What is a Chinchilla?

What exactly is a chinchilla?

Are you thinking about adopting one of these cute creatures but still not quite sure what they are?

You’re not alone. Many people are attracted to these grey fluffy animals. But a lot of people don’t know exactly what a chinchilla is. Are these creatures similar to rabbits? Or maybe squirrels?

In this post, we will take a deep dive into everything you need to know about chinchillas. By the end of this article, we hope you understand what a chinchilla is, where they came from, and how to care for your very own pet chinchilla.

Chinchillas 101

Chinchillas are crepuscular rodents. These terms are important for understanding chinchillas.

  • Crepuscular– Chinchillas are most active during the twilight hours (dawn and dusk) and sleep during the sunny afternoon.
  • Rodent– Chinchillas have a large pair of front teeth that continue to grow throughout their entire lives.

Chinchillas are native to the Andes Region of South America. To survive the harsh climate and high altitude, they live in herds along the rocky terrain.

These creatures have a thick, fluffy grey coat and a long tail. They have delicate mouse-like ears. On average, chinchillas grow to be about 10 inches long and weigh about 1.5 pounds.

Chinchillas are known for their dense coat, in fact chinchillas are known to have the densest fur of all mammals that live on land. In the water, the sea otter has a denser coat.

Sadly, these creatures were hunted for their beautiful coats for hundreds of years. Luckily, in the 1900s, it became illegal to hunt wild chinchillas. Around this time, the first chinchillas were brought to the United States to be domesticated. Since the early 1920s, chinchillas have gained popularity as a small, adorable pet.

Wild chinchillas are still often hunted illegally. Poaching, in addition to living in a harsh climate, causes wild chinchillas to live less than 10 years on average. But, domesticated chinchillas can live up to 20 years, if cared for properly.

Habitat

As we mentioned earlier, chinchillas are native to South America. They are specifically found living 3,000-15,000 feet above sea level throughout Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Chinchillas often burrow into the rocks, crevices and volcanic ash that fill this harsh region. To survive the elements and escape predators, chinchillas had to adapt to their environment. Their fur, eating habits, sleep cycle, and social patterns all help chinchillas thrive in the Andes.

Domesticated chinchillas can easily live outside of the Andes Region. But, their environment should mimic their natural habitat in some ways. Make sure to keep their cage in a cool, dry place outside of direct sunlight. Also, provide some logs, sticks or rocks for burrowing.

Eating Habits

In the wild, chinchillas eat a diet of grass, twigs, and shrubs found among the rocky terrain. So, their digestive system adapted to these eating habits.

Chinchillas can’t properly digest foods high in fat or moisture. Their diet should mostly include fiber and protein.

Pet chinchillas should be fed a diet of chinchilla pellets, hay, and water. Occasionally, you can give your chinchilla a small treat. The best treats for chinchillas include small pieces of:

  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Kale
  • Blueberries
  • Grapes
  • Raisins

It is important that you limit the amount of high-fat and high-fiber foods your chinchilla consumes. These types of food can lead to digestive issues or illnesses. Never feed your chinchilla:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Nuts
  • Certain leafy greens (cabbage, spinach, lettuce)
  • Broccoli
  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Asparagus

Health

Chinchillas are rodents, which means they have a large pair of front teeth. These teeth never stop growing, which can lead to health issues.

In the wild, chinchillas chew on bark to help wear their teeth down. This keeps their teeth from growing to an uncomfortable size. But pet chinchillas need access to a chew toy to help wear down their teeth.

If their teeth are not worn down, they might experience oral disease or have difficulty eating.

Although chinchillas are generally healthy, they can experience a deadly heat stroke if they are kept in a hot room. Since chinchillas are used to the chilly Andes, they are not capable of surviving in hot climates. Keep your chinchilla’s cage in a cool, dark space.

Grooming

To fully understand chinchillas, you need to understand their fur.

Their fur is extremely important. It is why they were hunted to dangerously low levels. Their fur protects them from the harsh climate and helps them escape predators.

But, a chinchilla’s fur is also delicate and needs to be cared for correctly.

Chinchillas are capable of making a fur slip. This is a unique adaptation that helps chinchillas escape the grasp of a predator. If a chinchilla is caught (or scared) they can release a patch of fur.

Domesticated chinchillas might make a fur slip if they believe they are being threatened. You should try to create a safe and calming environment for your chinchilla so they never need to experience a fur slip. But, if this happens, don’t panic. You can treat the fur slip at home. Just keep an eye on the area to make sure it doesn’t become infected.

It is also important to know that a chinchilla’s fur shouldn’t get wet.

Their fur is very thick, which makes it difficult to dry. If a chinchilla’s fur gets wet, they might develop a fungus or a low body temperature. Both can lead to devastating health conditions.

In the wild, chinchillas use volcanic ash (instead of water) to clean themselves. They roll around in the dust to remove any dirt or oil from themselves. Domesticated chinchillas should also have access to a dust bath for grooming. Check out our complete dust bath guide for more details on this process.

Social Habits

Chinchillas are social creatures. In the wild, you can find herds of 100 chinchillas. Living in a large group helps protect them from predators.

Domesticated chinchillas are also very social. They prefer to live in pairs, so consider this before adopting a chinchilla. If you only adopt one chinchilla, you will need to devote a few hours each day to playing with your chinchilla.

It can be difficult to introduce new chinchillas to each other. Chinchillas, especially females, can become territorial. Male chinchillas are less territorial but will fight if they feel threatened.

Also, it is important to keep pet chinchillas away from other pets in your household. Dogs and cats can seem very threatening to chinchillas. Being around another pet could cause your chinchilla to experience stress, which can lead to negative health consequences.

Although pet chinchillas should live in a large cage, they still need plenty of time to exercise outside of their cage. Give your pet chinchilla a few hours each day to run, jump, and explore a room outside of their cage.

Final Thoughts

Chinchillas are unique creatures. They are sometimes considered strange and mysterious, which might make them even more popular as pets.

And chinchillas do make great pets. They are adorable, affectionate, and generally calm. But before adopting any pet, you should know what you are getting yourself into.

We hope this article helped you gain a better understanding of chinchillas. For even more information, please review our Complete Chinchilla Care Guide.

If you have any additional questions about chinchillas, please leave them in the comments below.

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