Posted: October 27, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT
Q: I have had some unfortunate turn of events tonight and am looking for advice and information. I was the proud owner of a beautiful male chinchilla whom we named Phil. I got him five years ago in Memphis. Things went well for the past five years; he was happy and healthy, not a day of trouble and was a true joy to have. Last night before I went to bed I noticed his belly was distended a little, not so much that I was scared for his life, but enough to notice and realize I needed to keep an eye on him. While I was at work today my roommate remembers seeing him come down from his shelf and stretch out next to his little pal (a stuffed animal he's had for years), which was normal, and he went to sleep, also normal. Being nocturnal, we weren't alarmed that he seemed to sleep all day. Around 10 tonight I realized it was late, and he hadn't gotten up. I just knew he was gone. I couldn't check myself, my roommate was so kind to check him for me, and he had passed away. He was in the same spot he had stretched out to go to sleep. I am taking comfort in the fact that he didn't suffer, but I am just in shock as to what could have happened. I know this is vague and you can't give me a reason by these few words, but any information that would help me understand what happened would be greatly appreciated at this point.?
A: I am very sorry about your loss of Phil. It sounds like he was well taken care of chinchilla and seemed the picture of health, at least from all appearances. Unfortunately, the sudden loss of a seemingly healthy pet is the sad reality of most of the small mammals we share our lives with.
Rodents like chinchillas and rabbits are prey animals in the wild. Prey animals stay alive by not appearing sick and attempting to hide illness from predators. This method of natural behavior and trickery makes an animal seem healthy and a tough catch for a predator. Therefore, the eventual outcome is that the predator moves on to a sick and more vulnerable animal that will be easier to catch. Even though chinchillas and other rodents have been in raised in captivity for hundreds of generations, they still retain the characteristic ability to mask illness.
When a small animal pet owner has a story such as yours, it is possible, although highly unlikely, that some severe, fatal, acute illness took the life of a healthy young or mid-age chinchilla. More commonly, a disease such as heart disease, liver disease, or even renal disease may have been present for weeks or months. Until his body could no longer compensate and hide his illness, he appeared normal to you.
Sometimes when I talk to owners after their pet has died in the manner in which Phil did, they realize there may have been subtle signs they missed, such as eating slightly less than normal or turning their noses up at favorite foods. Or they realized that they needed to fill the water bottle just slightly more than usual.
Small animal pet owners should take their pet in for a yearly wellness check to a veterinarian who regularly treats their species of pet. A veterinarian’s training helps him or her pick up on those illnesses that can be so well hidden by small mammal pets.
In some cases, even if a serious disease is discovered, we may not be able to prevent a death due to the illness, but at least the owner is not shocked and can plan for the inevitable. Identifying an illness also allows us to do everything possible so your pet does not suffer toward the end.
See all of Dr. Rosenthal's Critter Q&A articles>>