Pets need food bowls. Chinchillas are pets. What’s not to understand? As it happens, there are good reasons why you shouldn’t give your chin a food bowl—so if you shouldn’t, what should you use instead, and what makes them so bad?
Do chinchillas need food bowls? They don’t, although many owners use them anyway for hay, pellets and snacks. They can be tipped, and chinchillas can pee or poop in them and get their hay dirty. We recommend using a hay rack instead of a food bowl as it avoids these problems but still gives you somewhere to put your chinchilla’s hay. Many owners use them despite this, particularly for pellets and snacks. If you do, use ceramic or metal, not plastic.
Our guide below first explains what a hay rack is and how it’s different to a food bowl, before looking at why exactly food bowls are so bad. And if you do insist on using one, we’ve also made some recommendations on safe kinds and materials you can get.
Do Chinchillas Need Food Bowls?
Chinchillas don’t strictly need food bowls.
What chinchillas do need is something to keep their hay in. You can’t put a chinchilla’s hay or pellets on the floor of the cage, as it could be soggy, stained and dirty. And if it’s not, then the food on the ground will quickly make it so.
Instead of a food bowl, we recommend using a hay rack. A hay rack or a hay feeder looks like a basket or a newspaper rack. They’re typically made from wire and will attach to the side or corner of the cage above floor level. You fill it with hay until it’s full, then let your chinchilla feed itself from it. In that sense, it’s very similar to a food bowl. So, how come using a rack is so much better than using a food bowl if they work in the same way?
Drawbacks of Using a Food Bowl
The key problem of a food bowl is that it isn’t attached to anything. Your chinchilla can knock it over or easily dig into it, spreading the hay inside all around their cage. And because bowls are at floor level, that leaves them open to getting dirty, too.
1) Chinchilla Throwing Food Bowl
This behavior doesn’t seem to have any explanation other than boredom or accidents. Your chinchilla or chinchillas could be running around the cage and accidentally tip it over; or they may lift the bowl for no reason (looking for lost car keys or loose change?) But whatever the cause, you will still find yourself having to clean up after your pet frequently. Chinchillas can also tip over food bowls that are contained within a holder that is itself attached to the cage wall.
Aside from making a mess, this can be dangerous, too. Food bowls can be heavy, and your chinchilla could easily get its foot caught underneath the bowl when it comes back down to earth.
Because hay racks are directly attached, they can’t be tipped in this way. They are directly attached, not like some food bowls that sit within holders attached to the cage wall. Even if your chinchilla gnawed at it and tugged at it as hard as it could, it couldn’t tip a hay rack over.
2) Chinchilla Moving Its Food Bowl Around
If your chin isn’t tipping its bowl, it’s at least moving it around. It can push and drag the bowl, especially if it’s made from a lighter material like plastic or metal. Again, this is likely because your pet is bored.
3) Chinchilla Throwing Hay Around
Chinchillas love to waste their food. You’ll have seen this scene many times before: your chinchilla picks a piece of hay from its bowl. It nibbles at it for a while, before casting it away half-finished, as if it suddenly decided it didn’t like hay any more. Then, without a trace of shame, it’ll pick up another piece from the bowl and start eating that instead. Cute as it might be, this makes a lot of mess.
Something else that chinchillas like doing is digging in their food bowls. It’s as if they’re trying to find where the food is coming from, or trying to find a nicer piece of hay. This makes plenty of mess too.
Using a hay rack instead of a bowl seems to discourage this behavior. That may be because the hay is slightly more difficult to access, not being so out in the open. With a bowl, the chinchilla may accidentally pick up a few pieces at once, with the smaller pieces falling away as it does so; or it may root around looking for the best hay. It may also be because a hay rack is slightly raised, so the chinchilla thinks it’s fresher food; if it encountered food on the ground (like in a bowl) in the wild, it’s more likely to be old or rotten. That’s conjecture, but whatever the case, hay racks seem to stop chinchillas making so much of a mess with their hay.
4) Chinchilla Peeing in Food Bowl/Pooping in Food Bowl
This is the biggest problem you’ll face if you use a food bowl.
Most chinchillas pick one place to pee and only pee there. This is an adaptation they developed in the wild to avoid getting themselves dirty; if they pee where they sit, or around other chinchillas, then they could get their fur wet. That’s not good if you live on a freezing cold mountainside and have the thickest fur of any living animal.
But some chinchillas don’t do this, for reasons known only to themselves! These chinchillas pee anywhere from the platforms of their cage to the food bowl (and sometimes even peeing outside the cage from inside it). If your chinchilla does this, it will get the hay or pellets in its food bowl dirty. It’s best if it doesn’t do that. And besides peeing, even ‘hygienic’ chinchillas poop wherever they want, so that’s always a problem too.
With a hay rack, this shouldn’t happen. That’s because the hay rack will be a little ways up the side of the cage wall. Here, the chinchilla can’t pee in it unless it sprays, but that’s far less common than peeing. This will keep your chin’s hay clean and dry, and fresh for longer.
The only advantage of using a food bowl is that they’re readily available from any pet store. You can therefore find them easily and for cheap; you may even already have one. Many owners also have a hay rack for hay and a food bowl for pellets or snacks, which is fine so long as you’re prepared to deal with the issues above.
5) Chinchilla Chewing Food Bowl
In some cases, chinchillas can even chew their food bowls. Chinchillas love to chew, and will chew on anything in their cage if they get the chance.
Normally this isn’t a big problem as your chin should have chew toys. Any chewing on inappropriate things like food bowls or cage bars is kept to a minimum. But if your pet doesn’t have chew toys and/or has dental problems, it might chew on things like its bowl. If the bowl is ceramic or metal, this could damage your pet’s teeth. If it’s made of plastic, it could even accidentally eat some of it.
This can happen with hay racks, too. Those made of bars can be chewed on like regular cage bars. But it’s worth knowing either way.
Safe Materials for Chinchilla Food Bowls
If you are going to have a food bowl in your pet’s cage, you can’t have one made of any old material. Certain materials shouldn’t ever be put into your chinchilla’s cage as they could harm your pet’s health.
Never Use Plastic
Plastic food dishes are common, but please don’t use them, no matter how cheap they are or whether you have one already from a previous pet. Even if one is recommended by a pet store owner or ‘experienced’ chinchilla owner, don’t use them.
The key problem with plastic is that chinchillas like to chew it. When they chew it, they may accidentally swallow some of it. It can’t be digested or passed, so it sits in your pet’s gut. If enough plastic and other indigestible materials accumulate in your chin’s intestines, it causes a condition called ‘stasis‘, which is where the chinchilla stops eating and pooping. If this happens to your pet, it can kill it.
There is no way to get your chinchilla to stop chewing on plastic. There’s no magical anti-chewing spray you can use, and you can’t train the behavior away. All you can do is use a food bowl made from a different material.
Metal & Ceramic
Other than plastic, metal and ceramic are the most common materials that food bowls are made from. Both of these materials are fine, although ceramic is better. That’s not because it’s safer, but because it’s heavier. Ceramic food bowls typically have thicker walls, so are more difficult for your chinchilla to tip over. So, if you’re going to use a food bowl, we would recommend a ceramic one.
That being said, if you’re putting the bowl in a holder that’s attached to the wall of the cage, we would recommend a lighter one made of metal. That’s because if the heavy bowl were somehow tipped, it could severely injure a chinchilla in its path.
Is a Big or Small Food Bowl Better?
Bigger is better, at least when it comes to food bowls. Big bowls have several advantages:
- They’re less easy for your chinchilla to tip over. The bigger the dish is, the heavier it is.
- You can fill them with more food. If you’re putting hay in the bowl, that’s not a problem. Chinchillas need a constant supply of as much hay as they need. They won’t overeat and gain weight on a regular diet.
But even big food bowls can easily get peed in, or have the hay inside them thrown about the cage. As such, we recommend only using one for pellets or for snacks like rose hips.