Chinchillas, like all social animals, display body language. You can assess this body language to figure out whether your chinchilla is stressed/nervous or not.
Is my chinchilla stressed? Repetitive behaviors are a giveaway: excessive fur chewing, bar chewing, backflipping and cage scratching. Your chinchilla may also vocalize repeatedly or hide, not moving. If you’re not sure whether your chinchilla is stressed or ill, take it to a vet.
These signs of chinchilla stress will disappear when you correct whatever’s causing them. The guide below will first detail each sign in turn, so that you can recognize each of them should they occur. Then, you can learn how to help a stressed chinchilla.
How Do You Tell If a Chinchilla Is Stressed?
The most obvious markers of stress in a chinchilla, or any caged animal, are repetitive movements. These are known as stereotypies. The term refers to ‘stereotypical’ movements which the animal repeats again and again, even if they cause it pain or more stress. They have no explanation but severe stress and unhappiness.
You can observe these stereotypical movements in different pets. Rodents and chinchillas are included, but so are many more kinds of household pets kept in unhappy conditions. You can even see these behaviors in zoos which don’t properly provide for their animals.
Each of the signs below is something repetitive that the chinchilla might do. In some cases, the activity causes significant harm, but the chinchilla won’t stop despite that. It will only stop once you fix whatever is making your chinchilla unhappy.
1) Chewing Fur (Excessive Barbering)
The most common stereotypy is the chewing of fur. When a chinchilla chews its own fur or that of its cage mate, this is known as barbering. It’s a way of keeping the fur clean, non-greasy, and free of parasites. This is normal behavior that reinforces social bonds.
However, excessive barbering is also possible. This is where the chinchilla chews its own fur, or that of its cage-mate, until it causes bald patches. If it carries on, it can even cause open wounds. These patches will usually occur on the subordinate chinchilla of your pair or group, because the dominant chinchillas will barber its fur repeatedly.
This has been studied by scientists because people keep chinchillas as farmed animals. The farmers want the chinchillas’ fur, so excessive barbering directly affects their profits.
As such, ways of stopping excessive barbering have been examined. According to the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications & Research, this is the most common form of repetitive behavior reported. The best fix is to keep the chinchilla in a roomy cage with lots to do, such as:
- Other things to chew on
- Exercise saucers
- Small toys
- Time outside the cage, e.g. in a pen
If your chinchillas chew on their own or each others’ fur too much, these fixes may entirely solve the problem. But if the biting has caused an open wound, then you should treat that correctly too (cleaning it with antiseptic and monitoring it to check it doesn’t become infected).
2) Bar Chewing
Perhaps the next most common sign of a stressed chinchilla is bar chewing. This is exactly what it sounds like: it refers to how a chinchilla will chew the bars of its cage if it’s stressed or depressed. This sign in particular is caused by your chinchilla not having anything to chew on.
If your chinchilla doesn’t have anything to grind its teeth on, like appropriate food, twigs or toys, they will therefore grow too long.
This can cause injury and make your pet feel stressed. As a rule, your pet will be distressed any time that it can’t express a natural behavior like chewing. So, when you don’t give your chinchilla anything to chew on, it will chew on the bars of its cage.
Bar chewing is bad for your pet. It will make its teeth grow the wrong way until it has difficulty eating. You can spot this issue easily because the teeth are supposed to point straight down. If the top and bottom teeth don’t align, your pet can’t use its teeth properly.
Bar chewing can also cause tooth and gum damage.
When an animal is kept in a small, confined cage, it will struggle to move around enough. It feels stressed because it’s confined, like you would if you had to stay in a small room all the time. In some cases, the cage may be too small for it to even stretch its legs, which is when the stress is the worst.
Either way, if your chinchilla doesn’t get enough exercise, you may notice it backflipping. Some owners think that this is cute or funny, and if your chinchilla backflips because it’s excited (e.g. when it’s scampering around the room) then it’s not an issue.
But if your chinchilla backflips in its cage, this isn’t funny or cute. It’s a sign that your chinchilla is stressed from a lack of exercise. If you have owned chinchillas for a long time, you may disagree (as many owners do). But backflipping is a recognized form of stereotypy seen in many species, not just chinchillas.
There’s no downside to trying an experiment if you disagree. Try taking your chinchilla from its enclosure more often, and if possible, offering your chinchilla a bigger cage with more enrichment. If your chinchilla stops doing backflips, then it was a stereotypy which signified a lack of enrichment and exercise.
But if you provide for your pet in every way possible, then this behavior isn’t an issue.
4) Cage Scratching
Cage scratching is another common stereotypy observed in captive animals. It’s especially seen in animals which dig their own burrows, and are kept in conditions where they don’t have any substrate.
Abnormal cage scratching is typified by:
- Repetitive scratching of the cage floor without purpose
- Scratching at the floor even if there is no substrate
You can normally fix cage scratching by providing substrate, providing more substrate, or providing more appropriate substrate. Kiln dried pine shavings or Aspen are good choices.
5) Vocalizing (Barking and Whistling)
Chinchillas are communicative and social animals. They live in herds in the wild of up to a hundred individuals. When animals are social in such a way, evolution will help them develop ways of communication.
As such, chinchillas can make lots of different kinds of noises. You will be familiar with some, like barking and whistling. Others you will only rarely or never hear, like screaming, which indicates severe distress.
When a chinchilla is excessively stressed, it may repeatedly vocalize by barking and whistling. The chinchilla does so because there is something in its environment is making it stressed or unhappy, like:
- Loud and shocking noises
- Something that it thinks is a predator (e.g. another household pet)
Your chinchilla will only stop vocalizing excessively when the stressor is removed.
Chinchillas hide when they’re scared, like any animal. Wild chinchillas will hide in rock crevices and pre-made mammal burrows, and your chin needs to be able to display this behavior in captivity. That’s why your cage should have somewhere that your chinchilla can hide. Otherwise, it will get stressed.
But if your chinchilla is constantly hiding, that’s a bad sign too. This suggests that there’s something nearby that’s consistently scaring your chinchilla. As in the example above, the issue could be something like loud noises, or other household pets.
If your chinchilla hides all the time, you should consider moving your pet’s enclosure somewhere else. This is a difficult balance to get right, because chinchillas enjoy having things happen nearby that they can see, which relieves boredom. But they also don’t like too much action, which they find stressful.
7) Drinking Too Much/Not Drinking Enough
A change in your chinchilla’s water consumption can be a sign that something is wrong. As stress causes chinchillas to hide, your pet may not get enough water. It may be too frightened to sit in the open, drinking from its water bottle.
Alternatively, your chinchilla may start drinking more than it used to. This may be a repetitive behavior, like those described above. It could also be related to your pet’s health (e.g. it may have diabetes).
Whatever the case, if your chinchilla changes its drinking habits, it may be a bad sign. Consult with a vet to figure out what might have gone wrong.
What Makes a Chinchilla Stressed?
The precise cause of your chinchilla’s stress is difficult to determine. They are naturally skittish animals, so chinchillas can be stressed or frightened by many things. Here’s a brief list of some of the more common causes of stress in chinchillas:
- Cage is too small. No animal likes being cooped up in a tiny space.
- No other chinchillas to socialize with. Chinchillas naturally form herds. Keeping chinchillas alone makes them stressed and depressed.
- Too many chinchillas in a small space. A small space means more fighting, and more stress.
- Too many loud noises or bright lights nearby. Chinchillas keep watch on their surroundings. Too many shocking things can stress them.
- Other household pets. Other pets, particularly large ones, can be mistaken for predators.
- Sickness. Stress is a symptom of any health condition that your chinchilla might experience.
- Previous neglect or abuse. If a chinchilla grew up in a stressful environment, it will be more skittish than normal in adulthood.
- Natural disposition to stress. Some animals are simply more prone to being stressed than others.
Identifying the cause of stress is key.
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What How to Help a Stressed Chinchilla
The way in which you help your pet depends on what the issue is. There are many causes of stress in chinchillas, and any one (or a combination of them) may be affecting your pet. As such, you must identify the issue first.
Doing this is simple. First, you must observe your pet for a period of time. Do this from across the room so that you don’t disturb your pet too much. See if it reacts to loud noises, for example; or whether it can’t get enough exercise in its cramped cage.
Buy Another Chinchilla
If your chinchilla lives alone, you should buy another to keep it company. Chinchillas are natural herd animals, living in herds of up to a hundred animals. Many of the chinchilla’s natural behaviors relate to its being a social animal (e.g. collective foraging for food, alarm calls, and so on).
As such, it’s vital to your pet’s health that it doesn’t live alone. Buy another from a breeder or a pet store. Keep it quarantined for a while to prevent it passing on parasites or infections. Then, introduce it to your existing pet using the split cage method.
But that may not be what’s ultimately causing your pet’s stress. Here are a few ideas that could fix the problem.
Buy a Bigger Cage
Animals are born to be free. Living in a cage will never be as good as living wild for a chinchilla. But there is nevertheless a large difference between the quality of life your pet will have in a small cage, versus a large cage.
The recommended size of the cage varies depending on opinion. Some owners recommend a 3x2x2ft (6 square feet) cage for a solitary chinchilla. However, chinchillas shouldn’t be kept alone. A 10 square foot cage (e.g. 5x2x2ft) is ideal for a pair of chinchillas. Other owners say that 2 square foot per chinchilla, when chinchillas are housed together, is enough.
Whatever the case, buying a bigger cage may be the answer.
Move Your Chinchilla’s Cage
Chinchillas are naturally skittish. In the wild, they are constantly on the lookout for predators. This helps them avoid attacks.
In captivity, chinchillas still have the same urge to scan for predators and threats. Your pet doesn’t understand that no predators can attack it when it’s securely in its enclosure. As such, things can still scare it, such as large, looming shadows from overhead, bright lights and loud noises, and other household pets you might have.
If your chinchilla constantly reacts with stress to things around it, you should consider moving its cage somewhere else. This shouldn’t pose too many difficulties, because:
- Chinchillas are happy at average home temperatures (between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Chinchillas don’t need direct sunlight, although you can’t keep them in complete darkness
- There will be certain rooms in your home that are quieter than others
If you have other pets, move your chinchilla’s cage to a place that the other pet’s aren’t allowed or physically can’t go to.
Talk to a Vet
If you can’t figure out what the problem is, you must take your pet to the vet. They will ask you a series of questions, the purpose of which is to figure out what the likely issue is. Answer honestly, and they may help you determine the issue. They will likely suggest some of the fixes above, but may identify a cause you’ve previously missed.
Also, if the problem is that your chinchilla is sick, then the vet can help your pet get better. While online guides like this one are a good starting point, and help you build your knowledge of your pet, they cannot replace the advice of an experienced veterinarian.