Chinchillas are native to the west coast of South America where they live in herds at high altitude. Considered to have some of the softest fur of all animals, the chinchilla was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. Today, most chinchillas are raised on farms and it’s important to know about the dietary needs of these furry, squirrel-like critters. As it turns out, chinchillas are somewhat finicky eaters and require very specialized diets. Knowing what to feed and not feed your chinchilla is critical to its health. The tips below for the basis of what you need to know about feeding a chinchilla.
1. Recooked Oats, Wheat, and Other Grains
Chinchillas do not do well with recooked foods, especially if these foods are all they are given. Their complex dietary requirements dictate that they eat a combination of fruits, seeds, leaves, roots, barks, and grasses. Simple pellet foods, even those designed specifically for chinchillas, should be given in moderation and never as the only food. The best diet is one that combines pellets with grass or hay, but which limits pellets to only 1-2 tablespoons per day.
Plant protein is essential to a chinchilla’s health and to ensuring that its coat remains soft and healthy. Alfalfa, alpine, timothy, orchard, and blue grass are all excellent sources of plant protein. Alfalfa is probably the most suitable for chinchillas as it provides precisely the right amount of protein. Always purchase a high grade alfalfa intended for use as food.
Note that chinchillas also require high fiber diets to ensure that their digestive systems work properly and keep moving. In general, alfalfa and orchard grass are great sources of fiber. Pellets do not provide much fiber and are poor substitutes for grasses. Alfalfa is probably the single most important food in a chinchilla’s diet.
4. Chinchilla Pellets
Chinchillas need the nutrients that pellets provide in order to ensure they consume a balanced diet. Unfortunately, chinchillas tend not to eat pellets if other, better foods are available. So, while chinchillas should never eat only pellets, you also need to ensure they eat 1-2 tablespoons per day. This may mean removing other foods until the pellets have been eaten.
Water must always be either filtered or distilled. Chlorine can wreak havoc on a chinchilla’s fur and GI system, so avoid chlorinated water at all costs. Purchase bottled water if you must and don’t add supplements to it unless instructed to do so by a vet. Supplementation can be fatal.
6. Fresh Fruits
Fruits act as treats for your chinchilla and thus should be given in moderation. Think of fruits and chinchillas in the same way that you think of candy or sweets and humans. Too much of these foods can lead to a fatty liver in a chinchilla and even death. Most experts recommend giving these treats no more than 2-3 times per week and suggest limiting treats so that they are no more than 10% of a chinchilla’s diet.
Note that fruits are better than vegetables. In fact, vegetables can cause bloating and diarrhea and should be mostly avoided in chinchillas. The leaves and grass that chinchillas eat in the wild are very different from the vegetables that humans consume. Feed chinchillas plenty of grass/hay, but avoid most other “greens.”
Raisins (and other processed fruits) deserve special mention because of their sugar content. A chinchilla’s diet should contain no more than 4% sugar, which means that only 4% of a chinchilla’s calories should come from sugar. A raisin may have as many as 70% of a chinchilla’s calorie intake as sugar or, put another way, more than 17 times the amount of sugar that a chinchilla should eat. You should avoid raisins and opt for apples, strawberries, and pears instead.
8. Dried Rose Hips
Chinchillas love these treats and can eat one daily. One rose hip per day will add fiber to a chinchilla’s diet and provide something for it to chew on. Chewing is important to keep the chinchilla’s teeth filed down (they grown continuously throughout the chinchilla’s life).
9. No Animal Protein
Chinchillas are strict vegetarians and animal protein can make them very sick. Avoid anything that might have animal products in it. If you don’t know the content of a processed treat or food, then don’t give it to your chinchilla.
Chinchillas eat bark in the wild, so there is nothing wrong with providing some wood for your pet to nibble on. That said, some woods are safe and some are not. Before you give your chinchilla wood to chew on, be sure that is safe. Bamboo, cottonwood, dogwood, elm, hazelnut, mulberry, untreated and dried pine, and willow are all safe. Almond, beech, birch, cashew, chestnut, citrus woods, elderberry, eucalyptus, firs, maples, oaks, treated or fresh pine, pine cones, sycamore, walnut, and yew are all unsafe. Never give processed wood to a chinchilla.
Caring for a chinchilla is tough work. Follow the tips above to get started on the right track, but keep reading to learn more about caring for your pet. Keep in mind that pregnant chinchillas and sick chinchillas have special dietary requirements over and above what is explained in the preceding tips. In both of these cases, you will want to do a lot of reading and locate and expert who can help you. Make sure you visit your pet’s vet on a regular basis. This way, you’ll be sure that your pet is healthy.