If your chinchilla is chewing its own fur—and looks like it’s eating it—that’s fur barbering. But is it normal behavior or should it be stopped? And if so, how?
What is barbering? Barbering is where your chinchilla chews its own fur or the fur of its cage mate. This problem is caused by stress, dominance issues, boredom and perhaps even genetics. It is visibly different to regular grooming and light nibbles. It can be fixed by addressing the root cause e.g. stress, although your chinchilla will still be predisposed to chewing even once it stops.
The guide below first explains what fur barbering is, and details the signs you’re likely to see. We’ll also cover in depth how to fix the root causes of barbering in chinchillas so that your furry friends can get back to being furry again.
What Is Chinchilla Fur Barbering?
Fur barbering, also known as fur chewing, is where your chinchilla chews its own fur until patches of the fur come out. It stems from normal grooming behavior, where the chinchilla keeps its fur clean and clear of parasites by nibbling at it. But fur barbering specifically refers to when this behavior becomes excessive.
Barbering is visibly different to nibbling. Nibbling is light biting with a clear purpose. Chinchillas nibble with their front teeth. Chewing is continual and the molars and incisors are used.
Barbering doesn’t damage the skin underneath the fur. So, you shouldn’t see any scars or any blood. If you do, then it may be a sign that your chinchillas are fighting, which is a problem in itself. Barbering is not a serious issue, in that it doesn’t kill your chinchilla if the problem is not addressed. However, it may be a sign of something more serious, such as aggressive fighting or dangerous levels of stress. As such, it needs to be identified and corrected when seen.
Chinchilla Chewing Its Own Fur
Fur chewing is typically done to the self rather than to other chinchillas. The chinchilla will sit and chew on its fur for extended periods of time. It will shift from one location to the other. This behavior has no clear purpose so is visibly different to grooming nibbles. It looks almost like it’s your chinchilla eating fur, chewing the fur on its back to eat it.
When a chinchilla is done chewing a part of its fur, it will look shorter. Your pet may chew its fur right down to the skin; it can also tug out tufts of fur at a time.
Chinchilla Chewing Its Cage Mate’s Fur
Chinchillas can also chew the fur of their cage mates, either in addition to or instead of chewing their own fur. This can be because of dominance issues, excessive grooming, or because of stress.
A chinchilla that chews its cage mate’s fur may also chew its own fur. These behaviors are not mutually exclusive.
Signs of Fur Barbering
The issue with fur barbering is that it’s excessive. Normal levels of self-grooming won’t have any negative effects. But excess fur chewing will cause the following problems.
Chinchilla Chewing Its Fur
The first sign you’ll see is your chinchilla chewing its fur. Rather than nibbling gently, it will chew in particular places for long periods. The coat overall appears ragged because there are patches of fur that are much shorter than others.
This behavior is typically no problem. Chinchillas groom themselves frequently—they’re hygienic animals. But you may notice that your chinchilla nibbles/chews its fur much more frequently than it used to, or for longer than it used to. If that’s the case, it may be developing a fur chewing problem. Keep an eye out for the other signs below to confirm your hunch.
Tufts of Fur on Cage Floor
You can tell fur chewing is getting bad when you see small tufts of fur on the floor of the cage.
These tufts of fur haven’t been cut by your chinchilla nibbling at its fur (although this does happen). Rather, they’ve been pulled out through the force of the chewing. This is a phenomenon known as ‘fur slip‘, and it’s an adaptation chinchillas developed to escape from predators. When its fur is grabbed or held, it comes out easily, allowing the chinchilla to get away. You may notice this happen when you handle your pet.
In this context, the chinchilla is chewing with enough force that it pulls the fur out. These small tufts of fur then accumulate on the bottom of the cage. They aren’t individual hairs like you will normally see, but rather small clumps.
Bald Patches in Your Chinchilla’s Coat
As the chewing continues, you’ll notice bare patches in your chinchilla’s coat. These are the places where the chinchilla chews the most. You may notice either many small patches, or one particularly large patch. You may also notice a general lowering of quality of the coat.
These bald patches will all be in places that your chinchilla can reach with its mouth. So, they may be along your chinchilla’s sides, around its groin and thighs, along its legs, and towards the end of its back. But they won’t be high up the back or on the back of the neck unless the chinchilla’s cage mate is chewing its fur.
If your chinchilla chews its fur enough, it can chew its whole coat. Eventually the only places that will be left with full fur are the head and neck.
If the chewing is caused by domination issues, then your chinchilla will also chew its cage mate’s whiskers. This is one way in which chinchillas express dominance. The longer a chinchilla’s whiskers, the larger it feels, and the more confident it is; therefore if a chinchilla chews its rival’s whiskers, it feels smaller and loses confidence.
This is obvious in two ways. First, you see that the chinchilla’s whiskers are much shorter than usual. Second, you see the whiskers on the floor of the cage like you see the tufts of fur. These won’t be whole, long whiskers, but cut-up pieces.
Why Is My Chinchilla Chewing His Fur?
So, what causes fur barbering in the first place? Stress induced fur chewing is the most common problem. When pets are stressed, they display behaviors they otherwise wouldn’t. Some of these behaviors are destructive of the environment, like cage bar chewing. Others are directed inwards, like fur barbering.
There are many potential causes of stress. One, some or all of these may be causing the problem for your pet.
- Cage problems. The cage could be too small, too bare, or too dirty. Or, your chinchilla may not have a hide.
- Cagemate problems. Chinchillas don’t always get along, and your pair may be fighting.
- Loud noises and bright lights. Chinchillas are easily spooked as it is, but loud noises e.g. from a TV or a neighbor cause constant stress. People walking around the room above the chinchillas can cause stress, too.
- Incorrect temperature or humidity. Chinchillas know if they’re too hot or too damp and it stresses them out.
- Excessive handling. Your pet may not want you to handle it as much as you do.
- Previous owners. Rescue chinchillas may still be suffering the effects of previous neglect.
- Other pets. Ideally, chinchillas shouldn’t be kept alongside other pets, particularly those that are predators like dogs.
- Health issues. Health issues cause bodily and mental stress.
- Lack of chew toys. Chinchillas need chew toys like apple wood sticks, or they chew unsuitable things like ledges or fur.
- Lack of bathing. Chinchillas get stressed if they can’t display natural behaviors like dust bathing.
The introduction of new stressors, e.g. if you recently had a child that keeps crying or there’s been a sudden hot spell, can trigger fur chewing in chinchillas predisposed to the problem. Or, a combination of these issues over a long period can overwhelm your pet. Boredom and a lack of exercise are two other common causes, while according to the Merck Vet Manual, fur chewing may also be a sign of dental disease.
Parasites & Ringworm in Chinchilla Fur
When your chinchilla does have an infestation, its skin will be itchy and inflamed. That’s because parasites use saliva to numb the areas that they bite. When the numbing effect wears off, inflammation occurs, which becomes itchy. Your chinchilla may therefore be chewing its fur because:
- It’s manually trying to catch the parasites
- Its skin is itchy and it’s nibbling/scratching the bites
You can check for parasites by looking in your chinchilla’s fur. Follow our guides above for more detailed advice.
Alternatively, the problem could be a fungal infection. Again, these are rare, because chinchillas take dust baths. These stop the fur from getting oily or damp, precluding the possibility of ringworm developing. But if your chin’s fur is allowed to stay damp for long periods, fungus can develop. Ringworm causes itchy dermatitis, so again, your chinchilla could be trying to nibble at the itchy area.
Dry Conditions & Excess Bathing
While a lack of bathing can make chinchillas stressed, excess bathing can too. This leaves you in a pickle as you have to figure out whether your pet is bathing too little or too much.
The problem with excess bathing is that it dries out the skin. This leaves your chinchilla itchy in the same way that parasites do. Your chinchilla is then predisposed to nibbling at its coat, and if the itching or something else makes it stressed, it may start chewing.
Your chin is only likely to be bathing too much if a) it’s bathing every single day for long periods, and b) conditions in your home are very dry. While chinchillas prefer low humidity, low humidity combined with excess bathing dries the coat out too much. You can measure humidity with a hygrometer. Humidity anywhere below 50% is fine.
Dominance and Fur Chewing
Fur barbering can also be caused by bullying.
When chinchillas live in pairs, sometimes one of the pair will bully the other. It may protect the source of food, for example, and stop the other chinchilla from eating. The pair may fight constantly, even if one chinchilla (the subordinate one) clearly doesn’t want to fight.
Another way in which this dominance is expressed is through fur chewing. It’s as if the bully is saying ‘I’m going to do this, and you’re not strong or brave enough to stop me!’ You’ll also notice the bully chewing the other chinchilla’s whiskers, which perpetuates the cycle.
Is Fur Chewing Genetic in Chinchillas?
Some owners say that fur chewing is passed on from parent to kit. It’s possible that this transmission is genetic in nature.
However, what’s more likely is that the kit learned the behavior from its mother/parents. Chinchillas must be kept with their parents even after they wean because they continue to learn behaviors, both social (grooming, playing) and anti-social (fighting over things). It’s possible that the kit developed the behavior only after it saw its parents doing the same thing.
What may also be possible is that while fur chewing isn’t inheritable, ‘aggressive’ or ‘easily-stressed’ personality traits are. Every experienced owner knows that chinchillas have personalities, and these personalities are definitely partly genetic. That’s why reputable breeders stop breeding lines that are known to be fur biters.
In practise, this means that while you can prevent stress and other causes of fur chewing, it may be impossible to stop completely.
How to Stop Fur Chewing in Chinchillas
Once this behavior begins, it must be corrected as much as possible. Your chinchilla can swallow some of its fur as it chews. This fur then accumulates in your chinchilla’s gut, causing or contributing to a blockage. This blockage can stop your pet going to the toilet or eating, and causes a condition called gastrointestinal stasis.
There is no specific fix for fur chewing that always works.
Straight Away: Offer Chew Toys
The easiest fix for fur chewing is to offer your chinchilla more chew toys than you normally would. There should be a) a greater variety, and b) a greater volume of chew toys. The idea is to give your chinchilla a healthy way to display this behavior until you can fix whatever’s causing it.
Offering your chinchilla the chance to exercise more frequently may also help it get rid of stress. A chinchilla-friendly exercise wheel could help, as would more frequent outside-the-cage time.
Talk To a Vet
Whenever your chinchilla has a health problem, your first port of call should always be the vet.
There is no veterinary ‘cure’ for fur chewing, so don’t expect any medication that will fix the problem. But your vet can at least identify what’s causing the fur chewing. If it’s something like parasites or ringworm, the vet can immediately tell. Any health issue that’s causing stress can also be identified. And don’t discount your vet as a source of general advice, e.g. on cage setup and diet.
Identify The Source of Stress
As stress is the most likely cause of your chinchilla’s fur biting, try to identify why your pet is stressed. You can do this through basic observation. Sit quietly near your chinchilla’s cage for an hour and monitor its behavior. Pick a time when your chinchilla is awake and watch what it does. Does it frequently jump because of loud noises, for example? Is it lethargic and clearly sick? Figure out what’s wrong and fix it.
If you still aren’t sure, you can take general steps to reduce stress. If you do each of the things in the list below, you will likely hit on whatever the cause is and fix it without even knowing. So, for example:
- Handle your chinchilla less frequently. Handling every day can make your chinchilla stressed; cutting down to twice a week may help.
- Move your chinchilla’s cage somewhere more suitable. The room should be cool and quiet without direct sunlight falling on the cage.
- Spruce up your chinchilla’s cage. Spot clean it every day, introduce new chew toys, replace unsuitable flooring with fleece, and introduce platforms to jump to and from if you haven’t already.
Once you get rid of the stressor, you may notice your chinchilla immediately stopping its fur chewing behavior. Bear in mind, though, that a chinchilla that chews fur will always be predisposed to doing so. So, if the chinchilla becomes stressed again for any reason, it will begin chewing its fur again.
Separate the Fighting Pair
If your chinchilla is chewing the fur of its cage mate, that’s a sign that their relationship has become imbalanced. One chinchilla is now very clearly dominant over the other, and that relationship will only continue to tip in that direction.
This is a major issue. If you leave the pair together, the bully will keep bullying the other chinchilla. In the wild, the other chinchilla would go to live on its own or in another group, but in a cage, it can’t do that. This therefore causes great stress. Meanwhile, the bully will attack the other chinchilla more and more to the point that it might even kill it. As such, you have to separate the pair as soon as possible.
This can happen even in chinchilla pairs that have lived happily together for years, and they won’t suddenly become friends again. Many owners even say that once separated, if you try to reintroduce them, they’ll never learn to be friends again.
How Long Does It Take For Chinchilla Fur to Grow Back?
Chinchilla fur takes two to three weeks to grow back to most of its previous length. It can take slightly longer or slightly shorter amounts of time depending on the chinchilla. It will obviously take longer if you don’t stop your chinchilla from barbering; if it keeps barbering, it won’t ever get back to normal. Good coat care during this time will help. Chinchillas are less stressed when they bathe frequently.
If your chinchilla won’t stop barbering its fur, you definitely need to talk to a vet. They can help you figure out what’s causing the behavior.