You've seen those comically oversized ears and been smitten by the adorable chinchilla. Now it's time to move past the "Awwww, I've got to have one!" response and figure out whether owning one of these rodents would be practical, and whether you can meet the associated responsibilities. Chinchillas have lots of qualities widely considered desirable in a pet, from cuteness to relatively low maintenance care requirements, but your individual circumstances and preferences all matter.
If you're looking for a cute, cuddly, soft, perky, quiet rodent, chinchillas have a lot to offer you. They're friendly, inquisitive and highly sociable. They do much better in pairs than alone, requiring lots of daily attention if they're on their own, which you need to consider before adopting a chinchilla. Full-grown chinchillas generally weight about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, with females being slightly larger than males. One notable characteristic is the chinchilla's long lifespan, by rodent standards; they usually live from 12 to 20 years, so they're a longtime commitment. Also, chinchillas don't do well with heat and humidity. They need it below 78 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity.
All pets require food, water and various supplies. Chinchilla needs and costs are minimal as compared to cats and dogs and about on par with other rodents. The basics include a solid-bottom cage containing no plastic that's at least 4 feet high, 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep; however, larger is preferable. Chinchillas need a 16-ounce or larger water bottle with a stainless steel ball bearing sipper tube, a ceramic or metal food dish, a pellets-only food mixture, a constant supply of hay, lots of aspen or paper-based bedding, a little house, a salt lick, an exercise wheel, dust bath and some toys. Chinchillas also need chew toys or other appropriate items to gnaw on to keep their teeth filed down. If you're willing and able to buy all of this and to replace it as needed for up to 20 years, chinchillas can make a good pet for your home. Don't forget, you'll have to pay for veterinary care sometimes over the years too.
If you can't meet the basic care needs of a chinchilla, it's not the right pet for you. They need to be handled gently from the start so they become tame and they need attention every day, especially if they don't have a companion sharing their cage. Let chinchillas out of their cage as much as possible every day in a safe, secure space free of anything they might chew -- which is almost anything. Provide healthy food, fresh water and hay every day. Change out all the bedding and completely clean the cage once per week. Offer daily access to an unscented dust bath and replace the sand any time it becomes contaminated by bodily waste, food, water or hay. Chinchillas need a few items to chew and toys to play with; rotate them occasionally to prevent boredom. Get veterinary attention if you notice any possible signs or symptoms of infection or illness.
An important consideration is whether you want a pet for a small child. If so, chinchillas aren't a good pick. These rodents are fragile and scare easily, so they must always be handled gently. When they're not, they're likely to bite. When fed a proper diet, given the means to exercise enough and kept in sanitary conditions, chinchillas are generally healthy and only require veterinary attention if something is wrong. They can get ringworm and other infections, develop a number of mouth problems if they aren't given something appropriate to gnaw on and they're prone to heat stroke in a hot or humid environment. Some trimming of the toenails and the hair around the anus is usually advisable; a vet or groomer can do this for you. With patience and some treats, chinchillas are fairly easy to tame and to train to be held and even climb around on you.
Eric Mohrman has been a freelance writer since 2007, focusing on travel, food and lifestyle stories. His creative writing is also widely published. He lives in Orlando, Florida.