Confession: I once bought a pet completely on impulse. I knew that wasn’t how you were supposed to do it, but I just handed over the money and took him home. That’s how irresistibly cute chinchillas are.
I’d owned rodents before, so I knew some of the basics, but I quickly discovered that a chinchilla is not a hamster or a guinea pig. Later I also worked with them at a zoo, and the way I’d sum it up is this: They’re more like pets than most zoo animals, but more like wild animals than most pets.
This isn’t really surprising when you know that chinchillas were originally brought into captivity for their fur, not for the pet trade. “We can probably say this is not an animal that was ever selected for friendliness and bonding to people,” says Valarie V. Tynes, DVM. “I’m not going to say they’re still wild, but they probably maintain a lot more of their ancestors’ wild behavior patterns.”
Charming but Challenging
This is unlike the domestic rat or guinea pig, which have been bred to be easy to handle. Never mind cuddling, chinchillas can be challenging simply to pick up and hold. I was taught to catch them at the base of the tail – being careful not to miss and grab the long part, which can easily shed the skin. This method is stressful for all involved, so ideally you’ll want to spend time to get your chinchilla used to coming to your hands to be cradled, gently. Their bodies are a lot tinier than you’d guess under that thick layer of fluffy soft fur, and rather fragile. “If you handle them roughly, they can drop a lot of fur from stress,” says Dr. Tynes.
And catching them up is a thing you’ll have to do regularly, because Tynes says these are animals who need plenty of time out of their cage, even if you get them the very large cage they require.
“They are much more active and agile than other rodents. You can give a domesticated pet rat a very nice enriched environment in a cage if you work at it,” she says. “A rat can spend a lot of time in a cage and some time out with you, and that can be a pleasurable relationship and provide that animal with good welfare.” But she sees a chinchilla as more comparable to a ferret – an animal who needs a cage for a safe home, but has to spend a considerable amount of time outside it. “You need to be prepared for them to have very good high-quality time outside their cage, because of the level of exercise and activity they like to have,” she says. “They’re busy little guys.”
And that time must be closely supervised, or else spent in an escape-proof chinchilla-proofed area. It’s in a rodent’s nature to chew things, and as I was fortunate to discover before my chinchilla got hurt, electrical wires are apparently delectable. “They will chew furniture, they will chew wires; they will either harm themselves or harm your things,” Tynes says.
Tynes also notes that these are highly social animals, so you really shouldn’t get just one. “In the wild they’d never live alone,” she says. “They live in very large colonies. If you don’t want babies, get two boys or two girls.” And when you’re deciding where to put that large cage, note that you won’t want it in a bedroom unless you’re a very sound sleeper. They’re technically crepuscular, which means most active around dawn and dusk, but mine was also pretty busy at night. It’s not completely accurate to say that I once kicked out a roommate just so the chinchilla could have his own bedroom, but that definitely factored into it.
On the bright side, they are generally pretty healthy and don’t need a lot of preventive care. “They don’t appear to have a whole lot of health problems on average when given appropriate diet and exercise,” Tynes says. “They have a specialized GI that evolved to eat coarse, poor-quality vegetation, so they need a high-fiber diet.” They also have continually growing rodent teeth, which can over-grow if they don’t get enough to chew on. If they start drooling or won’t eat, that is likely a sign of tooth problems. When cared for properly, chinchillas can live a long time – in captivity, a lifespan between 10 and 20 years is not unusual.
One important part of care is providing chinchillas with the chance to take a dust bath. In their natural environment in the Andes, they do this in volcanic ash. You can buy bags of finely ground pumice or ash sold specifically for this purpose. It keeps their soft, fine coat and skin healthy, and it’s obviously something they adore doing; their enthusiasm can result in surprisingly large clouds of dust. “It’s a really important part of their behavioral repertoire,” says Tynes. “Some people don’t like how messy it is, so they don’t leave it in the cage and only offer it periodically, which is understandable, but really it’s something they need access to every day.”
It’s also unbelievably fun to watch them flip around in the dust. “I never get tired of watching that,” says Tynes. When I was a zookeeper, the chinchilla dust bath always got people’s attention on tours – it was one of the few times when I was sure that for a moment, people were not in a hurry to get out of my building and go see something bigger and more exciting like a lion or an elephant.
And when it comes right down to it, watching them is probably going to be most of what your relationship consists of.
“I have friends who have had chinchillas and have absolutely loved them, and they’ve been sweet and friendly and relatively healthy. But I don’t know I’d say they’re a particularly cuddly type of animal,” says Tynes. The chinchilla owners she remembers most fondly are ones who were at peace with this. “Their evening entertainment was to let their chinchillas out to run around the house, and they’d just sit there and watch them running and frolicking around their living room,” she says. “It didn’t matter to them that they didn’t want to be petted and snuggled. They enjoyed seeing them do their chinchilla thing, watching them jump and frolic.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Published August 17, 2020