Neo was Zoe’s first chinchilla – she bought him on his own. Neo settled in well to his new home, but he started to make strange calling noises – the type of sound that you might hear in the jungle. It was a throaty sound, similar to dog’s bark, but it went on and on, like a howl. Zoe was intrigued by her new pet, and did some research on the Internet to find out more about chinchilla care. She discovered a website at www.chinchillaplanet.com which has an online library of all the sounds that chinchillas make. She was able to double click on each sound file, and listen to the noise. The website then explained what each sound meant in the world of chinchilla communication. Zoe soon discovered that Neo was making a calling noise, looking for his family.
She then decided that she ought to find a friend for him. She decided to get a “rescued animal”, because chinchillas are often abandoned. People fall in love with their cute, toy-like appearance, but then discover that they are more challenging pets than expected. Despite their appearance, they are not at all cuddly. They won’t sit on your lap for long, and they don’t like to be petted. They don’t make good pets for children in the same way as other small mammals like guinea pigs. Zoe found an unwanted chinchilla through the ISPCA – Charlie was looking for a new home, and she was happy to take him in.
Male chinchillas are prone to fighting, so Zoe had to introduce them to each other very slowly and carefully. Neo and Charlie lived in separate cages, side by side for a full year. Once they had grown used to the sight and smell of each other, Zoe started to let them out of their cages at the same time, so that they could run around the room together. At first, they fought with each other. Their battles were noisy, with fur flying into the air around them, but they never hurt each other. After each fight, Zoe put them back into their own cages, and as time passed, the fights became less frequent. Eventually, they stopped fighting altogether, and Zoe knew that it was safe to put them together into the same cage. The two chinchillas have now become best buddies, even snuggling up to each other when they sleep. Neo still occasionally makes those strange calling noises, but far less frequently than before. On the occasions when he does call, Charlie rushes over to him, and Neo immediately quietens down. It’s as Charlie is saying “It’s OK, I’m here”.
Neo and Charlie have a significant place in the O’Brien household. They live in a large cage, measuring six feet high, which contains branches, hammocks, climbing frames, wheels and other toys. There are plenty of shelves for them to clamber onto, because chinchillas love climbing. The cage is in a spare bedroom and they are such active animals that there is not room for much else other than the chinchillas. They stay in the cage all day, whilst people in the house are out at work, but in the evening, they start to get excited and playful. Zoe lets them out for an hour between eight and nine, and they charge around the room, running around in excitement. They are quiet at first when they go back into the cage, but as nocturnal creatures, they get very active later on. Zoe can often hear them between three and four in the morning, rushing around their cage, despite the fact that she sleeps in a different room.
The chinchillas have been healthy pets, but recently, they both started to rub at their eyes. The skin around their eyes began to go bald, and there was a mild discharge from the corner of each eye. When Zoe brought them to see me, it was difficult to examine them closely. They are such lively, rapidly moving creatures, and they just would not stay still. I could see enough to know that there was nothing serious wrong with their eyes. They were suffering from conjunctivitis, and whilst this tends to be aggravated by bacterial infections, the cause is usually something in the environment. I asked Zoe if there was anything in their home area that could be causing an irritation.
We talked about the various possibilities. They did have a sand bath, which is an enclosed plastic container full of special chinchilla bathing sand. They like to roll around in their, and the fine sand keeps their coat clean as it’s rubbed into their fur. Zoe had not changed the type of sand that she used, so it seemed unlikely that this was causing the sore eyes.
I then asked her what sort of foodstuffs she had in their cage. She explained that their standard diet was chinchilla mix, with pellets, but they also ate fresh leaves (like dandelions) and occasional raisins (she didn’t give them too many of these, since she knows they are fattening.) They also have continual access to hay. It turned out that Zoe had bought a new batch of hay just a few weeks previously, and it was quite dusty compared to previous batches. This seemed to be the likely cause of the problem.
I prescribed some eye ointment for the chinchillas, and Zoe immediately bought a new batch of dust-free hay. Neo and Charlie responded well to the treatment, and their eyes were back to normal within a week.
- Chinchillas are not idea family pets, despite their cute appearance
- They are happiest when living in pairs, or small groups
- Chinchillas have sensitive eyes, which are easily irritated by dust or aerosols