Pet stores are where you buy pets—obviously. But is it a good idea, or is it even ethically questionable to support them? Or is that sensationalized thinking?
Why shouldn’t you buy a chinchilla from a pet store? We believe you should avoid buying chins from stores because many give bad advice, keep their chinchillas in unsuitable conditions, and/or buy their chins from wholesalers. Wholesalers are branded as ‘puppy mills’ when they breed or sell wholesale puppies, but pet store chinchillas may have been bred or kept in the same conditions. Many cases of ‘chinchilla mills’ have been documented and are described below. We believe buying from experienced and well-known breeders or adopting chinchillas is better than buying from stores, although not all pet stores, wholesalers or breeders are as bad as that; so, do your research before buying or adopting.
Some of the content below, and some of the content accessible through the links provided, is distressing in nature. This guide details what happens at the animal mills which breed animals for pet stores, and some of the linked pages contain images you might find upsetting.
Should You/Can You Buy a Chinchilla from a Pet Store?
We recommend against buying your new chinchilla from a pet store. Instead, we recommend either adopting a rescue chinchilla or buying directly from a breeder. There are several reasons why—both because pet stores can be bad, and because breeders or rescue centers can be good.
Why Can’t You Buy a Chinchilla from a Pet Store?
There are several issues you need to consider when thinking of where to buy a chinchilla pet from. Issues that may be relevant to your pet store include:
- Your pet store may keep its chinchillas in unsuitable conditions
- Pet store owners and workers may give you unsuitable or even dangerous advice regarding your new pet
- Pet stores may source their chinchillas from wholesalers that keep them in unsuitable conditions
- Because of these factors, the chinchilla or chinchillas you buy from a pet store may be sick
The rest of the guide below highlights these issues, which a surprising number of people are unaware of.
Pet Stores and Animal Mills
Everybody’s familiar with the idea of a puppy mill. Puppy mills are where pet stores get their puppies from, and puppy mills are, generally speaking, bad places. The animals are often kept in unsuitable conditions, for example with too many puppies per cage, not enough access to food and water, or with issues like fleas and gastrointestinal problems that spread like wildfire.
What people are less familiar with is the idea that the other animals in a pet shop are sourced from similar places. Each ‘mill’ or ‘farm’ typically specializes in one kind of animal, meaning puppy mills raise puppies, while other ‘mills’ raise small furry pets like guinea pigs or mice.
These animals may be sold directly to the store, which often happens if the store is a small one; or, they may be sold through a wholesaler. Wholesalers are like mills, except they don’t breed the animals. Some keep thousands upon thousands of animals ready to sell to stores, with only a few people to look after them all.
What Is an Animal Mill?
Animal mills are large-scale operations that run for profit. However, there’s a lot more to the issue than that.
Most chinchilla breeders care deeply about the animals they keep. Unlike breeders of other animals, they form a tight knit community, and most know each other whether through online forums, real life, or meeting at chinchilla shows. But while most have high standards, some don’t, and aren’t part of the community like everyone else.
Besides the breeders themselves, there are also wholesalers. Wholesalers act like middlemen between pet stores and breeders. The breeders can sell their animals either directly to pet shops or to wholesalers, but for the sake of efficiency, big pet store brands typically source all of their animals from wholesalers instead. Wholesalers typically deal in many different kinds of animals, e.g. some deal in small furry animals of all kinds (chinchillas, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, mice, etc.) There have been many news stories over the years of wholesalers that keep animals in awful conditions, some of which are detailed below.
Some pet stores refuse to stock puppies bred at puppy mills, which is a good thing. PetCo, for example, make a point of not selling dogs for profit. However, this guide is about chinchillas, not puppies—and undercover investigation has revealed that these stores still do stock animals, including chinchillas, that were raised in unsuitable or even cruel conditions.
Are Animal Mills Real?
Animal mills are real, and they are as bad as people think they are.
Every once in a while, in the news, there’s an investigation into one or more wholesale animal breeders. In 2010, an exposé by PETA focused on Sun Pet Ltd., an Atlanta-based wholesaler that supplied PetCo and PetSmart locations in the area. Using hidden cameras, they filmed employees abusing the animals in their care: killing hamsters by hitting them against tables, checking their sex by squeezing them hard around the middle, throwing rodents from one box to another, and more. Besides that, the general conditions they were kept in were entirely unsuitable, with cages infrequently cleaned out and containing far too many animals. While you may not like PETA for one reason or another, all of these abuses were caught on film.
Before Sun Pet Ltd., there was U.S. Global Exotics. This was a Texas-based wholesaler operated by a husband-and-wife team, who traded in hundreds of thousands of exotic animals (chinchillas included). The company was officially founded in 2002, and earned millions of dollars per year. In 2009, though, their facility was raided after a months-long investigation which brought mistreatment to light (again by PETA). Animals were found sick, dying or dead, having not been fed or cared for correctly. Others were kept in overcrowded cages with dead pets, the animals fighting each other. Unfortunately, the pair behind the operation—Jasen and Vanessa Shaw—fled the country and now seems to be living in New Zealand. Jasen is still wanted on federal charges in the U.S., and has not yet faced justice.
The problem is what becomes of these wholesale breeders even after the media spotlight turns on them. Punishments are usually negligible—small fines and suspended prison sentences. But even when one wholesaler is taken out of business due to animal abuse, more take their place.
Bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily apply to all pet stores, or your local pet store. Mills are usually local operations which supply local pet stores, be they big name brands or small outfits. As such, whether your pet store is supplied by a good breeder or by a mill depends on where you live.
Besides Animal Mills… What Makes Pet Stores Bad?
It’s also important to note that while they deal in pets, pet stores aren’t necessarily to be relied on for good advice. They may recommend the wrong kinds of food, the wrong living conditions, incorrect handling advice, and more. Besides that, it’s more likely that a chinchilla from a pet store will be sick than one bought directly from an experienced breeder.
Pet Stores Sell Chinchilla-Branded Goods Unsuitable for Chinchillas
While the stories above are interesting, they are anecdotal. One problem with pet stores that can’t be argued with is that they sell things branded for chinchillas that are completely unsuitable for them.
Take this clear plastic exercise ball, for example, sold by Kaytee. You can find it for sale direct from Kaytee, or through pet stores like PetCo. The product details clearly states that it’s for chinchillas, as does the box, and there’s even a picture of a chinchilla on the front:
Despite all that, exercise balls are completely unsuitable for chins. Experienced owners, not just of chinchillas but of other small pets, call them ‘death balls’ and with good reason. Problems with them include:
- Exercise balls have slats to allow air in. Unfortunately, a chinchilla’s toes can break if/when they get caught in them.
- Chinchillas overheat easily enough when they exercise as it is, due to their thick coats. Being put in a plastic ball with reduced airflow makes the problem worse.
- Your chinchilla goes to the toilet as it goes about its day. Does running around in a ball filled with excrement sound fun to you?
- Chinchillas have poor eyesight, and instead rely on their senses of smell and hearing, and touch (through their whiskers). When it’s in an exercise ball, your chinchilla therefore has no idea where it’s going.
- Exercise balls have no brakes, so your chinchilla can’t stop if it’s about to bump into something.
- Chinchillas don’t run, they hop. Exercise balls are even harder to control if the animal inside is hopping rather than walking.
For these reasons, we recommend entirely against exercise balls, but stores still sell them. Here’s another example: a Kaytee cage, again sold at PetCo, that’s mostly plastic inside. It has plastic platforms, plastic ladders between the platforms, and a plastic base. Chinchillas shouldn’t have any plastic in their cages as they gnaw on it, and when they do, they accidentally ingest some each time. If they ingest enough, it forms a blockage and causes gastrointestinal stasis. In basic terms, your chinchilla stops eating and going to the toilet, and dies soon after. It’s one thing for an owner not to know that, but for a pet store to sell products like these is highly suspect.
Pet Stores May Not Keep Chinchillas Properly
But another part of the reason is that stores often keep their chinchillas in unsuitable conditions. On that topic, an owner from Chins-n-Hedgies.com (a forum where chinchilla and hedgehog owners post) told the following story:
I recently went to PetSmart and saw a chin that was in an aquarium, it was super warm (he had a frozen water bottle but I doubt that did much), and was pawing at his mouth non-stop. They weren’t too keen on the idea of having him check out. But yeah, not all are bad, there was another petsmart I was in that had two chins (both male), the cage seemed well ventilated and when I mentioned there were no chew sticks they were given some asap and seemed honestly surprised that there weren’t any.
A glass tank, if you didn’t know, is unsuitable for chinchillas because it holds onto heat. The chinchilla pawing at its mouth may have signified malocclusion, an issue where a chinchilla’s teeth grow overlong, which occurs if it doesn’t get any chew toys. Another commenter added:
I was at Petco today and they had one chin and it was all by itself with no toys or wheel, I felt so bad!
Stories like this abound on the internet, and are worth taking seriously. They apply both to big chain stores and small local stores.
This becomes an ethical issue for experienced owners. They see that the chinchillas are unhappy and are kept in unsuitable cages, so want to ‘rescue’ them and provide a proper home. At the same time, they don’t want to encourage and support the pet store, and they know that once those cages are empty, more chinchillas will be brought in.
As always, this doesn’t apply to every pet store, so yours may be better. But it’s true enough that the idea of pet stores not taking care of their chinchillas properly strikes a chord with many owners.
Your New Chinchilla Might Be Sick
Because pet store pets aren’t kept in the best conditions, and because many have come from animal mills, they are more likely to be sick.
Take, for example, this owner’s story that was posted on Chins-n-Hedgies.com. They say:
Me and my wife consider ourselves to be well educated about chinchilla care. We own 2 chinchillas, both males. Our first chinchilla we got from PetCo, he has no problems at all. Although we suspected he wasn’t very well taken care of. We’ve had him for about a year. Our second chinchilla […] was a spontaneous buy from PetSmart. He was very relaxed, and was comfortable around humans. The first day we brought him home, he started having diarrhea […] he then started developing crust around his eye.
They then describe how they took the chinchilla back to the store. Most pet stores offer returns or to pay for vet’s visits if the animal you bought is sick soon after purchase. Despite being told that the pet was healthy, its condition worsened, so they took it to their own vet—to be told it was “very, very ill.”
There are a few interlinked causes that may have been at play. One is that it may have been bought from a wholesaler, and may have lived in unsuitable conditions prior to arrival at the store. Issues with diet and chew toys can quickly cause health issues. Another cause may have been that the chinchilla was kept in unsuitable conditions at the store itself. It may even have been perfectly healthy—bought by the pet store from a reputable breeder—but subsequently had contact or been kept with a chinchilla that wasn’t.
Why Do Pet Stores Give Bad Advice?
Another problem you might encounter is that the pet store clerks give you bad advice on how to care for your chinchilla. They might tell you to keep your chinchilla in the wrong kind of cage, in the wrong conditions, or in the wrong place. But why might that be? There are a few reasons why you shouldn’t necessarily trust what a pet store clerk tells you:
- Chinchillas are exotic animals. They have care needs that you might not expect which are different to those of other pets.
- Incorrect advice is seen everywhere, pet stores included. Exercise balls are recommended in books and by ‘experts’ even though they’re definitely not safe, so it’s little wonder that staff can give bad advice too.
- Pet store staff may not care about their jobs. That’s not a slight at all against pet store staff specifically, but for some people, jobs are just jobs. Some staff may be less interested in getting every tiny detail right.
It’s therefore wise to take any advice with a pinch of salt. Reading widely is a good start, if you have the time. You’re entirely free to avoid the advice that pet stores give, of course, if you know for a fact that it’s not true; but this is still worth acknowledging.
Where Can I Buy a Pet Chinchilla?
We firmly believe that the best way to get a new pet chinchilla is to adopt one. Adopting is a kind act that avoids all of the problems described above. However, buying from a breeder can be good, too, so long as you do your research first.
Wholesalers vs. Specialist Breeders
There are lots of people who breed chinchillas, and some who have done so for decades. While in the past, most breeders bred their chinchillas for fur, now most do so for the pet trade. Many make their living solely through word-of-mouth, since they’re well-known in the chinchilla-owning community, and have a reputation for breeding healthy and happy chinchillas. While they may have other pets too, they breed chinchillas, not lots of different animals.
You can buy directly from a specialist breeder. Some advertise their chinchillas online, on forums or in Facebook groups. Online groups often have lists of reputable breeders that you can look through, so ask around and you’ll likely find one. It’s possible that you have a breeder or two near you, especially if you live in a city. Buying from a reputable breeder has several advantages:
- Breeders have a reputation to uphold that can be damaged even by one negative review. If you leave a bad review for PetSmart, it will hardly make a difference. But if a breeder sells you a sick chinchilla and gives you bad advice, it could significantly harm their business. They try to avoid doing so.
- Breeders are very experienced and are typically happy to offer advice. Breeders know what they’re doing, so are highly unlikely to give you bad advice. And if you ask, they would probably help you out for a long while after you buy your pet (although, of course, this depends on the individual breeder).
- Established breeders typically have very healthy chinchillas. They have a vested interest in breeding strong chinchillas.
Then, there are wholesalers. You typically can’t buy pets directly from wholesalers. The point of a wholesaler is that a store buys many animals from them all at once, which saves money overall; it’s like how shops and restaurants buy lots of stock, rather than getting inventory one-by-one.
Are All Pet Stores Bad?
Despite everything said above, not all pet stores are created equal. Some are much better than others.
Many pet stores, even big name ones, take in animals as rescues. They then adopt these animals out for no charge as a service to the community. There is no rhyme or reason to which stores do, and which stores don’t. It seems to be that some have an agreement with local shelters while others don’t, so it’s worth ‘shopping around’ to see if any in your area do the same.
Beyond that, some stores and employees do genuinely care about their animals. This becomes obvious when you talk to them. This is something that it’s best for you to judge in person.
If you want to ensure that your chinchilla comes from solid genetic stock, buying directly from a breeder beats buying from a store. That’s because breeders are interested in breeding the best possible chinchillas: whether so they can charge higher prices for their ‘stock’, or because they like to take their chinchillas to shows. They therefore only breed the chins that have the thickest coats and strongest, blockiest bodies. But not every chinchilla they breed will be as healthy or as fluffy, and they tend to sell these to pet stores or wholesalers. Again, that’s not a slight, it’s just good business sense.
Pet Store vs. Adopting
Above all, though, we recommend that you adopt your new chinchilla rather than buy it.
There is no way around there being ‘waste’ in the buying and selling of pets. A breeder who supplies a wholesaler will have some chins that are suitable for selling, and some that aren’t; they can either include the ones that are unsuitable with the order, sell them to scientists for research purposes, or kill them and process their pelts for fur. Once the chinchillas are with the wholesaler, it’s likely that one or two in the order will pass away; the same applies to pet stores, where it’s possible or even likely that the chinchillas will be kept in unsuitable conditions and perhaps some will pass away.
All of this is to say that by buying your chinchilla, whether from a breeder or from a store, you support an industry you may not agree with. The alternative is to adopt your new chinchilla from a rescue, which we recommend.
Adopting isn’t perfect. It’s likely that the chinchilla will be older than you might like, or you may not even know its age at all. It may have an existing health condition or behavioral problems, either or both of which may have been the reason it was given up. You must be prepared to deal with these problems if you are to adopt a chin, but if you want to avoid all of the issues of buying one, it’s the only way. You can either adopt a chinchilla from a shelter, or by taking in a chinchilla directly from somebody.