Chinchillas live for 15-20 years so owners need to be prepared for a long-term commitment. They are friendly and inquisitive, but need gentle handling and are nocturnal, making them unsuitable as pets for very young children. They can be kept alone, but are happier in single sex pairs.
They should be kept in a large cage, with different levels, to allow them to exercise freely, and should have a nest box or sleeping area where they can feel secure. Chinchillas require a dust bath to keep their fur clean, and need wooden toys or mineral stones to chew to prevent dental over-growth. Housing should be out of direct sunlight, draught-free and in an area of even temperature (chinchillas can suffer from heat stroke if they become too warm).
Chinchilla pellets are a suitable diet, provided good quality hay is also given. The fibre in hay is necessary to aid digestion, and it also helps to keep teeth in wear. Small amounts of dried fruits, breakfast cereals and vegetables can be offered, but only in moderation, as too much sugar and fat can lead to ill-health. Water must be refreshed and replenished daily.
Signs of ill health in chinchillas can be vague and non-specific, but as deterioration can be swift, it is worthwhile seeking veterinary attention as soon as any abnormality is suspected. Some diseases of chinchillas are mentioned below.
- Gastrointestinal upsets: The digestive tract of chinchillas is designed for a high fibre diet, so incorrect feeding (low fibre, high fat, high protein) can easily cause diarrhoea. Bacterial infections and parasitic infestations (such as worms) may also lead to gut upsets, so antibiotics or anthelminthics may be prescribed if dietary management alone is unsuccessful.
- Heat stroke: Chinchillas naturally inhabit the cold regions of the Andes Mountains and have very thick fur. In consequence, they are prone to over-heat if the environment warms much above normal room temperature, especially if there is high humidity. This is an emergency condition requiring immediate attention. Cold water should be applied straight away, and veterinary advice sought. Treatment includes ice packs, cold water enemas, intraperitoneal and intravenous fluids, together with medication where appropriate.
- Mouth disorders: As with other rodents, overgrowth of teeth can occur, with both front (incisor) teeth and back (molar) teeth potentially being affected. Symptoms include inappetance and excessive salivation. Problems with the front teeth are easy to see and can sometimes be treated without anaesthetic by burring the ends of the incisors. It is not usually possible to visualise or treat the back teeth without using a general anaesthetic, and X-rays may be necessary to determine the full extent of the dental disorder.
- Respiratory disease: Overcrowding, poor ventilation and high humidity are predisposing factors in respiratory disease, and an initial minor problem can progress to pneumonia. Lethargy, anorexia, nasal discharge and difficulty breathing can all be signs of respiratory disease, and intensive therapy (fluids, hand-feeding and antibiotics) may be necessary to prevent serious consequences.
- Skin: Bite wounds are common in chinchillas housed together, and can carry the risk of septicaemia if untreated. Various bacteria, including Pasteurella, are present in the mouth of chinchillas, so specific antibiotics are required to combat infection.