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The chinchilla is a rodent native to the Andes mountain range in South America. Its name derives from the Chincha tribe of native South Americans. The Chinchas wore the fur of the animals and are credited with introducing Chinchillas to the Western world in the 1500s. The chinchilla is appealing, which explains its popularity as a house pet. It is described as looking like a small rabbit with mouse ears and a long furry tail, or like a squirrel with extra large ears.
Despite their appeal, from 1500-1900, in their natural habitat, chinchillas became nearly extinct because of over-hunting and trapping. Along with the Chinchas, Westerners were enamored of the remarkable thickness of their fur. Chinchillas have the highest fur density of any land mammal.
These foot long (.30 m) creatures were saved from extinction partly by Mathias Chapman in 1923, when he brought eleven chinchillas captured in the wild to the US. The Chilean government also noted the near extinction of the animal and created laws to protect it. Chapman's efforts eventually produced enough chinchillas to offer them as pets. They gained great popularity in the 1960s as house pets, and owing to several South American governments, the species has recovered in the wild.
In its natural setting, the light gray chinchilla makes its home in rock crevices or burrows. The chinchilla must use such cool places as a home because it cannot sweat and can suffer death from heat stroke. Given the varying temperatures of the Andes range, the animal's digging adaptation makes a great deal of sense.
The chinchilla is a fantastic jumper, able to jump about five feet (1.52m) in the air. The species is omnivorous, eating insects, seeds, fruit, and berries. Because of its relatively small size, the chinchilla is the natural prey of cats, skunks, dogs, and hawks.
Chinchillas take dirt or ash baths once a day to clean their coats, and these substances are amply provided for in their habitat. Chinchillas avoid the more traditional wet bathing, probably as a survival instinct. Moisture will stay in their coats and can cause fungi such as ringworm to develop. Unlike other rodents though, the thickness of the chinchilla's fur tends to prevent flea infestation.
In the wild, the chinchilla remains one of the few monogamous species, and unlike most mammals, females tend to be slightly larger than males. The animals share burrows in pairs, but also reside in a larger colony, which aids in protecting the whole group. They have no set breeding period, but gestation is quite long for rodents, a little under four months.
Litters have an average of two babies (kits), but a mother can have up to seven. Because of the length of pregnancy, kits are born fully haired and capable of sight. They can live for up to 20 years, though the average is closer to 10.
A pet chinchilla will probably have a longer life expectancy if cared for properly. However, chinchillas are nocturnal, and this can create problems for those who value their sleep at night, because the animals can chirp and bark quite loudly. Chinchillas that are bred in captivity also exhibit many other color markings than the traditional gray. Red, salt and pepper, violet, and black are all common colors. Pure white chinchillas that do not carry a recessive gene for another color are generally not viable.
The chinchilla loves to chew, and hence must be kept in a cage to prevent it from chewing on furniture or electrical wires. It also must be provided with things to chew on. Since chewing is how it explores, it will chew on new owners. A chinchilla can be trained, with a great deal of patience, to do simple tricks, but it cannot be litter trained.
An important consideration in owning a chinchilla is whether its cage can be kept in a temperature-regulated room. If one lives in a hot climate and does not have air-conditioning, only purchase temperature-controlled cages. Also, while a same sex pair can live together harmoniously, given enough space, putting one female and two male chinchillas in the same cage will result in constant territorial battles over the female.
Because of the pet's popularity, there are many websites and books which provide information for one purchasing a chinchilla. These rodents require more adaptations and closer observation than other species. Owners, however, cite their endearing appearance as a great inducement to taking on the extra care they may require.