for your wallet too.

Wooden wheels are fine, but again, may get chewed. It’s fine if your chinchilla accidentally ingests wood when gnawing it. Rather, the problem is that you’ll have to replace the wheel after a while after it gets too chewed up.

Metal is the better choice. All the most popular wheels are made of metal, including those mentioned above. Chinchillas avoid gnawing on metal wheels because they know it’s the wrong texture for their teeth (unless your pet is neglected and has nothing else to chew). Metal is also durable and can be cleaned, so is the ideal material for a chinchilla’s exercise wheel.

How Big Should a Chinchilla Wheel Be?

This shows how a rodent has to curve its back to run in a wheel. This is not a natural running position for a rodent.

Chinchillas can’t have ‘normal sized’ wheels. The kind which other smell pets use are far too small for a chinchilla, as chinchillas are far bigger than the average rodent. Even a 12inch wheel, which is often the largest size in a pet store, is too small.

The reason this is a problem is that an average sized wheel bends the chinchilla’s back at an unusual angle. If you can imagine a small rodent in a wheel, its back is nearly straight, if at a slight curve. But a chinchilla in a wheel has to bend its back almost into a U-shape. This strange posture means that a chinchilla can damage its back in one of these wheels.

How to Get a Chinchilla to Exercise

There are several key ways you can get your chinchilla to exercise. These are:

  • Providing a wheel in your pet’s cage
  • Providing platforms that your pet can jump to and from in its cage (which should be in a standard cage setup anyway)
  • Building a pen that your chinchilla can run around, outside of its cage
  • Making your room chinchilla-proof so it can run around as it pleases

If you do each of these things, then your chinchilla should get enough exercise on its own. Platforms, especially, allow your pet to be active in a natural way.

You shouldn’t need to encourage your chinchilla to be active, and if you do, then there may be something wrong with your pet’s health. So, if your pet is lethargic (especially if it didn’t used to be), consult a vet.

How Do I Get My Chinchilla to Run on the Wheel?

While wheels aren’t a natural fixture in nature, even wild animals can take to them. This was highlighted in a paper published by the Royal Society: the scientists behind the paper placed wheels in natural environments and found that wild rodents would use them even when they could get exercise by being naturally active. This means that your chinchilla should take to the wheel on its own.

If it doesn’t, then the likely issue is that your pet doesn’t understand that it can get on the wheel, or that the wheel could move. You have a few options if this is the case:

  1. Manually place the chinchilla in the wheel, and move it gently. This might help your pet get the hint.
  2. Tempt the chinchilla onto the wheel by placing food on it.
  3. Pair the chinchilla with another chinchilla which knows how to use the wheel. Use the split cage method to get them used to each other first.
  4. Place the wheel in the cage of a chinchilla which knows how to use the wheel. Then, place the two cages near each other.

And if it still refuses to run on the wheel, it may have good reason to. Your chinchilla may be sick or pregnant; or, it may already be getting enough exercise through other means. Monitor your pet to figure out what’s wrong, and if you still can’t tell, talk to a vet.

*Note: we have not been paid to review or mention these products. These are the most popular chinchilla exercise wheels, which have excellent reviews from experienced owners.

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New owner, don't know where to start? Or do you need a handy chinchilla reference guide? Check out our Chinchilla Care 101 eBook, or get what you need from our online store!