By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
When cared for and fed properly, chinchillas can make great pets. As with all pets, a proper diet is key to health and long life in chinchillas. Feed them right, and you’ll have a happy, cuddly pet for many years. So, what exactly do chinchillas eat? Learn more about their diets, below.
Your Chinchilla’s Diet
Chinchillas are South American rodents that have continuously growing, open-rooted teeth to compensate for the wear that occurs from chewing on very abrasive, high-fiber grass and hay. To try to mimic this rough vegetation, the mainstay of pet chinchillas’ diets should be hay offered in unlimited quantities. Commercial pelleted food is also available for chinchillas but should be offered in limited quantities of no more than one-to-two tablespoons per day for an adult chinchilla.
Growing, breeding, and nursing chinchillas may be fed a larger amount of pellets to provide additional calories, protein, fat and calcium. Fresh greens, such as dark green lettuces, should also be given to provide additional water and fiber. Fresh drinking water should be offered daily in a water bowl or bottle.
Chinchillas in the wild tend to consume most of their food early in the morning and late at night. Similarly, pet chinchillas should be offered food twice a day but may consume food throughout the day, as they tend to eat more slowly than other small animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs.
Foods to Avoid
Feeding your chinchilla excessive amounts of pellets does not supply enough fiber for their gastrointestinal tracts (which require high fiber for fermentation of food) and doesn’t provide the roughage to wear down their continuously growing teeth. Treats such as dried fruit, grains, nuts and seeds should not be offered, as they are not easily digested and may lead to tooth damage. Hard objects, such as branches from non-toxic fruit trees (like apple, pear, and peach trees), can be given to promote chewing and teeth wear, but toxic trees (like cherry, cedar, plum and redwood) should be avoided.
Diet-Related Issues to Watch For
Because chinchillas’ teeth grow throughout their lives, when they are not offered enough hay (and consume mainly pellets), the surfaces of their top and bottom teeth collide inside their mouths with such force as they chew that the roots of their teeth become impacted, like a person’s impacted wisdom teeth. This leads to severe pain as they chew, in addition to drooling and possible eye discharge from upper tooth root pressure on tear ducts. Once this condition occurs, there is nothing that can be done other than to provide pain medication and soft foods.
Overconsumption of pellets can also be fattening and can lead to obesity and diarrhea due to excess carbohydrate ingestion. Overfeeding of fresh greens also can lead to soft stool or diarrhea. While hay should be offered in unlimited quantities, feeding large amounts of high-calcium alfalfa hay to non-breeding, adult chinchillas has been associated with the development calcium-based bladder stones. Instead, offer your adult chinchilla timothy hay or other low-calcium grass hays, such as orchard or meadow grass.
Finally, since chinchillas cannot vomit, small or hard foods such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, or raisins can get stuck in the back of the mouth or esophagus leading to salivation, gagging, lack of appetite and possible problems breathing. Indigestible bedding, such as wood shavings, also can cause obstructions. Chinchillas with these signs should be examined immediately by a veterinarian to have the lodged material extracted.
Image: Barsan ATTILA via Shutterstock