How to Tell If Your Chinchilla Is Depressed

While chinchillas are social and communicative, it can be difficult to tell how they feel. Figuring out whether and why your pet chinchilla is depressed is easier said than done.

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!

While chinchillas are social and communicative, it can be difficult to tell how they feel. Figuring out whether and why your pet chinchilla is depressed is easier said than done.

Is my chinchilla depressed? They can be if their cage mates die, or if they’re neglected e.g. fed the wrong food, not given a chew toy, or not kept in a suitable cage. Depression causes abnormal behavior like lethargy, not eating and fur chewing. To help a depressed chinchilla, monitor your pet and improve its care. If it lost a cage mate, consider getting it a new one.

As an owner, learning that your chinchilla is depressed can be a shock. After all, you care for it as best you can. But don’t take it personally if your chinchilla is unhappy; instead, check that you’re caring for it as best you can. If you want to know how to help my chinchilla when it’s depressed, the guide below will help.

Signs of Depression in Chinchillas

There are many signs chinchilla depression causes. Depressed chinchillas will do things that they wouldn’t normally do, or stop doing things they should be doing. You will see these if you spend time observing your pet.

1) Abnormal Behavior (Lethargy, Aggression, Not Eating)

Depression changes behavior in chinchillas. A chinchilla which formerly was hyperactive can become uninterested in playing. A chinchilla that spends most of its day foraging can suddenly go off its food. Here are three common behavioral changes you may spot:

  • Lethargy. Lethargy is an almost complete lack of activity. Your chinchilla stops playing, eating, and interacting with cage mates or with you.
  • Not eating. The worst side effect of lethargy is that your chinchilla stops eating. This includes both your chinchilla’s daily hay and pellets, and any snacks you offer it.
  • Fur chewing and tail biting. These are signs of stress, which can accompany or cause depression in chinchillas.

These behavioral changes will persist even when they’re inconvenient or harmful. So, your chinchilla will hardly eat even if it’s hungry and hasn’t eaten for days. But be cautious when diagnosing your chinchilla with depression (or with any health issue). Its best to rely on an experienced vet’s advice.

Alternatively, your chinchilla may lash out. Whereas before it enjoyed spending time with you, now it avoids you. It may be aggressive towards you or cage mates. This is not strictly speaking a symptom of depression, but of stress. Chinchillas become stressed after changes in routine, which will be the case if its cage mate dies. So, while this isn’t related to depression, it’s still something you need to be aware of.

2) Observing the Causes of Depression in Chinchillas

Depression isn’t the same as being upset, although the two can be linked. Rather, depression is the result of hormonal and neurochemical imbalances. This can be caused by constant stress, chronic lack of enrichment, chronic neglect or mistreatment, or a sudden upsetting event. So, in part, the question becomes “Is my chinchilla depressed or is my chinchilla sad?”

As for what causes depression in chinchillas more specifically, the following reasons are particularly common.

Does Fighting with Cagemates Cause Depression in Chinchillas?

Petty fighting between cage mates is a regular occurrence, and isn’t normally serious enough to warrant intervention. This doesn’t cause depression.

But if one of the chinchillas is bigger than the other, one will be dominant and one submissive. If the dominant one constantly picks on the smaller one, this can cause depression. That’s because the smaller one feels helpless as it can’t get away. When this happens, you have to separate the pair, otherwise the bigger chinchilla might kill the smaller one.

Do Chinchillas Grieve If Their Cagemates Die?

Chinchillas don’t have consistent responses to the loss of cage mates. How your pet might react depends on its temperament and how close it was to its cage mate.

Some chinchillas will grieve, or at least become unhappy and lethargic after a loss. Others seem slightly down for a day or two before going back to normal. Others still show no reaction at all.

This can be unnerving to the owner, but there is no wrong way for your chinchilla to react to the loss of a cage mate. Contrary to popular belief, chinchillas don’t mate for life, and can quickly move on. In a way, this is better because it means your pet won’t become depressed!

Do Chinchillas Get Depressed If They’re Neglected?

Neglect is a leading cause of depression in chinchillas. Neglect involves leaving your pet without adequate food/water for extended periods of time, or without toys, or without any interaction. Neglect doesn’t necessarily involve being cruel to your pet; you can neglect it by accident.

When animals are kept in an unnatural environment that doesn’t meet their needs, they become depressed. That’s why depression in zoo animals occurs. Neglect causes depression because:

  • Animals become bored easily when there isn’t much to do.
  • Animals need to express natural behaviors, e.g. grooming each other or foraging for food as part of a group.
  • Neglect can cause ill health.

Fortunately, while chinchillas are exotic pets, we know what they need to keep them safe and happy. So, you can fix this issue through the guidelines below.

How to Help a Depressed Chinchilla

The way in which you help your depressed chinchilla depends on why it’s depressed. So, if you have a lonely chinchilla, spending more time with it will help. But if it’s constantly stressed and doesn’t feel safe, it would benefit from less handling and having somewhere to hide.

As such, the first step is to figure out why your chinchilla is unhappy. The issue likely relates to its enclosure, its food, or fighting with another chinchilla. If it’s not one of these things, talking to a vet may be the quickest fix. Below are some more ideas that might help in the meantime.

Assess Your Chinchilla’s Living Conditions

Even experienced owners can make mistakes. Through time and effort, you can avoid basic ones like putting plastic accessories in a chinchilla’s cage. But whether you’ve been busier with work or school, or something else has come up, you may have missed something that’s gone wrong with your pet’s care.

So, assessing your chinchilla’s cage setup and diet is a good place to start. In brief, check that:

  • Your chinchilla is getting enough hay, and hay of the right kind
  • Your chinchilla has everything it needs in its cage, including a hide and substrate e.g. fleece
  • Your chinchilla has enough chew toys
  • Your chinchilla is getting enough dust baths
  • Your chinchilla has a way to exercise: either a chinchilla-appropriate running wheel or a play pen
  • Your chinchilla is getting enough time outside its cage over the course of the week
  • Your chinchilla’s cage isn’t too warm, too cold, or in a place that’s too bright
  • Your chinchilla is getting enough stimulation from handling, time outside its cage, and things happening where it can see them

You likely aren’t neglecting your pet. But by ensuring your chinchilla gets all of these things will go a long way to lifting its mood.

If you feel unable to provide for your pet’s full list of needs, consider rehoming it or letting a rescue look after it. Chinchillas are exotic pets, so have lots of needs which can be more difficult and expensive to meet than those of other pets, so it’s no shame if you can’t look after one. Consider your pet’s condition and think about the situation as rationally as you can before making a decision.

Try Not to Stress Out

Chinchillas are social animals, and can imperfectly understand your intentions and moods. But if you’re like most owners, your chinchilla’s depression will affect your mood too. If that’s the case, you may be stressed or unhappy around your chinchilla whenever you spend time with it.

This can further aggravate your chinchilla’s depression. Spending time with your pet can be a great comfort to it, especially if it’s depressed because of the loss of a cage mate. But if you’re upset and stressed too, your chinchilla won’t get comfort from being with you. So, lifting your mood as much as possible (almost like when you support a loved one through something difficult!) can help.

Be Careful with New Cage Mates (How to Help a Grieving Chinchilla)

Your first instinct may be to help your grieving chinchilla by getting it a new cage mate. Having company would lift your pet’s spirits. But this may not be the best idea. That’s because introducing two chinchillas can be difficult at the best of times, let alone when your chinchilla is depressed:

  • Introductions involve fighting. The pair will take time to get used to each other, even if you introduce them perfectly.
  • The new chinchilla could bully the old one. If it’s much bigger, it could take your grieving chinchilla’s food or fight with it.
  • Your grieving chinchilla could be overly aggressive. This would further make introductions difficult.

All that being said, getting your chinchilla new company can make it feel better. As such, consider getting a new chinchilla cage mate for your pet, but be very careful when you introduce them. You must follow proper introduction guidelines to ensure that the process goes smoothly.

The best way is to use the split cage method. This is used for more common pets as well as chinchillas. It involves keeping each pet in a different cage or cage compartment to begin with before putting them together. You have two options: buy a split cage, which has a wire wall running down the middle; or buy two cages that you put close together. Most owners opt for the latter option as two individual cages are more useful than one split cage.

Begin by placing one pet in each cage. The cages should be set up as if they’re permanent cages with food, water, chew toys, substrate and platforms. Place the cages a couple of inches apart. The pair may be wary of each other at first, and try to intimidate each other. But they should get used to each other over a week or so. You can have the pair play together outside the cage to hasten the process, separating them if they fight.

You can tell that the pair have bonded when they stop being threatening, and sit as close to each other as possible through the cage bars. You can then put them in the same enclosure.

Monitor Your Pet

Depression in chinchillas can quickly lead to destructive behaviors. Your pet may start chewing the fur of its tail, and can create bald patches and even cuts in minutes.

As such, you’ll need to monitor your pet more than usual at this time. If possible, spend more time handling it and playing with it than you usually would. You could also try giving your pet some treats.

This has two effects. First, it cheers your pet up because you’re keeping it company. Second, it nips negative behaviors like fur chewing in the bud.

Some owners report that their pets begin displaying negative behaviors as soon as they’re left alone. So, you might spend the weekend with your pet, but when you need to go to school or work on Monday morning you could come home to your pet chewing its fur. If possible, have somebody else keep your pet company at this time. If this is impossible, there’s little you can do.

Talk to a Vet

If nothing you do will help your pet, talk to a vet. There is no replacement for a vet’s advice, so the vet may suggest things that you hadn’t thought of. They can also treat any underlying health problems that your pet has, which can cause or exacerbate depression in chinchillas. They can also, if asked, advise you on certain aspects of caring for a chinchilla that you may not already be good at.

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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!