Chinchillas have needs like other pets, and as they have to live in cages, one that becomes important is the need for exercise. But how much playtime does a chinchilla need, and how can you provide for that need?
How much exercise do chinchillas need? Chinchillas need to exercise each day, ideally as much as they would in the wild. You can give your chinchilla exercise wheels or saucers and platforms in its cage, so it will be active without supervision. You can also allow it outside the cage, once you’ve chinchilla-proofed your room and/or bought a play pen, for extra exercise. Don’t make your pet exercise in an exercise ball, as chinchillas quickly overheat in these and can die from heat stress as a result.
The guide below first explores why chinchillas need exercise, and what kind of exercise wild chinchillas get. We’ll also look at questions including how long do chinchillas need to play, do chinchillas need to be let out of their cages to exercise, and much more.
Do Chinchillas Need Exercise?
Chinchillas need exercise, just like any animal needs exercise. It can keep itself fit and healthy in many ways, some of which require your assistance, and some of which don’t. So, for example, your chinchilla can run on an exercise wheel that you put in its enclosure; or, it can run around your chinchilla-proofed room if you give it some free roaming time.
If your chinchilla doesn’t get exercise, there are several issues that may occur. These range from inconvenient to life threatening.
- General poor condition. The fitter and healthier your chinchilla is, the better shape it will be in. Chinchillas that don’t have an outlet for exercise can become overweight and unhappy.
- Poor mental health. In the wild, your chinchilla would be active throughout the day. Adjusting to a sedentary life will cause your chinchilla stress.
- Bumblefoot. Bumblefoot is caused by uneven pressure on the feet. If the floor of your chinchilla’s cage is a solid surface or wire mesh, remaining inactive will cause pressure points to form, eventually leading to bumblefoot.
Besides that, there’s an increased risk of weight gain. That’s because your chinchilla uses energy from the food it eats to move around. If it moves around less, it burns less energy, so the energy from its food is stored for later. It doesn’t matter whether your chinchilla eats fat, carbs or protein—so long as it eats at a calorie surplus, it will gain weight, and inactivity makes that more likely.
How Do Chinchillas Exercise in the Wild?
Wild chinchillas don’t put any special effort into exercising. They obviously don’t use wheels or exercise balls. Rather, wild chinchillas stay fit simply by remaining active throughout the day.
To understand how wild chinchillas stay fit, it’s useful to look at the average day in the life of one. Chinchillas are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, but are awake on and off throughout both the day and night. While awake, they must forage for food constantly, as it’s difficult for them to get enough energy from the grass they eat. They therefore spend lots of time searching for food, hopping from rock to rock, and playing with other chinchilllas. They don’t actively need to exercise, their normal day-to-day activities keep them healthy.
At home, though, you need to provide your chinchilla with ways it can exercise which reflect its lifestyle in the wild. If you keep your chinchilla in a cage with no platforms, for example, it will become stressed and unhappy.
What Are the Exercise Requirements for Chinchillas?
How much exercise does a chinchilla need? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Official guidelines for keeping pet rodents, like the Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practise, are vague; they say that ‘the ability to exercise and gnaw are extremely important’, or that health conditions develop in the absence of exercise. But that doesn’t answer how long chinchillas need to run in their wheels, or stay outside of their cages.
How Long Should Chinchillas Exercise?
Based on owners’ experience, you have to balance how much exercise you give your chinchilla. On the one hand, it should stay active so that it maintains its health. But it also shouldn’t exercise too much, as it can overheat easily.
So, how long should chinchillas play? Well, if you provide it with an exercise wheel or saucer, it will figure out how much exercise it needs on its own. If it overexerts itself, it will rest for a while. Chinchillas do this naturally becase they don’t take one sleep per day, they have lots of quick sleeps interspersed throughout the day, so your chinchilla won’t exercise for hours on end.
As for how much playpen time does a chinchilla need, that’s another question. Somewhere between half an hour and an hour is enough time, but depending on how hot it is, it might be best to limit outside-the-cage time to even less. Some owners allow their chins to exercise outside the cage once per day, while others only allow once per week.
How to Exercise a Chinchilla
The question, then, is what ways to exercise a chinchilla are there? Are some more suitable than others?
There are lots of ways to provide exercise for chinchillas. Some of the ones that new owners gravitate towards are suitable, but some aren’t, and it’s vitally important that you know why—otherwise you could do your pet much more harm than good.
Letting Chinchilla Run Free
Most chinchilla owners allow their chinchillas to roam free in a secure room every once in a while, anywhere from once a day to once a week. This allows chinchillas the opportunity to hop around and exercise in a large area.
If you’re going to let your chinchilla roam free, you’ll need to chinchilla-proof your room first. This means making it suitable for chinchillas in several ways. Your first concern is to stop your chinchilla from escaping, which it can easily do through small gaps and holes. Cover off the gaps under furniture so your pet can’t get under there, as if it does, it may not want to come out. You also have to:
- Ensure that doors and windows are closed at all times
- Ensure that all wires are tidied away, as chinchillas like to chew them
- Ensure that there is no plastic in the area for it to chew
- Ensure that there’s no wood for it to chew in places it can access—not for your pet’s sake, as it can safely gnaw on wood, but for the sake of your furniture and walls
You’re likely to find that the bathroom is the best place to let your chinchilla free roam. That’s because it likely doesn’t have many wires at chinchilla-level, it may not have much wood either, and the door probably has a lock to keep it shut. But you can let your chin free roam anywhere so long as it’s chin-proofed (except outside).
Chinchilla Exercise Pen
If you don’t have any rooms that can be easily chinchilla-proofed, you should consider buying an exercise pen. These have walls and can be moved anywhere you like to provide a small safe space for your pet to run around in. They’re normally designed for dogs and rabbits but can be used by chinchillas too.
Choose a sturdy pen with a secure door and high walls (at least 3 feet tall). Even if the walls are taller than that, it’s possible that your chinchilla will jump out, as they can leap surprisingly high. That’s why you need to monitor your pet when it’s in the pen. The pen should be made of metal, rather than wood or plastic, so your chinchilla can’t chew it.
There should be plenty of room inside the pen for your chinchilla to exercise. A minimum size of 12 square feet is ideal. You can place some toys and hides inside the playpen, to give your chinchilla something to do. If your chinchilla will be in there for a while, it should also have access to food and water.
We don’t recommend letting your chinchilla run around a play pen outside. That’s because it would be harder but not impossible for it to escape, and if it does, it’s very difficult to get your pet back.
Chinchilla Exercise Wheel
Exercise wheels can be suitable for chinchillas, but aren’t always.
The problem with most exercise wheels is that they’re too small. Any that are designed for hamsters, guinea pigs or other rodents don’t give a chinchilla enough space to run in. Your chinchilla may still try running in it anyway, but as it does, it will have to curve its back backwards at an uncomfortable angle. This means that it can’t run at full speed and could hurt its back.
That’s why some manufacturers make exercise wheels intended specifically for chinchillas. These are different, in that:
- They aren’t made of plastic. You shouldn’t put things made of plastic in your chinchilla’s cage as it can gnaw them. When it does, the plastic gets stuck in its gut and causes stasis.
- They’re much bigger. Because they have a wider diameter, your chinchilla can exercise safely in them, without bending its back, or at least without bending it as much.
- They don’t have slats or bars, but are a solid construction. Your chinchilla can easily catch its feet or toes between these slats. If it does, and then it falls, it can break its bones. This doesn’t happen with a solid wheel.
Another option is to buy a chinchilla exercise saucer. This is like a wheel turned onto its side. It looks like a metal bowl with only a slight curvature to it. These work well for chinchillas because they can run at full speed on them, and won’t bend your pet’s back at unnatural angles as it runs. The only downside is that there are more places you can find normal exercise wheels, and they’re normally cheaper.
The advantage of both saucers and wheels is that they let your chinchilla exercise unsupervised. You don’t need to be watching over it, and you don’t need to prepare anything (like you do if you’re chin-proofing a room). Your pet will run on its exercise wheel or saucer whenever it feels like. Another plus-point is that a wheel or saucer lets your chinchilla run at full speed, or at least something near it, which means that it’s getting better exercise.
Chinchilla Climbing Toys
No chinchilla should live in a cage that doesn’t have platforms. Chins thrive in tall cages with lots of wooden platforms in them, that allow them to jump up and down from one place to another like they would in the wild. This is good both for a chinchilla’s mental and physical health.
Ladders, on the other hand, are a matter of debate for owners. Some owners recommend against them entirely, as chinchillas can break their toes or feet in them. But if the ladder is of solid construction, this shouldn’t be a problem.
The other issue with climbing toys is that they’re often made of plastic. Plastic shouldn’t be used in chinchilla cages, no matter whether it’s as part of a ladder, an exercise wheel or something else. Again, your chinchilla will likely chew on the plastic things in its cage and could become unwell as a result.
Can Chinchillas Use Exercise Balls?
We recommend entirely against letting your pet run around in a chinchilla exercise ball. Experienced owners call them ‘death balls’, and there are good reasons for that.
The most important is that chinchillas overheat easily, especially when exercising. Being in an exercise ball compounds that problem because it holds onto heat. The body heat your chinchilla generates and the warmth from its breath add up over time to make the inside of the ball significantly warmer than the outside, since there isn’t much air flow through it. Because your chin has such a thick coat, it can develop heat stress easily, and this is one way to cause it.
Besides that, the small slats in exercise balls that allow small amounts of air in can trap your pet’s toes and feet. Your chinchilla’s delicate bones can easily be broken in this way.
And as for their actual purpose, exercise balls are unsuitable anyway. Chinchillas hop and jump rather than run, meaning they can’t easily move around in an exercise ball. Plus, most are too small for your chinchilla to comfortably move inside, and since your pet relies on its senses of hearing and smell rather than sight, it has no idea where it’s going or what it’s doing. All in all, exercise balls are a terrible idea.
Can Chinchillas Live Their Whole Lives in Cages?
So, it’s ideal for you to let your chinchilla out of its cage, as it helps your pet get exercise—but do chinchillas need outside the cage time? Is it absolutely essential, or can a chinchilla live its whole life inside the confines of its cage?
The first thing to note is that some chinchillas do spend their whole lives in cages. It’s common practise among breeders to keep their chinchillas in cages with no outside the cage time at all. With basic exercise kit and some chew toys, a chinchilla can have its base needs met, even if it doesn’t get to experience the fun of exploring a larger space.
That being said, we don’t recommend keeping your pet cooped up permanently. Your pet will undeniably be happier if it gets a chance to run around its room occasionally. Plus, there’s no fun owning a pet if you hardly interact with it—so if you don’t have the space, time or inclination to let your chinchilla out of its cage, a fish might be a better choice for a pet!
What to Do with a Lazy Chinchilla
So, there are plenty of ways chinchillas can exercise. But what if your chinchilla is lazy and doesn’t want to run on its wheel, run around its play pen, or do anything that seems active?
Talk To a Vet
If your chinchilla doesn’t like to exercise it could be a sign of something wrong with its health. There’s a symptom that relates to many health issues called ‘lethargy‘, which is where the chinchilla isn’t as active as it used to be. This goes some way beyond plain laziness and into worrying territory, like where your chinchilla doesn’t even seem to have the energy to eat.
As such, if you’re worried about a major change in your chinchilla’s level of activity, talk to a vet. They can tell you if there’s anything wrong with your chinchilla’s health or the way you’re caring for it.
More Toys, Especially New Toys
Chinchillas are surprisingly intelligent, and sometimes it helps, in contexts like these, to think from your pet’s perspective. Let’s say that you’ve had your pet for two years now, and it’s had the same cage setup ever since you bought it. Well, what would you feel if you were in that situation? You’d likely have become bored of all your toys and running wheels by then. So, may be able to encourage your chinchilla to exercise by giving it new toys and wheels to play with.
The best way of keeping your chin from getting bored is by rotating its toys. That means switching them out for different ones every month or so (not turning them around!) This is something that zookeepers do for their animals, too, and it works: each time you rotate in a new toy, even if it’s one that your chinchilla has played with before, it will keep your pet entertained.
Another way of achieving the same thing is by letting your chinchilla out of its cage more often. Your chinchilla can get bored being in the same space day in and day out, which is why it finds running around a chinchilla-proofed room so exciting. As such, by buying a play pen and/or letting your chinchilla free roam more often, you encourage it to exercise and play.
Get Your Chinchilla a Play Mate
Chinchillas are social animals, and happily play with each other. If your chinchilla seems bored, it may be feeling lonely, so getting a cage mate for it to spend time with could help. They can then keep each other company and play together either in the cage or during play time. This is also a good idea because it means you aren’t as responsible for your pet’s entertainment as you would be otherwise.
If you plan on doing this, don’t lump the pair in together without introducing them first. If you do, they’ll fight, because they’re strangers. By introducing them the right way, you prevent this:
- Place the chinchillas in two separate cages. The cages should have everything that each chinchilla needs to survive.
- Put the cages next to each other, around two inches apart. By doing so, the chins can smell each other, but not reach each other or fight.
- Wait for a few days. They will gradually get used to each other, to the point where they can cohabit.
- Once they don’t display signs of stress, you can try putting them together. Monitor them, just in case they start fighting or one of them seems very frightened of the other.
Not all chins take to each other, so this might not work, and you’ll have to have a second cage to make them friends in the first place. This is therefore a lot of effort. But if you were planning on getting a second chinchilla anyway, it could help in this context.
Monitor Your Pet’s Weight/Stop Feeding Treats
Your chinchilla is highly unlikely to gain weight once it’s fully grown, provided you feed it a normal diet. Your pet should eat a diet of fresh hay and hay pellets, and if that’s all you give it, it won’t become overweight overnight.
When weight becomes a problem, it’s almost always because of unsuitable treats like nuts and seeds, raisins or other sugary fruits. So, if your pet is inactive and you feed it treats like these, we recommend cutting them from your pet’s diet. If you still want to give it treats, give it more suitable ones like different kinds of hay, rose hips or flower petals.
If inactivity is a long-term problem, you should weigh your chinchilla regularly. Chinchillas gain weight slowly, and smaller increments of weight (like one ounce or thirty grams) are more important to a chinchilla’s health than to a person’s. It can be difficult to tell that your chin has gained weight until it’s much larger, both because small amounts of weight are more significant, and because chinchillas are fluffy, which hides their ‘true size’. So, to weigh your chinchilla, place it in a bowl on regular kitchen scales each week and make a note of how much it weighs. Small differences each time are normal, but what you don’t want to see is your adult chinchilla consistently getting bigger and bigger.
If you’re sure that your chinchilla isn’t gaining weight, and if you’ve taken it to the vet and there’s nothing wrong, and if you’ve given your chinchilla enough to do… The best thing you can do is stop worrying about your pet. This is something that all new owners go through: worrying unnecessarily about their pets.
Some chinchillas aren’t as active as others. It’s the same as how some chinchillas are more sociable than others, or are better able to tolerate handling, or are more active during the day than normal. Something else to bear in mind is that chinchillas naturally get stiffer in their movements and less active as they get older, just like people do. So, if you’re sure that your pet is otherwise healthy, don’t worry too much.