Posted: January 15, 2014, 1:10 p.m. EST
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Earning a chinchilla's trust begins with getting him used to your presence and helping him realize you mean him no harm.
Q: My husband and I bought a chinchilla six days ago. We want to make him feel safe and comfortable, but he escaped from his cage the last two nights in a row. We think he just wiggled through the bars (he's young and small). We plan to get him a new cage. The problem is that I think he's been really traumatized by us catching him after he has escaped. He gets scared if we're anywhere near him. We love him, but we're concerned that he won't ever feel safe around us now that we betrayed his tiny trust by grabbing him when he didn't want to be grabbed. Is there something we can do to help him feel calm around us again?
A: It takes time for a bond of trust to develop between pet and owner. Chinchillas may take a few days to several weeks to adjust to the sights, sounds and conditions of a new environment. Chinchillas are very routine-oriented and may become stressed when their lives change. Most chinchillas are curious, which helps them overcome change.
Try putting your hand just inside the cage door and leave it there for a few minutes. You may need to do this several times over several days. After a while, most chinchillas will come over and sniff your hand, he may put a paw on your hand, may nibble on your fingernails, jewelry or body hair. Eventually, most chinchillas will start to climb up onto the hand, usually they leave their back legs on the cage floor so they can get away fast if they become frightened.
Once the chinchilla starts coming to your hand, slowly move your fingers up under the chinchilla. It is good to talk to him gently as you are sitting there. You can also offer him a healthy treat from your hand. Often a piece of a small, shredded wheat square (non-frosted) or a thumbnail-sized piece of dried, whole wheat bread are well-received. Try to gently scratch under his chin and between his front paws. Many chinchillas love this and will open their paws wide to give you better access, and then move their heads around so you can reach all the good spots. This, too, can take a few tries if your chinchilla is skittish and a bit standoffish.
If your cage is on the floor, sit in front of the door with outstretched arms/hands reaching inside and resting. Allow your chinchilla to explore your hands, walk out onto them and into your lap. Then you can encourage him to go back into the cage and repeat the same exercise several times. This helps your chinchilla feel safe and gain trust.
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