It seems we are having a bit of a chinchilla epidemic sweeping through the employees at our hospital. We started with one employee that raised them, but now we have three addicted to the furry little beasts. Once you touch one it isn’t hard to tell why these gentle rodents are such good pets.

Chinchillas come from the Andes region in South America, so they are well adapted to the high altitude, cooler temperatures, and dry air that we also have here in Colorado. They are usually quite sociable and easily tamed. It is very rare for a chinchilla to bite, and their feet have nails on them that look like tiny human fingernails, not claws, so they don’t scratch, even accidentally.

Chinchillas have been used very extensively in laboratory research related to hearing because the anatomy of their ears is remarkably similar to that of humans. Because they have been housed in captivity for a long time we have a much better understanding of their husbandry needs than many other unusual exotics.

Unlike an aquarium, a secure wire cage that allows for good air circulation is an appropriate enclosure. Wire floors need to be covered with something solid so that chinchillas don’t get their feet and limbs caught and injured. For bedding there are many choices, but a recycled paper type is usually the best. Pine and cedar shavings are also readily available, and they smell nice too, but the aromatic oils that make them smell good are caustic to the delicate tissue lining the respiratory tract as well as to the skin. They also create a low grade toxicity to the liver that has been shown to increase the rate of liver cancer in rats and mice.

Inside the cage the chinchilla needs an exercise wheel. Make sure you get one that is specifically designed for chinchillas, as wheels designed for other species can cause serious injury to feet and legs. A hide box is another piece of furniture that your chinchilla will appreciate. These animals are normally most active at dawn and dusk and in the wild they spend most of the day in a burrow. Some chinchillas can get stressed about their exposure when they have no “burrow” to retreat to during the day.

A unique requirement for chinchillas is the need for dust baths in a special type of dust derived from ground volcanic rock. The dust is easily available at pet stores where chinchillas are sold or online. Some people leave the dust bath available all the time, but most people give the chinchillas a special bathing time three times per week. Without the dust bath their coats develop severe problems.

Heat is a significant danger to chinchillas. They aren’t designed to handle temperatures over 75 degrees very well. This means that a cage set up in the garage or in the back yard during the summer can quickly become a death trap. Extreme cold can also be an issue, but even if you keep your house at 50 degrees all winter your chinchilla will be more comfortable than you.

Chinchillas are herbivores and have digestive tracts and dietary requirements that are similar to rabbits. They can be fed commercially available chinchilla pellets and should also always have access to good quality grass hay and fresh, clean water. They will often cheerfully eat all sorts of other stuff, but their digestive tracts are not designed to handle large amounts of sugars, fats, and proteins so serious gastrointestinal problems can result from giving too much strange food.

These are the husbandry basics for chinchillas. Next time we will talk about some of the reasons veterinarians end up seeing chinchillas.