Thinking about getting a pet? If you want one that is fluffy and adorable, maybe you should think about getting a chinchilla. But before you rush off to the pet store, here are a few things you should know.
Many Cantonese speakers will think of cartoons when someone mentions chinchillas. That’s because the name in Cantonese – long mao (龍貓) – is the same name that is given to Totoro, the puffy animated creature from Studio Ghibli. However, real chinchillas are very different from magical forest creatures, so Young Post asked Dr Michael Bradley, a veterinarian at Stanley Veterinary Centre, to give us a beginners’ guide to keeping a chinchilla as a pet.
Chinchillas are so fluffy because they come from the Andes mountains of South America, and they need their incredibly dense, soft fur to protect them from the extreme cold in their native habitat – which is very different from that of Hong Kong in the summer.
“Chinchillas can get heatstroke very easily,” said Bradley. They should be kept in a shady area away from the sun and with good ventilation. In the summer, keep the room
air-conditioned. And don’t leave your chinchilla alone all day, either.
“These are not solitary animals and are best housed with at least one other chinchilla,” said Bradley, adding that without companions they can get really bored. But despite being social animals, chinchillas, like humans, need privacy.
“Nest boxes and hiding spaces are a must and it’s a good idea to have one for each animal and at least one extra so there’s never any need to squabble over space.”
These little fur-balls like to keep busy. Bradley says they are incredibly active animals who need a spacious multi-level cage so they can move around. And if they don’t get enough exercise, they could make trouble.
“As with all rodents, they love to chew anything they can get their teeth into – including electrical cables and plug sockets,” said Bradley.
No, an electrified chinchilla doesn’t turn into Pikachu so put away all the things that you don’t want your chinchilla to chew on.
One good thing is that chinchillas do not need to be groomed, although they do require regular dust baths to keep their skin and fur healthy.
They are herbivorous, which means they don’t eat meat. In the wild, they eat grasses, leaves, barks and cactus fruits, but for pets, 95 per cent their diet should be dried Timothy hay. This is a high-fibre, low-calorie food, and it is also important for keeping their teeth healthy.
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“Their teeth grow constantly throughout life and they need to be kept worn down by almost constant chewing,” Bradley said. “The most common health problem we see in chinchillas is dental disease.”
Now, what about their adorable little babies? Surprisingly, chinchillas are well-developed when they are born. They are essentially a tinier version of a chinchilla.
“They arrive in the world with their eyes open, fully furred and ready to go from the start,” Bradley explained. But despite being able to eat solid food from the day they are born, they do suckle from their mothers, as they are mammals.
So if you’re thinking of getting one of these fuzzy friends for yourself, you’ll need a big cage, a room that’s not too small, lots of Timothy grass ... and maybe a second – or third – chinchilla to keep the first one company. Have fun!
- Chinchillas are rodents, but they are not like rats. Their family is called hystricomorph – literally “porcupine like” – and it includes guinea pigs and degus. There are two species of chinchilla:
- C. langier, the common pet, and
- C. brevicaudata, which is considered rare or possibly extinct in the wild.