Chinchillas are rodents native to the northern Andes of Chile. Often kept as pets, they are also appreciated for their luxuriously soft fur, having even been almost brought to extinction due to demand.
Chinchilla fur was originally spotted yellow-grey in nature, according to Merck’s veterinary manual. However, with selective breeding, other colours have become common, including silver, grey-yellow, grey-blue, white, beige and black. Each hair ends with a black tip, whatever the color of the animal.
First introduced about 41 million years ago, chinchilla ancestors were among the first rodents to infest South America. Chinchilla fur became popular in the 1700s, and animals were hunted almost until extinction in 1900. Around this time, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru banned hunting wild chinchillas.
However, according to the website «Chinchilla Chronicles», an American mining engineer named Mathias F. Chapman obtained a special authorization from the Chilean government to bring chinchillas to the United States in 1923. Today, almost everyone in this country is a direct descendant of the 11 chinchillas that Chapman brought there.
Chinchillas are related to guinea pigs and porcupines. With short front legs and long muscular back legs, they look like rabbits, but their ears are much shorter and rounded. They have big black eyes and a bushy tail. They have four toes on each foot and the fine claws of each toe are surrounded by stiff hairs.
Chinchillas generally measure between 9 and 15 inches (23 and 38 cm), but the tail can add 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm) to their length. They usually weigh 1.1 to 1.8 lb (0.5 to 0.8 kg).
Chinchillas are omnivorous; they eat both plants and meat. Mainly, they eat grass and seeds, but also insects and bird eggs when they have the opportunity. To eat, they hold their food in their front legs and nibble on it.
Chinchillas are covered in thick fur for a reason. In the Andes, they can live between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea level. At these heights, it can be very cold; -23°F (-5°C) is the average minimum temperature in some areas. These small rodents can tolerate freezing temperatures, but they cannot survive temperatures above 80°F (27°C); high temperatures and humidity can cause heat stroke.
Chinchillas are twilight and nocturnal, which means they are very active at dawn or dusk and sleep during the day. They make their homes by snooping through underground tunnels or nesting in rock crevices. They are very social and live in colonies that consist of hundreds of individuals.
Chinchilla As a Pet
It is recommended to keep domestic chinchillas in a wire mesh cage with a solid floor. The cage must be well ventilated and kept dry and cool between 16°C and 21°C (60°F and 70°F). Chinchillas do not get along well in cages and must be kept in individual cages.
Chinchillas can eat dumplings of food available in pet stores as well as hay, dried fruits and nuts, carrots and green vegetables in moderation, about 10% of their daily diet. A bottle equipped with a suction tube is the best way to provide water.
To stay clean, these rodents bathe in dust. It is recommended that domestic chinchillas take dust baths once or twice a week in fine volcanic ash found in pet stores.
We think that chinchillas are smarter than rabbits and that they can learn to play with humans. However, they do not make good pets for small children, because they are hyperactive and very nervous.