CHINCHILLA OWNERS GUIDE TO BASIC CARE
The general consensus in the chinchilla community is that there are three "top" brands of pellets that offer the highest quality in chinchilla nutrition: Oxbow, Mazuri and Tradition.
Oxbow Chinchilla Deluxe - can be found at Vet's offices, some Feed Stores, and select pet stores. It can also be found on-line, either by breeders or chin rescues who buy it in bulk and sell it by the pound. If you go to the Oxbow website they have a store locator feature which will find a local distributor for you by zip code.
Mazuri Chinchilla Pellets - can be found at Pets Mart, most Feed Stores, or you can buy on-line directly from Mazuri.
Tradition Chinchilla Pellets - can be found primarily on-line. I've never seen it offered in a chain pet store or feed store. You can buy it in 25 lb. bags from Chinchillas.com's e-store, or by the pound from most chinchilla rescues.
There are endless debates over which is the best, but these three consistently rank at the top. What you should feed your chinchilla (of these three) should depend on the availability of the brand (you don't want to ever be caught short), the price you are willing to pay, and the preference of your chinchilla’s taste buds.
You will find that some chins reject or prefer a certain brand over another. As long as you are feeding one of these three, you can be absolutely CERTAIN that your chinchilla is getting the best nutrition possible. Whichever brand you choose, you should avoid any food that contains "treats" (seeds, corn, etc). These quality chin foods above are comprised of pellets only.
With any pellet feed, always be sure to check the expiration dates stamped on the outside of the bags. Outdated pellets offer little or no nutrition for your pet. If there are no dates stamped, check the pellets to see if they are “crumbly”, as this is a sign of being past their prime.
Mazuri recommends 2 tablespoons of fresh pellets per chinchilla per day, and this is the guide that I’ve always gone by. A younger chinchilla will need slightly less. You can judge by the amount that your chinchilla eats to feed a bit less or a bit more. My three never eat their entire 2 tablespoons each, but I like to have it available for them just in case.
If you will be switching your chinchilla’s diet from one pellet to another brand, please go very slowly to avoid intestinal upsets. Switching too quickly can result in soft poops, which are dangerous to a chin’s health and a nightmare for cage cleaning. Switching should go as follows:
For the first week, feed ¾ the amount usually fed of the original food, and ¼ the amount of the new pellets. For the second week, feed a ½ and ½ mixture of old and new. For the final week, feed ¾ of the new food and ¼ of the old pellets. In the final week, you can safely feed the entire amount of the new pellets.
Chinchillas MUST have fresh loose Timothy hay available to them at all times. Hay cubes can be given as a treat, or as a supplement to loose hay, but not in place of the loose, fresh hay. Alfalfa hay or Orchard Grass hay can be given in small amounts as a treat if you wish, but again, not in place of the Timothy hay.
Any soiled hay should be removed from the cage daily. Hay is used as a source of fiber in their diet, but it also serves to wear down the back teeth of chinchillas, which are constantly growing, making it a necessity to prevent overgrown teeth and painful mouth sores.
All Timothy hay, whatever the brand, should be a nice bright green color, not brown, to indicate freshness. It should smell fresh and sweet. Black hay indicates the presence of mold. To prevent mold, store your hay in the original bag it came in, since it has air holes, or a well-ventilated container.
Oxbow Western Timothy is probably the MOST recommended hay on the market. You can find it at most Vet's offices or at a local Feed Store. You can also find a local distributor with the store locator feature on the Oxbow Hay website, which is OxbowHay (dot) com.
American Pet Diner has some fantastic hay also, very fresh and sweet, but I think the only place to get that is online at AmericanPetDiner (dot) com. They also offer a fairly decent brand of pellets, so if you find that your chins prefer this hay, you can get both from one source.
Another excellent choice for hay is Kleenmama's. Some on-line vendors of other chinchilla supplies carry this brand, and you can also order it direct at kmshayloft (dot) com.
Again, your choice of hay should depend on availability (you don't want to run out) price and your chin’s preference, but any of the above mentioned brands will be fine.
TREATS & CHEWS:
For TREATS, try to limit yourself to one small treat for each chinchilla per day. Their diets in the wild are pretty boring, so their little digestive systems aren’t really used to variety, and can be easily upset. It’s human instinct to want to “spoil” your pet with treats, but it can do more harm than good in this case.
Safe treats include:
1. Unsweetened Shredded Wheat squares
2. Plain Cheerios (one or two per day)
3. Raisins ( one, no more than 2 or 3 times per week)
4. Banana Chips (dehydrated slices, no sugar added, broken into small pieces)
5. Apple Chips (dehydrated, no sugar added, cut into small pieces)
6. Mrs. Pastures Cookies for Horses (broken into tiny pieces, given sparingly since they contain molasses)
7. Rose Hips (an excellent source of Vitamin C, which your chins need anyway)
Most of these treats can be found from www.stores.ebay.com/lone-star-chinchilla.
Chinchillas are constant chewers, who will chew up your furniture, their cage, their hutches; basically EVERYTHING they can reach. It’s not because they like the destruction, it’s because their teeth never stop growing, and gnawing on things like wood help to wear down the teeth to a comfortable level.
For this reason, you need to keep a large supply of chew toys on hand to divert them from what they shouldn’t chew. I use Bark Bites and Bark Branches from PetsMart, and some of their other wooden Critter Kabob accessories. Avoid brands that proclaim to be flavored with fruit juices, since you don’t want to add sugar to their diet.
It helps to have the cage accessories made from wood instead of potentially fatal plastic, so avoid the cute Igloos and other plastic items in favor of wooden hutches. Some on-line vendors even offer wooden hay bins and pine tunnels. A terrific source for all of these things is Timali Toys at http://stores.ebay.com/Timali-Toys
LoneStar sells plenty of good wooden chews and the ever popular Apple Twigs, which my babies adore. They like to strip the bark off the twigs, and it’s too cute to watch them doing it.
Apple twigs make an EXCELLENT substitute for TREATS, since the chins are always happy to get a fresh twig to chew on. So if you find yourself wanting to spoil them with multiple treats a day, use the twigs instead of a food treat; they’ll be just as happy.
Chinchillas need plenty of room to leap around in their cages. For this reason, you want to go with the largest cage you can afford to get. I personally recommend at least 2’x 2’x3’ for a single chin, bigger for a pair. Vertical height is more important the width or length.
For anyone searching out great deals on top quality cages, here are a few top picks for size and quality.
The standard recommended cage by almost everyone is the Quality Cage Chinchilla Mansion (for 2 -3 chins) or at least the Chinchilla Town home (for 1 chin). Their link is qualitycage (dot) com.
Marshall's Ferret Mansion is GREAT for chinchillas, big and roomy. You will need to replace the plastic shelving, but you can usually find this cage online for $130-$150, so shop around.
And my personal favorite, the Midwest Ferret Nation cage system, which you can find by searching on ebay.
Some of the aviaries designed for hook bills can be suitable in size and can be easily adapted to suit the needs of a chinchilla. My favorite ebay seller for aviaries is JMEXOTICS. You should avoid any cage labeled "flight cage" becuase it won't be sturdy enough for chinchillas. www.stores.ebay.com/jmexotics
Safe beddings include Aspen Shavings, Kiln-Dried Pine Shavings, and Care Fresh. DO NOT USE CEDAR - it contains oils which can cause respiratory problems in any small animals. Any pine shavings that are not kiln-dried can also be deadly. There are some recycled beddings such as Yesterdays News that can be used. If you use Care Fresh or Yesterdays' News, please watch your animal closely to be sure they are not ingesting any of the bedding, which can cause blockages in the GI tract, as they expand with water.
The main problem with most chin cages that you can commercially purchase is usually either that they come with PLASTIC shelves, which can be fatal if chewed, or WIRE shelves, which can cause foot sores or even broken legs if the holes are big enough.
Most new owners unknowingly purchase an unsafe, too small cage, simply because it says "Chinchilla Cage" on the box. Don't fall into the trap of thinking "Well, I got it at Pets Mart, and it SAYS it's for chinchillas, so it must be safe!"
Nothing could be further from the truth. Think about the pet store mentality - if your pet dies, you replace it by spending more money at the pet store. Do they care how long it lives? No. It is, in fact, more profitable for them if it dies sooner rather than later.
This does not mean you have to throw out your cage; there are other options.
Some cages with wire shelves allow for the removal of the shelf completely. In this case, you can purchase nice, custom sized wood shelves from any number of sources. Quality Cage sells replacement shelves for their cages, and you might get lucky enough to need the same dimensions. If not, you can have some made through ForCHINate Chins Rescue in Ohio. They are excellent with woodwork. They also sell grass mats that are suitable for covering wire shelves.
If your cage doesn't allow for the removal of the shelves, you can always use cage mats to give the chins "resting" places for their feet. Sea Grass mats are available at most major pet retailers. There are also durable ABS plastic (not the kind that can be chewed) mats from a company called Oasis, and these are also sold at most major pet retailers, including Pets Mart. Either of these type of mats are suitable, and the more the better. They will reduce the strain on the chin's feet and make it less likely that your chin will injure itself on the wire. Recently I’ve seen owners use a peice of untreated pine cut to size and simply placed on top of the wire shelves. Ingenious, and probably the cheaper solution, although it's certainly not as attractive as new shelves would be.
Another option, and one I recommend for at least a portion of EVERY cage, is to put down some Chin Chillers. They are marble slabs designed to help your chin stay cool. They DO NOT replace air conditioning (which is mandatory for chin owners) but can help in the short term with power outages or heat waves. Plus, the chins just love them. You can find them at most pet stores and also online at www.stores.ebay.com/lone-star-chinchilla You may also check your local Home Depot to find larger marble tiles, like the kind you use for a floor. These can be a cheaper solution if you are needing more than one cool spot in the cage.
I can't stress enough that plastic shelves should be removed immediately, even if your chin shows no sign of chewing them at this point. Eventually they will figure out the shelves can be chewed, and it's so potentially fatal - it's like leaving poison in front of a baby and saying "don't touch".
Most plastic shelves are removable, so your best option there is to take them out immediately and begin replacing them with wooden shelves, either custom made from the links above, or even using a bunch of Leap N' Ledges and Sleep N' Ledges, which are also available from most pet retailers. No matter how many shelves you have, a few of these ledges are always a great addition, since a chin LOVES to leap.
It should also be mentioned that ForCHINate Chins Rescue sells ledges in different sizes and shapes, including CORNER ledges, which are terrific.
I highly recommend having an exercise wheel to keep your chinchilla healthy and happy. A chinchilla needs a solid surface wheel that is going to be durable - they can hurt their feet or even break a leg on the wire wheels, and the plastic ones wear out in 3 months or less. Also any wheel should be 15” or more, so that the chinchilla is not forced to arch their backs too severely while running, which can cause injuries.
There are basically FOUR wheels that I can recommend for safety.
The first, and least expensive, is the Home Made Wheel from the ForCHINate Chins Chinchilla Rescue. It is very HIGH QUALITY and very LOW PRICE, only $15 + shipping. It’s a little on the noisy side, but better than no wheel at all.
The next wheel is the Chin Spin from Quality Cage. It's $46 for the 15" wheel (don't get the 12" for a chin, it's not big enough). Most people who have these SWEAR by them; I personally have two. They are wonderfully well made and whisper quiet.
The third is the Flying Saucer, also from Quality Cage. It's $70, and a marvel of design. It's supposed to be the best wheel for a chinchillas back. However, some chins take a long time to get used to running on this odd wheel, and some never take to it at all. I have one of these also, but I can tell you they don't use it as much as the Chin Spin. It also (surprisingly) take up more room in the cage than a conventional wheel, because of the design.
If you have any questions that I didn't cover here, you can contact me through ebay, or feel free to join my chinchilla discussion group. You can find a link to it on My World, down at the bottom.