History and Biology

The chinchilla is a medium size rodent that originates from the Andes.  They were kept and used by the Incas for food and clothing.  Chinchillas were later brought to Europe where their pelts became fashionable and widely used for clothing.  This demand for their luxurious pelts almost made them extinct and by the early 1900s the wild population was sparse.  With governmental assistance, an American man trapped eleven wild chinchillas in 1923 (C lanigera) and bred them in captivity, servicing the demand for the fur trade, but also securing survival of the species. 

There are two species, Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla brevicaudata.  The latter is much larger with a shorter tail, thicker neck and smaller ears, but is now considered rare, possibly extinct.  

Chinchillas are non-burrowing animals that live in groups in rock crevices or burrows at elevations above 4000 metres (15,000 feet).  They are adapted to a barren mountainous terrain; thick fur protects them from the cold temperatures and foot pads allow agility on rocky surfaces. 

Chinchillas have soft and dense fur.  The tail is long and covered with short coarse hairs.  Through selective breeding, there is a wide range of coat colours.  These include silver, white, platinum, black velvet, sapphire, rose/apricot, chocolate brown and albino.

Chinchillas are social animals that rarely fight.  They are generally nocturnal and prefer a quiet environment during the day, although some individuals can be active in the daytime.  Chinchillas do not hibernate.  They are clean and inquisitive, but can be shy, jumpy and reluctant to sit still for long, making them more appropriate as pets for older children and adults. 

Their average life expectancy is eight to ten years, and their average bodyweight is 400-600grams, with the females being slightly larger.


Chinchillas are active and require secure, spacious housing with a sleeping area.   They like to jump and climb, and a large multilevel cage is recommended.  The minimum sized cage for a pair of chinchillas should be 30 inches long x 30 inches wide x 36 inches high (75cm x 75cm x 90 cm.).  A wire mesh cage is better than wood because they like to gnaw and may chew through the wood.  The mesh must be small enough to prevent foot and limb injury (15mm x 15mm) and part of the floor should be solid.  Dust free shavings can be used for litter.  Do not use cedar or pine chips, as the oils they contain can lead to health problems.  A wooden box inside the cage is recommended for hiding and sleeping.  The cage should be thoroughly cleaned at least weekly 

The chinchilla’s natural habitat provides low humidity.  High temperatures and high humidity MUST be avoided all year round.  Chinchillas are prone to heat stroke, which can lead to death, if the environmental temperature rises above 28C, especially when this is coupled with high humidity.  Therefore, you need to put the cage in a room where there is a constant temperature, which must NOT reach more than 80F (28C).  The cage should be away from direct sunlight, heaters and draughts, off the floor and out of reach of any pets.  In the UK, chinchillas should never be housed outside because of the fluctuations in the climate.

Chinchillas are naturally very active and inquisitive animals and so need lots of room in which to climb and play.  Chewing helps to keep their teeth worn down so it is important that you make sure your chinchilla has plenty of safe things to chew. Branches that have not been painted or treated with pesticides or other chemicals can be used for climbing and platforms may also be offered.  Drainpipe tunnels can be provided and terracotta flower pots are great for hiding in.  Cardboard or untreated  wooden boxes give them something in which to hide that they can chew as well.  Foraging can be encouraged by hiding some small pieces of food or treats in their play areas.

Chinchillas are fastidious groomers and require daily dust baths.  There are commercial dust products available.  Beach type sand should NOT be used.  A fine mixture of fuller’s earth (a type of kaolin) and silver sand would be suitable.  A small amount (2-3cm deep) should be placed in a container large enough for the chinchilla to roll around in.  These sand baths help to keep their coats healthy by removing excess oils, but need to be kept clean (remove soiled sand immediately). They should be removed when not in use. 

Chinchillas must not be bathed in water as their coats absorb water and are very difficult to dry out.  Water in their fur may cause hypothermia which could prove fatal.  


Free ranging chinchillas survive on a diet of grasses, cactus fruit, leaves and the bark of small scrubs and bushes.  The chinchilla originates from an area of the Andes where vegetation is tough and fibrous and low in energy content.  This requires a high food intake, with lots of chewing to obtain the nutrients.  Chinchillas need this high fibre diet to maintain their teeth.  Therefore, the recommended chinchilla diet consists of a good quality grass hay (timothy) and a small amount of chinchilla pellets.  Because the diet must be high in fibre, pellets should NEVER be fed on their own and hay should be available at all times, which is essential to keep the digestive system healthy and also to help wear down their continually growing teeth.  Pellets should be limited to 1-2 tablespoons per day.  The chinchilla diet must be very low in fat and they should never have sunflower seeds or peanuts in their diet, as they can easily become overweight if they have too much fat and, over the long term, this can be fatal.  Fruit and small amounts of greens can be offered as treats. 

Any change in the diet should be made gradually, over several days, as chinchillas have very sensitive stomachs that are easily upset by sudden changes in the diet.

It is preferable to feed your chinchilla at the same time every day, in the late afternoon or early evening.  Always make sure that your chinchilla has access to fresh, clean drinking water, which should be changed daily.

Handling and Behaviour

It is better to house at least two chinchillas together, as they do enjoy companionship. However, you must ensure that certain rules are adopted before you buy two or more.  You must have a cage that is large enough to accommodate more than one chinchilla.  Chinchillas should never be kept in single sex pairs as they will fight, but you could put two cages next to each other.  You can only keep a male and a female together, which need to be kept in two cages to begin with and very gradually introduced to each other, before they are put into the same cage, but his obviously results in litters.  Please contact your veterinary surgery regarding neutering, before keeping a male and female together.

Chinchillas are usually easy to handle and rarely bite.  However, they can be shy and nervous and reluctant to stay still for long periods.  They can move quickly and the best approach is to hold the animals gently around the chest, supporting the body.   It is important to handle your chinchilla every day.  Always approach your chinchilla on the same level.  Crouch in front of him and let him come to you, presenting the back of your hand for him to sniff.  Gently put your thumb behinds the forelegs with your fingers over his back and lift with one hand whilst supporting the weight of the chinchilla by scooping up the rump with the other hand.  Gently place your chinchilla on to your lap or hold against your chest.  Never pick him up by his tail.  Handling gives a good opportunity for a quick health check.  Check he is clean around the eyes, ears, nose and bottom.  Also check that his teeth and nails are not too long.  Make sure his fur is clean and shiny and there are not any lumps or bumps.  If you are at all concerned about your chinchilla, contact your veterinary surgery immediately.

Chinchilla fur, although dense, is not tightly attached and this serves as a defence mechanism to predator attack.  The fur should not be grasped roughly during handling, as it may result in a dropped patch of fur in a frightened animal  (“fur slip”).

Common Diseases and Ailments

Mouth problems - chinchillas are rodents which means that their teeth grow continuously throughout their life.  It is very important to ensure that chinchillas always have something to chew and gnaw on to help wear down their teeth.  Dental disease is very common in captive chinchillas. If teeth become overgrown, the chinchilla may be unable to eat properly, lose weight and become weak and, therefore, more susceptible to illness.  Teeth may be too long if you see dribbling from the side of the mouth, pawing at the mouth, difficulty in eating, ocular discharges and weight loss.  If you notice any of these signs you should take your chinchilla to the veterinary surgery as soon as possible.  To prevent dental disease offer hay and fresh leafy vegetation to ensure a normal chewing pattern, as well as providing adequate vitamin A intake.  It is important to recognise dental problems in the early stages.

Eye problems – If there is any ocular discharge or the eyelids are inflamed and sore, it may be that there is an irritation or infection that must be treated with medication from a vet.

Ear problems – if your chinchilla is pawing its ears, or you notice discharge, or there is a lack of balance, you should take your chinchilla to the vet. 

Pneumonia – if your chinchilla is wheezy, finds it difficult to breathe, is thin, or has a runny nose, it may have a chest infection or pneumonia.  Contact your veterinary surgery immediately as pneumonia puts a lot of stress on their bodies and can be fatal. Overcrowding, high humidity, poor ventilation and other stress-induced factors may result in pneumonia. 

Coat condition – chinchillas have dense fur and there are very few instances of mites or other parasites, but they can have fungal coat infections which may be recognised as small scaly patches of hair loss on the nose ears and feet. The fur can look limp and messy and, in some cases, the whiskers can break. Contact your veterinary surgery for advice.  Chinchillas that are roughly handled or fight may release a patch of fur, (fur slip) leaving the skin smooth and clean.  Following ‘fur slip’ the fur may take several months to regrow.

Diarrhoea - High fibre low energy diets are essential for the chinchillas.  An abrupt change in diet, too much green food, inappropriate antibiotic use, overcrowding, stress and diets too low in fibre and too high in fat and protein are all predisposing factors.  Contact your veterinary surgery if your chinchilla has diarrhoea.

Heat strokeAs chinchillas are adapted to low environmental temperatures, prolonged exposure to temperatures above 28C (80F) can result in heat stroke.  Affected animals can collapse and they pant.  Seek veterinary treatment immediately. Owners should be reminded to keep chinchilla cages away from radiators or sunny windows.

Always consult a vet if you have ANY reason for concern.



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Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Inc.)

Founded 1868 – Incorporated 1936

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