Chinchillas originally come from areas of high altitude in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. In the wild they live in colonies of 20 – 100 animals and make tunnels in a succulent plant of the bromeliad family known as Puya berteronia although some live in crevices amongst the rocks.
Chinchillas given adequate human attention can live alone. Indeed they can be aggressive towards one another unless introduced when young or very carefully as adults.
Females are the dominant sex and may bully a male companion who will need space to get away from his cage mate. Females, and to a lesser extent males, spray urine to deter unwanted intruders. A chinchilla standing with its back legs up is warning you off.
Chinchillas have a range of vocal expressions which help communicate with other chinchillas how they are feeling. It is useful for their human owners to understand these too.
It is important that you provide your chinchillas with special chinchilla ‘sand’ to dust bathe in. This is made of a special material called sepiolite. You should only use proper chinchilla ‘sand’ as regular sand that we use in children’s sand pits or for building work is dangerous to use for chinchillas.
Baby chinchillas learn about their world, just as human babies do, through putting things in their mouth and tasting them. These little nips are their way of exploring their world. Painful nips should be met with the word ‘No!’ in a firm manner without shouting.
Chinchillas find loud noises disturbing. They should be kept in a quiet part of the house that is quiet during the day. To have a radio or TV on at night when they are active can help acclimatise them to noises they might encounter during the day. Their cage should have plenty of platform and a nest box or more where they can rest during the day.
Young males may mount each other and also objects like human hands. If this behaviour is excessive, it may indicate a fur ring around the penis that needs attention. Fur ring can cause an infection or worse if not treated.
Degus are social creatures, living in community groups in the wild. It is kinder to keep them with at least one of their own kind. They live in the wild by digging burrows in soft earth under rocks with regularly used pathways joining the burrows above ground. Mainly active by day, during summer months they are more active at dawn and dusk. They do not hibernate but do store food for the winter months when food sources are low and demands on their energy much higher.
A high sided dust bath helps keep the special chinchilla sand from spilling all over the cage and makes it easier to keep clean. Sift the sand after use to remove faeces, hay and other debris which might cause injury or infection. You should use sand suitable for chinchillas which is available from pet stores. The dust bath must be solid enough that it cannot be tipped over.
Sticks such as hazel, willow, apple and pear tree branches provide something for the degu to gnaw on. In the wild, degu status is connected with the size of the twig nests they build so anything shreddable is always popular. Tunnels and boxes which resemble the burrows they would use in the wild provide places for resting and storing food.
Climbing provides regular exercise and an enclosed exercise wheel allows the degu to run as much as it likes. Take care that the degu cannot fall from a great height though. Provide plenty of corner shelves and ledges both for environmental stimulation and for safety reasons. Degus are curious creatures, but they are also prey animals, regularly watching out for signs of danger. Strange animals and people, especially if the move suddenly or swoop over the degu as a bird of prey would, will cause them to run for cover so it is important that they have places to hide where they feel secure.
If let out of their cage to run around the room they can be difficult to catch. Gnawing electric cables is a big hazard but too tempting for a degu who would naturally dig in soft earth and eat any roots it found. An enclosed exercise wheel such as the Wodent Wheel provides plenty of healthy exercise.