Chinchillas are usually purchased at pet shops or through breeders; they are often also for sale at exotic pet shows. As with any pet purchase, avoid chinchillas that appear ill. Chinchillas should be bright and alert, and move quickly when startled. Avoid pets with closed eyes or discharge from the eyes or nose. Check the ears for redness or excess wax, which might indicate an infection. If possible, examine the teeth and make sure the incisors (front teeth) are not overgrown. The pet should neither feel fat nor thin; you should be able to feel the ribs with just a small amount of fat over them. Check the anal area for diarrhea or moistness, which might indicate a gastrointestinal infection.
Your chinchilla should come with a health guarantee that requires a checkup by a veterinarian within a few days (usually 48 hours) after purchase. All pets including chinchillas need regular examinations. Select a veterinarian knowledgeable about chinchillas. The visit includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for lumps or bumps. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and starvation. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. The veterinarian can also determine the sex of your pet. If all turns out well your pet will be given a clean bill of health. Like all pets, pet chinchillas should be examined annually and have their feces tested for parasites during the annual visit.
Pet chinchillas do not require vaccinations.
Chinchillas should be offered grass hay free-choice (available 24 hours a day). While alfalfa hay can be used, it should not serve as the sole source of hay as it is too rich and could result in digestive disturbances for your chinchilla. Additionally, they can be fed a small amount (several tablespoons per day) of chinchilla pellets.
Any necessary changes in diet should be done slowly over several days to decrease the chance of gastrointestinal problems.
Chinchillas do not require additional vitamins if fed properly.
As a rule, chinchillas don't require treats, although an occasional offering of fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains is all right. Do not offer any "people food" without checking with your veterinarian first.
Water should be left in the cage 24 hours a day. Most owners choose to offer water through a sipper bottle hung in the cage. Check it whenever you change the water (at least daily) to make sure the sipper tube has not become clogged with food.
The cage should allow a lot of movement by the chinchilla. Multilevel cages, similar to those designed by many ferret owners, work well. Like other rodents, chinchillas love to chew. Wire-mesh cages are preferred to wooden cages. Covering at least half of the floor with Plexiglas or wood will take some of the pressure off of the feet of the wire bottom of the cage.
Chinchillas are very susceptible to heat stroke; environmental temperature should be kept below 80°F (27°C); high humidity should also be avoided.
Most owners house one or two pets in a cage. While chinchillas are social pets that rarely fight, injury and death can occur from fighting. Care should be taken when introducing a new pet into your resident pet's cage. If you'd like several chinchillas, it would be best to purchase them as youngsters. Fights are especially likely when housing multiple intact (un-neutered) males together.
Wood can be placed in the cage to allow the chinchilla to chew and help keep its teeth filed down. Chinchillas require a dust bath for normal grooming. This should be provided daily and removed after use. The "dust" can be purchased at local pet stores; make sure you use dust and not sand, which is too gritty and can cause skin or eye irritation.
Chew toys can also be placed in the cage, as can soft towels for bedding. The smallest piece of the toy should be too big to be swallowed by the chinchilla. Pinecones, soft wood sticks, and un-painted wicker baskets make good chew/foraging toys.
Soft towels can be enjoyed by your pet chinchilla. Inspect the towel often to make sure the chinchilla isn't chewing it; if swallowed it could cause intestinal obstruction. Cage lining material can be placed under the wire-mesh bottom of the cage. Newspaper is inexpensive and works well as a cage lining material. Wood shavings that are sold for other rodent cages can also be used.
Cages should be cleaned at least weekly with soap and water (rinse well). Ice bottles or chilled marble or ceramic tiles can be placed in the cage during hot weather to help avoid overheating.
Common conditions of pet chinchillas include bite wounds, respiratory diseases, overgrown teeth, diarrhea, and heat stroke.
Bite wounds are common in chinchillas that are housed with other chinchillas. They can also occur as a result of an attack by a cat or dog. Dog bites can be fatal to chinchillas due to the difference in the size of the pets (a large dog can quickly kill a chinchilla). Bites by other chinchillas, dogs, and cats are often infected with various bacteria, especially Pasteurella; left untreated, the infection in the wound can easily spread throughout the body.
Respiratory diseases are often seen in pet chinchillas. The respiratory problem can easily progress to become pneumonia, which can be fatal. Conditions such as overcrowding, poor ventilation, and high humidity may predispose to pneumonia. Common signs include lack of appetite, lethargy, difficulty in breathing, nasal discharge, and swollen lymph nodes.
As is true with many rodents, overgrown teeth are common in chinchillas. The teeth of chinchillas grow continuously throughout life. Either the front teeth (incisors) or back teeth (molars) can overgrow. Signs of overgrown teeth include drooling ("slobbering") and a depressed appetite; overgrown incisors are easily noticed upon inspection of the mouth. It is often difficult to tell if the molars are overgrown; anesthesia, to allow a thorough evaluation of the mouth, and radiographs (X-rays) may be needed to identify this problem.
Diarrhea is not a disease but rather a sign of disease. Rodents, being pets whose digestive system is designed to digest a large amount of fiber, easily develop diarrhea due to changes in diet, incorrect usage of antibiotics, stress, and diets low in fiber or high in fat and protein. The correct diagnosis is made after diagnostic testing including microscopic fecal examinations, cultures, radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and exploratory surgery.
Heat stroke, a common problem in many rodents, also occurs in chinchillas. Being normal inhabitants of the Andes Mountains, they are very comfortable at temperatures of 35°F - 45°F(2°C - 7°C). Temperatures above 80°F (27°C), especially if high humidity is also present, can easily lead to fatal heat stroke. Signs of heat stroke are similar to those seen in any pet with this problem and include panting, high body temperature, open-mouth breathing, and recumbency with reluctance to move.
Bite wounds are usually infected with any of several different bacteria and can be rapidly fatal. Bite wounds to your chinchilla are a true medical emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention. Bite wounds are treated with the appropriate antibiotics, as well as thorough wound cleaning (anesthesia may be necessary), and suturing if necessary.
Pneumonia and other respiratory problems are treated with antibiotics. Chinchillas that are lethargic and have stopped eating require aggressive therapy in the hospital; fluid therapy and force-feeding may be necessary.
Overgrown teeth are trimmed by the veterinarian. Anesthesia is often necessary to prevent injury to the chinchilla. In the past, nail trimmers were used to trim overgrown teeth. However, due to the high chance of injury to the teeth and the jaws, this is not recommended. Dental drill files or Dremel cutting disks are usually used to shorten teeth without risk of crushing or shattering.
The correct treatment of diarrhea depends upon the cause. Parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. An inappropriate diet is corrected by switching to a high fiber diet.
Heat stroke is an emergency condition requiring immediate treatment. The chinchilla is immediately cooled with ice packs, cold water enemas, various medications, intraperitoneal fluids, and intravenous fluid therapy. Chinchillas that are discovered with heat stroke at home should be immediately cooled by the owner; applying cold water to the chinchilla and ice packs to the armpits, groin, and neck of the pet will help lower the pet's body temperature. Owners should avoid giving their pets medications such as aspirin or Tylenol; alcohol applied to the chinchilla's skin actually decreases the loss of heat from the body and is not recommended.
Signs of disease in chinchillas may be specific for a certain disease. Often, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a chinchilla with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases including pneumonia, overgrown teeth, cancer, and even kidney or liver failure. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.
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