By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Fur slip in chinchillas is a fancy name for the release of a large patch of fur in response to being grabbed or being handled roughly. Wild chinchillas have developed this mechanism to escape predators when they are captured; they release big bunches of hair to get out of a predator’s mouth or paws when the predator grabs them.
How Can Chinchilla Owners Prevent Hair Slip?
Owners can prevent fur slip from happening by never grabbing the animal directly by the fur or skin and by always supporting the pet’s body from underneath the chest, abdomen, and hind-end. In addition, owners should be sure never to allow other naturally predatory pets, such as cats and dogs, near their chinchillas. These other pets may be good-natured and well-intentioned in trying to grab the chinchilla to play with it, but may actually cause fur slip or worse injuries.
How Fur Slip is Different from Normal Chinchilla Fur Shedding
With normal shedding, chinchillas lose small amounts of fur gradually from all over their bodies as the hair ages, falls out, and is replaced by new hair growing underneath. This process is so gradual that obvious bald spots are not visible.
With fur slip, however, a traumatic event precedes the hair loss. A large amount of hair comes off all at one time, leaving a clean, smooth, and very noticeable bald patch.
How Long Does It Take for a Chinchilla’s Hair to Grow Back?
Short, stubbly hairs may be visible within a few weeks after a fur slip occurs. The return of a full, thick, normal coat may take up to several months.
Other Causes of Hair Loss in Chinchillas
Other common causes of hair loss in chinchillas include dermatophytosis (ringworm) and fur chewing.
Ringworm – Not a Worm, It Just Looks Like One
Ringworm is actually not a worm or parasite, it is a fungus. It is transmittable to people and to other pets through infectious fungal spores that sit on affected hair shafts. These fungal spores can persist in dry environments for up to several years.
Infected chinchillas have small patches of dry, scaly skin, commonly on the nose, ears, and legs. However, severely affected animals can have these patches anywhere on their bodies, and the affected skin may appear red, inflamed, and scabbed. A veterinarian can diagnose ringworm by culturing the affected skin in special fungus culture media, or by having a veterinary laboratory run DNA tests on the hair to see whether fungus is present.
Treatment for ringworm involves a thorough clean-up of all areas in which the chinchilla has been in contact to ensure that no infectious hair is left behind that could re-infect the animal patient, other animals, or people.
Mildly affected animals can be treated with topical prescription medications applied to the areas of infected skin. More severely affected animals may require long term treatment with oral prescription medications, as well.
Fur Chewing May Be Brought on by Stressful Living Conditions
Fur chewing in chinchillas is a common behavioral problem in which chinchillas chew on their own or their cage mates’ fur, resulting in a haircoat that looks patchy. Hair that grows back into the chewed regions may be shorter and darker than the original fur. Chewing occurs most often over the back area down to the tail but can occur anywhere on the body.
Theories about why chinchillas chew on their hair include stress, hormone imbalances, dietary deficiencies, underlying dental problems, boredom, the presence of other (parasitic or fungal) skin infections, and a genetic predisposition. The most widely accepted explanation is that fur chewing is a displacement behavior in response to stress in the environment, such as from an overcrowded cage, the presence of aggressive cage mates or other predatory pets (such as cats and dogs), too frequent handling, or other anxiety-inducing circumstances.
A veterinarian can diagnose fur chewing by performing a thorough physical examination, including an oral exam, to rule-out dental disease, as well as a series of skin tests to eliminate the presence of skin infections such as ringworm. Proper diet must be assured, too, to rule-out dietary deficiencies.
The cause of fur chewing may be difficult to pinpoint. Treatment may simply involve elimination of possible stressors by providing a larger cage, handling the pet less often, removing other pets or aggressive cage mates, and ensuring a proper diet. Offering other, more appropriate things to chew on, such as hay and wooden toys, also may help.
What Should a Chinchilla Owner Do if Hair Loss Occurs in Their Pet?
A chinchilla owner who notices areas of hair loss in his or her pet, and who is not aware of a traumatic episode leading to the release of hair, should have the animal examined by a chinchilla-savvy veterinarian. The veterinarian can help ensure that there are no underlying skin infections requiring medical treatment, can help pinpoint behavioral issues that could lead to fur chewing, and can prescribe any necessary treatment.
If, however, an owner knows of a particular incident that involved rough handling that was followed by the hair release, no further examination is warranted as long as the remaining areas of hairless skin are clean, smooth, not inflamed, and show the beginning of hair regrowth within a week or two.