Chinchilla

Chinchilla laniger

Order: Rodentia

Family: Chinchillidae

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • At the Seneca Park Zoo we ran into problems with using newspaper as bedding for our chinchillas. It did not provide enough cushion for their feet. We have now switched to yesterdays news or wood chips and also provide our chinchillas with small fabrics they can curl up on.
  • Rabbit hutches work well, however if they have platforms made out of wire,items such as rocks, cardboard, hard plastic, etc. should be placed on top of the platforms so the chinchillas don’t need to sit directly on the wire.
  • Enclosures do not need to be large but must resist potential chewing and include spaces to hide.
  • Philadelphia Zoo uses Ferret Nation multilevel cages to house chinchillas. We remove the plastic shelves and liners and have Bass Equipment make custom fit metal trays to replace the plastic trays.
  • Temperature requirements: this will vary based on the individual’s history and acclamation. At Zoo Atlanta, for example, the chinchillas can go out on programs when temperatures are between 40F and 80F; the ambient temperature of their holding space is 72F, and they are provided with a fan on one portion of their enclosure and a granite slab.

Diet Requirements

  • In the wild: seeds, leaves, roots and fruit
  • In captivity: rabbit chow or chinchilla chow, sunflower seeds, carrots, variety of fruits and hay.
    • Fruit and seeds should be offered in limited quantities.
    • Hay is required to keep digestive tract moving and regular. If chinchillas are not eating hay, try a different variety of hay. Change the hay in the enclosure often because the chins might be eating the “good parts” of the hay and leaving the rest. Avoid alfalfa hay as this can be too high in protein.

Veterinary Concerns

  • In dry climates chinchillas can get dry, cracked feet. This can be treated with bag balm applications as needed.
  • Must provide “chinchilla dust” (purchased from pet supply stores) in a pan for bathing. Over bathing can be problematic so offer baths a few times a week for short amounts of time.
  • Actively breeding males should have their penises checked for hair rings. Hair can get caught around the penis and restrict blood flow.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • At the Nashville Zoo, chinchillas are given different items to climb on and hide inside. These items are changed out regularly.
  • Large running wheels in enclosures.
  • Can be given free run in giant rodent exercise balls. This may contribute to the dry foot problems.
  • Zoo Atlanta uses rodent/chinchilla chow and produce for training sessions only while providing fresh ad lib hay at home. The animals can live on hay alone so if they choose not to participate in training sessions we hold back their chow. This is done under close supervision of managers to ensure nutritional needs are met.
  • Dust bath can also be used as a reinforcer for entering a kennel.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

 

Individual Identification

 

Programmatic Information

Transportation

Temperature Guidelines

 

Crating:

Tips on Presentation

  • Relatively calm chinchillas can sit on the presenter’s palm with the tail secured between the first and third fingers and front feet on palm or arm (depending on the size of the presenter’s hand). This allows for one hand to remain free or to provide additional support as needed.
  • Less calm chinchillas may be held in both hands or with the chinchilla sitting on one hand while using the other hand to hold the base of the tail.
  • Firmly holding the base of the chinchilla’s tail helps prevent jumping or other sudden movements.
  • No restraint is used with chinchillas at Philadelphia Zoo. Animals have been conditioned to getting scooped up with both hands and are presented with hind end on one hand and front end on the other hand which is slightly raised.

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • Some institutions have had problems with skittish individuals, but many other institutions have been able to successfully use this species in programs. Training is very important for chinchillas to avoid the development of skittish or flighty behaviors. The Philadelphia Zoo has developed a handling method that involves approaching the animal with open palms and then scooping the animal up. For some animals, it has progressed to the point that the animals jump into the handler’s open hands.
  • Lee Richardson Zoo has similarly had success with hand raised individuals (less success with those chinchillas that used to be a pet).
  • Zoo Atlanta has trained program chinchillas to enter a crate voluntarily then handlers can gently scoop the animals from the top-loading door of the crate.

 

Potential Messaging

Acquisition Information

 

Comments from the Rating System

  • CuriOdyssey: messaging is good (adaptations, habitats, food web); challenging to train specific behaviors
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: I only have experience with female chinchillas. While personalities vary significantly, they are all very tractable and easy to work with. Ours are housed individually in 2’X3′ enclosures and put in large exercise balls to run for a few hours each day. Seasonally they will develop dry and cracked feet which we treat with bag balm.
  • Natural Science Center of Greensboro: Can be flighty, quick, and hard to control, but can work well once they have been thoroughly desensed. We have three chinchillas, and each one has a different personality. They only like certain people handling them. If you have a staff with plenty of time to desense the animal, then I fell they would make a good program animal
  • Henry Vilas Zoo: Ours are quite elderly, arthritic, and do not like to be handled; I believe that starting over with young ones would yield different results; good for demonstrating adaptation, mammalian attributes, etc.
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: this species has specific temperature and humidity requirements. They can be jumpy; they require experienced handlers.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: this species can stress easily with nervous handlers

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

  • Western South America including Andes of N. Chile and NW Argentina.
  • Most colonies are located on northern facing slopes but rocky southern slopes also host some chinchillas.

Physical Description

 

  • Dense soft fur, coloration ranges from bluish to brownish gray on top, underside is yellowish white. (Breeding for the pet industry has developed colors such as ebony, lavender, and blush.)
  • Large external ears and large black eyes.
  • Vestigial cheek pouches for food storage.
  • Sensitive whiskers important for helping to detect predators.
  • 12-21.5 inches in length. Females are larger than males.
  • Weight is between 1-2 pounds.

 

 

Life Cycle

 

  • Sexually mature at 8 months
  • Gestation is about 4 months.
  • 2 litters during the season consisting of 1-6 kits (1-3 most common).
  • Average lifespan is 10 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. This is much longer than most rodents.
  • Breed-back does occur so males should be removed from the female when giving birth to prevent her from getting pregnant immediately afterward.

 

 

Behavior

  • Mostly nocturnal or crepuscular, but can be spotted during the day.
  • They do not bathe in water, but dust instead. They will flip, roll, dig and play merrily in their quest to be clean.
  • Chinchillas will do what’s called a fur slip and release a patch of fur if they are frightened. It is designed to help them escape the grasp of a predator. It will grow back and does not harm the chinchilla.
  • Live in colonies and dig burrows within the cardon plant. A small proportion of chinchillas live in crevices among rocks.

Threats and Conservation Status

The chinchilla population declined steadily because of hunting and trapping. At the end of the nineteenth century, the once abundant animals had become endangered. Humans were hunting and trapping the animal for its fur faster than the animal could repopulate themselves resulting in scarcity of the species. The disappearance of the once beautiful chinchilla alarmed the South American governments of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. By 1918 all of them had placed an embargo on exportation of chinchilla furs, and had laws against trapping the animal.
Any existing (or surviving) chinchillas were included among the endangered wild species mentioned in Appendix I of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in “Endangered Fauna and Flora”. CITES placed a ban on the exportation and importation of the animals and their pelts among agreeing countries. Although wild chinchillas’ range once extended to Peru and Bolivia, it is now extinct there. In Chile, wild chinchillas are listed as “En Peligro” or endangered.

If the chinchilla is endangered, why are people able to use their fur for clothing? In the wild, the chinchilla is endangered and hunting is forbidden. However, chinchillas have been bred in captivity since the 1920’s. These captive populations are the source of the fur trade in chinchillas.
Common predators of the wild chinchillas include humans, foxes, cougars, and birds of prey.

Did you know…

  • The chinchilla has the most hair per follicle ratio (with the exception of the otter) at around 60 hairs per 1 follicle.
  • The name ‘chinchilla’ means little chinta. Chinta is the South American Indian tribe for which the animal is named.
  • There are 2 subspecies of chinchilla, which are Lanigera and the Blue Bolivian Chinchilla. Lanigera is more common.
  • The viscacha is the closest relative to the chinchilla.

Photographs

chinchilla pick up.jpg
Technique for picking up chinchillas at Philadelphia Zoo
chinchilla hold.jpg
Technique to hold chinchilla at Philadelphia Zoo

Documents

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
  • Lee Richardson Zoo
  • Zoo Atlanta
  • Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters

Top Photo: Self photographied Chinchilla i lo 2004, with Canon IXUS camera. –Salix 07:44, 27 June 2006 (UTC)