What Are Chinchillas?
A chinchilla is a rodent that is classified as a member of the order Rodentia, a group of animals named from the Latin word “rodere”, which literally means “to gnaw.” It’s the teeth that do the gnawing that set rodents apart from other mammals. Rodents have two incisors in the upper jaw, no canines (the eye teeth normally located next to the incisors), and a varying number of back or molar teeth. The space between the incisors and the cheek teeth is called the “diastema.” When a rodent gnaws away, it can pull its lips into the diastema to keep chips and debris from entering the mouth.
The two species of chinchilla, Chinchilla brevicaudata and Chinchilla lanigera (sometimes referred to as Chinchilla laniger, or Chinchilla lanigar incorrectly) differ in appearance.
Both species have long hind limbs, short forelimbs, four toes, and flexible fingers, but Chinchilla brevicaudata has a thick neck and shoulders and is heavily furred with coarse hair that is light gray and often tinged with a yellowish cast. Its ears are shorter than those of Chinchilla lanigera, and its nose is flatter, giving the animal a stocky appearance.
Chinchilla lanigera individuals are narrow in the neck and shoulders and lightly furred. The fur is very silky and usually medium to dark gray, with a bright bluish cast. Their faces are usually pointed, and the ears elongated, making them appear very long and lean.
Chinchilla brevicaudata is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Some Chinchilla lanigera still live in northern Chile, but the species is very rare and believed to be decreasing in numbers. Both are protected by their governments, and wild populations are on the U.S. Endangered Species list. Hunting or trapping them is forbidden.
Both species were brought into the United States for breeding purposes. Early attempts to cross the two reportedly resulted in sterility in the male offspring, and, since the Chinchilla lanigera individuals produced the best fur, the other species was dropped from most breeding programs. Therefore it is generally assumed that most of the animals in the United States are descendants of the species Chinchilla lanigera.
Choosing a Chinchilla
Chinchillas are small and easy to breed, making them popular as pets. Before selecting any chinchilla, a potential owner needs to examine a chinchilla’s limitations. It can’t be taken for a walk like a dog. It can’t have the run of the house like a cat because once loose and unsupervised, it will sharpen its incisors on the furniture.
Since it is most active at night, someone wanting an alert, playful pet in the afternoon would be disappointed in a Chinchilla. Other animals in the household may cause problems if a Chinchilla is added. Cats pose less of a threat to chinchillas than dogs do. Ferrets and chinchillas are natural enemies.
Age Of Owner
One other factor to consider before buying a Chinchilla for a pet is the age of the pet handlers. If very young children are going to play with the animal, an adult should be present. Chinchillas like to nibble on things to see what they’re like. A small child may interpret a light nip on the hand as a bite and become frightened. In short, Chinchillas are different and not the pet for just anyone.
On the other hand, chinchillas have advantages. Unlike dogs and cats, a chinchilla is strictly a vegetarian and therefore inexpensive and easy to feed. Pellets and hay are readily available. It has no odor noticeable to humans and can be kept almost anywhere in the house or apartment without being offensive to even most sensitive nose.
Although it can cry like many other animals, it seldom makes noises. Like puppies and kittens, it is an inquisitive and intelligent animal with an ability to create its own games and thus fun to play with and watch. But even though chinchillas are long-lived (they can live 10 years and more), they never seem to outgrow the puppy-like fun stage.
Chinchilla breeders developed what are now called color mutations which resulted from the births of chinchillas whose coat colors were different from the bluish-gray most often seen. In time these colors became established within domestic chinchilla populations, and can now be readily found.
There are 7 officially recognized chinchilla colors, in addition to the standard color.
The most commonly seen coloration is the Standard, which is the bluish-gray coat most often associated with chinchillas. This coloration may be in the agouti pattern, which means the hair shaft has three or bands of color.
Under the general category of white chinchillas are a range of light-colored coats, including:
- Albino (white with red eyes)
- Mosaic (white body patches on a darker color, or dark patches on a dark body color)
- Wilson white (white with dark eyes)
- Pink white (white with beige veiling)
- Silvers and stone (light with a silver gray undercoat)
The Beige chinchillas come in any variety of champagne colors, including variations with names like Willman, Tower, and Touch of Velvets. All beige chinchillas have a white belly.
All chinchillas with a blackish coloration on top and a white belly below belong in this category, except for the Black Velvet.
Gunmetal blue with white belly.
Light body color with a bluish gray area on the face, feet, and tail (similar to Siamese cat).
Stark black with white belly.
- Karen Zeinert – All About Chinchillas
- Audrey Pavia – A New Owner’s Guide to Chinchillas (New Owners Guide)