There are a few experiences that are quintessential parts of an American childhood: losing your first tooth, going to your first day of kindergarten, and adopting your first pet.
While most kids are interested in getting a dog, a cat, or a fish, a few adventurous children lean more toward exotic pets. Creatures like pythons, tarantulas, sugar gliders, and, cutest of all, chinchillas.
If you’re thinking about chinchilla adoption for your family, you likely have lots of questions like:
- Are chinchillas nocturnal?
- What should I feed my chinchilla?
- Are chinchillas good for kids?
- What kind of personality do chinchillas have?
- Is it legal to own a chinchilla in my state?
Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of chinchilla adoption, including care instructions, adoption proceedings, and the specific challenges of keeping a chinchilla as a pet.
All the following information is based on the characteristics of and care instructions for adult chinchillas. If you’re interested in adopting and caring for a baby, you’ll need to follow guidelines developed specifically for the care of baby chinchillas.
Please note that none of the care information here should be construed as medical advice; always consult your veterinarian if you have concerns about the health and well-being of your chinchilla.
Appearance and Size
Chinchillas (like hamsters, gerbils, and mice) are part of the rodent family. These small mammals are known for their dense fur, large ears, long tails, and strong hind legs.
Most chinchillas are between six and 12 inches in length, with tails that can stretch another six inches in length. Among domesticated chinchillas, females tend to be larger than males. Chinchillas of both sexes usually weigh no more than a few pounds.
Healthy chinchillas have soft fur and an incredibly dense coat, with dozens of hairs per hair follicle. This characteristic is an adaptation suited to the cold weather in the mountainous regions where chinchillas originate.
Chinchillas’ primary senses are their taste and hearing. Due to the large size of their ears, chinchillas have similar hearing capabilities to humans.
You might have heard that wild chinchillas only live to be about 10 years old. However, this lifespan is largely due to the strenuous conditions of living in the wild, including predation and destruction of their natural habitat.
When properly cared for, you can expect your pet chinchilla to live for about 20 years. If you adopt a young chinchilla, be prepared to care for them for their entire lifespan! Not all humane societies will accept unique or exotic pets, so a commitment to having this type of pet should be one that you’re willing to keep.
History in the Wild
Wild chinchillas are native to the Andes Mountains in South America, largely in Chile. They live in an arid, chill climate thousands of feet above sea level. Because of the general lack of vegetation in this habitat, wild chinchillas are adept at hiding and finding shelter in rocky crevices.
Chinchillas live in large colonies called herds, some with 100 chinchillas! These creatures are intensely social and tend to mate for life. Their natural predators are birds of prey, snakes, and skunks.
Wild chinchillas have been hunted to near extinction because of their soft fur, and they are currently on the endangered species list.
It’s important to understand these characteristics and adaptations of chinchillas in the wild because they directly impact the ways these animals behave in captivity. You’ll also need to provide a living environment that mimics the natural conditions of this mountainous habitat.
Like many prey animals, chinchillas are most active at dawn and dusk. This is when they eat, bathe, play, exercise, and do other activities. Unless you like rising with the sun, it might not be wise to keep your chinchilla in your bedroom!
Chinchillas tend to sleep 12-16 hours per day, primarily during daylight hours.
If a wild chinchilla gets its fur wet, the dense coat can take so long to dry that the animal risks getting a fungal infection on their skin or losing too much body heat and contracting hypothermia.
To avoid this, chinchillas take what are known as dust baths. Rather than cleaning their fur in water, wild chinchillas roll in volcanic ash to clean their hairs of dirt and oils. This also has the added benefit of preventing hair matting.
Chinchillas are very vocal animals, making various kinds of chirps, grunts, barks, and squeals. Some individuals may be quite loud, while others are quieter.
These animals have strong back legs, an adaptation developed to help them better survive in mountainous regions. It’s not uncommon for chinchillas to be able to jump six or more feet in the air, and you’ll need to keep this in mind when crafting their living space in your home.
Another adaptation that chinchillas have developed over time is what’s known as fur slip. When seized by a predator, chinchillas can immediately release a patch of hair, allowing them to escape the predator’s grasp and run to safety. They may exhibit this behavior in captivity whenever they feel threatened or stressed.
Finally, chinchillas are naturally skittish, jumpy, and easily startled. If startled, they will cower and attempt to find a place to hide.
Chinchillas like toys that they can chew on, so toys made of wood, rope, pumice, and cardboard are great choices for them. Chinchillas’ teeth are very sharp, so avoid toys made of plastic and other materials that could be hazardous if consumed by your pet.
It can also be helpful to engage your chinchilla’s mind during play. Hide treats throughout their enclosure to engage their foraging instincts and help them to burn energy.
Suitability for Children
Chinchillas are very jumpy and don’t always like to be handled. If you have children, they should at least be old enough to interact with your chinchilla calmly and gently. Chinchillas are not suitable pets for babies, toddlers, and young children.
You also shouldn’t attempt to keep chinchillas in a house with cats, dogs, or other large creatures. These other pets are likely to cause undue stress to your chinchilla and overactivate their fight-or-flight instincts.
Chinchillas must keep a specific diet in order to maintain optimal health. The trick is to not overthink or try to introduce too much diversity into their diet.
Chinchillas are herbivores that rely on fiber-heavy foods. A grass-based diet such as those filled with hay and grass pellets will give your chinchilla the daily nutrients it needs to thrive. Occasional treats like dried fruit, oats, and leafy greens are also welcome.
Chinchillas are great at self-monitoring their food consumption, so you can leave hay accessible to them in their environment throughout the day. Depending on the advice of your veterinarian, you may also supplement with a couple of tablespoons of pellet mix.
Avoid foods high in sugars, fats, or proteins, as these can cause major issues for the sensitive digestive tracts of chinchillas. While it may seem innocent to slip them a few seeds or nuts, resist the temptation to do so. And like most other pets, never feed them chocolate, as cocoa can be toxic for them.
If you need to adjust your chinchilla’s food, do so gradually. Transition them away from their old food to their new food by mixing the two and slowly increasing the ratio of the new to the old. This will help your chinchilla’s body adjust to the new input without shocking their system.
Chinchillas should also have consistent access to clean, fresh water. An adult chinchilla will drink a couple of ounces of water per day, so be sure to keep a full water bottle available to your pet at all times.
Avoid leaving their water in an open container, as getting the water in their fur can lead your chinchilla to develop moldy fur or a fungal infection.
Chinchillas need a lot of space to roam and stretch their legs. For the average-sized chinchilla, you’ll want to have about 50 cubic feet of cage space available to them at all times.
The cubed footage is important because chinchillas need as much vertical space as horizontal space. As mentioned before, these animals originate from a rocky, mountainous region and need room to climb to get their daily exercise.
A cage made of metal wire and mesh gives your chinchilla room to climb and explore while providing them with necessary access to airflow. The floor of the cage should also be made of metal, never plastic.
Line the floor of the cage with shredded paper, hay, or some varieties of wood shavings. Not all wood shavings are appropriate for chinchilla enclosures, so talk with your veterinarian or an expert at your local pet store to find the right product to use.
Air Temperature, Humidity, and Light
You’ll also need to simulate the air quality of chinchillas’ natural habitat. Because air density decreases as elevation increases, mountain air is quite thin, and this makes it less effective at trapping heat than air at lower elevations. Wherever you keep your chinchilla enclosure, it needs to be a climate-controlled room with air that is kept dry, cool, and well-ventilated. Aim for air temperature between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
This may mean that you’ll need to run your air conditioner more frequently than you’re used to, and you might also need to purchase an air dehumidifier and/or purifier for the room your chinchilla inhabits. Keep these costs in mind when considering the total upfront investment for getting a chinchilla for your family.
Depending on how many windows are in the room that your chinchilla is in, you may need to supplement the natural lighting with your own artificial lights. An even split between 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness best supports chinchillas’ natural circadian rhythms. Try to follow the natural timing of the sun when turning these lights on and off.
Chinchillas are not burrowing animals, but they require small spaces and crevices that they can wedge themselves into, as this is where they go when sleeping or protecting themselves from a perceived threat. Create cubby holes and other hiding places throughout your chinchilla’s environment, and fill these spaces with soft hay.
For the safety of your chinchilla, any bedding materials you use should be edible for the creature, and you’ll need to change it regularly to keep it from getting soiled.
Chinchillas need a lot of exercise and sensory stimulation, and you can easily achieve this by providing variation in their environment. Offer both soft and firm materials for them to walk on, like solid wood, soft hay, and wire mesh.
Give your chinchilla enough room to run and jump around; remember, chinchillas can leap over six feet in the air! Suspended platforms and branch-like structures will give them architecture to climb and make them feel at home. While the walls of an enclosure should be made of mesh, make the internal platforms solid to minimize the risk of injury to your pet.
Although chinchillas don’t create burrows, they love to explore small spaces. Winding tunnels exercise their brains by giving them room to explore. Occasionally, altering the placement and connections of these tunnels will keep the environment fresh and stimulating for your little one.
If you’re limited in space, a running wheel can be a great way to help your chinchilla use up its energy. Do not use a hamster wheel, as the spaces between the metal rungs could damage a chinchilla’s feet. A solid metal or wood wheel is a much better choice for a chinchilla.
Although chinchillas are pack animals in the wild, they don’t always do well with other chinchillas in enclosed spaces. If you don’t facilitate the meeting between two potential roommates, they may simply cower in fear from each other or even begin to fight.
Introduce chinchilla companions slowly and in small doses to one another. Avoid bringing a new chinchilla into another chinchilla’s pre-established living environment; instead, find a space that neither chinchilla has claim over for their first few meetings.
Monitor their initial interactions carefully for signs of aggression and stress. While it is possible for some chinchillas to eventually get comfortable enough to cohabit with one another, be prepared for the possibility that this may never happen.
You’re likely to have more success if you raise two chinchillas together from the beginning. If you’re going to adopt one young chinchilla, it’s worth considering whether you have the time and space to support two baby chinchillas. That way, your pets are more likely to get their social needs met without exhibiting territorial behavior down the line.
If you adopt multiple chinchillas, expand the size of your cage accordingly and provide each animal with their own sleeping/hiding spot.
And if keeping multiple chinchillas isn’t in the cards for you, see if you can set up playdates with another chinchilla owner to give both of your pets time to socialize.
Dust Bath Tray
You’ll also need to create a designated area where your chinchilla can take its dust baths. Fill this tray with a shallow layer of sand specifically created for this purpose. The product is often sold at pet stores under the name ‘chinchilla dust.’
Do not use regular sand to fill your chinchilla’s bathing tray, as these gritty particles are too big and rough to accurately mimic the volcanic ash that chinchillas use to bathe in the wild. Larger sand particles may scratch your chinchilla’s delicate skin, paws, ears, and eyes.
Dust baths can be a messy affair, so use a tray large enough to prevent your chinchillas from making too big of a mess. One foot square is usually plenty of space to contain the flying dust. There’s no need for the tray to be more than a few inches deep.
It’s unwise to leave the dust bath tray in your chinchilla’s living space around the clock, as excessive bathing can lead to dry skin and irritation. Plus, your animal will likely create a huge mess that you have to clean up!
Instead, offer your chinchilla an opportunity to bathe a few times a week. They’ll initiate the bathing process on their own, but be ready to remove the dust bath tray from their enclosure when you see that they’ve completed their bathing process. Use new chinchilla dust every time you give your chinchilla a bath.
Cleaning the Environment
Chinchillas are naturally quite clean, so you don’t need to worry about covering up the smells that you do with other rodents like hamsters and rabbits. However, you still need to clean a chinchilla enclosure on a regular basis.
When you notice visible signs of dirt and grime, it’s time to clean your chinchilla’s home. Set up a safe space for them to be in while you clean their cage, and give them access to clean water.
Start by removing all their bedding and the soft ground litter from the cage. While clean materials might be reused, it’ll be easier to simply replace all the materials rather than trying to sort the soiled from the clean pieces.
Once the cage is empty and you’ve removed all droppings, dirt, and leftover food, clean all walls of the enclosure, plus any platforms that you’ve added to the inside. Sanitize these items and allow them to dry. Clean the food dish and water bottle with soap and water, and allow these to dry as well.
If there are any toys that stay in the cage full-time, clean and sanitize these items while cleaning the rest of the cage. Once everything is clean and dry, replace all the items you’ve removed, and fill the enclosure with fresh bedding and ground litter.
Free Range Considerations
Chinchillas don’t have to be kept in an enclosure, and in some homes, it’s actually easier to meet all the requirements listed above by offering the chinchilla a bit of freedom. However, the environment still needs to be highly controlled, so a closed-off room or other contained space is still best for your chinchilla’s home, even if it’s not in a cage.
Some free range time is necessary for all chinchillas, so even if you do keep your chinchilla in an enclosure for most of the time, plan at least a couple hours every day where they can leave their enclosure and explore. You’ll need to make sure all cords, cables, and toxic materials are put away and out of reach of your pet. Chinchillas are natural explorers, so be prepared to do a deep clean of your home before inviting your chinchilla into your space.
If you’re looking for a cuddly pet, a chinchilla is probably not the choice for you. While it is possible to build an affectionate and loving relationship with this pet, you probably won’t be able to get to a place where they’ll tolerate being handled for long periods of time. (If this is a dealbreaker for you, know that there are lots of cuddly small-sized pets out there just waiting to become a new part of your family.)
If you want your chinchilla to become accustomed to handling, you’ll need to take it in stages and follow your chinchilla’s lead. Start by sitting near their cage every day and talking quietly and calmly near them. Stay at this stage until they become used to your presence near their living environment.
Slowly, allow them to smell your hand. Offering treats (but not too many) during this stage can help you build trust.
Finally, when you think they’re ready, you can open the door to their cage and offer your chinchilla the chance to sit on your palm. Sometimes, a few calm and careful pets can let your chinchilla know that you want to show them affection, not harm them. Avoid forcibly picking them up the first time, as this can be perceived as threatening behavior.
It’ll be easiest to adopt your chinchilla as a baby and introduce this behavior very early on. Just be careful not to disrupt the mother/baby bond too much by taking your chinchilla away from its mother too early or by handling it too often.
Some chinchilla owners also find greater success in attempting to physically bond while their chinchillas are free to roam. That way, the chinchilla can come to you whenever it wants chin scratches or a short cuddle, and it has the freedom to move away whenever it needs space.
Above all, read your chinchilla’s signals and try to honor their wishes. Don’t force them to be handled if they don’t want to. Some chinchillas never get used to handling, and while you may need to pick them up at times to care for their health, avoid forcing it more often than is absolutely necessary.
Chinchillas are not low-maintenance pets, and they do come with some specific care needs.
Like all rodents, their front teeth never stop growing. You must ensure that they have consistent access to chew toys to keep their teeth at a reasonable length.
While chinchillas can handle their dust baths on their own, sometimes their fur can become matted and tangled. If you’ve acclimated your chinchilla to being handled, you can carefully brush it with a tool created for chinchilla fur to remove these knots.
During and after digestion, chinchillas (like rabbits) produce two types of waste material: dry fecal pellets and cecotropes. The cecotropes come from a digestive system specially designed to handle high-fiber nutrition sources. This material is eaten and redigested by chinchillas so that they can gain all possible nutrient content from their food.
When cleaning your chinchilla’s cage, be careful not to take out any of these nutrient-dense cecotropes.
Chinchillas thrive with routine. Having a pet chinchilla works best if you have a somewhat regular schedule. Do your best to clean their enclosure or environment on a set schedule and have the same group of people living with and caring for them on a day-to-day basis.
Just like any other pet, chinchillas should have regular vet visits to monitor their long-term health and catch any potential issues early on. Work with a professional who has experience with chinchillas or other exotic pets to ensure that your pet is getting appropriate care.
Challenges and Considerations
Because of their open-rooted teeth, chinchillas are prone to malocclusion, so it’s very important to avoid letting your chinchilla’s teeth grow too long.
Additionally, the density of chinchillas’ fur leaves them vulnerable to fungal infections, ringworms, and other skin diseases. Keep an eye out for dry skin, patchy fur, and other skin abnormalities.
Finally, chinchillas have very sensitive digestive tracts, and it’s very easy for them to develop gastrointestinal issues. While maintaining a healthy diet for your pet can go a long way toward preserving their long-term health, watch for sudden changes to their eating habits and energy levels as signs that you should take your loved one to see a vet right away.
Chinchilla Adoption: How It Works
Chinchilla adoption isn’t as complicated as it might seem at first glance. As long as you’re familiar with the regulations in your area, this process can be easily undertaken by any prospective pet owner.
Adopting a chinchilla is very similar to adopting any other kind of pet. While you can go to a breeder to purchase a chinchilla, rescuing a chinchilla from a shelter can be very rewarding. After all, you’re providing a home to an animal in need!
Additionally, chinchillas in shelters have likely been family pets in the past. As long as they haven’t been mistreated, you’re likely to find an animal that is already familiar with people, lessening the time you need to spend socializing them yourself.
Many shelters keep chinchillas in the same way they do any other rodents. Contact your local humane society or other animal shelter to see whether they have any chinchillas available. Check back often, as these organizations often experience high rates of animal turnover.
If you’re intent on buying a chinchilla from a breeder, do your research to ensure that the animals at the breeder are treated ethically. Ask the breeder about their credentials, the environments that they keep their animals in, and how they feed and socialize their animals prior to sale. Also, ask if they complete any immunizations and health screenings prior to selling their chinchillas to prospective pet owners.
As with anything, you can also probably find chinchillas for sale online. Exercise extreme caution if you go this route, as there’s likely to be little protection for you if you happen to fall prey to a scam. Independent sellers also likely have no obligations to follow regulations about animal treatment, so ask lots of questions and be on your guard against sellers who mistreat animals for profit.
While you might pay a few hundred dollars to get a chinchilla from a breeder, you’ll likely pay quite a bit less if you get your pet from a shelter.
Despite their classification as unique or exotic pets, chinchillas are legal to keep as pets in most states in the U.S. However, there are a few states where it’s illegal to have a pet chinchilla, and even in states where it’s broadly legal to have this pet type, some local state and county rules prohibit chinchilla pet ownership.
Check your state and local guidance to ensure that you’re in compliance with the laws in your area. If you confirm that it’s legal to keep a pet chinchilla where you live, do some research to see whether you need to obtain a permit or any other documentation to maintain compliance with the law.
Get Your Pet Chinchilla Today
As shown by all this information, chinchillas are not a casual pet to have. While they are loving, sociable creatures, they have incredibly specific requirements for their diets, environments, and exercise needs. While chinchilla adoption might not be the right choice for someone looking for a family pet, it can be an amazing option for the right person.
Interested in learning more about exotic pets? Check out this list of the best exotic pets for homeowners!