Why Is My Chinchilla Shaking?

Let’s say you pick your chinchilla up, and notice a slight vibration, or even the feeling of it quivering and shaking from head to toe. Why might it shake? Do chinchillas shake because of fear, the cold, or something else?

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!

Let’s say you pick your chinchilla up, and notice a slight vibration, or even the feeling of it quivering and shaking from head to toe. Why might it shake? Do chinchillas shake because of fear, the cold, or something else?

Why is my chinchilla shaking? The likely issue is that it’s scared. You are much bigger than your chinchilla, and since chinchillas aren’t domesticated, it thinks you could be a predator. Shaking occurs because of adrenaline, which makes the nerves that control the muscles more sensitive. Other causes include illness, cold, and rarely, seizures. Some chinchillas also vibrate or quiver when happy, almost as if they’re purring. You can stop your chinchilla being scared by handling it less, giving it a hide to hide in, or putting your chinchilla’s cage somewhere quieter. If the shaking doesn’t stop, it could be a sign of ill health, so talk to a vet.

The guide below first looks at why chinchillas shake when they’re scared, and what can make a chinchilla scared when you handle it. It will then look at what kinds of ill health can cause shaking in chinchillas, how seizures affect a chinchilla’s brain and can cause shaking, and whether the cold might even be to blame. It rounds off by detailing how you can stop your chinchilla being scared of you, so that you can finally handle it again!

Do Chinchillas Shake Because They’re Scared?

Chinchillas can shake in fear just like we do. That’s because they have the same response to a threat that we do: the fight or flight response.

The chinchilla’s brain structure is much the same as ours. The important part of the brain here is the amygdala, which is a part of the midbrain, and is reponsible for both emotion and behavior. It’s best known, though, for its role in the processing of fear; the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides what to do in the face of a threat, and it can stimulate the body into action without you having to ‘think’ about it. Your chinchilla has an amygdala just like you do.

When the amygdala becomes aware of a threat, it can trigger something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In plain English, this means that the amygdala takes over from the rational brain by causing the release of adrenaline. This is very, very useful in survival situations because the amygdala is right next to the hippocampus—the part of the brain that receives information from the sensory organs—so it can react quicker than the rest of the brain to a threat.

Anyway, this release of adrenaline is what causes shaking in fear. Adrenaline has many effects, and one of those is to quicken the reactions of the receptor cells of the muscles. This has the unintended effect of causing twitching and the overall appearance of shaking. It can be as obvious as full-on quivering, but it can also be subtle, like a barely-noticeable vibrating.

This applies even if your chinchilla is sitting still, and doesn’t show any other signs of fear. That’s because the ‘fight or flight response’ can be more accurately called the ‘fight or flight or freeze response’, because many animals respond to threats by staying as still as they can. The idea is that the predator won’t be able to see the prey if it stays as still as possible.

This shaking affects every part of your chinchilla. Its hind legs will shake, its body will shake, and you may even notice its head shaking. It’s like how you shake and shiver when you’re cold: it affects every part of your body. The same applies to your chinchilla when it shakes, whatever the reason.

1) Why Is My Chinchilla Shaking when Held?

If your chinchilla is shaking when you handle it, the likely issue is that it’s afraid of you. Its fear is triggering its fight or flight response, and the tremors you’re seeing are a result of the release of adrenaline, as described above.

There are many reasons why a chinchilla might be scared of a person. Some of them are in your control, while others aren’t. The core issue is that you’re much bigger than a chinchilla. You could, if you wanted, end your chinchilla’s life in a moment if you wanted—which of course we don’t recommend, but is nonetheless true. Your chinchilla knows that you’re bigger and more powerful than it is, so it’s afraid. The same would apply if you were held up and examined by a creature a hundred times bigger than yourself. Plus, the only time a chinchilla gets picked up in the wild is if an eagle or a fox has come to eat it!

Besides that, chinchillas aren’t fully domesticated like other pets are. Dogs have been our constant companions for thousands of years. The chinchillas we keep as pets have only been kept for about a hundred years. Through the process of domestication, a person can pick and choose which animals to breed. Wolves became dogs because the people who bred them bred those which were affectionate and loyal. The same hasn’t happened with chinchillas yet.

If the problem is that your chinchilla is scared of you, you may notice other symptoms of stress or fear too. One is spraying, which is where the chinchilla stands up and sprays pee directly at you. It may also try to avoid your hands when you go to pick it up.

There are two possible outcomes for a fraidy-chinchilla. One is that it will eventually learn that you’re to be trusted, and it will stop being afraid of you. The other is that it will always react this way. Persist in trying to handle it, without being violent and without punishing it, to see if this behavior gradually stops. If it doesn’t, then your chinchilla is one of many that simply doesn’t like handling. You should then limit the amount that you handle it so that you don’t stress it out too much. It’s important not to stop completely, though, because then if you ever need to take it to the vet it will respond very badly to being picked up again.

2) Do Chinchillas Shake Because They’re Sick?

Image courtesy SV1ambo, CC by 2.0.

Your chinchilla may also be shaking because it’s unwell.

The link between ill health and shaking isn’t quite as clear as that between shaking and fear. But there are two ways in which a link can exist. The first is that some health conditions affect the nerves and muscles, and shaking or twitching can result. The second is that poor health can cause or be caused by stress, and stress is related to the fight or flight response.

All forms of ill health can cause stress. Some conditions like malocclusion can be exceptionally painful for your chinchilla, for example. Pain causes stress because it’s unpleasant and makes the chinchilla feel especially vulnerable to threats.

Beyond that, any health condition that gets bad enough to end your chinchilla’s life could also cause shaking. Lots of things happen as a chinchilla nears the end of its life, even if the health condition isn’t normally associated with them: things like lethargy (stopping moving), seizures and involuntary shaking.

If your chinchilla is that sick, you can likely spot other symptoms too. So not only is your chinchilla shaking and not moving, but it might have a runny nose, stop eating, stop going to the toilet, or have a visible infected sore. If you think your chinchilla is sick, take it to the vet.

3) Do Chinchillas Purr?

Chinchillas have several ways of showing their contentment. They don’t purr in exactly the same way that cats do, although they can chatter and grind their teeth to show that they’re happy. This can cause a noticeable vibration.

It can be difficult to tell whether a chinchilla is chattering its teeth to ‘purr’, or whether it’s afraid. That’s because in both cases, it may sit entirely still and let you pet it. Try to listen for the sound of its teeth chattering together, or look for other signs that a chinchilla is afraid (like spraying or hiding from your hands).

4) Do Chinchillas Shiver When They’re Cold?

Your chinchilla may shiver when it’s cold, but it’s unlikely that you would ever see this happen.

Shivering in response to cold is something seen in all warm-blooded animals, including chinchillas. The idea is simple: the muscles contract and relax continually, burning energy and generating heat. This can be a very effective method of keeping warm in survival situations.

However, your chinchilla should never have a problem staying warm. Room temperature is more than warm enough for your pet, and while it’s not ideal, your chinchilla could easily survive at temperatures below freezing. It’s only at these low temperatures that you would ever see it shiver, but even then, it wouldn’t do so much. That’s because your chinchilla needs to shiver less than a person as its fur traps the heat it generates very effectively.

5) Do Chinchillas Shake When They Have Seizures?

Chinchillas can have seizures, but these seizures don’t typically cause shaking. However, this isn’t outside the realms of possibility.

It’s not as common for chinchillas to have seizures as it is for other pets. When they happen, the chinchilla will stare into space and become unresponsive. So whereas when you approach the cage normally, your chinchilla will become excited or frightened, it now won’t respond at all. It may also fall over onto its side or its belly.

It is possible, though, for the chinchilla to experience shaking when it has a seizure. That’s because seizures are caused by electrical activity in the brain. In some cases, this leads to a temporary loss of function. In others, it leads to unintentional movements like twitching or shaking, caused by the nerves to the muscles firing repeatedly. So while not likely, it is possible that this could cause your chinchilla’s shaking.

How to Stop a Chinchilla Shaking in Fear

If your chinchilla is shaking because it’s afraid of you, well, it’s only natural to want it to stop. Unfortunately, you can’t tell your chinchilla that you aren’t a threat—or at least not in Chinchill-ese. So, you have to resort to other measures instead.

These won’t stop your chinchilla seeing you as a threat. It won’t be immediately comfortable with you if you, say, buy it a hide to hide in. But the tips below can make your chinchilla feel more secure in its living space and reduce its stress levels, which may make it less afraid both when at rest and when handled. Even if they don’t, though, they’re worth considering (especially if you notice your chinchilla shaking in-cage as well as when you handle it).

Set Up a Hide

Image courtesy Dan Jones, CC by SA 2.0.

All pet chinchillas should have hides. A hide is a small enclosed space that the chinchilla can retreat to so that it feels safe. They come in all sorts of designs, but it doesn’t matter what yours looks like, so long as the chinchilla can get in and out safely. Hides serve the purpose that burrows and rock crevices do for wild chinchillas.

So, if your chinchilla doesn’t have one already, buy one and put it in your pet’s cage. You can put it anywhere you like, but most owners put theirs on the ground floor of the cage for easy access. Here are three of the most popular chinchilla hides you can get:

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Having a hide will mean that your chinchilla has somewhere to go when it’s afraid. This will lower its stress levels on a day by day basis. This may mean that when it’s time for you to handle your pet, it won’t feel so stressed and afraid generally, which may make it slightly less afraid of you.

Reposition Your Chinchilla’s Cage

Something else that may be causing your chinchilla stress is the location of its cage. Your chinchilla’s cage should be somewhere that:

  • Isn’t too hot (should be regular room temperature or lower)
  • Isn’t in direct sunlight
  • Isn’t where there’s lots of things going on
  • Isn’t too loud

Say, for example, that you keep your chinchilla’s cage in the hallway. Well, if people are walking past it all day, and it’s somewhere that another pet can see it, then this will cause your chinchilla stress. The same applies if you keep the cage next to a TV that’s always on, or in a room with loud appliances like a tumble drier. These things will cause your chinchilla stress, which will make it enjoy being handled less.

The ideal place for a chinchilla cage is somewhere quiet like a bedroom or basement. Your chinchilla will feel safe and secure in these places because they’re quieter, darker and more relaxing.

Stop Handling Your Chinchilla So Often

There are also things that you can do to make your chinchilla feel better around you. One is to stop handling it so often.

Chinchillas are, of course, super-soft and cuddly. But they didn’t evolve to be that way so that people could enjoy petting them. They evolved that way to cope with the pressures of their mountainous habitat. It’s important to remember that, because while we may enjoy handling our chinchillas, our chinchillas won’t enjoy the interaction in the same way. This can become an issue if you like petting or picking up your chinchilla every day.

By cutting back handling, you can make yourself seem like less of a threat. Once or twice a week is sufficient. If that doesn’t sound like much, remember that you can still interact with your chinchilla and spend time near it or with it; just not picking it up and holding it close to you. While your chinchilla may still be somewhat afraid of you when you’re just nearby, it won’t be as scared as if you handled it.

Talk To a Vet

It’s possible that the problem isn’t related to stress at all. If that’s the case, then you should take your pet to the vet. They can diagnose the problem, be it ill health, seizures or something else. It’s highly likely that the problem is just fear, so don’t get too worried; but it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially if the shaking won’t stop.

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!