An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially with chinchillas. They are naturally hardy animals, and rarely become ill if properly cared for. Clean the cage regularly, once per week. About once every six months, completely disinfect the cage, rinse it thoroughly and let it dry in the sun. Always feed fresh food and hay. Throw away any food or hay that becomes discolored or damp. Do not make sudden changes in the diet. Always introduce new foods gradually. Give fresh water daily, or every other day at most. If your water comes from a well, you should consider boiling or filtering it before giving it to chinchillas, as well water may contain Giardia, an intestinal parasite. As much as possible, stick to a routine in feeding, watering, and playing with the chinchilla. Allow them a quiet place to sleep during the day.
A healthy chinchilla will have thick, soft, even fur. Its eyes will be bright, with no discharge or matted fur around them. Its attitude will be alertly curious. It should have yellow to orange teeth, which meet evenly. The upper teeth should be slightly longer than the lower. The droppings should be dark and well-formed pellets. The anal area should be clean, with no discoloration of the fur.
The authors of Joy of Chinchillas recommend keeping a chinchilla first aid kit with the following items:
- Kwik-stop: a styptic powder to stop bleeding from minor cuts.
- Kaopectate, Metamucil, or Pepto-Bismol: for mild diarrhea.
- Metamucil, Laxatone, or Petromalt: for constipation. Petromalt is especially good for hairballs.
- Neosporin: for skin wounds.
- Pedialyte or gatorade: for fluid and electrolyte replacement in chins who have had diarrhea, heat stroke, or shock.
If your chinchilla's legs are shaking or trembling, or if the the chinny seems to be having convulsions, the problem may be cramps. Cramps are often caused by calcium deficiency, especially in pregnant females. They can also be caused by vitamin B deficiency, which must be diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian. A good way to prevent calcium deficiency while giving the chin something interesting to chew on is a cuttlebone. They can be found in the bird aisle of most pet stores.
Chinchillas can also have epilepsy. Treatment of epilepsy in chinchillas has not been investigated well, and most veterinarians have never treated it. I have read of one case of a chinchilla responding to treatment with phenobarbital. This is the only case I know of where an owner and vet decided to try to treat epilepsy in a chinchilla. Most chinchillas with seizures either die or are euthanized. Like many pet owners, I think it's a shame to euthanize an animal without trying to treat it first, so I would encourage the owner of an epileptic chinny to try to convince the vet to treat it. Of course, every owner must make such a decision for herself, based on the circumstances at hand.
The most common cause of chinchilla intestinal problems is a sudden change in diet. If you must switch the type of food you give, try to do so gradually, so that the chinchilla gets used to the new food. Another common cause of diarrhea is too many treats! Chinchillas in the wild have a very fiber-rich, nutrient-poor diet. Their digestive system can't handle a diet high in sugar or fat. So, go easy with those raisins!
Diarrhea in chinchillas can also be caused by Giardia, Cryptosporidia or Coccidia infection. Each of these infectious causes must be diagnosed and treated by a veterinarian. The veterinarian will take a fresh stool sample for a fecal float. Treatment for diarrhea is mostly supportive. Give the chinchilla plenty of fluids, including pedialyte or gatorade to help replace electrolytes lost in diarrhea. These parasites can all infect other animals, including humans. To prevent the spread of infection, wash your hands thoroughly after handling a sick chinchilla. Once the infection is cleared up, disinfect the cage with a strong disinfectant. Wash the cage thoroughly and allow it to dry in direct sunlight, since ultraviolet light also kills bacteria. You should also disinfect all water bottles, and re-evaluate your water source. You may need to boil the water you give your chinchillas. Boiling will kill the parasites and their eggs, whereas chlorine and hydrogen peroxide do not kill their eggs.
Constipation can be caused by anything from stress to hairballs. The chinchilla's poops will be small, round, and/or dry. Constipation can result from a chin not eating, such as when it has tooth problems, or from decreased water intake. Make sure your chinny has plenty of water and hay. You can help prevent hairballs by giving petromalt, or a similar product, about once per week. Papaya enzymes also work to digest hair. You can give fresh papaya juice, or a tiny piece of fresh papaya. You should call your vet if there is any blood on the stool, or the anal area, if the stool smells fermented, or if the poops look like they have twisted, pointed ends. Constipation is usually mild, and can be treated at home, but when it is serious, it can lead to intestinal prolapse, intussusception, and even death.
Pneumonia in chinchillas is very serious and requires a veterinarian's treatment. It generally only happens when a chinchilla is already weakened. A chinchilla with pneumonia will have runny eyes, a runny nose, poor appetite, and won't groom itself. If you see these signs, call your vet immediately.
A healthy chinchilla's teeth should be yellow to yellowish-orange in color. White teeth may be a sign of calcium deficiency. You can add calcium to your chinnies' diet by giving them cuttlebones, available in the bird aisle at most pet stores.
Chinchillas have 20 teeth: 4 incisors and 16 molars. If the teeth do not align properly, they can develop spurs and points, which can tear the cheeks and gums, leading to pain and infections. You can check the incisors by simply puling aside the chinny's lips. But checking the molars usually must done at the vet's office. Some signs of bad teeth include bad smelling breath, drooling, and eating slowly or not eating at all. If you notice any of these signs, take your chin to the vet for a tooth check.
Normally, there should be no discharge at all from the eyes. The fur surrounding the eyes should be dry and not matted down. If there is clear, watery discharge from the eye, the chinchilla may have gotten dust or some other foreign material in it. Remove the dust bath for a week, and see whether the condition improves. Watery discharge can also be a sign of corneal abrasion or ulcer, a scratch on the surface of the eye. A vet can put fluoricine dye in the eye and use a fluorescent lamp to see the ulcer. The usual treatment is antibiotic eye ointment. I have also noticed that one of my chinnies gets watery eyes if I'm a day or two late changing the cage. Some chins may be more sensitive to products of urine breakdown, such as ammonia. In this case, change the cage more often, and see whether your chin's eye gets better.
If there is opaque white or yellow discharge from the eye, this most likely indicates an infection. Take the chinchilla to a vet, who can diagnose the cause and give you the proper antibiotic ointment.
Bald patches in the fur, or dry, flaky patches on the ears, are most likely caused by skin fungus, such as ringworm. If one of your chinchillas develops this, keep it away from all other pets! Skin fungi are very contagious. A veterinarian must diagnose the infection, and give your chinchilla the proper antifungal treatment.
Some chinchillas have a tendency to chew on their own fur, or that of their cagemates. A chewed chinchilla will have patches of shorter, darker-looking fur, and generally looks scruffy. This is most often seen when a chinchilla is bored or stressed. If you think your chinny has been stressed, try to provide a calm environment. You may cover the cage with a towel or blanket during the day to reduce noise and light. Provide food, water, and exercise on a regular schedule. Do not let strangers, children, or other pets bother the chinny. On the other hand, if there have been no recent stresses, your chinny may simply be bored. Try placing a new toy in the cage. It can be as simple as something different to chew on, like a flavored wood bit from the pet store, or a paper towel roll. Make sure the chin is getting enough exercise. If the chin lives in a cage alone, be sure to interact with it enough, as chins are fairly social animals. On a practical note, you may want to give petromalt, or a similar product, to avoid hairballs.
Hunchback is best seen from the side. There is a distinct hump in the spine, at the level of the shoulders. It is from the scapulae (shoulderblades) sticking out because the animal is too thin. Hunchback is only seen in cases of severe malnutrition, as when a chinchilla has been underfed, refuses to eat, or has severe chronic digestive problems. It is crucial for a chinchilla with hunchback to see an experienced chinchilla vet as soon as possible.
Chinchillas, like all animals, will sometimes injure themselves or each other. For skin wounds, apply antibiotic ointment and take the chinchilla to your vet. If you suspect your chinny has a broken bone, place it in a small, enclosed space to minimize movement, and take it to the veterinarian. Do not try to set broken bones by yourself.
Chinchillas in the wild lived in the high, arid mountaintops. So they are adapted for cooler temperatures and low humidity. If the temperature in Farenheit, plus the percent humidity ever add up to 150 or greater (for example, temperature 75 degrees + 80% humidity = 155) chinchillas are in danger. They can get heat stroke at temperatures of 80 degrees Farenheit or greater. Imagine if it was 80 degrees out, and you were wearing a heavy fur coat!
To prevent heat stroke, bring your chinchillas into an air conditioned environment when outside temperatures are above 80 degrees. If this isn't possible, there are many other ways to keep them cool. You can fill plastic bottles with water and freeze them, then place them in the cage. The chinchilla will lay against them to keep cool. You can also place ceramic or stone tiles in the freezer. Another option is to refrigerate terra cotta pots, then place them in the cage. In addition to being cool, you can spray the pots lightly with water, so that evaporation will further cool them. Or simply fill a dish with ice cubes, and let the chins lay against it or eat the ice.
If, despite these measures, your chinchilla does get heat stroke, it is important to act fast to save its life. Signs of heat stroke include the chinchilla lying on its side, breathing rapidly, lethargic, with bright red ears and thick, stringy saliva. Sometimes they also get massive diarrhea. If you see these signs, immediately bring the chin into an air- conditioned environment. If you don't have an air-conditioner, place the chin in front of an open refrigerator door. You may wrap the chin in wet towels, or soak it in cool (not cold) water. If it is still conscious, allow it to drink cool water or gatorade. Then, take it to the vet. The mortality rate for heat stroke is very high. Chinchillas suffer damage to the brain, heart and kidneys. If your chinchilla does survive heat stroke, you must be especially careful in the future, since its temperature tolerance will be lowered. Also, chins who survive heat stroke are prone to seizures due to brain damage.