Chinchilla nutrition is the first thing you should learn about if you get one. Chins need the precise right kind of diet, otherwise they could get sick. And this diet might not be what you think…
What do chinchillas eat? The chinchilla diet should almost solely be hay. Some of the hay should be fresh, while some should be pellets. Chinchilla dietary needs comprise 16-21.6% crude protein, 2.5-4% crude fat, and 15-23% crude fiber, which can all be found in hay. Chinchillas self-regulate food intake, so you can offer them unlimited hay. Occasional snacks are fine, but do not offer your pet human foods, processed or not.
This may not seem like a varied diet, but your chinchilla will thrive on it. If you know what you’re doing, you can give your pet a diet better than it would find in the wild. To find out how, read our comprehensive guide below.
What Should Chinchillas Eat?
All pets should be fed a diet that is similar to what they would eat in the wild. This ensures their health and happiness. This means you should feed your pet chinchilla hay (dried grass), plus a small amount of suitable snacks. This is broadly similar to what a chinchilla eats in the wild.
But that’s far from all you need to know.
Are Chinchillas Omnivores?
Chinchillas are folivores, which means that the bulk of their diet is leaves/grass. They eat other plant-based foods too, like bark. It is suggested they may also eat insects, although no evidence of this has so far been found. They do not eat a wide range of foods, but because they may eat both insects and plants, they are classed as omnivores. They can also, on rare occasions, eat meat although this isn’t a core part of their diet by any means (e.g. when a chinchilla eats a deceased kit).
This can be seen in the layout and type of a chinchilla’s teeth. Chinchillas have large incisors, which are the teeth at the front of the mouth, as all rodents do. These teeth are ideal for breaking down foods into smaller, more manageable chunks. You can see these teeth easily without opening your pet’s mouth.
Towards the back of its mouth, though, a chinchilla has molars. These are the short, squat, flat-topped teeth which are ideal for grinding. This combination of teeth means that a chinchilla can break down and eat any kind of food.
What Do Chinchillas Eat in the Wild?
Wild chinchillas eat a variety of fresh foods. Somewhere between 50-60% of a wild chinchilla’s diet is fibrous, meaning it eats lots of dried grass, bark and woody shrubs. These things are supplemented by small amounts of seeds and the occasional insect.
A paper published in the journal Mammalian Biology studied what wild chinchillas eat. The scientists behind the paper examined chinchilla feces to see what it contained. They found that long-tailed chinchillas eat three plant species more than any others, consistently throughout the year:
- Nasella chilensis. This is a kind of needlegrass native to Chile, also known as Chilean tussockgrass. It’s long, thin, green and fibrous. It’s also the main thing that wild chinchillas eat. Chinchillas prefer the dried, dead blades/leaves of this plant which are similar to the kind of hay you feed captive chinchillas.
- Puya berteroniana. This is a kind of succulent, a family of plants which are like cacti but without thin spikes. This species looks like pampas grass crossed with aloe vera. As a succulent, this species contains lots of water, so is a key water source in the dry Chilean highlands. Chinchillas also make use of this species by hiding under it.
- Bridgesia incisifolia. This is a kind of woody shrub native to Chile. Has high levels of calcium and phosphorus.
There are dozens of other plant species that chinchillas eat besides these. This wide diet is made necessary because chinchillas live in the arid highlands of Chile, so they can’t afford to turn their noses up to food.
However, the team behind the study found it difficult to identify them all. That’s because the fibers of the various plants left behind in the chinchilla’s feces are difficult to tell apart. But it is at least possible to ascertain what kind of diet they eat.
What Do Chinchillas Eat as Pets?
Pet chinchillas have a less varied, but no less nutritious diet. You should feed your chinchilla some kind of hay, coupled with the occasional treat e.g. rolled oats. New owners feed their pets fruits and vegetables, but this is a mistake and would be bad for your pet.
You may think that ideally, a chinchilla should eat exactly what it would in the wild. However, this is not necessarily true. That’s because as the owner, you can provide a consistent and nutritionally appropriate diet at all times, while a wild chinchilla will have times where it has more or less food, or foods of the wrong kind.
Chinchillas also eat chinchilla pellets. These are dried pellets like those fed to other cage pets. They are made of dried grass which is processed and pressed into small pellet shapes. These pellets may be supplemented with various things to ensure your chinchilla gets the vitamins/minerals it needs.
How Much Fat, Carbohydrate & Protein Do Chinchillas Need?
Food is made up of three core nutrients: carbohydrate, fat and energy. In basic terms, carbs are for near-term energy, fats are for long-term energy, and proteins are for long-term energy but also building muscle.
Every animal has its own unique needs. Some animals have huge fat reserves to protect them from the cold, for example. These animals need to eat lots of fat for that purpose. Other animals have needs dictated by their environment: if only carbohydrate-rich foods are available, then only animals that can live without lots of fat or protein will survive.
A chinchilla’s fat, protein and carbohydrate intake needs have been studied because they have long been kept as lab animals. A page in the book The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster and Other Rodents looked specifically at chinchillas and what they need. Drawing on past research, the book states that a chinchilla’s diet should be:
- 16-21.6% crude protein
- 2.5-4% crude fat
- 15-23% crude fiber
This high protein, low fat and high fiber diet can be adequately provided through the provision of hay. A higher level of fat and protein can be given to show chinchillas, which need to be larger than average.
Bear in mind, however, that these figures relate to chinchillas kept as lab animals. With increased or decreased amounts of exercise, or smaller or larger body size, your pet may have slightly different requirements. But they should be somewhere near the figures above.
The precise figures above may seem intimidating. After all, it’s difficult to measure exactly how much fiber or protein is in a kind of pet food unless it’s printed on the label. But don’t worry: normal hay will provide precisely what your pet needs, and there are many healthy snacks you can choose from.
Chinchilla Vitamin & Mineral Needs
All animals need vitamins and minerals. But not all animals need the exact same vitamins and minerals. Chinchillas, for example, don’t need vitamin C because they can synthesize their own. One early study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked generally at what nutrients chinchillas need. Alongside the rest of their findings, they stated that ‘ascorbic acid does not appear to be a dietary essential for this species’. That’s because the scientists fed the chinchillas four different diets without vitamin C in them, and they seemed to experience no ill effects.
This study was performed in the 1950s, which left plenty of time for it to be corrected. However, later experiments only confirmed what these scientists had found. Study after study suggested chinchillas can synthesize their own vitamin C, like many other animals can. More recent papers like this one from the journal Nutrients back up this assertion.
This may seem surprising, but it’s more unusual for an animal not to do so. Only primates (including people) and some other rodents can’t do so. So, what do chinchillas need? They require a mix of B vitamins, minerals like calcium and phosphorus, and small amounts of most other vitamins/minerals. All of these can be found in regular hay.
Do Chinchillas Need Supplements?
Chinchillas do not require vitamin and mineral supplements. Your pet should get everything it needs from the hay, pellets and snacks that you feed it.
The only exception is if you talk to a veterinarian and they request that you feed your pet some kind of supplement. This may be because your pet is undernourished, e.g. when it has been fed the wrong food or the wrong amount of food for a long time. Your vet may also prescribe probiotics, although these are gut bacteria supplements rather than vitamins or minerals.
What to Feed a Chinchilla
Pet chinchillas should be fed hay, which is dried grass. Hay is used both for food and bedding in the care of pets. There are several different kinds of hay, made from different kinds of grass. Some have more energy (calories) than others, and it’s likely that your chinchilla has a preference for a particular kind. Kinds of hay include:
- Timothy hay. Timothy is a kind of grass. You can find hays made from other kinds of grass, too. Typically 9% protein.
- Alfalfa. Alfalfa is a crop which is grown to feed animals. High protein content at 17%.
- Oat hay. Another kind of grass hay,
- ‘Botanical hay’. This is a mix of regular hay and herbs.
- Orchard grass.
Alfalfa is the fattiest of these hays, and has lots of protein. According to a paper in a French journal, animals put on more body fat when eating alfalfa compared to other kinds of hay. Chinchillas can self-regulate their intake of foods, so this should not be a problem, but if your pets are gaining weight then switching to a different hay may be necessary. Because of this, alfalfa is fed to farm chinchillas, pregnant chinchillas, and underweight chinchillas to help them get bigger.
In addition to the different kinds of hay, there are different brands. The best known brands are Oxbow and Kaytee. Both are high quality, although your chinchilla may prefer one or the other for no apparent reason. Chinchillas also need a ready supply of water, especially if you feed them dried foods.
Chinchillas also need chinchilla pellets. These are made of dried grass like hay, but may also be supplemented with various vitamins and minerals. Chinchillas should be fed 1-2 tablespoons of pellets each per day.
Fresh Food for Chinchillas (and Snacks!)
Your chinchilla’s diet shouldn’t solely be hay. Your pets can also enjoy having different kinds of food, so offering them some is encouraged. But fruits and vegetables aren’t a good choice. That’s because they contain too much sugar and too much water. The sugar is bad for your pet, while the water can cause diarrhea.
Herbs make a good fresh snack, and provide an interesting sensory experience for your pet. Other snacks include rosehips, rose petals, shredded wheat cereals and oats. Pick a snack which doesn’t contain added sugar. As chinchillas get all of their nutritional needs from hay, frequent snacks are not a good idea. Ten oats at a time are enough, while one piece of shredded wheat is a large snack.
How Much Food Does a Chinchilla Need?
Chinchillas need lots of hay to eat. Hay is not nutrient dense like other foods, so in the same way that herbivores have to eat lots of grass, so too do chinchillas need to eat lots of hay. They need somewhere between 2.5 and 5g of hay per 100g of body weight per day, which equates to 2.5-5% of body mass. The more nutrient-dense the food, the less per weight they need to eat.
Can You Feed a Chinchilla Pellets?
Pellets are a form of food made from dried hay, which may or may not contain added ingredients like seeds, and may or may not contain added vitamins and minerals. They are the form of food preferred by chinchilla farmers and those who keep chinchillas as laboratory animals.
However, pellets are frowned on by much of the owners’ community. That’s because:
- They can contain added nuts and seeds. Chinchillas like to pick these out and leave the hay, thereby not getting all the nutrients they need.
- Most are formulated for other pets, not chinchillas. Other pets have different nutritional needs, so pellets can contain more fat or protein than necessary.
Some vets also suggest avoiding pellets. However, there is nothing wrong with them provided that you get the right kind. Avoid those with high-nutrient additives (e.g. seeds) and your pet should be healthy.
How Often Should You Feed Chinchillas?
There is no single accepted approach to feeding a pet chinchilla. Most owners do so in one of two ways:
- Feeding the chinchilla a small amount of food each morning.
- Giving the chinchilla an unlimited supply of food with access at all times, replenishing the stock each time before it runs out.
With many pets (and people), an unlimited supply of food would result in weight gain. But that’s not so for chinchillas. Hay is low in calories (for its weight) and high in fiber, which means your pet can eat lots of it and not get fatter. Both pet and wild chinchillas spend most of the day eating so that they can get enough energy, so this isn’t an issue. You should only be concerned if your fully-grown chinchilla is getting heavier.
One upside of unlimited food is that there’s less chance of forgetting your pet’s food. Some owners are not good with pets, and can forget to feed their animals for long periods. This is called ‘neglecting’ your pet. By filling up your pet’s food source with a week’s worth of food rather than one day’s worth, you ensure that your pet has food at all times. Offering unlimited hay is the approach most owners take, and the one that this guide recommends.
When to Feed a Chinchilla
If you provide unlimited foods, then your chinchilla can eat whenever it wants. A study in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition states that chinchillas eat most of their food during the night: 70% of their intake is between 9pm and 7am.
That being said, all chinchillas are different, and some owners report that their pets become more active during the day so that they can spend more time with them. If this is the case, then the chinchilla may eat more during the day or evening instead.
What Not to Feed a Chinchilla
Ideally, you should avoid feeding your pet any sunflower seeds or nuts. These are nutritious, and won’t hurt your pet. The problem is that your chinchilla will pick these foods out of its food mix, and only eat them, leaving any hay or other foods behind.
What Human Foods Can Chinchillas Eat?
Chinchillas should not be fed human foods. There are several reasons why they are unsuitable:
- Many human foods are processed in nature. Even cooking counts as processing.
- Many human foods are not nutritional, or downright unhealthy. They may contain, for example, far too much salt or fat. Or, they might have unnatural ingredients in them.
- Chinchillas have different nutritional needs to people. So, even healthy human foods may not be appropriate.
The only things that you need to feed your pet are hay and fresh vegetables. These provide all the vitamins, minerals and energy that your pet needs.
Sugars & Refined Sugars
The chinchilla’s digestive system is not optimized to process foods which are high in either fat or pure sugars. Their natural diet dictates what a chinchilla is used to: foods high in carbohydrates, but not simple ones like refined sugar, only complex ones like fiber. Feeding a chinchilla lots of high-sugar treats is therefore bad for it.
Refined sugar comes from sugar canes or sugar beets.
These plants, which are naturally sweet, can be processed to extract the pure sugar within.
The sucrose that comes out can then be further refined into white sugar. While scientific studies are still determining exactly how refined sugar is bad, what’s clear is that it is bad. This is true both for people and animals. Sources of refined and simple sugars include:
- ‘Human food’. Processed foods like breads, cookies, cakes and chips can all contain refined sugars.
- Fruit. Fruits contain a kind of sugar called ‘fructose’, and often contain lots of it. This isn’t good for your chinchillas.
- Yogurt. Yogurt drops are a common pet treat, but are unsuitable for chinchillas.
There are plenty of core diet foods and treats which don’t contain these simple sugars. So, stick to these instead.
All vegetables are naturally high in water content. All natural foods have lots of water in them; meat, for example, has more water than people expect at 60-70%. But certain vegetables are almost entirely water, which can be a problem for chinchillas.
Chinchillas naturally get their water from their vegetables, so to an extent, this isn’t a problem.
But if your chinchilla ate nothing but watery vegetables like cucumber, it would experience diarrhea.
This would mean that the chinchilla doesn’t absorb all the nutrients it could from its food; it could also get its fur wet, which can be fatal, or catch an infection from the wet feces in its enclosure.
Examples of vegetables with a high water content include:
Each of these vegetables is 95% water at least. A small amount of one of them (less than a teaspoon) wouldn’t cause issues. But fed in higher quantities, or over a long period, could make your pet sick.
If you want to feed your pet healthy chinchilla treats, offer dried vegetables These contain the same nutrients, but with less or none of the water. Your pet can then get its water from drinking it rather than eating it, which will prevent diarrhea.
You must also be careful if you plan on feeding your chinchilla dried fruits. That’s because some dried fruit is much better for your pet than other dried fruits.
If you’ve ever bought dried fruit before, you may have noticed that it’s shiny, slightly crunchy, and very sweet. That’s because candied fruit can also be sold as ‘dried fruit’. It goes through the same drying process. The only difference is that it’s coated in syrup or sugar before being dried. You shouldn’t feed this to your pet as it contains far too much sugar.
Regular dried fruit is tougher and less sweet. Even this still contains lots of sugar (fructose) so is best avoided. Feed your pet dried vegetables instead.
Are Chinchillas Allergic to Anything?
Chinchillas aren’t known to have any food allergies. The reason why animals don’t have clear allergies like we do is unclear. That’s not to say chinchillas don’t have any allergies; they can be irritated by dust, pollen or dander. But no food allergies have yet been found.
That being said, it’s best to stick to approved foods rather than experimenting. Animals can react to foods in unexpected ways (e.g. how chocolate can be poisonous to pets). Plus, your chinchilla can get every nutrient it needs from a basic diet of hay and green vegetables.
Aside from that, there isn’t much more you need to know. But if there’s any food you’re uncertain about, or your pet is gaining or losing weight unexpectedly, talk to a vet.