Chinchillas need hides, and lots of people use terracotta plant pots: they’re attractive and solid in construction. But are they safe? Will terracotta make your chinchilla sick?
Is terracotta safe for chinchillas? It’s safe so long as your chinchilla doesn’t chew it. It’s difficult to digest, and can break off into sharp chunks. But it’s rare to see a chinchilla gnaw on terracotta so this isn’t a common problem. Many owners use terracotta plant pots as hides without issue. If you do, use an unglazed, unpainted and undyed terracotta.
The guide below is a short one. It covers each important point, from what terracotta is to what makes it safe or unsafe. If you do plan on using it, we’ve also included guidelines to make sure you get the right kind of terracotta, too.
Is Terracotta Safe for Chinchillas?
Terracotta is reasonably safe for chinchillas, so long as it’s clean and untreated.
The main issue with terracotta is that some chinchillas chew it. That isn’t a problem for your chinchilla’s teeth, as terracotta is brittle enough that it will come apart before it damages them. The problem is that it can be broken down until it’s fine, even powdery in consistency. You don’t want your chinchilla to accidentally eat terracotta because it’s not easily digestible.
Despite that, many owners safely use terracotta in their chinchillas’ cages. Most owners who use it report that their chinchillas haven’t ever tried to gnaw on it, because while it won’t break their teeth, it’s harder than what chinchillas typically like to chew. This could also be due to the provision of suitable chew toys like apple wood sticks.
What Is Terracotta?
Terracotta is clay that’s been formed and dried. Once it’s dried in the sun, it’s then placed in a kiln or a similar construction. It then has be ‘fired’ at incredible temperatures: the typical heat used is 1000 degrees Celsius, or 1830 degrees Fahrenheit. This gets rid of any moisture in the clay leaving it rigid in whatever shape it was formed into. Because it’s made of nothing but clay, terracotta is one of the most ancient materials used in building and sculpture that’s still in use. There are records of it dating back to perhaps 3000BC.
What makes terracotta unique is that it’s fired without a glaze. This means it isn’t shiny or smooth, unless it was treated with something after it was made. The name comes from Italian and means ‘baked earth’, which is literally what it is!
The point of terracotta is that it contains nothing but clay. It hasn’t had any glaze added to it, or anything added to it to change its color during firing. It’s pure clay, which is what makes it suitable for chinchillas. Glazes, paints and dyes mean any material is unsuitable.
The most relevant applications of terracotta for us are as tiles and as plant pots. Plant pots tipped upside down make excellent hides for chinchillas, and perches too. You can also use them (almost) as intended and fill them with hay, as a kind of hay rack. Flat terracotta tiles could also be used as cooling slabs, but they aren’t as effective as other materials like marble.
Do Chinchillas Chew Terracotta?
It’s chewing terracotta that is the issue here.
Some chinchillas chew terracotta, but most don’t. Chinchillas need to gnaw on things to keep their teeth trimmed, so they’re going to gnaw on something, no matter what you do. You want it to be something suitable like wood that’s safe to ingest.
Terracotta isn’t safe to ingest because:
- It can break down into sharp shards
- It can be broken down further into powder
- It cannot be easily digested in the gut
As stated above, most chinchillas don’t chew on terracotta, especially if they already have chew toys. That’s likely because good owners provide their chinchillas with other things to chew, like sticks. But if you do notice that your chinchilla chews on its terracotta cage furnishings to the point that they break down, you should remove them and replace them with things made of wood.
Safe vs. Unsafe Terracotta for a Chinchilla Cage
If you are planning to include terracotta hides or perches in your chinchilla’s cage, you should do so safely. On top of the chewing issue, there are also many kinds of terracotta you shouldn’t put in your pet’s cage. The rest of this guide explores these distinctions.
Is Terracotta Digestible?
Terracotta is made out of clay. Clay is digestible, although it’s not as easy to digest as other things. This means it’s not as dangerous as something like plastic, but it’s slightly more dangerous than something like wood.
The problem is that whenever chinchillas chew on things, they accidentally eat some of whatever they’re chewing. That’s why wooden sticks make the best chew toys, because wood is perfectly safe for chinchillas to digest. But if the material can’t be broken down in your pet’s gut, it will sit there and form a blockage known as an ileus. This can cause ‘gastrointestinal stasis‘, where the gut stops digesting, and your chinchilla stops eating and going to the toilet.
Terracotta could hypothetically cause this issue if enough of it were digested. However, there have been no reports of this happening that are known to the author. It’s therefore best to be wary, but there’s no need to assume that a chinchilla with terracotta in its cage will immediately get sick and die.
Plus, this is somewhat prevented because terracotta is tough to break down. It’s therefore unlikely that your chinchilla could ingest enough in one sitting to cause this issue.
Does Terracotta Contain Lead?
This is a more serious problem than the one above. Some kinds of terracotta can contain toxic elements like lead or arsenic. Lead is naturally occurring, so can be found in raw clay taken from the ground. Arsenic isn’t naturally found there, but can be present in trace elements because of pollution.
Because terracotta pots and tiles aren’t used in applications where they could poison you, this isn’t an issue. But if you’re putting terracotta in your chinchilla’s cage, it could be. That’s why you should buy terracotta from a manufacturer that states their product is lead free. You can also test the pot with lead testing kits or strips.
Dyed or Painted vs. Untreated Terracotta
Chinchillas shouldn’t be given cage furnishings that have dyes or paints on them. When these are ingested, they may be poisonous. This applies whether the cage accessory is made of terracotta or not.
This is especially common with plant pots that are commonly painted in fun colors. You want terracotta that’s a deep brown or rusty red color. This hasn’t been treated or painted.
You also don’t want plant pots that are shiny. All terracotta is unglazed, but many stores sell glazed pots alongside true terracotta ones. Glaze contains things like aluminum, flux and silica, and while these may or may not be harmful, it’s best to take the guesswork out of things and only give your chinchilla cage accessories you know won’t hurt it and necessitate a vet visit.
New vs. Old Terracotta
One major issue that you have to be aware of is that used terracotta may not be suitable. You want to use untreated terracotta in your pet’s cage, and in its unchanged form, terracotta is highly porous. This means that water, fertilizer, fungus and bacteria can leach into it. It’s best not to introduce these things into your chinchilla’s cage, and they will still be present inside the terracotta itself even if it’s washed.
What’s better is to use a new terracotta pot. You can find these for $1 or $2 at general stores or hardware stores. And because they last a long time, you won’t be left out of pocket.
Where to Put Terracotta in a Chinchilla Cage
So, you’ve picked out the right kind of terracotta. But where should you put it in your chinchilla’s cage?
It isn’t safe to put it anywhere you like. Terracotta is heavy, and a falling terracotta pot could easily kill a chinchilla. As such, you shouldn’t place it on any of the platforms in your chinchilla’s cage.
It’s also best not to balance it on anything. Say, for example, you place the pot upside down on two bricks spaced apart. This would leave a door of sorts for your chinchilla to get through. But it could fall and leave your pet trapped inside, or topple over and hurt it. So if you do use terracotta, place it directly on the floor of the cage, not balanced on or leaning on anything. You also shouldn’t place the pot on its side. If it’s round, as they typically are, it could roll around. This could injure your chinchilla’s feet.
This begs the question: how can you use a terracotta pot, then? The best way is to buy a terracotta hide specifically made for small pets. If you can’t find one. Cut a large hole in the side of the pot that your chinchilla can get in and out of. Sand down the edges before putting it into use.