Did you know that National Chinchilla Day is March 23rd? What better way to honor these unique little creatures than to discuss common chinchilla health concerns? Learning all you can about potential health issues will allow you to provide your chin with the very best care, ensuring you and your companion share as many years together as possible. Before we dive in, let’s celebrate by learning some fun facts about these incredible animals:
- There are two species of chinchillas: short-tailed and long-tailed
- Chinchillas hail from South America and are commonly found in the Andes Mountains at altitudes 12,000 feet and above
- They are part of the rodent family
- They are hindgut fermenters and produce two different types of stool, one of which they ingest!
- Chinchillas were named after the Chincha people of the Andes
- Wild chinchillas are listed as an endangered species due to hunting and habitat degradation
- Chinchillas have the thickest fur of any land mammal with 60-70 hairs per follicle (humans only have 1 per follicle)
- They can jump 5-6 feet vertically
- Chinchillas should not get wet but bathe in fine dust/ash to clear away dirt and distribute their natural oils
- A domestic chinchilla’s lifespan can be 15-20 years
- They are scientifically the cutest exotic companion mammal (okay, this one is subjective but just look at them)
Common Chinchilla Problems
One characteristic that can set chinchillas up for a plethora of health issues is their highly sensitive digestive tracts. In their native, harsh habitat high in the mountains of South America, chinchillas largely consume hearty, fibrous vegetation that can survive the climate. This can include bushes, grasses, leaves, twigs, roots, and stems. Even the small amounts of native berries, flowers, and fruits they may find and consume in South America tend to be more fibrous and contain far less sugar than the commercially available fruits we are used to. For these reasons, their digestive tracts are not equipped to properly digest high levels of starch and sugars. Compared to their native diet, the most nutritionally akin food we can and should provide is a diversity of grass hays, which should always be the staple of a chinchilla’s diet. Pairing free choice amounts of grass hays with controlled amounts of appropriate pellets as well as limited amounts of greens/veggies is the best way to ensure a balanced diet and a happy, healthy fur baby. Treats are not necessary nutritionally but can help to form the human-animal bond. If offering treats, be sure to provide them in small amounts and keep in mind these animals’ sensitive digestive tracts when selecting treat options. When diets deviate from high fiber and lean towards more simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches), several health issues can arise.
Chinchillas’ teeth are all open rooted which means they are continuously growing and need substrate to wear them down. Lack of fibrous foods and appropriate enrichment chew items may result in abnormal growth of teeth, malocclusion (imperfect positioning of the teeth), and potentially other types of dental diseases. If this occurs, animals may not be able to chew properly which can lead to changes in eating patterns and in severe cases even complete anorexia. The constant intake of fiber is essential for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of chinchillas and if dental disease negatively affects this, it can lead to a life-threatening issue known as GI stasis. For more in-depth information on dental issues in chinchillas, refer to our previous Dental Disease blog.
Beyond the physical ramifications of a diet lacking in dietary fiber, serious physiological issues can arise from these inappropriate diets. The GI system of chinchillas is designed to process high levels of fiber which are not calorically dense nor highly digestible. In order to meet their energy requirements, the high fiber food material moves through the system relatively quickly to make room for more consumed food. This constant movement of the GI tract and the cycle of ingestion and defecation is key to chinchilla health. Fiber ensures proper GI movement and is also key to keeping the microbiome happy and healthy. The microbiome refers to billions and billions of microscopic living organisms (e.g. bacteria, protozoa, fungi, etc.) that reside throughout the intestines and contribute to hundreds of processes in the body, including fiber fermentation in the hindgut.
When a chinchilla’s diet is lacking adequate fiber and/or includes too many simple carbohydrates, the natural “good” bacteria are compromised, opening the door for growth of potentially dangerous bacteria. This imbalance of bacteria or disruption of the microbiome is referred to as dysbiosis and can have numerous negative effects, including alteration of fiber digestion. Whether through reduction of peristalsis (physical movement of the intestines to push food material through via contraction and relaxation) or dysbiosis, lack of dietary fiber is closely linked to GI stasis.
Signs of GI stasis should be heavily monitored for at all times. Any change in routine ingestion patterns or behavior even as short as one day can be detrimental. When the movement of the GI system slows or ceases (stasis), painful gas can build up further impeding intestinal movement. Because chinchillas cannot vomit or eructate (belch), any gas that builds up in the GI system must continue to move throughout the entire system to be alleviated at the rectum. Signs and symptoms of GI stasis may include lack of appetite, reduction of water intake, reduced activity, lethargy, hunched posture, abdominal stretching, and any changes in feces size or amount. Though these symptoms are not exclusive to GI stasis, if you observe any of the aforementioned changes, your trusted vet should be contacted immediately.
Dysbiosis associated with low fiber and/or high carbohydrate diets can also lead to diarrhea. Simple carbohydrates are highly fermentable in the hindgut which leads to the formation of a concentration gradient and influx of water into the colon, resulting in loose stools. As diarrhea indicates a disruption in the microbiome and inhibits cecotrophy (the ingestion of cecotropes or “night stools”), it is highly concerning. No matter what the cause, if your animal has diarrhea or even loose “cow pie”-like stools, they should immediately be taken to your veterinarian as this can quickly lead to dehydration which increases the risk of stasis and many other health issues. It is worth noting that any kind of sudden dietary change can lead to diarrhea or stasis as well. When changing hay, pellet, or greens/veggies types, or introducing a new treat, a slow, planned transition is always recommended to allow the intestinal tract to gradually adapt and adjust.
Like rabbits and guinea pigs, chinchillas are prone to the development of bladder sludge or bladder stones. In the wild, these species naturally ingest more moisture and live a highly active lifestyle which reduces chances for bladder sludge formation compared to domestic chinchillas. While less is known about specifics in chinchillas, it is thought they also absorb nearly all calcium in the diet. One key difference between chinchillas and rabbits/guinea pigs, though, is that chinchillas excrete excess calcium via the feces rather than the urine. However, they can still develop urinary issues, so it is important to be aware of this and consider actions to avoid or alleviate sludge and stones. There is some debate about a genetic component that may predispose chinchillas to sludge or stone development, but this has not been scientifically validated. Signs of bladder sludge can include blood in the urine, frequent urination, painful urination, or visible crystals in the urine. Any of these signs, again, warrant a trip to your trusted veterinarian.
As mentioned before, chinchillas originate from the Andes Mountains of South America where temperatures are between 35 – 45°F (2 – 7° C). Their dense fur allows them to thrive at these lower temperatures but this lush fur and inability to sweat also causes them to be fairly intolerant of warmer temperatures. Domestic chinchillas tend to do best when the house is kept between 55 – 70°F (13 – 21°C) and household temperatures should never exceed 80°F (27°C). Humidity should also be kept low (40 – 60%) to keep chinchillas comfortable. If your chinchilla is exposed to sunlight, whether indoors or out, they should always be given access to shade as high temperatures or humidity can lead to heatstroke. There is ample physical and mental enrichment benefit to providing your chinchilla with outside time, but this should always be supervised and account for appropriate environmental factors such as temperature and humidity. Signs to watch for include panting/open mouth breathing, high body temperature, and inactivity. If your chinchilla is experiencing these issues, notify your vet right away and take measures to reduce environmental temperature and/or humidity.
As a rodent species, chinchillas are obligate nasal breathers with sensitive respiratory systems, putting them at risk for infections which can be caused by many factors – from dusty bedding to bacterial infections. Upper respiratory issues or infection may manifest as sneezing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, watery eyes, or reduction in activity and food intake. While these symptoms may not seem serious, they are not to be taken lightly. If left untreated, respiratory concerns can lead to pneumonia and are frequently contagious to other chinchillas.
Skin and Coat Issues
The dense, lush fur of chinchillas is perhaps their most notable quality but can also lead to issues if not properly maintained. Because chinchilla fur is so thick, any moisture their body comes in contact with can become trapped at the skin and unable to properly dry. This can lead to pyoderma (infection of the skin) and/or dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) so it is important to never let your chinchilla get wet. Instead of traditional soap and water baths, allow for proper dust bathing to facilitate natural cleaning. Too much dust bathing, however, can dry out a chinchilla’s skin, so limit baths to 2-4 times per week. For more tips on dust bathing check out our Dust Til Dawn blog. You will also want to take note of any alopecia (hair loss or bald patches) in your fur baby’s luxurious coat. In the wild, chinchillas employ a mechanism to escape from predators called “fur slip” in which they can release part of their fur. In a domestic setting, fur slip might result from improper handling or highly stressful events. To avoid this, be sure to always support your pet’s body when handling and never grab them by the tail, fur or skin. Chinchillas are also common carriers of fungal ringworm which, as a zoonotic organism, can be transferred to humans and other animals. Ringworm can cause hair loss and scaly skin. If any bald patches are observed, contact your veterinarian right away to determine the cause of hair loss and ensure proper treatment.
Chinchillas are amazing pets and unique companions, but they do require tailored care. Being aware of the signs or symptoms of their most common health concerns is half the battle! As with any pet, it is important to monitor chinchillas daily so you can recognize when they deviate from normal. With proper husbandry and diet, chinchillas can be wonderful companions that will be part of your family for many years.