Chinchillas can experience severe health issues, and when they do, surgery is sometimes the only fix. But why is surgery needed, and how does it work?
Do chinchillas need surgery? They do if a health condition becomes life threatening, or complications are likely to arise from regular treatment. Take eye surgery for example: eye infections can typically be treated with antibiotics, but if the eye becomes swollen and heavily infected, it may be removed. Imaging checks and blood tests may be necessary before surgery, and the chinchilla will be placed under anesthetic for the procedure. Medications like painkillers or antibiotics may be needed afterwards, and future checkups will be necessary.
The guide below first looks at how chinchilla surgery works, and what else vets do to make it safe. Then it will look at all the different conditions that make surgery necessary, how they’re performed, and some alternatives to surgery that you and your vet could consider.
Do Chinchillas Ever Need Surgery?
It’s rare for chinchillas to undergo surgery, as the conditions that make surgery necessary aren’t common. But surgery is possible. It’s done in the same way as any other surgery: the chinchilla is placed under anesthetic, the area that requires surgery is cleaned and if necessary shaved, and the operation is performed. Antibiotics will be administered afterwards to prevent infection, and the vet will likely require post-surgery checks (e.g. urinalysis or a checkup) to see whether the operation was successful.
Chinchillas are not especially susceptible to anesthetic. Rather, the issue is that they’re so small that only tiny amounts of anesthetic are necessary to put them under. Because there is a fine margin between the correct amount and an incorrect amount, it is possible that the chinchilla will pass from having too much anesthetic. It’s also possible for the surgery to go wrong. Your vet will talk to you and balance the risks and potential ‘rewards’ of surgery, as it isn’t always worth it.
How Is Surgery Performed on Chinchillas?
Surgery is serious business. Even the most experienced vets can’t just take a knife and open up a chinchilla. They have to make many checks and take many precautions before performing surgery. As such, each kind of surgery involves far more than the surgery itself. Here is a list detailing everything required before and after surgery:
- Basic physical examination. The vet will prod, poke and look at your chinchilla to see if there’s anything wrong with it. They may use tools like stethoscopes to examine what’s going on inside your pet non-invasively.
- Detailed local examination. If the vet thinks there’s something wrong, they will pay close attention to the area that may be troubling your pet. If your chin has a tumor, for example, the vet will feel it through the chin’s skin. They will then palpate (feel) the area to figure out what it is, where exactly it is, and how serious it might be.
- Bloodwork. A blood test is where the vet checks your chinchilla’s blood to see whether it’s healthy. The vet can find particular things in the blood that indicate illnesses like tumors. Blood work also tells the vet what they need to know before they administer anesthetic (red blood cell count, etc.)
- Imaging. Imaging is where X-rays or CT scans show the vet what’s going on inside the chinchilla’s body. This will tell them where to make the incision, how serious the condition is, and so on.
- Biopsy/histopathology. A biopsy is where a small amount of tissue is taken and checked. If the other methods didn’t work, this can tell the vet what’s wrong with your pet.
- Pre-anesthetic analgesic drugs. Before surgery begins, the site of the incision may be numbed with analgesics (painkillers).
- Anesthesia. Anesthesia makes the chinchilla unconscious. This makes the surgery less painful, less stressful, and easier to perform.
- Anesthesia monitoring. Anesthetic must be continually applied to maintain a state of unconsciousness for as long as the surgery must be performed. The chinchilla is monitored using an EKG, its CO2 and O2 levels are checked, and its blood pressure and body temperature are checked too. This tells the vet whether they are using too much or too little anesthetic.
- The surgery itself. An incision is made and the surgery performed. The incision is then sewn back up.
- Recovery monitoring. The chinchilla will be brought out of unconsciousness gradually and in a calm environment. Its health is monitored at this time to check for immediate complications.
- Take-home medications. Antibiotics prevent the surgical incision from becoming infected.
- Repeat appointments. The vet may ask you to bring your chinchilla in for future appointments. The vet will assess how your chin is recovering and whether further intervention will be necessary.
The exact checks performed, and the way that surgery is done, depend on the condition affecting your pet.
When Do Chinchillas Need Surgery?
As is the case with people and other animals, there are many instances in which surgery will be necessary. There are injuries and illnesses that affect every part of a chinchilla’s body.
Spaying and Neutering Chinchillas
Perhaps the most common form of surgery in this context is spaying/neutering. Spaying is where a female animal’s ovaries are removed, while neutering is the equivalent operation performed on male pets.
Spaying is an invasive operation no matter which animal it’s performed on. An incision is made in the abdomen (belly), through which the reproductive organs are accessed. The ovaries and uterus are entirely removed. The ovaries contain the chinchilla’s eggs, and the uterus is the womb where young grow. Without these organs, the female cannot reproduce. The incision is then sewn shut.
In other animals, neutering isn’t invasive. Neutering is where the scrotum and the testes are removed. As these are external to the body, this is easier done than spaying. But in chinchillas, the testes are housed inside the body, just like the ovaries are. It therefore requires an incision to be made in just the same way as spaying.
We recommend against either spaying or neutering your chinchillas. There are several reasons why:
- Surgery is more dangerous for chinchillas than for other pets. Chinchillas are small, so complications are more likely. And while neutering isn’t invasive in other pets, in chinchillas, it is.
- Male and female chinchillas shouldn’t be housed together outside of breeding programs. Novice owners underestimate the difficulty of breeding and raising chinchillas, which is why male-male or female-female cage mate pairs are recommended. In same sex pairs, being ‘intact’ isn’t an issue.
- It is arguably cruel to perform an unnecessary surgical procedure on an animal. Cats and dogs benefit from neutering/spaying because it reduces the number of strays and neglected animals; that’s not so with chinchillas.
This is a position that most experienced owners hold.
A cystotomy is a procedure that’s common in small animal veterinary medicine. The purpose of a cystotomy is to remove cystic calculi, which is the technical term for ‘bladder stones’. Bladder stones form when the chinchilla has too much calcium in its diet. As excess minerals are excreted through urine, this calcium can build up either in the kidneys or the bladder (although in chinchillas, bladder stones are more common).
While you can prevent this happening by reducing the amount of calcium your chinchilla gets through its diet, you cannot reverse the formation of bladder stones by doing so. The safest way to get rid of them isn’t to wait for your chinchilla to pass them, but to remove them surgically. This should be done before they begin to affect your chinchilla’s health, because they can cause:
- Cuts to the lining of the bladder and urinary tract
- Infections that subsequently infect these cuts
- Incredible pain (as you’ll know if you’re familiar with kidney stones)
The operation is best performed by making an incision in the ventral bladder wall (i.e. from the underside/belly area). This is thought to result in fewer complications than dorsal (top side) incisions. Nevertheless, there is great variation in how precisely this procedure is performed: many vets provide pain relief while some don’t, and other vets make incisions in different places to access the bladder. Either way, an incision is made, the uroliths are removed, and the bladder wall is sewn twice to provide a full water tight seal.
Most vets will also ask for a urinalysis at some point in the future to see whether further cystic calculi are forming.
An abscess is a collection of pus that builds up somewhere inside the body. They can form almost anywhere. Symptoms of an abscess include redness and swelling, and pain when the area is touched. Unlike other spots, they must be removed, as if they burst then the bacteria inside could spread throughout the body (sepsis). Sepsis is fatal if not treated. Abscesses form when there is an injury that bacteria gain access to. Bite wounds, for example, typically form abscesses unless cleaned and treated.
Surgery isn’t the only treatment for abscesses, and it isn’t always necessary. If the abscess has ruptured, it won’t require surgery, only antibiotics and flushing. The vet may also choose to manually rupture an abscess before draining it, flushing it, and again treating it with antibiotics. Talk to your vet about the options you and your chinchilla have before any operation is performed.
Lateral Ear Canal Ablation
Ear canal ablation surgery is where diseased/infected ear canal tissue is removed, while the inner ear is left in place. The inner ear is the part that’s instrumental in hearing, which means that your chinchilla’s sense of hearing will be left intact. The middle ear chamber (the tympanic bulla) will also be inspected to look for infected or abnormal tissue, which will also be removed. This is the large bulbous part of the ear that sits on the top of the skull.
This is only necessary in cases of ear infection that become serious. Ear infections can typically be treated with antibiotics, so surgery is a last resort.
Evisceration & Enucleation
Evisceration is where the eye is removed. The entire eyeball is removed, while the muscles that connected to the eye are left in place.
This surgery may become necessary if your chinchilla has an eye infection that isn’t addressed, and the eye swells up and becomes damaged. It may also be the best option after severe physical trauma, or if the eye is blind but is causing complications (like frequent, if mild, infections). Tumors can also form in the eye, necessitating removal.
Enucleation is like evisceration, only the orbital tissues like the muscles around the eye are removed too. One or another may be more appropriate depending on the condition your chinchilla is experiencing.
Surgery on the eye is a delicate business. A cut called a ‘peritomy’ is performed which exposes the eye and the extraocular muscles (the muscles around the eye) are then cut too. Bleeding is controlled through cauterization. The optic nerve is then cut. Some vets place a clamp on the remaining optic nerve while others don’t, tying it up (ligating) it instead.
Checkups will be necessary to ensure that there are no complications. You will likely be given painkillers that will numb your chinchilla’s pain while it recovers.
A nephrectomy is where one of the kidneys is removed. This may be necessary when the chinchilla experiences severe kidney diseases or injuries. The most common reason why nephrectomies are performed is if one of the kidneys has a tumor. Kidneys can also develop infections, although these are better treated with antibiotics than full removal. Partial nephrectomies are common, which is where only part of the kidney is removed. A full removal is also known as a ‘radical’ nephrectomy. Animals can survive with only one kidney, so this is preferable to the effects of a diseased kidney on the body.
Because a nephrectomy is a serious surgical operation, there are things the vet will have to do to prepare your pet for one:
- A physical exam to assess the chinchilla’s overall health, and the health of its kidneys
- Blood tests to a) see how the kidneys are functioning, and b) how much anesthetic the chinchilla will need
- Repeat checkups in the future to see how your pet’s health is improving
Nephrectomies are uncommon procedures. Even if you own chinchillas your whole life, your pets may never need one.
Chinchillas can experience fractures. They have delicate skeletal systems, and due to blunt force trauma, their bones can break.
Bones heal themselves over time. New bone tissue is added to bridge the gap formed when the bone fractured or broke. Setting the bones and placing them in a cast makes this process easier because it keeps the bones straight and reduces the gap between them. For small fractures and breaks, this is typically enough to ensure recovery.
However, if the break is a serious one, further intervention may be necessary. You’re likely already familiar with the idea of metal screws and rods being used to help bones heal; these are put in place through a procedure called fracture repair surgery, also known as open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) surgery.
This surgery is performed by making an incision near the fracture to insert any rods, screws, pins or plates necessary. Broken shards of bone will be removed and the area cleaned to aid recovery.
If a chinchilla has been neglected, it can develop a condition called ‘bumblefoot‘. This is where an abscess forms on the foot pad. It happens when the chinchilla has to stand on solid wood or bare cage bars for too long, which cause the natural calluses on its foot to grow to large and rupture. The skin then gets infected and forms an abscess which progressively gets worse.
Bumblefoot can sometimes be fixed with antibiotics. This is an option if it hasn’t become too serious. But in very serious cases, amputation of the foot may be necessary. That’s because if it doesn’t heal, the chinchilla may start chewing it, or the bacteria might get into the blood stream and cause sepsis. Amputation may also be necessary if a fractured foot/leg doesn’t heal properly, for the same reasons.
In amputation, the vet’s job is to remove as much damaged tissue and save as much healthy tissue as possible. This is a difficult balancing act: if infected or damaged tissue is left behind, the health issue may begin again. But if healthy tissue is taken, the chinchilla may lose functionality and mobility it didn’t need to lose.
Amputations are performed by sawing through the bone with a flexible saw. The cleaner the ‘cut’, the better the chance of healing. The wound is then stitched or stapled, and is cleaned to prevent infection.
Biopsies and Necropsies
Biopsies and necropsies are like two sides of the same coin. A biopsy is where a small sample of tissue is taken; it doesn’t matter where from. The tissue is then analysed to figure out what’s wrong with the chinchilla. The issue may be infection, an abscess, tumors—anything. If the sample needs to be taken from inside the body, then making an incision will be necessary.
Necropsies are the equivalent of biopsies, but are performed after the chinchilla has passed away. The idea is to figure out what caused the chinchilla’s passing. This can be useful information if you want to know why your chinchilla passed, and if you want to improve the way you care for your pets.
Surgery may be required if your chinchilla has been attacked and physically injured. This isn’t to remove anything from your chinchilla’s body, but rather to help the wounds heal faster.
There are several things that vets can do to help a chinchilla’s wounds heal. The first is to clean the area thoroughly. This will prevent bacteria from entering the wound, thereby stopping infections before they start. The wound will also be stiched (sutured) to allow it to heal faster. The area may also be dressed to keep it clean while the chinchilla goes about its day.
Alternatives to Surgery for Chinchillas
If your chinchilla has a medical problem serious enough to warrant surgery, we would recommend it. Many conditions like bladder stones and severe eye infections can cause complications and kill your chinchilla; even if they don’t, your pet may be in extreme pain. There are, admittedly, several issues with surgery:
- Chinchilla ripping out its stitches after surgery
- The risk of infections developing at the site of the incision
- The risk of the vet making a mistake
As such, you should avoid the need for surgery. Most of the conditions that cause a need for surgery can be caught early on. Take eye infections, for example. Something as basic as pink eye can very easily be treated with antibiotics. But if the issue is left to fester, it can result in the eye swelling and the risk of sepsis, necessitating surgery. So, one alternative is to catch health issues early.
Putting your pet to sleep may be a viable option for you to consider. If your chinchilla is clearly suffering, and surgery would not fully fix its problems, then it may be the most humane option to have it put down. This is something for you to talk about with your vet and with your family.
Other than that, look after your chinchilla as best you can. The better care you take of it, the less likely it will be that it will need surgery. Ensure that your chinchilla’s cage is suitable and that your pet eats a correct diet and many health issues will be avoided.