Temporal range: 0 Ma Recent
| Range of Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla chinchilla.
Chinchillas are crepuscular (most active around dawn and dusk) rodents, slightly larger and more robust than ground squirrels. They are native to the Andes mountains in South America and live in colonies called "herds" at high altitudes up to 4,270 metres (14,000 ft). Historically, chinchillas lived in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, but today colonies in the wild remain only in Peru and Chile. Along with their relatives, viscachas, they make up the family Chinchillidae.
The chinchilla (whose name literally means "little chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who once wore its dense, velvet-like fur. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their ultra-soft fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised.
Chinchillas are currently listed as a critically endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to a severe population loss approximated at a 90% global population loss over the last 15 years. The severe population decline has been caused by Chinchilla hunting by humans. 
The two living species of chinchilla are Chinchilla chinchilla (formerly known as Chinchilla brevicaudata) and Chinchilla lanigera. These two species are better known as the Short-tailed Chinchilla and the Long-tailed Chinchilla, respectively.
There is little noticeable difference between the species, except C. chinchilla has a shorter tail, a thicker neck and shoulders, and shorter ears than C. lanigera. The former species is currently facing extinction; the latter, though rare, can be found in the wild. Domesticated chinchillas are thought to have come from the C. lanigera species.
In their native habitats, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are agile jumpers and can jump up to 6 ft (1.8 m). Predators in the wild include birds of prey, skunks, felines, snakes and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defensive tactics, including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten. In the wild, chinchillas have been observed eating plant leaves, fruits, seeds, and small insects.
In nature, chinchillas live in social groups that resemble colonies, but are properly called herds. They can breed any time of the year. Their gestation period is 111 days, longer than most rodents. Due to this long pregnancy, chinchillas are born fully furred and with eyes open. Litters are usually small in number, predominantly two.
Roles with humans
The international trade in chinchilla fur goes back to the 16th century. Their fur is popular in the fur trade due to its extremely soft feel, which is caused by the sprouting of 60 hairs (on average) from each hair follicle. The color is usually very even, which makes it ideal for small garments or the lining of large garments, though some large garments can be made entirely from the fur. A single, full-length coat made from chinchilla fur may require as many as 150 pelts, as chinchillas are relatively small. Their use for fur led to the extinction of one species, and put serious pressure on the other two. Though it is illegal to hunt wild chinchillas, the wild animals are now on the verge of becoming extinct because of continued illegal hunting. Domesticated chinchillas are still bred for fur.
Chinchillas as pets
Chinchillas require extensive exercise. Their teeth need to be worn down, as they grow continuously and can prevent them from eating if they become overgrown. Wooden sticks, pumice stone and chew toys are good options, but conifer and citrus woods (such as cedar or orange) should be avoided because of the high content of resins, oils and phenols that are toxic for chinchillas. Birch, willow, apple, manzanita or kiln-dried pine woods are all safe for chinchillas to chew.
Chinchillas lack the ability to sweat; therefore, if temperatures get above 25°C (80°F), they could get overheated and may suffer from heat stroke. Chinchillas dissipate heat by routing blood to their large ears, so red ears signal overheating.
Chinchillas can be found in a variety of colors. The only color found in nature is standard gray. The most common other colors are white, black velvet, beige, ebony, violet, and sapphire, and blends of these.
The animals instinctively clean their fur by taking dust baths, in which they roll around in special dust made of fine pumice. In the wild, the dust is formed from fine, ground volcanic rocks. The dust gets into their fur and absorbs oil and dirt. These baths are needed a few times a week. Chinchillas do not bathe in water because the dense fur prevents air-drying, retaining moisture close to the skin, which can cause fungus growth or fur rot. A wet chinchilla must be dried immediately with towels and a no-heat hair dryer. The thick fur resists parasites, such as fleas, and reduces loose dander, making chinchillas hypoallergenic.
Chinchillas eat and drink in very small amounts. In the wild, they eat and digest desert grasses, so cannot efficiently process fatty or high protein foods, or too many green plants. A high quality, hay-based pellet and a constant supply of loose timothy hay will meet all of their dietary needs. Chinchillas' very sensitive gastrointestinal tracts can be easily disrupted, so a healthy diet is important. In a mixed ration, chinchillas may avoid the healthy, high-fiber pellets in favor of items such as raisins and seeds. Fresh vegetables and fruit (with high moisture content) should be avoided, as these can cause bloat, which can be fatal. Sweets and dried fruit treats should be limited to one per day, at the very most. This can lead to diarrhea, or in the long term, diabetes. Nuts should be avoided due to their high fat content. High protein foods and alfalfa hay can cause liver problems and should be limited.
In scientific research
The chinchilla is often used as an animal model in researching the auditory system, because the chinchilla's range of hearing (20 Hz to 30 kHz) and cochlear size is close to that of a human, and the chinchilla cochlea is fairly easy to access. Other research fields in which chinchillas are used as an animal model include the study of Chagas disease, gastrointestinal diseases, pneumonia, and listeriosis, as well as of Yersinia and Pseudomonas infections.
The first scientific study on chinchilla sounds in their social environment was conducted by Dr. Bartl DVM in Germany.
The available research on chinchillas leaves gaps in understanding their health and diseases. The most common diseases affecting chinchillas are infections and diseases of the internal organs.
The presumption in the care of chinchillas is that conditions which are similar to their natural habitat are best for their care. One place where they are native is Chacaltaya. Example temperature ranges there can be -1 to -10 degrees Celsius at night with a peak of 50 degrees Celsius during the day, with temperature often 30 degrees at midday. Humidity ranges from 4-60% with 32% at noon being typical. Chinchillas are accustomed to low temperatures and low relative humidity.
A recommended diet for chinchillas in captivity might be a mixed-food diet including wheat bran, oats, barley, millet, linseed, dietary calcium, salt, fennel, powdered milk, and hay to go with leaves and herbs. Sick chinchillas may be more energetic if fed alfalfa hay meal, yeast, glucose, and rice flakes mixed with the regular food.
As a hygiene requirement chinchillas must have access to a dust bath which the animal will use to care for its fur and massage itself. In captivity care must be taken that the dust provided to chinchillas contains no dangerous chemical.
Chinchillas in captivity are prone to problems with their molars if they are not fed an appropriate diet and given access to chewing tools. This is often misinterpreted as a problem with their incisors, and is inappropriately treated by cutting the incisors which does not lead to relief for the animal. Problems with the molars can result in watery eyes, gum infections, and other infections. There is little effective treatment for chinchillas with molar problems so prevention and good diet is recommended. In breeding, any chinchilla with a tooth problem should not be bred, as it is suspected that dental problems can be hereditary and offspring of chinchillas with this problem are prone to having them also.
Chinchillas live active lives and can recover well from physical injury. Treating any bone fractures or wounds in chinchillas is done much in the same way as with any other animal. In treating wounds, they should be cleaned and ointments used for simple wounds. If a wound is dressed then it may be necessary to put the animal into a neck collar to prevent licking at the wound.
Fractures are problematic because chinchillas will want to sit on their hind legs and eat with their front paws, so many types of injuries will disturb their natural eating behavior. An animal with a cast may be comforted by hand feeding.
If a limb fracture does not heal properly a vet may recommend an amputation. Chinchillas are able to live happily in captivity if an injury results in the need for amputation of an arm or leg.
Chinchilla breeders sometimes report seeing their animals have convulsions. Typically this happen only irregularly and then only for a few seconds, and not more than a few minutes at the most. Convulsions are a symptom that can have many causes, including a brain problem such as hemorrhaging, a vitamin or dietary element deficiency in the diet, or some kind of nervous system injury. If convulsions are observed after chinchillas mate then it is not unlikely that they are related to a circulatory problem.
As a general treatment for all kinds of convulsions, taking extra care to keep the animal's stress lowered is the best response. Giving vitamin B, cardiac medication, or a calcium injection may be indicated.
Some chinchillas who are kept in groups have stress convulsions during feeding if they see other chinchillas getting food first. It helps the animals to be fed their food in a way that allows them to either be first or to not see others eating when they have to wait their turn.
Infectious diseases are better prevented than treated. Prevention strategies should include keeping the chinchilla accommodations clean, giving them a climate matching their natural one, providing an optimum diet, and immunization when appropriate.
Listeriosis is not a typical chinchilla disease but in group housing conditions, it can spread as a digestive tract disease in a community. If it is identified then all chinchillas in the community should be treated. During and forever after treatment hygiene standards should be raised.
'Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections are widely distributed in nature and can affect chinchillas like many other animals. They can cause wide deaths in populations of chinchillas and spontaneous abortion in pregnant chinchillas.
Respiratory tract infections can be caused by many pathogens but regardless of cause, usually result in difficult breathing and a nasal discharge. Young chinchilla are more likely to be affected and these infections are unlikely to result in an epidemic even if transmissible.
Gastrointestinal orders are observed as either constipation or diarrhea. These are almost always the result of a problem with the diet, but if the diet is optimal, they could be the symptom of an infectious disease. Problems with diet should be excluded before other treatments, and perhaps the regular food stock should be discarded and replaced on the presumption that it has spoiled. Constipation in chinchillas is difficult to observe in groups because it may not be obvious than an animal is not contributing to the population's waste. If it is identified, mild treatments include feeding paraffin as an oil to soften the feces. An experienced hand may massage the chinchilla to assist with a bowel movement.
Chinchillas are easily distressed and when they are unhappy they may have physical symptoms. In protecting their health care should be taken not to disturb them, and lots of things disturb them. Humans who monitor the chinchillas can often have intuitive ideas about recent changes might be disturbing chinchillas who exhibit new symptoms, as chinchillas are sensitive enough to physically react when something new is bothering them. It is not appropriate to suddenly change a chinchilla's regular diet, especially when they are sick, as this upsets them. Sick chinchillas may quit eating if they are stressed, which can make them even more weak.
Chinchillas which live in communities and are breeding must not be disturbed in February to March or from August to September as they are especially sensitive in these breeding seasons. Chinchillas are social animals and are likely to be upset to have their breeding mate changed in breeding season. They are known be disturbed by a change of diet in these times, so care should be taken by breeders that the food given at the beginning of these times is in large supply and can be given without change for the duration of the season.
Chinchillas may be treated with chloramphenicol, neomycin, or spectinomycin for digestive problems. Sulfonamides dissolved in drinking water may be used. Colistin can be an effective antibiotic.
- Viscacha, a rodent similar to a chinchilla
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