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The Chinchilla

The Chinchilla

The chinchilla is an herbivore belonging to the order of rodents and the hystricomorph family. It is distinct from the rabbit as it has a single pair of maxillary incisors, and differs from the myomorphs (rat, mouse, hamster) by having continuously growing teeth. This is the reason why dental issues are common in this species.

Contrary to popular belief, the chinchilla is not recommended as a child’s first pet. It’s an animal with a life expectancy of up to 15 to 20 years that needs a lot of space and can’t usually be trained to use a litter box. Moreover, the chinchilla is a nocturnal species, which means it is mainly active at night, and can be destructive to furniture.

Please refer to our detailed recommendations to make sure you feed your chinchilla the right diet.



Chinchillas are a social species and should be kept in groups of at least two individuals, preferably of the same gender. In the wild, chinchillas live in groups, but females may be prone to attacking males.

A chinchilla’s health is largely dependent on its environment. There are many ways to provide a suitable environment for your chinchilla. Here are the main guidelines:

  • Large cages designed for ferrets or chinchillas (with several levels) may be suitable. Commercial cages for guinea pigs or rabbits are not recommended. 
  • - The cage should be installed in a quiet, well-ventilated room away from predators. The cage should not be exposed to direct sunlight, or placed in a very humid, hot environment. During the summer months in Quebec, it’s best to keep chinchillas in a cool area, in a basement, for example.
  • The ideal temperature for a chinchilla is between 18 and 23 degrees Celsius. Above 23 degrees Celsius, chinchillas risk heatstroke.
  • Chinchillas need plenty of space and access to an enclosure or secure room for several hours a day. Beware! Chinchillas can jump as high as 6 feet.
  • Chinchillas also enjoy running in a plastic wheel or ball. It’s preferable to offer a plastic wheel and avoid wire mesh wheels (risk of fractures or injuries).
  • We recommend avoiding wooden cages (impossible to clean properly) and glass terrariums (suboptimal ventilation).
  • Wire mesh cage bottoms are not recommended, as they can lead to pododermatitis and fractures. It’s preferable to install soft mats (anti-slip mats, for example), blankets or towels, and/or substrate such as paper litter. 
  • Paper litter is preferable to wood shavings for your pet’s respiratory health. In any case, cedar shavings are toxic and should be avoided at all costs.
  • It is important to provide several hiding spots (at least as many hiding spots as there are individuals).
  • Offering a portion of your pet’s meals in toys is suggested to provide enrichment and encourage exercise. Kibble can be offered in a hollow plastic ball, or hay hidden in paper or an empty toilet paper roll, in a basket, or in an empty cardboard box.
  • It is preferable to offer hay on the ground or in a container close to the ground. High hay racks increase the risk of foreign bodies (pieces of hay) entering the animal’s eyes, which could lead to infections or corneal abrasions.
  • - Providing both a bottle and a bowl of water is advisable in case the bottle’s mechanism becomes blocked.
  • We strongly advise against bathing chinchillas. However, they love taking sand baths to maintain their coats. Volcanic sand is preferable (do not buy regular sand for sandboxes). Sand baths should be offered every day, for 20 to 30 minutes. Any longer and the bath can quickly become soiled, and sand particles can contribute to conjunctivitis.


Veterinary Care

- There is no vaccine currently recommended for chinchillas in Quebec.

- A yearly veterinary examination is recommended, including a complete dental check-up.

- Preventive treatments against skin parasites are recommended for chinchillas that live with animals that go outdoors (dogs, cats, rabbits).

- Routine sterilization of females is not recommended, as the risks associated with the procedure are significant.

- Sterilization of males is recommended to ease cohabitation between males and prevent pregnancy in the case of mixed cohabitation.


Common Medical Issues that Warrant Consultation 

If your chinchilla presents one or more of these symptoms, consult a veterinarian as soon as possible: 

-Appetite loss for more than 8 hours

-Lack of stool production for more than 8 hours


-Urinating difficulties or absence of urination 

-Protrusion of the penis outside the prepuce (paraphimosis)

-Abundant blood in urine or stools

-Difficulty breathing

-Sudden decrease in activity level

-Signs of fracture

-Difficulty giving birth

-Keeping one eye closed or purulent discharge from one eye

-Any altercation with a cat

-Open wound


Frequent Illnesses 


Lack of hair in certain places on the chinchilla’s body can be associated with a variety of causes. Certain areas are naturally hairless, such as the skin behind the ears and under the legs.

Chinchillas may also shed a small patch of fur as a defence mechanism following trauma, stressful immobilization or the perception of danger. In these cases, the alopecia is well-defined and the skin is uninjured. There is no specific treatment; simply wait for the hair to grow back and minimize the factors that led to the initial condition.

Alternatively, alopecia associated with dandruff, redness, scabs and/or itching may be the result of infection (bacterial, fungal and rarely parasitic), dental disease, or less-than-optimal environmental conditions (cage hygiene, lack of sand baths, excessive humidity or temperature); it may also be self-inflicted (behavioural problem). 

A veterinary consultation is recommended. In the meantime, we strongly advise against the use of antibiotic creams such as Polysporin®, which, when ingested by chinchillas, can cause diarrhea and loss of appetite, leading to serious complications. Depending on your animal’s medical history and lesion appearance, your veterinarian will be able to recommend the appropriate course of action.

Loss of Appetite and Reduced Stool Production 

Sudden or gradual loss of appetite, associated with reduced or absent stool production, is one of the most frequent reasons for emergency consultation in chinchillas. Some animals will also show bruxism (teeth grinding), a general decline in condition, and assume abnormal positions.

An inadequate diet (too much feed and/or fruit, insufficient hay), stress, digestive infection or obstruction (stomach torsion, intussusception, or foreign body), or any other health condition causing pain or discomfort (urinary stones, respiratory or urinary infection, dental pain, etc.) may be involved. The most serious complication of this condition, if not treated promptly, is enterotoxemia.

The vet will carry out a complete physical examination and may recommend blood tests and/or X-rays to eliminate assumptions and adjust treatment accordingly. 

Treatment involves pain management and rehydration. Depending on the case, prokinetics, antibiotics and force-feeding may be recommended. In most cases, inpatient care is initially recommended, allowing treatments to be administered intravenously or subcutaneously. When the animal’s condition improves, treatment can be carried out at home.

The prognosis depends largely on the underlying cause. To prevent recurrence, make sure you follow nutritional recommendations and treat any underlying medical conditions.


This condition affects males only. It is characterized by the encircling/strangling of the penis by a ring of hair. As the penis is concealed at all times, detection of this condition is mainly based on signs of discomfort, such as excessive licking of the genital area, difficulty urinating, lethargy, or loss of appetite. Diagnosis is based on visualization of the ring of hair around the penis after it has emerged from the foreskin. This ring needs to be gently removed as soon as possible, which usually requires sedation or anaesthesia as this condition is painful. If the condition is treated early, there are no long-term complications. However, in more advanced cases, the integrity of the penis and the ability to urinate may be affected. As a preventive measure, it is recommended to monitor the appearance of the penis on a regular basis (once a week, for example). You should consult a veterinarian the same day if you notice a ring of hair around the penis, swelling or a change in the penis’ colour, abnormal discharge, difficulty or pain in urinating, or the absence of urine for more than 12 hours.

Dental Malocclusion  

The chinchilla has 20 teeth that grow continuously throughout its life, making it susceptible to dental problems. Causes of dental disease most often include insufficient intake of hay (fibre); less frequently, a congenital abnormality (birth or growth-related), vitamin D and/or calcium deficiency, trauma, or infection.

The 4 incisors are easily seen by owners and should be orange in colour, smooth, and symmetrical. However, the 16 premolars/molars can only be checked with a suitable instrument by a veterinarian, and are unfortunately often abnormal in case of dental disease. In most cases, abnormal teeth are elongated; some may be infected or fractured, or even have cavities. Chinchillas rarely show signs of mild or even moderate dental disease. It’s very common to diagnose an advanced dental condition in a chinchilla that suddenly has difficulty eating on the same day. For this reason, an annual dental examination is strongly recommended for this species.

Other related clinical signs include selective appetite (preference for feed, refuses hay), eye and/or nasal discharge, swelling of the face or behind the eye, excessive bruxism, weight loss, stomach ache, or hypersalivation, resulting in a chinchilla with a soiled chin and/or front paws.

Tooth trimming under general anaesthesia is usually recommended. In some cases, dietary adjustments can limit the progression of the disease (in the case of fibre deficiency); however, regular check-ups and tooth trimming are often necessary for life. The frequency of tooth trimming can vary from 4 weeks to several months.

Medical imaging (CT scans or X-rays of the head) can often be very useful in confirming the diagnosis and adjusting treatment.


Hélène Rembeaux DMV, IPSAV (Zoologic Medicine)