Species Showcase

By Russell R. Holster Jr.
PetStation Editorial Director

"ANDY" - an Afro-violet chinchilla shows off those remarkable little chin hands.


When most people think of small pet mammals, chinchillas don't usually pop to the head of the list. In fact, if the average Joe has even ever heard of chins it's more than likely as a result of the get-rich-quick chinchilla "farms" scams of the 1950s and 60s. Many people, especially youngsters, have never seen one -- that hasn't been turned into a fur coat, anyway.

Yet to a small but devoted array of owners scattered across the U.S. and Canada, chinchillas are the ultimate in small pet mammals. These people have taken the time to get to know the personalities beneath those exquisite coats, and have discovered the delights that only chinchillas can offer.

Often described as looking like "a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel," that description is about as accurate as saying a cow resembles a cross between a horse and a moose. Chinchillas look like, well, chinchillas, and nothing else. With the densest fur of any animal except for the sea otter (whose coat is stiff and oily), the chin is about the softest thing you will ever touch. The sensory delight of just petting a chinchilla is the first experience that most people have with them.

The next thing many people notice is what little bundles of energy they are... that is, when they want to be. Actually, if you happen to see one in a pet shop it is probably curled up in the darkest corner trying to get some shut-eye amidst the bustle and bright lights of that darned out-of-sync human world. You see, chins are naturally nocturnal -- active mostly at night -- so their true personality is not always evident during the daytime.

This means, of course, that a cage full of chinchillas is not what you want beside your bed or even anywhere near your sleeping quarters. For as the sun falls low and dusk begins to settle the real chinchilla personality begins to emerge. And what a personality it is! These little guys are the Keystone Kops of rodents, the slam-dancers of small pets. Given ample room to romp, chinchillas will put on a show, bouncing off walls, vaulting each other, devising their own little play-obstacle course out of whatever is available, including you if you happen to position yourself as part of the scenery. With their little prehensile hands, chins love to pick things up and take a closer look. And that is just the start of their physical talents. They are incredible athletes, extremely adept at jumping, climbing and balancing... and escaping. Chinchillas are also the Houdinis of rodents. You must keep a close eye on a chinchilla playing outside of its cage because if there is a route out of its designated play area, it will find it. Virtually no hole is too small for a chinchilla to squeeze through. They may look like chubsters, but most of that is just fur. Never underestimate their escape-artist potential.

Of course, if a chinchilla is kept permanently enclosed in a tiny cage, this exuberrant personality will be stifled. A chinchilla really needs a very large cage, plus the opportunity to get out and romp daily. As with most pets, the more you put into the relationship with your chinchilla the more you will be rewarded by the emergence of its full personality and its devotion to you. Chinchillas can become very attached to their keepers. They will sit in your lap or on your shoulder. Much depends on how it was socialized as a baby. If it was cuddled and held from day one, it will always be trusting and friendly with humans. However, even a standoffish or frightened chin can usually be won over with lots of caring attention.

If you can't put a lot of time into the relationship with your chinchilla, it is best to get it a partner. Be careful in introducing them, though, for a chinchilla will not take kindly to a strange creature being suddenly thrust into its living space. It is best to allow them to be in cages side by side for a week or two, possibly getting a chance to be together when they are out of the cage for romp time. Definitely keep an eye on them to make sure they don't fight. If you get a male and a female, there is good chance that you will be rewarded with absolutely the cutest babies in the animal world. Unlike many blind, deaf and naked rodent youngsters, the baby chinchilla comes out fully furred, fully sighted and ready to go. At one day old it will be climbing all over the cage (looking for escape routes, no doubt).

Be extremely careful in pairing chinchillas for mating. Because of the high probability of a lethal gene factor, certain color mutations should never be bred to that same color mutation (i.e. white to white, black to black). It is usually safe to breed the standard grey to any other color, including another standard.

By far the majority of chinchillas are the original or "standard" grey color. This mottled grey is the color scheme of wild chinchillas in the high Andes of Chili and Peru. Other chinchilla colors (all of which have been created by human "genetic engineering") are white, beige, mosaic (white with grey), black (or ebony), black velvet (black on top shading to light grey below), brown (really a dark beige), brown velvet, Afro-violet (a very light, smooth grey) and sapphire (a pinkish sheen). These colors are much harder to find and are more expensive.

Chinchillas are easily fed. Commercial chin pellets are readily available, and these can constitute the basic diet. However, pellets should be supplemented daily by a sprinkling of rodent greens (also commercially available). Other treats given somewhat regularly may include raisins, dark green veggies and occasional peanuts. The ultimate treat is a freshly-cut fruit tree branch with leaves, but make sure the branch and leaves have not been treated with any type of pesticide. Bamboo is another favorite. Some sort of soft, untreated wood should always be available for your chin to chew on.

One thing that is definitely not a favorite of chinchillas is hot weather. With their dense fur chinchillas cannot tolerate temperatures much above the mid 70s. So, chinchillas kept in even mildly hot-weather climates must be protected by fans or other air-conditioning when the thermometer soars toward the 80-degree mark.

In addition to that remarkable fur, another totally unique aspect of chinchillas is their bathing preference. They hate getting wet. Instead they take a dust bath. In their native habitat they roll in the fine volcanic dust of the high Andes, but pet chinchillas get an even purer "soaking" in the commercial Fuller's earth available in many pet shops. Dust baths should be offered at least twice a week, and preferably, more often. Believe it or not, the dust actually keeps their coat dry and luxurious, and watching them twist and turn in the bathtub is great fun. They do tend to make a mess of their bath area, so place it where it can be easily cleaned up.

An interesting fact about chinchillas is that they are virtually hypo-allergenic. Many people who are desperately allergic to dogs, cats, rabbits and such find to their great surprise that they can stick their noses deep into the lush fur of a chinchilla and not have to dash for the tissues and allergy pills. This, of course, is not an endorsement for chinchilla coats (which, unfortunately, are still being produced), but rather a tip to those who would love to have a pet but are seemingly allergic to every animal outside of an aquarium. Check out a chin and see if the sneezies stay away. One tip: it is always best to cuddle chins before that dust bath, not afterwards.

So, you see, chinchillas are one great pet. The keys to getting the most out of your pet chinchilla are to get a large cage for it to live in; let it romp in a designated play/obstacle course area for at least 30 minutes each day; interact with and handle it a lot; make sure it gets good, fresh food and water; give it lots of good chewables (branches and such); never let it get too hot; and don't forget that dustbath every other day or so. Always hold your chinchilla very lightly and gently; don't ever snatch it up abruptly or grab it by its tail --they hate that almost as much as getting wet. If you are trying to catch it and it squirms away, just try again; they are relatively easy to corner and catch up in your hands.

The price of a chinchilla ranges from $50 up to several hundred dollars, depending on coloration. To someone used to seeing rabbits for $20 and rats for $5, this probably seems like a stiff cost for a darned rodent. Perhaps so, but few who indulge in the luxury of having a chinchilla bemoan the cost. They know that you haven't lived until you've hugged a chinchilla.

NOTE: Chinchilla Malocclusion / Slobbering / Drooling / Teeth /Mouth Problem / Condition
A dreaded chinchilla illness is known as "malocclusion", which includes slobbering, drooling, pawing of the mouth area, nibbling of the fur on the forearms and other places, loss of appetite and weight loss. The illness appears to be primarily genetic in origin, and often ends in death. The condition does not seem to be contagious. At PetStation, we have had two chinchillas (sisters) affected with this illness. With the first instance, the chin (Oly) was taken to a vet who clipped the front teeth and ground down the molars. No other treatment regimen was applied, and Oly soon died. When her younger sister (Banshee) came down with the exact same affliction several years later, we determined to try a different course of action to combat it. Again the vet ground down the molars slightly... the incisors were not clipped this time as x-rays indicated this was not a problem. We began a hand-feeding regimen that ended up lasting almost one year. Twice per day, the chin was fed "Critical Care for Herbivores" (available from http://www.calvetsupply.com) via 3cc syringe. This chin had lost over 100 grams (normal weight 590 grams) due to the condition. To at least maintain, and hopefully increase, her weight, it required 10-12 syringes (or approx. 30-36cc) each feeding of the formula ("Critical Care" mixed with warm water to form a gruel). Attempts to feed her via syringe while she sat on a table did not work, and feeding by spoon was completely hapless. We found the most effective method of feeding was to hold her cradled in the left arm with her hind legs balancing on our hip or stomach, with our left hand controlling her head so she couldn't move backwards too much. Then the right hand could manipulate the syringe. The 3cc syringes needed to have their tips cut off and widened (with a large fork tip) to allow better flow of the formula, which though watered-down is still much thicker than the liquids the syringe is made for. Only a small amount of formula should be forced into the mouth at a time. (DO NOT attempt to force-feed too much formula into the mouth or you could aspirate and kill your chinchilla). Depending on how eager she was to eat, it could take as many as 7-9 small pushes of the plunger to empty the 3cc syringe. Sometimes Banshee would eagerly reach for the syringe; other times she was finicky, or would even struggle against the process, and had to basically be force-fed. The process could get messy; a damp paper towel nearby was a must. There were many days when it all seemed hopeless. At one point her weight dropped to a frightening 420 grams... very low for a black velvet female, which are often on the chubbier side. But finally her weight stabilized and we were able to keep her in the 450-480 range, occasionally bouncing up to around 500, only to slide back to her hand-feeding norm. Just when we thought we were consigned to hand-feeding her for the rest of her life, she began eating on her own. We were amazed, and briefly expected a relapse, but that has not occurred. She has been well for six months now, back to her old self, and doing great. Weight 570 grams. So, please, if you have a chinchilla experincing malocclusion, consider hand-feeding as a treatment regime. We are not completely certain that the molar-grinding had much an effect; it would seem that if so, her condition would have immediately improved, and it did not. Our theory now is that, just as they grow into malocclusion, they can grow out of it... IF they are kept alive long enough to allow that to happen. Good luck with your chinchillas.


And for more information about chinchillas check out Chin Net


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