By Dr. Micah Kohles
Hi, I’m Dr. Micah Kohles with Oxbow Animal Health. We’re thankful to get lots of pet-related questions from customers, and today I want to focus on chinchillas – everything from diet, nutrition, and foraging, to other interesting topics. Specifically, we’ll answer the following questions:
- How much hay should my chinchilla eat each day?
- My chinchilla doesn’t like green hay. Is that bad?
- How do I prevent dental disease if my chinchilla doesn’t like eating hay?
- Should I throw away the hay my chinchilla refuses to eat?
- Is a diet of only hay and water appropriate for chinchillas?
- Are fresh or dried veggies better for chinchillas?
- Which types of greens are best for chinchillas?
- Which type of food is best for my chinchilla?
- Is an Alfalfa or Timothy-based diet better for my chinchilla?
How much hay should my chinchilla eat each day?
One question I get a lot, not just with chins but with all animals (especially rabbits, guinea pigs, and other hindgut fermenters) is how much hay should my munchkin eat? First, it’s important that we stop and not get too caught up in a specific amount as pet owners. We naturally want to measure out and pay attention to a specific quantity. With hindgut fermenters, foraging with all kinds of different types of hay is so essential. What we want to really focus on is that fresh, clean hay is available all the time. We know they’re going to eat it, they’re going to sleep on it, and they’re probably even going to poop on it a little bit. Having fresh, clean hay available for them 24 hours a day is one of the most important things we can do from a nutritional standpoint.
My chinchilla doesn’t like green hay. Is that bad?
As individuals, we know that all pets will have their own unique preferences that may not make perfect sense to us as pet parents. For example, I’ve had numerous clients talk to me about the fact that their animals prefer hay that is not as green, lush, or leafy as what they’ve come to associate with high quality. Instead, their pets may prefer hay that is more pale, yellow, or even brown in place. These clients ask if this is bad or wrong. Through research and testing, we know that there is very little nutritional difference between green hay and hay that is brown or yellow. As long as that hay has been cured appropriately, there’s no risk to the animal whatsoever. Our goal should always go back to wanting to provide the biggest diversity of hay types possible.
How do I prevent dental disease if my chinchilla doesn’t like eating hay?
We get a lot of questions about dental disease, which is because it’s one of the more common problems we see in chinchillas and other hindgut fermenters. Encountering some level of dental disease as pets age is something that you want to be conscientious of. So, what can we do to hopefully prevent this? We know that hay is essential in stimulating the chewing motion that provides healthy ongoing dental wear. If dental disease progresses to the point of causing oral pain, one of the first things that we’ll see is they don’t want to chew as aggressively. This, in turn, discourages them from eating the hay that provides beneficial wear. In these cases, we want to challenge ourselves to think of ways to offer hay. This might mean cutting hay into shorter pieces or maybe wetting the hay to stimulate more intake. But, as we lose the ability to stimulate wear and tear with hay, we may have to consider and explore additional dental treatments to prevent dental disease from progressing.
Should I throw away the hay my chinchilla refuses to eat?
Speaking of hay, people often wonder what do with the hay in the cage that their pets won’t eat. It’s normal for pets to leave some stems or other smaller parts of the hay. However, I don’t want owners to automatically think they should remove the leftover hay. We want to stimulate that animal to ingest the majority of their hay. To encourage this, try mixing fresh hay in with what’s leftover. This will often stimulate pets to eat some of what they had previously left behind. If your pet’s hay becomes wet or soiled, however, then we can potentially run into other quality factors. At that stage, it’s best to remove and replace the hay.
Is a diet of only hay and water appropriate for chinchillas?
Another common question I’m asked is whether it’s appropriate to feed chinchillas only hay and water. My very quick and definitive answer is “no – absolutely not.” To help understand why let’s stop and reflect on the natural diet of these animals. We know that it is a diet full of diversity, including dozens (if not hundreds) of different types of plant materials that are seasonally available. What that tells us is that they are getting a huge range of macro and micro components when it comes to nutrients. When hay and other plant materials dry, the micronutrient profile changes, especially when it comes to vitamins. As a result, pets won’t receive the diversity of micronutrients they require if they’re only eating hay. To make up for this, we need to offer a diversity of grass hays, a controlled amount of high-quality food, as well as a diversity of fresh greens. This is the best way to mimic the overall diversity of nutrients pets would receive in their natural environment.
Are fresh or dried veggies better for chinchillas?
One of the important components of any hindgut fermenter’s diet (beyond hay and a controlled amount of a uniform pellet) is greens and vegetables. We know greens and veggies provide a lot of nutritional benefits, hydration benefits, and most of the munchkins really enjoy eating those. One question I get a little more consistently, specifically to chinchillas, is whether fresh or dried veggies are more appropriate. So, the first thing I want to talk about before we get into the “fresh versus dry” debate is to make sure we understand what types of vegetables we are talking about. We really want to focus, number one, on the dark leafy greens – things like red leaf and green leaf lettuces, carrot tops, dandelion greens – those types that should be the macro component of their green category. Vegetables should really make up a very small percentage (probably less than 10% of the overall fresh produce that we’re offering) and fruits are not necessarily something I would recommend at all. And if we’re going to offer them, only do so in very limited and infrequent amounts, especially in chinchillas and degus who we know are a little more sensitive to sugars. In terms of fresh versus dried, I’m a very big proponent of fresh because we know that in addition to the hydration benefits that we’re going to receive by having that water contained within the plant, there are certain micronutrients and especially vitamins that we degrade or lose when we dry plant materials. Now, there is nothing wrong with small amounts of dried vegetables and dried greens from time to time. But, if you have availability, fresh greens and veggies will always be more nutritionally advantageous for these animals.
Which type of greens are best for chinchillas?
So one of the other parts associated with fresh greens is what different types should we feed? We know as a concentrate selector, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for these little ones to pick out one or two types that they like and they push away everything else. Our goal should be to mimic as much diversity as we possibly can, knowing that they’re going to eat dozens or more different types of plant materials in their native environment. That’s why our goal should be to discourage them from focusing on one or two types. If they do gravitate toward this behavior, we want to think about different ways to offer greens. For example, start by mixing different types of greens together, as well as mixing greens in with their pellets.
Which type of food is best for my chinchilla?
So far, we’ve talked a lot about hay and greens. But, what about pellets? Pellets are a very important component of the overall nutritional profile. Whether we’re talking about chinchillas, rabbits, or rats, we always want to pick a food that prevents our pets from selectively feeding. That means we want to avoid seed-based or muesli mixes. We want to feed a product that is uniform in nature. That way in every single bite that they take, they’re getting the same amount of macronutrients like protein, fat, and fiber, as well as micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. We want to be very conscientious of only feeding the recommended amount, which is going to be based on the individual animal, their age, their activity level, their overall body weight, their health condition, and potentially underlying medical conditions. When we consider all of these factors, we can make a very specific and individual decision that reflects the best choice nutritionally for that individual animal.
Is an Alfalfa or Timothy-based diet better for my chinchilla?
So, what is the best type of diet for chinchillas? So, we’ve already discussed the importance of not feeding mix-based diets to concentrate selectors such as chinchillas. That’s because they are instinctively going to pick out (i.e. “select”) the components of the diet that they find most appetizing. Over time, this will unfortunately lead to balanced nutrient intake, not only with macronutrients but especially with micronutrients including vitamins and minerals. With this in mind, we always want our chinchilla’s diet to be uniform in nature. We also want to take the time to look at the back of the bag and look at those ingredients to ensure they’re appropriate for our hindgut fermenters like chinchillas, guinea pigs, rabbits, and degus. We want to focus on fiber – not just the loose stranded fiber we’ve talked about in the form of hay – but fiber in the diet itself. Whether it comes in the form of a grass hay-based ingredient (like Timothy or orchard grass) or in the form of a legume hay (like alfalfa), we want to see one or both of these forms of fiber as a macro (or “main”) component of the overall diet.