Chinchilla

Chinchilla lanigera Order: Rodentia Family: Chinchillidae

“Chinchilla”’ means “little chincha.” Chincha is the South American Indian tribe for which the animal is named. “Lanigera” in latin means “woolly,” although the thick fur of chinchillas is not wool. They are closely related to viscachas, rodents that look very similar to rabbits.

Overview

With proper rearing and training, chinchillas can make great ambassadors. Handling chinchillas at a young age will help to create tractable adults that are comfortable in the hand. Waiting until individuals are young adults can result in challenges that may or may not be overcome to produce a working ambassador. Even beginning as youngsters, staff must be willing to devote a significant amount of time to training and handling. Some individuals seem to not have the right personality to be an ambassador, even with early training. Chinchillas may also show a tendency to prefer to work with people with whom they have a relationship, and therefore challenges may be observed in facilities where a large number of staff and/or volunteers are working with the ambassador collection. However, they tend to be docile and so some facilities may find that volunteers and teens are able to handle their chinchillas.

Another challenge of chinchillas is their dense fur. Their fur is built to withstand the cold of high, dry mountain elevations. This fur can take a long time to dry, resulting in chilling and possibly fungal growth if they were to get wet. Chinchillas should never have water contact their fur, and should not be used outdoors on programming if there is a risk of rain. Their upper outdoor temperature range is also limited. This species may not be the best choice of ambassador for warmer and/or rainy climates with primarily outdoor programming.

Chinchilla husbandry can be relatively quick and easy. They may need a fan and rock slabs to help keep them cool in an area with temperature settings for a wide variety of mammals, and will need ad lib hay. As an endangered species, they can be an ambassador with a strong conservation message. Finally, their cute appearance is a crowd pleaser for many guests.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

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

Longevity

 6-10 years in the wild, 10-20 years in human care. The oldest chinchilla in the Guiness Book of World records was a chinchilla named Radar who lived to be 29 years 229 days old.

Ecosystem Role

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information 

  • Sexually mature at 8 months
  • Gestation is about 4 months.
  • 2 litters during the season consisting of 1-6 kits (1-3 most common).
  • Breed-back does occur so males should be removed from the female when giving birth to prevent her from getting pregnant immediately afterward. Similarly, male chinchillas are able to breed at 4 weeks and should be removed from their mothers by then.

Habitat

  • Barren, rocky, montane habitats.

Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles

  • Temperature:Temperature requirements will vary based on the individual’s history and acclimation. 
  • Zoo Atlanta: Chinchillas can go out on programs when temperatures are between 35F 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.
  • Humidity: Wild chinchillas live in a low-humidity environment 
  • Light: Chinchillas are crepuscular

Substrate: 

  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “Chinchillas can be susceptible to bumblefoot, so appropriate perching and bedding is essential. It is not recommended that animals are kept on newspaper or other hard surfaces. Pine shavings, Carefresh bedding, or other soft substrates should be considered. Chinchillas generally urinate in enclosure corners and these should be spot cleaned daily.”
  • 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 Yesterday’s News or wood chips and also provide our chinchillas with small fabrics they can curl up on.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Uses pine shavings
  • Capron Park Zoo: Aspen shavings only – we ran into fur issues when using pine, or an aspen/pine mix

Social Housing/Colony Management

  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “Chinchillas are social animals and may be housed in groups, but hiding opportunities and areas to move away from one and other should be provided.” The AAG draft recommends at least as many hiding spaces as there are animals in an enclosure.
  • Zoo Atlanta: When possible, chinchillas are housed in groups of 2-3. The only exceptions are if intact individuals are housed separately for breeding, and there is not a compatible same-sex/spayed/neutered individual to pair with a single intact individual.
  • As a social species, it is best to keep these animals in pairs or groups. Avoid placing intact males and females together unless breeding is the goal.
  • Slight color variations allow chinchillas to be identified in a group.

Other General Housing Requirements or Management information

  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “For a pair of chinchillas we recommend an enclosure that is 2’ x 3’ x 4’ at minimum. This provides enough space for perching, shelving, hide boxes, a wheel and any additional enrichment opportunities. As rodents, these animals are avid chewers so enclosures should not be made of wood and animals should never have access to treated wood.” 
  • 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.
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: Chinchillas are housed individually in 2’X3′ enclosures.
  • Enclosures do not need to be large but must resist potential chewing and include spaces to hide.
  • 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.
  • Chinchillas’ dense fur does not dry quickly. Therefore, instead of using water for baths, chinchillas use volcanic ash. They roll in the dust to get rid of dirt and excess oils. Chinchillas should have access to a dust bath 2-3 times a week for short periods of time.

Emily Bobal/Zoo Atlanta

Diet Requirements

Diet in the Wild 

  • Herbs, grasses, seeds, leaves, roots, nuts, tubers, and fruit. May rarely consume insects.
  • From the Chinchilla AAG: “. . . the digestive system of chinchillas . . . is made to extract nutrition from low quality nuts and tubers.”

Diet under human care

  • The Chinchilla AAG draft states that “grasses that are high fiber and low in sugar and fat” (such as Timothy hay) should be the basis for chinchilla diets. Hay and grasses should be available ad lib. These diets should be supplemented with commercially produced chow for chinchillas. Rodent chow can also be added to help wear down teeth. Fruits are not recommended for chinchillas. 
  • Change the hay in the enclosure often because the chinchillas might be eating the “good parts” of the hay and leaving the rest. 
  • Avoid alfalfa hay as this can be too high in protein. 
  • If feeding fresh grass, be sure it is free of pesticides
  • Vegetables, seeds, and nuts can be offered in limited amounts.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Lee Richardson Zoo: 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.
  • Actively breeding males should have their penises checked for hair rings. Hair can get caught around the penis and restrict blood flow.
  • Chinchillas can be susceptible to bumblefoot. Appropriate perching and soft bedding will help avoid these issues. Hard or newspaper-covered flooring is discouraged.

Enrichment & Training

Brandywine Zoo

Enrichment

Behavioral Relevant Information

  • Mostly nocturnal or crepuscular, but can be spotted during the day.
  • Live in colonies and dig burrows within and around cardon, a type of cactus. A small proportion of chinchillas live in crevices among rocks.
  • As rodents, chinchillas have a strong need to chew. 
  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “Behavior goals to consider are jumping (can be encouraged with a saucer type wheel), hiding, foraging, chewing, grooming (dust baths), social, training, and investigatory.”

Brandywine Zoo

Environmental Enrichment 

  • Providing perching at various heights allows for choice in resting places and can encourage jumping.

Behavioral Enrichment 

  • Nashville Zoo: chinchillas are given different items to climb on and hide inside. These items are changed out regularly.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Provides an extra-large metal rat wheel for exercise
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: Chinchillas are put in large exercise balls to run for a few hours each day. 
  • Can be given free run in giant rodent exercise balls. This may contribute to dry foot problems.
  • When considering the safety of enrichment items, expect that the chinchillas will chew on the item. Several appropriate options for chewing should be provided daily.
  • Fresh browse may help to encourage chewing
  • Dust baths provide opportunities for grooming and self-maintenance
  • Appropriate social groups provide opportunities to exhibit social behaviors

Schedule 

  • Zoo Atlanta: Offers extra enrichment 4 times a week, in addition to programming, training, and enrichment opportunities that are always available, such as chewable items and a wheel for running. 
  • Capron Park Zoo: offer enrichment daily

Other Enrichment Resources 

Training

Behaviors Trained

  • Target
  • Crate
  • Return home from crate
  • Allow pick up and sit on hand for programs
  • Hop to the hand
  • Station
  • Present underside (useful to inspect females during pregnancy)

Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement 

  • 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. Can use higher value foods in limited amounts for non-routine training. High value items for training include Gerber baby puffs, wild bird seed mix, Cheerios in limited quantities.
  • CuriOdyssey: challenging to train specific behaviors
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: Has had success with hand raised individuals (less success with those chinchillas that used to be a pet). We only have experience with female chinchillas. While personalities vary significantly, they are all very tractable and easy to work with. 
  • Dust bath can also be used as a reinforcer for entering a kennel.
  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “Co-reared animals where staff supplement feedings from the mother allows for animals to develop species appropriate behaviors while being exposed to humans in a positive way early on in their development. Forced handling of young animals does not appear to increase tractability and may in fact have the opposite effect. Infants who are still taking formula have been successfully trained to hop onto the hand for the syringe as a reinforcer.”

Other

Adam Thompson/Zoo Atlanta

Colony or Breeding Management

  • Intact males and females should be kept separate unless the goal is to breed them.
  • Male offspring should be separated from their mothers prior to 4 weeks of age, as they are able to breed by that age. Breed-back also occurs in this species. To avoid this, remove adult intact males from females prior to the females giving birth.

Individual Identification

  • Slight differences in coloration allow for identification of individuals housed in a group

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Responsible pet ownership – Before bringing a pet into your home, do your research. Understand what your future pet will need, and make sure that you and your family can provide it. Make sure that you are getting a pet from a rescue or a responsible breeder, and never from the wild. Capturing animals from the wild for the pet trade results in death for many animals and poor welfare for those that survive.
  • Desert adaptations
  • Cold weather adaptations
  • Capron Park Zoo: Endangered species – overcollection for humans, long gestation and small litters prevent rapid re-population
  • Capron Park Zoo: Genetics and captive breeding (we have two ‘off color’ chinchillas: a violet and mosaic)
  • CuriOdyssey: adaptations, habitats, food web
  • Henry Vilas Zoo: Good for demonstrating adaptation, mammalian attributes, etc.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Endangered species
  • Chinchillas were hunted and trapped for their fur, with reports of over 2 million pelts exported between 1895 and 1900. Some conservation measures were implemented in the 1890s, but it was not until 1910 that Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru signed a treaty to ban chinchilla hunting. Unfortunately, this ban resulted in increased prices for chinchilla fur, and thus increased trapping. Additional measures, including the commercial breeding of chinchillas, have reduced poaching, though it still occurs even today.
  • Chinchillas were included in Appendix I of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in “Endangered Fauna and Flora” (now CITES). CITES bans the exportation and importation of chinchillas and chinchilla pelts among agreeing countries. 
  • The range of wild chinchillas used to extend to Peru and Bolivia, but they have since been extirpated from those areas.
  • IUCN: EN (endangered) with a decreasing population
  • If the chinchilla is endangered, why are people able to use their fur for clothing? Chinchillas are endangered and hunting of wild chinchillas is forbidden. Captive breeding of chinchillas started in the 1800s, with consistent successful breeding happening in the early 1900s. Current legal fur trade in chinchillas comes from captive populations. 
  • Common predators of wild chinchillas include humans, foxes, cougars, and birds of prey.

Interesting Natural History Information

Did you know…

  • The chinchilla has the most hair per follicle ratio at around 60 hairs per 1 follicle.
  • There are 2 species of chinchilla: the long-tailed chinchilla (C. lanigera), from which domestic chinchillas come, and the short-tailed chinchilla (C. chinchilla). Both are endangered.
  • The viscacha is the closest relative to the chinchilla.
  • Most chinchillas sold as pets are descended from a small population originally bred to produce furs for clothing

Handling & Presentation Tips

(Top photo: David Stemple, Bottom photos: Brandywine Zoo)

Handler Level (required): Intermediate Trainers

  • 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. Be aware, though, that chinchillas will do what is 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. It does mean, however, that restraint (such as holding a tail) will not keep a chinchilla from escaping. It can buy time to move the chinchilla back into a kennel or take other action to prevent escapes.
  • 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 Chinchilla AAG draft also suggests the use of a travel pen, but care must be taken to ensure the animal cannot escape from the enclosure.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: No restraint is used with chinchillas. 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. We have 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
  • 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. Our current ambassador chinchillas have been bred on-site and handled from shortly after birth for husbandry purposes.
  • 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 feel they would make a good program animal
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: They can be jumpy; they require experienced handlers.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: this species can stress easily with nervous handlers
  • Capron Park Zoo: We’ve always managed to have one animal that is easily handled, and another that is a bit more challenging, regardless of sex (we had one that was so bad we called her “chinzilla” – she was a companion only) Currently both our animals can be used, but the more challenging animal is used by advanced handlers only. The more easily handled one will pull belly hair if there is any serious change to routine (example: change in caretakers).

Use Guidelines

  • Capron Park Zoo: Indoor handling ONLY.  Because summers are humid, chinchillas are only handled indoors in temperature controlled areas during that time of year. We try to give them a full 24 hours off between use if possible. Chinchillas are handled only by intermediate to advanced handlers.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Special restrictions include a lower temperature range (no outdoor programs above 80F) and no outdoor programs if raining/threat of rain. Kennel covers must be used during transport if rain is present/possible when transporting between indoor locations.
  • Watch out for signs of stress. Signs of stress listed in the Chinchilla AAG draft include “barking, spitting, standing on hind legs, urinating while in the standing up position, and excessive hair loss.”

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • From the Chinchilla AAG draft: “Allowing public touch should be trained as any other behavior is trained to ensure the chinchilla ambassador is comfortable and confident being touched by guests. Chinchillas have very thick coats that can mat easily if wet, so guests should use only clean, dry, hands to touch the ambassador. . . . Chinchillas can harbor/transmit human herpes virus 1 and are susceptible to toxoplasmosis so hand-washing before and after handling and be sure to avoid handling domestic felines immediately before handling chinchillas.”
  • Zoo Atlanta: While in hand, guests can touch the chinchilla on its back only, one guest at a time, and using a two-finger touch.

Transportation Tips

  • The Chinchilla AAG draft recommends training chinchillas to voluntarily kennel or voluntarily hop to a hand to be placed in a kennel. Avoid grabbing chinchillas from home. Chinchillas can chew an escape hole in plastic kennels, so such kennels need to be reinforced with metal mesh or plexiglass. Newspaper or hay can be used as a kennel substrate. Kennels should be disinfected upon return from a program.
  • Capron Park Zoo: If temps are above 75 degrees F, a chilled, cloth-wrapped marble slab must be included in the transport crate. If temps are below 45 degrees, kennel crate must be covered with a blanket or towel.
  • Zoo Atlanta: If temperatures are less than 35F, a kennel cover must be used. We use a top loading kennel.

Crating Techniques

  •  

Temperature Guidelines

  • From the Chinchilla AAG: Chinchillas should not go outdoors at temperatures above 80 F. Above 75 F, chinchillas should be limited to shady, breezy areas. Chinchillas are well-adapted to cold environments.
  • Zoo Atlanta: Can be used outdoors between 35 F and 80 F. If below 35 F, a kennel cover is used during transport between indoor locations. Chinchillas are never used on days with rain in the forecast.
  • Capron Park Zoo (northeast part of the US) temp guidelines:
    • Chinchillas are not handled outdoors
    • Winter temps (45 degrees and below) require cover on kennel transport crate
    • 35 to 65 degrees F: two hour handling time – no temp control needed 
    • 65 to 75 degrees F: two hour (cumulative) handling time (in temperature controlled area)
    • 75 to 80 degrees F: one hour (cumulative) handling time  (in temperature controlled area)
    • Above 80 degrees F: chinchillas not used for handling programs

Acquisition Information

Rodent, Insectivore, and Lagomorph TAG
Program Leader (as of 2021): Ms. Rebecca Young ryoung@zooatlanta.org

 Look for specialty/exotic rescues such as:

  • The Bunny Hutch, an exotic animal rescue run by zoo keepers.
  • Some AZA zoos may be breeding chinchillas. Contact the Rodent, Insectivore, and Lagomorph TAG.

Resources

  • Rodent, Insectivore, and Lagomorph TAG Program Leader (as of 2021): Ms. Rebecca Young ryoung@zooatlanta.org

Contributors and Citations

  • Chinchilla AAG draft
  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
  • Lee Richardson Zoo
  • Zoo Atlanta
  • Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters
  • Capron Park Zoo
  • CuriOdessey
  • Natural Science Center of Greensboro
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo
  • Seneca Park Zoo

Top Photo Credit: 

Top Photo: Maureen K. O’Keefe, Chinchilla i lo 2004, with Canon IXUS camera. –Salix 07:44, 27 June 2006 (UTC)