Posted: September 16, 2014, 2:30 a.m. EDT
Guinea pig — um — squirrel? No! That peculiar creature with cute little arms, perky ears and a squirrely tail is none other than a chinchilla. And chinchillas have some eccentric behaviors to match their eccentric appearance. Here’s a look some common "chin” behaviors.
1. Twilight fan.
For chinchillas, day is night and night is day — as in, their normal sleep cycle has them sleeping most of the day and awake from dusk until dawn. In the wild, chinchillas live in burrows or in rock crevices, places that offer safe havens for them to take cover so they can get some stress-free sleep. In your home, a pet chinchilla will appreciate an enclosed sleep area, such as a tunnel or hammock, which keeps way prying eyes!
2. Eyes wide open.
To say that chinchillas are light sleepers is an understatement. Not only are they likely to startle at the slightest noise, they are inclined to sleep with their eyes open, especially in a new environment. (Sleeping with eyes open … oh how that would have come in handy in some of my school classes back in the day!) If your chinchilla appears to be staring at you but is in a sleep pose, assume he’s snoozing and let him be.
3. Likely to leap.
A chinchilla might not look athletic, but this little critter can, in fact, be a sprightly jumper. Just how far? Up to 6 feet! Take that into consideration as you go about chinchilla-proofing your house — cords resting on countertops might not be safe from a chinchilla nibbling on them.
4. Dust-bathing beauties.
Chinchillas don’t take water baths like people and other pets do. Their fur is much too dense for water and takes so long to dry that it retains moisture close to the skin, which can make it a hotbed for fungal growth. Instead of bathing in water, chinchillas bathe in dust. Your pet chinchilla will love to take a dust bath, but before you reach for that shovel to dig up some dirt in your yard, know that chinchillas need dirt specifically designed for them to dust-bathe in, which is available in most pet stores or from online suppliers.
5. Spreading whiskers.
A chinchilla’s whiskers can be a prominent facial feature, and these long, wiry hairs are sensitive to the touch to give the chinchilla a literal feel for his environment. If you watch your chin when he explores your home, you might see that he spreads his whiskers — especially if he becomes startled.
6. Parting hairs.
Similar to dogs that raise the hairs on their backs or necks when they become excited, an excited or nervous chin might part the hair on his tail. And chinchilla aficionados report that chinchillas will hold their tails down when they flee so as to better protect themselves from having their tails grabbed by a predator. Speaking of tails, a chinchilla’s squirrel-like tail does the same thing it does for a squirrel — it helps the chin maintain balance when jumping and when standing.
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Publishing LLC
Chinchillas require a special type of "dust" to bathe in; it can't be dirt from your backyard.
7. Urine coming your way.
A less-welcomed behavior pet chinchillas do is spray urine on perceived threats — their not-so-subtle way of saying, "Back off!” So be prepared for the possibility of being met with a spray when you approach your chin’s cage or when you attempt to scoop him up in your arms, especially if your chin is not used to you yet. Give your chinchilla time to adjust to you and his new surroundings and don’t force interactions — a good approach if you want to be pee-free!
8. Slip of the fur.
Another go-to natural defense mechanism for chinchillas is to lose fur when grabbed. It is referred to as "fur slip,” and it will leave a bald spot on the chinchilla right in the area where the animal was touched. You can rest a little easier knowing that the missing patch of fur will grow back, but it can serve as a good visual reminder that your chinchilla did not want you to pick him up and perhaps you need to re-think your interaction and your approach.
9. Barking mad!
The chinchillas you saw at the pet store were likely quiet (especially if it was during the day, a time when they are naturally drowsy). But when awake and running around their home environment, chinchillas aren’t so hush-hush. In fact, they can emit a wide range of sounds, including barking, chirping and squeaking. A chinchilla that barks or squeaks is expressing his displeasure. A grunting chinchilla, on the other hand, is contact calling — his way of staying in contact with others in his colony (the name for a group of chinchillas), and your chinchilla might consider you part of the herd if he’s bonded to you.
10. Stand tall.
When a chinchilla perceives something unfamiliar in the environment, he will stand up to get a better sense of things. He is also readying himself to flee or jump to the back of his cage if he remains uncomfortable with something he saw or heard.
11. Jump around!
A chinchilla that is in a playful mood will do what a lot of toddlers do when happy — jump and hop around! For chins, "hopping mad” doesn’t apply — they’re "hopping happy!” You might see your chin hop across the room like a kangaroo or jump straight up into the air, land and do it again.
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And check out:
15 Questions And Answers About Pet Chinchillas
Life With Your First Chinchilla
See all questions and answers about chinchilla behavior
See all questions and answers about chinchilla health
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