Posted: October 13, 2010, 5 a.m. EDT
Q: My new chinchilla takes a while to catch so I can hold her. Once held, she goes to sleep and is content with me petting her. When she wakes, she makes a loud noise until I talk to her, but sometimes that does not work. I have to place her into her cage to make her stop. Why does she do this? Is she afraid? She also clicks her jaw like she is going to bite me. Why? I pick her up so gently and take time to get her out when she is anxious. Is this all normal?
A: Chinchillas in the wild are prey for many predatory animals. Chinchillas that survived did so because they developed the instinct to avoid being caught or cornered. Chinchillas may be relaxed in a cage when the cage door is closed but, a cage environment, by definition, does not offer any quick escape. Reaching in to grab the chinchilla, even if done very gently, can be threatening to the chinchilla and often activates this “escape” instinct.
Once cornered or caught, the chinchilla may make sounds of alarm or warning. Chinchilla warning sounds:
Barking: When a chinchilla senses danger, the chinchilla will emit a warning bark to alert the rest of the herd.
Clicking: A clicking sound indicates the chinchilla is disturbed and displeased about the intrusion. It is a chinchilla’s way of grumping and indicating that it prefers to be left alone.
Chattering teeth: Teeth chattering is often a sign that the chinchilla feels at risk or threatened. In some cases, a chinchilla may bite when cornered or if the clicking or chattering warnings are ignored. Some chinchillas may bite very lightly as a warning. Since the front teeth are thin and very sharp, even a soft bite may penetrate the skin, so pushing a chinchilla into this situation is to be avoided.
Thresholds and building trust focuses on the difference between reaching in or letting the chinchilla come to you.
Reaching in to grab a chinchilla often makes the chinchilla feel threatened, so don’t reach and grab unless absolutely necessary. Fortunately, chinchillas are very curious. Try opening the door, place your hand, palm up, against the lower edge of the cage door opening so your fingers extend into the cage a few inches and just wait. In a short period of time, the chinchilla will come over to explore, nibbling on jewelry, sometimes on fingernails, looking for treats, etc.
As the chinchilla explores, gently curl your fingers up to scratch under the chinchilla’s chin. At first the chinchilla may jump back, but in time most chinchillas start to enjoy the contact. Once the chinchilla is comfortable with this contact, try scratching along the side of its head and under the ears. This process may take a few days or a few weeks, but be patient.
Gradually extend the area or range of contact at a rate that is within the comfort threshold of the chinchilla. Touching and scratching on top of the chinchilla may activate the “escape” instinct, so gradually move up to scratch high on one side of the head and then on the other and then with one hand on each side.
While being scratched, the chinchilla may rest its front paws on your hand. Support the chinchilla with one hand and try scratching with the other hand. Occasionally, move the lower hand under the chinchilla and scratch on the chest, then gently lift up a little. The chinchilla may jump back at first, but be patient, the chin will usually come back for some more scratches.
As the chinchilla continues to relax and gain trust after doing this for days or weeks, place one hand on either side of the chinchilla, scratching each side of the head and ears. In time, the chinchilla may allow you to lift or scoop it with both hands. Lift the chinchilla a little but still allow the chinchilla to jump off.
This building of trust process may take quite awhile, but the end result is very rewarding. In time the chinchilla may crawl onto your hand and you can lift the chinchilla out of the cage. When lifting a chinchilla, always securely hold it so the chinchilla won’t jump off, fall and be injured.
There is no guaranteed effective sequence to gain trust — see what works, see what does not. Building trust requires patience. Some chinchillas will never like being held no matter what the pet owner does, but many chinchillas will love being scratched and will happily be picked up and held.
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