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Life With Your First Chinchilla

They look so cute and cuddly, but a chinchilla may not be for everyone, especially children.

Patricia Knight
Posted: April 11, 2014, 10:20 p.m. EDT

Harley the chinchilla
© Andrea Kundrotas
It takes time to earn a chinchillas trust, but it's worth it.

Look at how adorable chinchillas are! They often have very likeable personalities too. For example, some chinchilla owners say their chinchillas hold out their little paws for attention. But is a pet chinchilla right for you? Here’s a little about what you can expect with a first chinchilla, coming from the experiences of current chinchilla parents recalling their first "chins.”

Chinchilla outside
© Miriah DeKold
Because chinchillas are nocturnal, it can be a challenge finding time to play with them for people with busy schedules.

Chinchilla Personality
First, be aware that chinchillas are nocturnal. This is not necessarily bad, but it may be a little tougher to bond with a chinchilla for this reason. As chinchilla parent Miriah DeKold found, "It can be somewhat a challenge to find time to play with them if you have a busy lifestyle.”

DeKold’s first chinchilla, Chi, illustrates the fun side of chinchillas. She said she did not expect Chi to be "such a ninja,” as Chi apparently performs back flips off of walls when he is about the house.

Chinchillas seem to possess a characteristic that not many people expect of a small pet: a strong capacity for trust — once it is earned. "They remember how people treat them,” said Michelle Wallace, president of Chin Friends. She now works for an exotics veterinarian and has learned much since getting her first chinchilla, Rosie. "To have a rodent with long-term memory … who can learn to trust me and recognize me is very rewarding.”

Likewise, chinchilla mom Andrea Kundrotas, president and founder of Forever Feisty Chinchilla Rescue, found that her first chin, Harley, "was full of love and had a huge personality.” She notes, however, that getting them to trust you can be challenging. "You need to be patient and spend time with them every day to form a trusting relationship.”

three chinchillas in cage
© Michelle Wallace
Chinchillas can and do remember how people treat them, so building trust is important.

Chin Challenges
Tess Daniel of Chinchilla Villas mentions that the best thing about chinchillas is that they are smart, curious and mischievous. And the most challenging thing? "They are smart, curious and mischievous,” she said, acknowledging the double-edged sword that comes with such an intelligent and mischievous animal. Some of their characteristics may come with hefty challenges.

Chinchillas are heavy chewers. Hannah Gentry has a chin named Norton and mentions losing television remotes, phone chargers and even her couch lining to Norton’s chewing. "Even though I supply Norton with daily apple sticks, he still chews,” she said, noting that chin-proofing is extremely important.

chinchilla with ball and remote control
© Hannah Gentry
Chinchilla chew, it's what they do. And some owners have lost remote controls and other items to the teeth of their chin.

Wallace said that the most challenging part of having a chinchilla will likely be different for different people. "Some people may have issues with the little poops flying out of the cage, requiring you to vacuum every day,” she said, though she is not bothered by this phenomenon. Jennifer Rich of Sunshine Chinchillas is one chin-lover who is not bothered by this, either. "Don’t let the amount of mess discourage you,” Rich said. "We just vacuum every morning, and it keeps up with the mess just fine.”

Either way, cleaning up after chins is best done with a sense of humor. Kara Gutierrez, who still has her first chinchilla, Sally, said, "It’s constant cleaning. I am a one-woman chinchilla maid service.”

Chinchillas may not mix well with children, so most chinchilla parents caution against keeping them with kids — something worth noting. "Because of their hyper nature, they are not good with young children,” Kundrotas said.

chinchilla cages
© Kara Guitierrez
Chinchillas make a mess, but your home can still be clean if you develop a cleaning routine and are organized.

Long Life Spans
Not everyone is prepared for the surprisingly long life span of chinchillas — they can live for 15 to 20 years. For some people, this is great. For others, it’s something to seriously consider before bringing a chinchilla into their lives. "If you know you are going to have a life-changing event coming up — college, marriage, baby — make sure you are prepared to keep your pet through those events,” Gutierrez said.

All pets need good veterinary care, and it can be tough to find a good exotics veterinarian. Lani Ritchey plays many roles at California Chinchillas, including president and head of adoptions. "We really know very little about chinchillas compared to other domestic species.” In fact, their organization hosts a Pocket Pet Health Day, during which even veterinary students learn a lot about exotic animals. Many chinchilla parents are adamant about finding such veterinarians who have indeed become experienced with exotics.

One reason for this involves various health issues, some of which are mentioned by Rich. "Chins can suffer from upper respiratory infections, ear infection, malocclusion, among other things.” And because chinchillas are prey animals that may hide symptoms, it may not be easy to tell if your chin is ill.

white chinchilla
© Jennifer Rich
As prey animals, chinchillas hide any illness as long as possible, so find an experienced exotics vet for your chin.

Good Advice
Chinchillas abound with great personality, but also potential setbacks for those who get a chin without being prepared. Only you can decide if a chinchilla is right for you. If you think you would be a good chin parent, here are a few last tips.

Healthwise, while diet is key to keeping any animal healthy, fiber is especially important. "Fiber, fiber, fiber,” Ritchey said. "Fiber in the form of good-quality hay is essential to healthy guts.”

And as far as personality goes, this can actually vary. Wallace notes that if you have a friend with a mellow chin, you cannot necessarily expect that yours will be mellow too. "They are as diverse as people,” she said.

If you’re still unsure — or just want to know as much about chinchillas as possible before making the commitment — try seeking out online groups. Daniel suggests online chinchilla groups where people give advice and share stories. "You can learn a lot from others’ mistakes or let people know of your own experiences,” she said.

 chinchilla in basket
© Kara Guitierrez
A chinchillla's long life span requires a major commitment from owners so that it has a good home all its life.
To read about chinchilla behavior, see the questions and answers from our expert, click here>>
Wondering about chinchilla health? See our veterinary questions and answers about chinchilla health, click here>>

Posted: April 11, 2014, 10:20 p.m. EDT


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