Quick, agile, acrobatic, quiet, shy, high-strung, odorless and fastidious, chinchillas are soft balls of luxurious fur that make hardy, if rambunctious pets.
A native of the rocky Chilean and Bolivian Andes, chinchillas look like small-eared, long-tailed rabbits or large, fluffy guinea pigs with dusky, pale-gray coats. Their names mean "little chincha" after the Chincha Indians who used the chinchilla pelts to decorate their ceremonial dress. Very nearly trapped to extinction in their native countries, a few animals were brought to the United States in 1923 and most of the 3,000 or so chinchillas here in captivity are their descendants.
Although the chinchilla you buy in a pet shop or from a breeder has never seen the wild, their lives in the wild will give you some idea of how to take care of your pet. First is to find some way to recreate the rocky habitat that chinchillas favor. They scramble among the rocks for food, climb to scan their territories, leap and hop away from enemies and burrow for safety. A lot of space is necessary to house these acrobatic animals. The larger the cage the better. It should be at least 6 1/2 feet square and 3 feet high. A cage constructed of small mesh wire with a solid floor will prevent the animal from breaking his legs.
To accommodate the animal's need to burrow and be his shy self, provide a 12 inch by 10 inch by 7 inch box inside the cage. Something impervious to sharp teeth is preferable since chinchillas are one of the animal world's great chewers. Their teeth, like those of rabbits, are always growing and so they are always teething. They have been known to chew through telephone wires, computer cables, table legs and shoes. You might try building the box out of some sections of PVC plumbing pipe. The material is hard to chew and can be cleaned easily. Chinchillas like everything clean.
In the barren areas in which they live they feed on dry grasses, leaves, and the bark of small trees and shrubs. Non-breeding adult pets do very well on a diet of high-quality grass (timothy hay) and one to two teaspoonfuls of chinchilla pellets. Both are necessary for good nutrition. This diet can be supplemented by a teaspoon or so of grains, dried apples or hazelnuts as a treat. More gnawing foods help keep their teeth healthy so include young non-chemically treated branches of maple and birch or pieces of bark from apple, peach or pear trees.
Although they are fastidious groomers, chinchillas don't bathe in water (water could be scarce up in the high Andes). Instead, like elephants, they bathe in dust, rolling in it until they feel sufficiently clean. Not just any dust will do and special chinchilla dust bath, such as Blue Cloud or Blue Sparkle, can be purchased. Provide them with dust for a bath every day, from 15 minutes to an hour at a time. Place one inch of the dust in a flat dish large enough for the chinchilla to roll in. Don't leave the dust bath in the cage because the animal will begin to use it as a litter box.
The temperature in the Andes is dry and cool and chinchillas in captivity require the same environment. Anything above 80 degrees Fahrenheit can be deadly to the animal. Something around 50 to 68 degrees is best.
Since chinchillas are good at hiding signs of illness, if they seem sick, they probably are. Bring your chinchilla to a veterinarian at the first sign of illness or change in appetite.