Respiratory Infection in Chinchillas: Causes/Symptoms/Cure

If your chinchilla has a cold or is sneezing, you might not think it’s a major health problem. But responsible owners know how bad they can get…

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!

If your chinchilla has a cold or is sneezing, you might not think it’s a major health problem. But responsible owners know how bad they can get…

Can chinchillas get colds or a respiratory infection? They can, when bacteria/a virus enters the nose and throat. A lower respiratory infection is where they enter the lungs. Symptoms include watery eyes and runny nose, anorexia (not eating), sneezing and difficulty breathing. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. Chest infections can be fatal.

But there’s far more than just that to learn. There are different kinds of respiratory infection (upper and lower), plus pneumonia to consider. There are all sorts of symptoms, and varied ways to help a chinchilla with a chest infection. The guide below explains all this, and more.

Respiratory Infection in Chinchillas

Respiratory infection is a condition that can affect chinchillas. It’s a cough, cold or flu that is initially caught from the environment. It can also be passed from one chinchilla to another.

What Is a Respiratory Infection?

respiratory system
The chinchilla’s respiratory tract is similar to ours.

In the simplest sense, a respiratory infection is where bacteria or a virus infect an animal’s throat and lungs (its respiratory tract). The severity of this contagious health issue ranges from a light sniffle to a life-threatening disease. Coughs, colds, flu and chest infections all fall under this definition and pneumonia is a related issue.

If you notice that your chinchilla has any kind of respiratory infection, you should therefore take it to the vet. This is especially so as chinchillas are good at hiding symptoms of ill health, so your pet may be in worse shape than you realize.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection in Chinchillas

The respiratory tract is divided by scientists into two parts: the upper and lower respiratory tracts. The upper tract includes the nose and nasal passages, the sinuses, the pharynx (the part of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity), and the part of the larynx that’s above the vocal cords.

The lower respiratory tract is everything below this. That’s the rest of the larynx, the trachea, and the lungs.

An upper respiratory tract infection is where the virus or bacteria has only spread to the nose and the back of the throat. It’s possible for a chinchilla to experience an infection like this. While your pet would benefit from a vet’s visit and appropriate care, these infections aren’t life-threatening.

Can Chinchillas Get Chest Infections?

A chest infection is where the upper respiratory tract infection passes past the larynx and into the lungs. This is a chest infection, and it’s far more serious. It’s when the infection gets here that pneumonia can occur. But a regular chinchilla cold isn’t likely to get this bad.

What Is Pneumonia in Chinchillas?

Pneumonia isn’t the same thing as a respiratory infection, but the two go hand in hand.

Pneumonia is a condition where the lining of the lungs becomes irritated. This can be due to a chest infection. Irritation and infection can both cause swelling, which isn’t a major problem on, say, the skin—but it is in the lungs. The swelling means there’s much less room for air in the lungs.

When the fluid of the infection is combined with this swelling, it can be very difficult for your chinchilla to breathe. Pneumonia is therefore particularly dangerous and if the infection progresses to this point, your pet will pass away without a vet’s care. You can, though, prevent a chest infection from getting to this point.

Why Is My Chinchilla Breathing Hard?

The issue could be a respiratory infection, but it could be something else. You can check for symptoms using the sections below. Other causes of breathing problems in chinchillas include:

  • Heart failure
  • Overexertion and overexercise
  • Stress or fear

But for a full diagnosis, you will need to talk to a vet.

What Causes Respiratory Infections in Chinchillas?

Cleaning supplies for a chinchilla cage.
Chinchillas shouldn’t be kept in humid conditions.

Respiratory infections are caused by viruses and bacteria. Which is to blame is an important question to answer, as viruses aren’t treated in the same way as bacteria.

But besides this simplistic answer, there are many things that make respiratory infections more likely. These are:

  1. Crowded conditions. Bugs of all kinds spread more quickly in cramped cages and close quarters.
  2. Damp bedding or fleece. Bacteria multiply quicker if they have access to water.
  3. Soiled bedding or fleece. Poop introduces bacteria to the environment, as every animals’ guts are full of bacteria.
  4. Excess humidity in the air. This makes it easier for the bacteria to transfer from the dirty bedding and into the chinchilla’s lungs.
  5. Existing infections. Other kinds of infections like eye infections or wound infections can be spread through the environment.
  6. Young age. The younger a chinchilla is, the more susceptible it is to contagious bugs of any kind.
  7. Stress. Stress weakens the immune system, making it easier for an infection to take hold.
  8. Time. A light infection will gradually become a serious one if the conditions that caused it are not corrected (damp bedding, etc.)

So: poor husbandry can make respiratory infection more likely. But even healthy chinchillas kept in optimal conditions can catch them. That’s why you have to be on the lookout for the symptoms described below.

Symptoms of Respiratory Disease in Chinchillas

Even an upper respiratory infection has obvious symptoms. The most obvious will be:

  1. Chinchilla sneezing and wiping nose. Sneezing is the body’s attempt to open up the blocked airways of the nose, to aid breathing. Wiping the nose is how your chinchilla deals with its excess mucus.
  2. Chinchilla coughing. As the infection reaches the back of the mouth and the top of the throat, it can cause coughing. A wetter cough indicates that the infection has spread further down (a chest infection).
  3. Watery eyes.
  4. Not eating and drinking. This is a general sign of ill health, so doesn’t only relate to colds and pneumonia; but it will occur.

Symptoms of Chest Infection in Chinchillas

Image courtesy Ph!l!s, CC by 2.0.

Lower respiratory infection is when the infection reaches down the throat, and potentially into the lungs. The lungs become filled with fluid that’s difficult to clear. Some chest infections are mild, while others are severe and can be life threatening for your pet.

The key symptom is that your chinchilla can’t breathe properly. It will wheeze in a way you can hear. That’s because the fluid in the lungs takes up lots of the available space that otherwise would be filled with air. That means less air enters the lung per breath, so less oxygen from the air can get into the bloodstream.

Lower respiratory infections are painful and draining, too. These symptoms aren’t immediately obvious, but your chinchilla may become lethargic. This is where it’s less active than usual, not moving even when it has to or might want to.

Symptoms of Pneumonia in Chinchillas

The most obvious and worrying sign of pneumonia is difficulty breathing. This occurs because mucus and fluid fills the lungs, and the lungs become irritated. This irritation causes swelling, further reducing the volume of air the lungs can hold. This swelling is the same issue as asthma.

You can both see and hear that your chinchilla is short of breath. You’ll definitely notice your chinchilla wheezing at this point.

If you suspect your chinchilla has a respiratory infection of any kind, talk to a vet. Diagnosing respiratory infection is their job (among other things). The vet will first examine your chinchilla to look for the most obvious signs like a runny nose or difficulty breathing. They will also take swabs from your pet’s nose and perhaps its throat to identify the bacteria/virus causing the issue.

Even if you’re wrong and your chinchilla is perfectly healthy, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and a checkup should only cost $30-50.

How to Treat Respiratory Disease in Chinchillas

Treatment depends on the precise issue. One antibiotic might not work on a particular kind of bacteria, but on another; and no antibiotic works on viruses. As such, the swabs the vet took will tell them how to treat the condition.

1) Quarantine the Chinchilla If Necessary

If you have a pair or group of chinchillas, you should separate the sick one from the rest as soon as possible. This will stop the others from getting sick.

This works both ways, too. You may find that one gets the others sick, and then starts to recover. But because it’s surrounded by sick chinchillas, its condition can come back and/or get worse. To enforce quarantine:

  1. Keep your chinchilla in another cage, preferably in another room
  2. Wash your hands after handling your sick chinchilla (you should always wash your hands after handling anyway)
  3. Don’t allow playtime in the same place

It is possible to keep the chinchilla in the same room as the others during this time. This won’t be a perfect quarantine, as there will be a slight chance that it could get the others sick. But if the sick chinchilla and its partner will be very stressed by separating, this would be bad for their health, too. So, compromise might be necessary here.

2) Gentle Care & Assistance

When a person has a respiratory infection, they’re tended to by their parent or partner. You should help your chinchilla in the same way during this time. You should:

  • Occasionally clean your chinchilla’s nose with warm water
  • Use a damp cloth to soak up and clean away any crusty bits around your chinchilla’s eyes
  • Allow your chinchilla to rest throughout the day (rather than having it run around a play pen, or handling it

Rest gives the body a chance to recuperate and focus its efforts on fighting the infection. The body has to stay at a high temperature to kill as many bacteria/viruses as possible, and this requires lots of caloric energy. It’s best if this energy is saved for this purpose. So, treat your pet like you would treat a very sick relative, e.g. a grandparent.

3) Hand Feed Your Chinchilla

Hand feeding a chinchilla Critical Care

You may also need to hand-feed your chinchilla Critical Care. Critical Care is a kind of hay-based feeding formula that you can feed to a chinchilla if it can’t or won’t eat. You feed it through a syringe. Ideally you should only feed it under a vet’s supervision, but this may not be practical, so follow the advice you get with the package.

This may be necessary because antibiotics kill the appetite, as does infection. This ‘double whammy’ means that most chinchillas with respiratory infections stop eating entirely. As stated above, the body needs lots of energy, so a sick chinchilla can quickly lose weight. Critical Care is designed to replace as much of this used energy as possible.

One caveat is that handling your pet at this time may be too stressful for it. So, you may need to let your chinchilla stay in its cage while you hand-feed it.

4) Clean Your Chinchilla’s Cage

A dirty cage makes respiratory infection worse, and makes it spread more easily. As such, you should clean your chinchilla’s cage as soon as possible. An immediate deep clean coupled with regular spot cleaning will a) help your chinchillas recover from respiratory infection, and b) prevent it recurring. Deep clean using the following basic steps (or see the link above for a more in-depth guide):

  1. Take your chinchilla from its cage and put it somewhere safe. In a dry bathtub or in a playpen is fine, so long as your chinchilla isn’t overexerting itself.
  2. Take everything from the cage: bedding soiled or not, and any cage accessories. Clean these thoroughly with soap, water and an antibacterial spray.
  3. Take bleach and wipe down the inside and outside of the cage. This will kill any lingering bacteria.
  4. Once the cage accessories are dry, replace them in the cage, along with fresh bedding.
  5. Introduce your chinchilla to its fresh new enclosure.

Spot cleaning is where you clean your chinchilla’s cage every day. This means replacing the small amounts of soiled bedding with fresh, sweeping up any poop, and getting rid of any hay on the floor of the cage. Spot clean frequently to prevent bacteria building up again.

5) Antibiotics For a Chinchilla

Chinchilla antibiotics kill bacteria, but don’t harm your pet. They are administered in ‘courses’, which means a certain amount over a period of time. You must help your pet complete the entire course, otherwise it’s likely that the infection will come back.

This is done via syringe: not the spiky kind, but the kind that sucks up fluid and you squeeze into your pet’s mouth. Follow your vet’s guidelines on how to do this. Your vet can also administer antibiotics as a jab (subcutaneous injection). Baytril (enrofloxacin) is common, as is Doxycycline. Certain antibiotics work better on certain kinds of bacteria, so trust your vet’s judgment in the matter.

Bear in mind that antibiotics don’t work on viruses. The vet will discover whether a virus or a kind of bacteria is causing the respiratory infection, and prescribe antibiotics only if it’s bacteria. There’s no use asking for them if the vet has definitively diagnosed the issue as a viral one, as many of these infections are.

How Do You Treat Chinchilla Pneumonia?

Pneumonia can go away with regular antibiotic treatment. That’s because it’s the bacteria that are causing much of the swelling. As the bacteria are killed, so too does the swelling go down. If antibiotics are not an option, then the only treatment is rest.

With proper care, your chinchilla stands a better chance of recovering from any respiratory infection. But the deeper the infection has reached, the harder it will be to get rid of. If you are ever unsure about anything, contact your vet.

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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!