Salt licks and salt wheels are commonly given to small pets like chinchillas. But do chinchillas need mineral supplementation? Or would it be bad for them?
Does a chinchilla need a salt lick? They don’t. Chinchillas get everything they need from their diet of hay and hay pellets. It’s rare that chinchillas on a diet of timothy hay and alfalfa pellets has deficiencies, but if yours does, cuttle bones or vet supplements are better choices than salt licks. Since your chin likely gets enough micronutrients already, adding more through giving it a salt lick would be detrimental, as the excess minerals would form kidney and bladder stones. Extra sodium in the diet can also cause seizures.
The guide below first looks at what salt licks are, and why chinchillas don’t need them. We’ll also address what happens if you give your chinchilla a salt lick anyway, and what we recommend doing when your chinchilla has a diagnosed nutritional deficiency.
Do Chinchillas Need Salt Licks?
There are no circumstances in which your chinchilla might need a salt lick, even if other pets do. Whether your chinchilla is perfectly healthy, or it has nutritional deficiencies, salt licks won’t help it—if anything, they would be bad for your pet.
Part of the reason why is that chinchillas should get all the nutrients they need from their hay. Wild chinchillas eat a variety of grasses, but timothy hay has a wide range of micronutrients, as do the hay pellets you give to your pet. It can therefore thrive on hay alone. As such, if you then go ahead and give your chinchilla extra minerals, these can have negative health effects, especially if the salt lick in question contains lots of sodium.
What Is a Salt Lick/What Is a Salt Wheel? And What Are Salt Licks For?
A salt lick, also known as a mineral lick, is a block of salts that contain many micronutrients. They occur in the wild, and many wild animals lick at them to supplement their diets, particularly if their diet is low in certain minerals. Many owners provide their pets or livestock with made-made mineral licks to promote their health.
A salt wheel is a special kind of salt block that’s made for small animals. It’s a block of compacted salt, like a regular mineral lick, but with a hole in the middle. A rod runs through the hole, and has loops at each end that attach to the metal bars of a small animal’s cage.
The point of a salt lick is to make up for nutrients that an animal is missing. That’s why wild animals find natural salt licks to lick; it’s why people who keep pets on non-varied diets often need to offer them alongside whatever their pets eat. But despite being designed for small pets kept in cages, and typically stating ‘For Small Animals‘ or something similar on the front, salt wheels aren’t suitable for chinchillas. Neither is any kind of solid mineral block.
What Nutrients Does a Salt Lick Provide?
Mineral licks contain all sorts of minerals, not just one. They typically contain calcium magnesium, sulfur, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and more. They aren’t solely made of table salt; the name ‘salt lick’ comes from the fact that the minerals in the lick are in the form of mineral salts. How much of each mineral the salt lick contains depends on what kind you buy, and how high quality it is. Some are primarily sodium, while others are a more rounded mixture.
Is My Chinchilla Licking Me Because It Needs a Salt Lick?
On occasion, chinchillas lick their owners. This is a behavior that we don’t fully understand: it may be because they like the taste of your skin—sweat contains lots of minerals—or because they’re trying to be affectionate.
What’s unlikely is that your chinchilla is licking you because it needs the minerals in your sweat. Neither owners nor scientific studies have reported that chinchiillas with deficiencies lick their owners more frequently, although it is theoretically possible. And besides, if your chinchilla were doing that because it’s deficient, there are far better ways to provide nutrients than through a lick.
Do Chinchillas Need to Gnaw on Salt Licks?
Chinchillas need to gnaw on things to stop their teeth growing overlong. This is a trait that’s common to all rodents: unlike ours, their teeth grow continuously from the moment they’re born until the moment they pass. That’s because a rodent’s teeth are important both for self-defense and for eating. A chinchilla without its teeth can’t eat, can’t fend off predators, and so is exceptionally vulnerable.
When a chinchilla doesn’t gnaw on things, though, its teeth grow too long. This means they don’t meet correctly in the middle, an issue known as malocclusion. This can also be caused by physical trauma or a missing tooth, but the upshot is that you need to give your chinchilla something suitable to chew on, be that an apple wood stick or wooden cage accessories. But what about a salt lick? Would that be suitable?
Unfortunately, no. Since chinchillas love gnawing so much, the question morphs from do chinchillas need to LICK salt licks into can chinchillas EAT salt licks, and the answer to that is a definite no. If your chinchilla gnawed on its salt lick, as it likely would, it would ingest far too much sodium and far too many minerals. That’s because chins ingest some of whatever they gnaw on.
What Happens If You Give Your Chinchilla a Salt Lick?
For other animals, salt licks have the beneficial effect of staving off nutritional deficiency. But for chinchillas, the opposite is true: they can have detrimental effects on the urinary tract, or even cause deficiency through sodium imbalance.
Kidney & Bladder Stones
Kidney and bladder stones are accretions of minerals that build up gradually over time, in either the kidneys or bladder respectively. They occur when the kidney or bladder is not fully emptied, whether because the chinchilla is drinking more than usual, because it has a UTI, or because it has a genetic deformity of the bladder, kidney or the pipes connecting them.
Excess minerals are excreted in urine, so when the urine isn’t emptied quickly enough, the minerals can clump together. They very gradually form large structures that cannot be easily passed. They require surgery to be removed, and if the surgery is not successful, your pet will need to be put to sleep. The more minerals your chinchilla ingests, the quicker these stones will form.
Potential for Seizures
Having too much sodium in its diet can make your chinchilla deficient in calcium. That’s because the body eliminates as much sodium as it can through the urine, and when it does, it takes lots of its dietary calcium with it. This causes hypocalcemia, i.e. calcium deficiency.
One of the many effects of calcium deficiency is that the affected chinchilla starts having seizures. Seizures are episodes where the brain stops functioning as it should, and there are many types of them. The precise effects of a seizure depend on what causes it. In this case, the chinchilla loses control of its body briefly; its back curves so that its nose and tail point upwards. Seizures aren’t typically serious enough to significantly hurt your chinchilla, but they are stressful and upsetting, both for you and your pet.
How to Help a Chinchilla with Nutritional Deficiencies
If you suspect your chinchilla is unwell for any reason, you must take it to a vet as soon as possible. They can diagnose the issue that your pet is facing, whether it’s nutritional deficiencies or something else. If they diagnose the problem as a deficiency, there are several things you can do.
- Correct your chinchilla’s diet. Chinchillas need a diet of hay and hay pellets, not of fruits and vegetables, or of pellets intended for other animals (like rabbit pellets or dried cat food). The correct diet of hay should contain everything your chinchilla needs.
- Feed your chinchilla high-quality hay pellets. If you feed a low-quality pellet, it may have gone stale, or been made from hay that isn’t high in nutrients. Pick a trusted brand like Oxbow instead.
- Ask the vet about supplementation. The vet can administer a liquid supplement containing whatever it is that your chinchilla needs. They may also prescribe a supplement that you can administer your pet in the future; however, adjusting its diet should do the trick.
- Can my chinchilla eat salt? We would recommend against giving any sort of salt: table salt, salt licks, pink salt, sea salt—anything. The sodium in salt would make your chinchilla’s problem worse.
Never diagnose deficiencies without the assistance of a vet. If you do, you could make whatever problem your chinchilla is experiencing worse.
How to Give a Chinchilla More Calcium
Calcium is the one mineral that chinchillas need precisely the right amount of. It’s easy to give either too much or too little, and doing either will cause ill health. Too much causes kidney and bladder stones as described above, while too little contributes to weak bones and teeth, and even malocclusion.
There are two easy ways to give a chinchilla more calcium that don’t include offering salt licks. The first is to give your chinchilla fresh alfalfa hay, or alfalfa hay pellets. Alfalfa contains many times more calcium than timothy hay, so if your chin has a calcium deficiency, mix in a portion of alfalfa with its regular hay. Most hay pellets contain alfalfa, but some have more than others, so pick one that has more.
The second way to give your chinchilla calcium is through giving it a cuttle bone. Cuttle bones are the internal shells of cuttlefish, and their structure contains large amounts of calcium. They are solid and brittle, making them excellent chew toys as well as calcium supplements.
To be clear, excesses of other minerals can also cause kidney and bladder stones. However, it’s excess calcium that has the greatest effect, and a lack of which has the greatest effect also. You must talk to a vet and have them properly diagnose calcium deficiency before addressing the issue, as if your chinchilla is in fact getting enough calcium, giving it even more would cause bladder or kidney stones.