Chinchillas are great pets, but they aren’t known for extraordinary intelligence or cool tricks. So, can they be tamed or trained at all?
Do you need to tame a chinchilla? You can make a chinchilla trust you, stop it from biting, train it to do tricks, and train it to use a litter box. But you can’t train it to free roam around the house, as this wouldn’t be safe. Taming or training isn’t strictly necessary, but will make you and your pet happier.
The guide below first looks at whether you need to tame a chinchilla, and what exactly that might mean (what is taming—house training, domesticating, or what?) We’ll then look at what you have to do step by step to tame a chinchilla.
Do You Need to Tame a Chinchilla?
There are several definitions of taming. You may think that to ‘tame’ your chinchilla means to stop it being so aggressive; or, you might think it means training it to do all sorts of tricks. Or, you might think it means domesticating the chinchilla e.g. by litter training it.
Well, chinchillas can be trained to do many different things, and all three of these things are possible.
What you don’t need to do is in any way ‘tame’ a ‘wild’ chinchilla. The chinchilla you’re getting wasn’t caught in the wild. All chinchillas in the pet trade were bred from stock that was trapped around a hundred years ago.
Are Chinchillas Aggressive?
This is a common misconception new owners make. They try to handle their pets, but their pets bite back, and get written off as ‘aggressive’. That’s not what’s really happening.
Chinchillas have very placid, gentle natures. They’re prey animals in the wild, but even beyond that, they’re sweet animals that will tolerate a lot before getting mad. If your chinchilla bit you, that’s because it felt defensive, not aggressive. There are many reasons your chinchilla might feel defensive:
- You’re approaching it when it’s in the corner of its cage
- You’re handling it too frequently
- You’re accidentally or purposefully too loud or too energetic
When chinchillas bite, it’s because they feel threatened. But by changing your behavior, and by teaching your chinchilla to trust you, you can stop it biting and being aggressive.
Can You Train a Chinchilla to Do Tricks?
Chinchillas can learn basic tricks and commands, so long as you know how to train them. The trick to teaching tricks is to use treats, and to be persistent. Owners report that their chinchillas can learn:
- Come on command
- Get back in the cage on command
- Sit, roll onto their backs or beg
Not all chins take equally well to learning tricks. But you can at least try.
Can You Let a Chinchilla Free Roam (Domesticated)?
While living outside of a cage is objectively better than living inside one, in the context of owning a chinchilla, things aren’t so clear cut. That’s because your chinchilla’s health and welfare could be compromised by free roaming.
That doesn’t stop many owners keeping their chinchillas this way. But there are several issues with this approach. First is that your chinchilla will be much more likely to escape, and catching an escaped chinchilla isn’t always easy. If your chin gets outside, it’s at the mercy of the elements: summer heat, rain and snow, and predators too.
Your chinchilla is also at risk at home. You could accidentally stand on it or sit on it, or it could get somewhere it shouldn’t, like the crawl space. So, while we objectively agree that keeping animals free is better than in cages, if you’re going to have a pet chinchilla then it’s the only way.
Can You Litter Train a Chinchilla?
Litter training a chinchilla is surprisingly easy. That’s because most chinchillas pick a corner to urinate in, and only urinate there. They learned to do this in the wild, so that they wouldn’t get their fur wet when they’re hiding in burrows or rock crevices.
As such, all you have to do to litter train your chinchilla is put a litter tray in the corner of its cage. This should be a litter tray that’s suitable for a chinchilla cage, of course—it shouldn’t be the size of one intended for other pets, as this would be far too big for a chin cage.
To be clear, what you can’t do is litter train a chinchilla so that it can free roam around the house.
How to Tame a Chinchilla
This section will look at every aspect of ‘taming’ a chinchilla. It assumes that you are starting from a blank slate, with a chinchilla that you’ve only just bought. It will cover the very beginning, which is getting your chinchilla to trust you, progressing towards understanding its body language and handling it. Then, we will move on to addressing more ‘advanced’ forms of taming, like training your chinchilla with treats.
1) Spend Time Near Your Chinchilla’s Cage
Before you can handle your chinchilla, you have to get it used to you. Imagine if you lived with a sixty foot tall mythical beast: would you want it to pick you up before it even said hello? Or would you want to get to know it first, understand its intentions (or at least that its intentions aren’t to eat you), and spend time with it on your own terms?
As such, spend time near your chinchilla’s cage first without doing or saying a thing. The idea is to get your pet used to your basic presence. This can take a few days before your chinchila is comfortable sitting out in the open (within its cage) with you nearby.
Once your chin recognizes you’re there, but doesn’t get frightened, you can progress to talking to it in a calm and gentle manner. Chinchillas navigate the world with their hearing, which is better than their sight. This gets your pet used to another aspect of you.
You can then attempt to handle your chinchilla. Let it out for play time and put your hands on the ground next to it. To entice it, place a treat in your open palm. Once your chin is comfortable sitting on your hand, you can lift it and handle it—but be gentle, as all chinchillas are delicate.
2) Treat Your Chinchilla with Kindness
Your chinchilla is not an object. It’s not a vegetable or a mineral, it’s a living animal, and living animals have thoughts and feelings. Those feelings may not be as complex or as clearly expressed as ours, but chinchillas can feel frightened or threatened. They can also enjoy spending time around you, if you’re kind.
Part of this is learning to respect your chinchilla’s boundaries. If your chinchilla clearly doesn’t want you to handle it, you must respect that. Doing so would only make it dislike you, if not bite you.
- Chinchillas stand up when they feel threatened. This behavior makes the chinchilla look bigger, to scare off other chins or predators.
- Chinchillas hold their ears back when they’re sleepy. This is probably because chinchillas alternate between sleepig and foraging; foraging chinchillas listen out for threats, while sleeping chinchillas need their rest.
- Chinchillas make barking noises when they’re scared. These barks are meant to alert other chinchillas to the presence of danger, but even chinchillas living on their own bark if they’re afraid.
If your chin does want to spend time with you, it will popcorn when it sees you. That means jumping up and down and running around excitedly. It will also show, in the most basic way, that it wants to come towards you rather than hide from you.
3) Don’t Hit or Scold Your Chinchilla
This is a similar point to the previous one, but it’s worth its own section.
Training or taming is equal parts encouraging good behaviors and discouraging bad behaviors. You can encourage good behaviors, as we’ll get to in a moment, by using treats. And most people discourage bad behaviors through hitting, blowing in the chinchilla’s face, making a loud noise, or something similar. This isn’t just pointless, it’s actively bad. It’s easiest to learn why from an example.
Say your chinchilla likes to bite. It’s skittish, it’s nervous, and it doesn’t like handling. Any time you pick it up, it bites you. Some owners think that the best way to discourage this is to blow in the chinchilla’s face.
It always pays dividends to put yourself in your chinchilla’s shoes. What do you think your chinchilla thinks when this happens? Whether it works or not, this makes your chinchilla nervous. It knows that when it’s picked up, it’s hit, hurt or ‘attacked’ somehow. In that sense, it makes your chin more nervous and more likely to bite the next time you pick it up.
Moreover, do you think chinchillas are advanced enough to directly understand cause and effect? Very few animals, even more complex animals, can. So if scolding is effective, it only becomes effective because your chinchilla is afraid of you. That’s no way to keep a pet.
4) Train it With Treats
If you want to train your chinchilla to do anything, easily the best way is to use treats.
Take training your chinchilla to come to you, for example. When you’re first getting it used to you, you can entice it closer with treats. It eventually learns that you can be trusted, treat or no, but snacks give you an initial ‘in’ with your pet. Other brief examples include:
- Holding the treat above your chinchilla’s head. This will make the chinchilla move back onto its hind legs and reach up, as if it’s begging.
- Holding the treat in front of your chinchilla’s face and lowering it. This will make the chinchilla lower itself to the ground, as if it’s lying down.
- Holding the treat above something you want your chinchilla to stand on, or holding it somewhere you want your pet to go. This could get your chinchilla back into its cage.
If you train your chinchilla this way, it won’t lie down/beg when you say a certain word. But it can learn to make the movement even in the absence of the treat, just by you holding your fingers and moving your hand a certain way.