The chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera) is a small rodent originating from the Andes Mountains of South America. Chinchillas have been trapped to near extinction
in their native countries. In Chile in 1918, Mathias Chapman was given permission to export a few chinchillas from Chile
to start a captive breeding program. He caught only 12. These chinchillas were shipped to America and serve as the breeding
stock for all of the chinchillas in today's market. 2 species of chinchillas are recognized: C. brevicaudata and C. lanigera. Only the C. lanigera were caught by M. Chapman and it is unknown if any of the C. brevicaudata exist.
Their lifespan is much longer than most rodent species averaging 10 years with 18-20 years possible in some individuals.
The male averages 400-500 grams in body weight and the female is slightly larger at 500-600 grams. They are clean, odorless,
and inquisitive animals and can be relatively easy to care for.
Chinchillas are generally nocturnal and prefer a quiet environment during the day. Chinchillas are active and require a fair
amount of space. They like to jump and climb and a large multilevel cage is recommended. A wire mesh cage is better than
wood because they like to gnaw. The mesh must be small enough to prevent foot and limb injury and part of the floor should
be solid. Bedding should consist of Aspen or pine shavings or recycled newspaper litter. A hiding/sleep box is necessary
this prey species.
Chinchillas are fastidious groomers and require dust as part of their daily bathing. The dust is a fine mixture of Fuller's
earth and silver sand (1:9) and is placed in a container large enough for the chinchilla to roll around in. These baths need
to be kept clean and free of feces and should be removed when not in use. Overuse of the dust bath can lead to conjunctivitis
due to irritations in some chinchillas.
The chinchilla's native habitat consists of low humidity with sharp variations between daytime and evening temperatures.
High temperatures and high humidity must be avoided year-round. Chinchillas are comfortable at cooler temperatures (>32°F)
and can suffer from heat stroke if the environmental temperature climbs above 80°F, especially when coupled with high humidity.
In the wild, chinchillas survived on a diet of grasses, cactus fruit, leaves, and the bark of small shrubs and bushes. Captive
chinchillas need a diet high in fiber to prevent enteric problems. The basic chinchilla diet consists of good quality grass
hay (timothy or orchard) and a small amount of chinchilla pellets. Because the diet must be high in fiber, the sole feeding
of pellets must be avoided. Limit pellets to 1-2 tablespoons per day. Small amounts of greens and fruit can be offered as
treats. Any change in diet should be done gradually and fecal output should be monitored.
Sexual maturity for both sexes usually occurs between 7-12 months of age. The female has two uterine horns that open separately
into the cervix. There is a vaginal closure membrane that is only open during estrus and parturition. They are seasonally
polyestrous from November to May with an estrous cycle of 30-50 days. The gestation period is long at 105-115 days and the
babies are precocious. The female has a cone-shaped clitoris that at quick glance may resemble a penis. The male has open
inguinal rings and the testes are located inguinally without a true scrotal sac. Adult male chinchillas may suffer from paraphimosis
caused by a ring of fur caught around the penis inside the prepuce ("fur ring"). The penis of all male chinchillas should
be checked during physical examination and fur rings removed.
Chinchillas are usually easy to handle and rarely bite. However, they can be shy and nervous and reluctant to stay still
for prolonged periods. The best approach is to gently hold the animal around the thorax. Alternatively, the tail can be
held at the base as long as the body is supported (usually by ones arm). Chinchillas that are handled roughly will release
a patch of fur, leaving the skin clean and smooth ("fur slip"). Fur re-growth may take several months. A small hand towel
fashioned into a chinchilla "burrito" can be used as restraint when examining the head and mouth.