More than a fur coat

Dr. Sara Smith

November 3, 2013

I like to think that I rescued Gizmo from the fur factory. Truth is, she would have ended up as someone else’s pet – but I’m glad she spent her days with me. Gizmo was my friendly little Chinchilla, and will always hold a special place in my heart as my first pet that was my responsibility. Sure, growing up we had other little creatures (the hamsters were mine), but they depended on Mom reminding us to clean the cages and feed them.

My husband Brian (boyfriend at the time) worked at Dot’s pet store after high school and loved the hairless pets such as lizards and tarantulas. His idea of gift wrapping a skin that had been shed by a store tarantula for me certainly did not help my fear of spiders. However, he knew I preferred cuddly things, so he convinced me to get a Chinchilla. Gizmo was cute and fluffy, but I had no idea of the enjoyment and companionship this little rodent would provide.

Chinchillas hail from the Andes Mountains in South America, a cool and arid environment; and they eat lots of fiber in the wild. I provided my new friend with a multi-level wire cage for good ventilation, and ensured my bedroom was not too warm or humid. Chinchillas thrive best at temperatures between 60-70 degrees Farenheit. They are very sensitive to changes in their environment and can suffer heat stroke above 80 degrees. Commercially available pelleted Chinchilla food should be the majority of a Chinchilla’s diet; however, fresh grass hay such as Timothy hay should be made available daily as well. Alfalfa hay is too high in calcium to be fed to Chinchillas regularly. Treats such as dried fruits, nuts, and fresh vegetables should only be less than 10 percent of the diet. Fresh water should also be available at all times, from a valve waterer or sipper bottle.

Since 1923, Chinchillas have been bred in captivity for their pelts. Their fine, delicate fur cannot get wet – they need to be provided with a dust bath daily. Commercial Chinchilla dust is the best material to use. The “bath” should be a container with enough room for the Chinchilla to roll over and spin around, such as a litter pan. Dust baths should not be left in the cage, as Chinchillas love to sit in them and will contaminate the dust with urine and feces. I remember how thrilled Gizmo was when she saw her bath. She would roll around like she was on fire! Then after her bath she would gently wipe the dust off her nose with her paw, then prance around and show off her new “fluff”.

The agility and hyperactivity of Chinchillas make them less-than-ideal pets for young children. They are great, speedy escape artists, and usually need to be lured with a treat once they grow bored with the chase. Gizmo loved to bounce around my bedroom – literally! She would get a running start, bounce off the wall, and run the other direction. Jumping from the floor to the desktop was effortless. Her favorite trick was to steal my pencil and zoom away! She just loved to be chased. I was fortunate that she was friendly, as many Chinchillas are shy and difficult to catch. They don’t tend to bite, but they do become easily stressed and can shed large chunks of fur trying to get out of their handler’s grasp (“fur slip”). Obtaining Chinchillas in same sex pairs as young kits can provide them with even more companionship. I always thought Gizmo enjoyed her “alone time,” and she would approach me to sit on my shoulder when she needed socialization.

Gizmo’s favorite thing to do was gnaw – furniture, woodwork, electric cords – anything she could get her teeth on! This is a natural instinct for Chinchillas, as they need to keep their teeth from overgrowing. Wood or mineral chew blocks should always be available for this purpose. I had to watch her very carefully! My parents have always encouraged my love of animals and tolerated a lot of damage to my bedroom. After Gizmo moved on with Brian and I to college apartments, she couldn’t be trusted to run around and cause as much damage. Unfortunately, this unmasked a malalignment problem with her teeth, and her molars grew sharp points that caused pain and decreased appetite. We visited a veterinary dentist who filed her teeth under anesthetic, but she was too thin and ill. A few days later, at seven years old, she died in my hands. The most important lesson from Gizmo’s life is – carefully monitor your pets for even the smallest change in weight or appearance – it could signal a big problem.

Dr. Sara is a 2008 graduate of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine.