Basic Information Sheet: Chinchilla

Chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera)

chinchilla

Photo credit: Darekp via Wikimedia Commons

Natural history


The chinchilla is a small mammal native to South America. Originally found in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, chinchillas were hunted and trapped for their pelts to near extinction in the early 1900s.22 The last free-living chinchillas are found in the mountains of northern Chile.13 Chinchillas are perfectly adapted to the rough conditions of their natural habitat: wind, cold, and dryness.22

Taxonomy



Class: Mammalia

Order: Rodentia

Suborder: Hystricomorpha

Family: Chinchillidae

Genus: Chinchilla

Chinchilla lanigera, also known as the long-tailed chinchilla (formerly Chinchilla velligera) has a smaller body, large ears, and a long tail.

Chinchilla brevicaudata, or the short-tailed chinchilla (formerly C. chinchilla chinchilla), has a relatively large body, small ears, and a short tail.

Conservation status



The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists both long-tailed and short-tailed chinchillas as endangered due to loss of natural habitat and hunting and trapping of animals.21

Color


The normal wild-type chinchilla is a smoky blue-gray (standard gray).17 The are many other colors including black velvet, beige, white, ebony, violet, and sapphire. These colors serve as the basis for color mutations such as tan, brown velvet, mosaic, pink-white, etc.12


Diet


The natural diet of chinchillas consists of grasses, cactus fruits, dry roots and tubers, as well as the bark and leaves of small shrubs and bushes. Almost all food items are high in dietary fiber with little fat, sugar, or protein.28 The digestive system of chinchillas is perfectly adapted to these nourishments, the long intestine guarantees an optimal utilization of the sparse food.14,27

Captive animals should be fed a high-fiber diet, similarly low in protein, sugar, and fat. The bulk of the diet should consist of high-quality  grass hay. The hay must always be freely available, dry, and free of odor, mold, or dust.28 Dried herbs and high-fiber chinchilla or rabbit pellets, approximately 15-30 ml (1-2 teaspoons) per animal per day, can be offered. Small quantities of fresh vegetables can also be fed (see important medical conditions below).

The digestive system of the chinchilla is perfectly adapted to extract energy and nutrients from a barren food supply, which puts captive animals at risk for obesity and hepatic lipidosis. Do not feed high-fat foods, like nuts and seeds, or foods rich in sugar, like fruits (e.g. raisins).

Water has to be freely available. In the wild, chinchillas nibble rain drops from leaves or stones, either water bowls or water bottles are suitable and have different advantages. While water intake is larger from bowls, which may reduce the risk for urolithiasis 11, water in bottles stays clean longer.19

Husbandry



Chinchillas are crepuscular to nocturnal, although they can be active during the day.

CagingChinchillas require a great deal of space with multiple levels for jumping and climbing. The minimum dimensions should be 50 cm (20 in) wide and 150 cm (60 in) high with a volume of at least 3 m3 (800 gallon). For each additional animal at least 0.5 m3 are required. The cage floor should ideally be solid and covered with aspen shavings or recycled paper product. Select small-gauge wire (15 mm x 15 mm) to prevent limb injury.1

The best enclosure for chinchillas is a chinchilla room with branches and wooden platforms (S. Mayr, written communication). A latrine area can be cleaned daily, but the remainder of the room can be cleaned once a week. The floor is covered with recycled paper bedding or aspen wood shavings.

Cage furnitureProvide visual security, such as PVC piping, cork caves or sleeping cottages with a minimum size of 30 x 20 x 20 cm. Provide a separate hiding box to each animal. The hiding boxes should be placed on different levels in the cage, however the highest hide box will probably be the preferred sleeping place.

Provide free choice access to dust baths, whenever possible. Use commercially available chinchilla dust. Clean or sieve sand regularly (see important medical conditions below).

Chinchillas also require material for gnawing or chewing to reduce the risk of dental overgrowth. Branches of unsprayed deciduous trees (e.g. hazelnut, willow, birch) are suitable; do not offer branches from stone fruit trees or conifer trees.

EnrichmentIf not kept in a room especially set up for chinchillas, animals require at least 30 minutes of exercise or play outside of their cage daily.

“Flying saucer” exercise wheels are preferable over “regular” exercise wheels to minimize the risk of back and limb problems.  The larger “flying saucer” wheels do not force the animal into an abnormal hyperextended back position, but individuals can still develop limb problems due to abnormal loading of joints and muscles.

NumbersChinchillas are social animals. Pairs, trios, and harems as well as single-sex groups can live together peacefully.18 The best period to socialize animal is before sexual maturity.
TemperatureChinchillas easily succumb to heat stress at temperatures exceeding 26.7°C (80°F). Temperatures between 18.3-26.7°C (59°F-70°F) are best for holding and ambient temperature.19 One source describes optimal temperatures as low as 10°C (50°F).26
“Neighbors”Rodents should not be housed near rabbits. Even healthy rabbits can harbor a variety of bacteria that can cause morbidity or mortality.


Normal physiologic values

Note: Physiologic values reported are for C. lanigera unless otherwise noted9,19,20


Rectal temperature98.5-100.4°F37-39.5°C
Pulse150-350 bpm
Respiration40-80 bpm
Body weightAdult male400-500 g
Adult female450-700 gFemales are usually larger.
Mean life span8-10 yr.Up to 20 yr. has been reported
Sexual maturity 8,9F: 4-6 monthsM: 8-9 months
Breeding maturity 9F: 8-12 months, minimal weight 600 g
Suitable castration ageF: n/aM: 6 months
Heat or estrus4-5 daysSpontaneous ovulation
Estrous cycle 228-35 d (range 15-90) 2,19Directly after birthing, the female is receptive again (until 10 days after the birth)Seasonally polyestrous (November to May in the Northern Hemisphere)
GestationC. lanigera 105-118 days (average 111 + 3 days)9C. brevicaudata 128 days
Birth weight30-50 g
Parental investmentPrecocialNewborns are fully furred with open eyes
Litter size1-6 (average 2)
Weaning age4-8 weeks
Target environmental temperature50-68°F10-20°C 25
Target environmental humidity< 40% 1Should not exceed 55%

Anatomy/physiology


DermatologyChinchillas have more hairs per square inch than any other animal.26 This dense coat, along with a lack of sweat and sebaceous glands, makes chinchillas very sensitive to heat and increased humidity.

Chinchillas can reflexively release tufts of hair (“fur slip”) as a predator avoidance mechanism leaving a patch of smooth skin, which takes several months to regrow.19 The skin on the tail can also tear when an inexperienced individual attempts to catch up a chinchilla.

Dental formulaI (I/1) C (0/0) PM (1/1) M (3/3)

The front of the incisors is yellow to orange due to iron in the enamel.5 The sides and posterior part of the incisors and molars are colorless or homogeneous white.

The teeth are open-rooted (hystricomorph) and show lifelong growth (approximately 12 mm or 0.4 inches per week).24 The upper incisors grow more rapidly than the lower incisors.6

The occlusal surface of the morals is parallel to the jawbones, and masticatory movement is craniocaudal.

HematologyAdult chinchillas have a lymphocytic hemogram (up to 94% total leukocyte count).

Their neutrophils are hyposegmented and are also known as acidophils or pseudoeosinophils.3,4,20,29

MusculoskeletalThe skeleton is very delicate, especially the tibia/fibula.

Males possess an os penis.15

RespiratoryAll rodents are obligate nasal breathers.
Special sensesChinchillas possess large ears with thin-walled pinnae and well-developed bullae.
UrogenitalFemales have a prominent urinary papillae (or cone). The vaginal membrane is closed except during estrus and parturition. There are two uterine horns and two cervices.19

Male chinchillas lack a true scrotum and the testicles sit within the inguinal canal. Males possess an os penis.15



Chinchillas are relatively easy to restrain, however they can become can be quite quick and prone to struggle. To take the animal out of an enclosure, it is easiest to gently grasp the tail base first. The second hand supports the body around the chest. Most chinchillas are calm if they are wrapped in a towel; others like to hide their head in the crook of the handler’s arm.

Never hold the tip of a chinchilla’s tail.

When frightened or held overzealously, ‘chins’ can shed patches of fur (see Dermatology above).


 

Large volumes:  Jugular vein, cranial vena cava4,9,19,23,29

  • Use a 22-to 25-gauge needle; aspiration with 1-to 3-ml-syringe.
  • Caval sticks should only be performed under anesthesia.

Small volumes:  Cephalic vein or lateral saphenous vein4,9,19,23

  • Use an insulin syringe, a 25-gauge needle with a 1-ml syringe, or a 20- or 21-gauge needle with the hub broken off, free dripping or Multivette (V. s. lateralis).
  • Sedation or shaving is generally not necessary.

Preventive medicine

Important medical conditions


Commonly seen conditions include:

  • Barbering or fur chewing
  • Dental disease, dental abscess
  • Gastrointestinal stasis
  • Gastroenteritis (Since the natural chinchilla diet is low in water, significant amounts of fresh produce can lead to diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disturbances.)
  • Heat stress
  • Obesity, hepatic lipidosis
  • Orthopedic injury (fractures)
  • Penile hair rings

Less common conditions include:

  • Conjunctivitis (This clinical problem is rare, when chinchilla sand is used, however this  condition is more likely to be seen when there is unlimited access to dust baths paired with poor ventilation OR when volcanic ash is offered for dust bathing. In animals with a history of this problem, offer dust for a few hours daily or at minimum a few times weekly).
  • Dermatophytosis has also been reported.
  • Diabetes mellitus and subsequent cataracts: Although not a common disease in chinchillas, this condition has been reported. Affected animals are most commonly presented for changes in eye color.
  • Movement stereotypies, such as cage scratching and backflipping, have been described in fur farm chinchillas.
  • Vitamin-E deficiency or “yellow ear disease” is sometimes seen when chinchillas are fed low-quality feed.

Antibiotics to Avoid



Avoid antimicrobials that attack only gram-positive bacteria such as beta-lactam antibiotics or bacitracin.7,20

“P.L.A.C.E.” is a helpful mnemonic for antibiotics to avoid:

  • Penicillin
  • Lincosamide, lincomycin
  • Amoxicillin, ampicillin
  • Cephalosporins, clindamycin
  • Erythromycin

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References