Chinchillas are very hardy little animals in many ways and one of their most welcome aspects as pets is that their incredibly dense fur makes them unattractive to fleas and other pests like ticks and mites. Not only does this mean that you and your house will not get overrun with this kind of vermin, it also means that the chinchilla is not prone to many of the skin problems and other more serious conditions that can be a result of infestation. Fungal infections can be a problem, but by keeping the animal in clean surroundings and in the correct humidity (30-50%) and temperatures below 90°F (32°C) these should be relatively rare.
Respiratory tract infections
If your chinchilla is running a temperature, it is really easy to spot, as its big, hairless ears will be warm to the touch and may even blush red. If this is accompanied with a runny nose, a wheeze and watering eyes, the animal is likely to have a respiratory tract infection and should be taken to the vet if it is not considerably better within a day or so. Antibiotics will soon clear it up and if you keep the chinchilla warm with plenty of water it will soon be much better – in fact, treat it as you would a human cold and you won’t go far wrong. As with all small animal pets, a careful watch should be kept on its progress and any deterioration should be dealt with quickly, as pneumonia could develop and this can be serious. If your chinchilla is prone to colds, perhaps it would be worthwhile making sure that the habitat is not in a draught or that the temperature fluctuates too much. With its thick coat, a chinchilla can get overheated very quickly, as it can’t sweat, so a regular temperature is essential; don’t site the cage near a door and certainly not just inside a window. Chinchillas are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn, so don’t need a lot of light and the hot sun through the glass could be fatal.
Like any animal, a chinchilla will occasionally suffer from a touch of constipation or diarrhoea and these are both pretty easily dealt with. If constipation is the problem, it may be that the animal needs a bit more exercise and one way of providing this is to give it more pumice dust baths – they love these so much that they really roll around and this will probably move everything along naturally. If the chinchilla has diarrhoea and you have recently altered its diet, this will probably be the cause and cutting back on fruit and vegetables will probably be all it needs. If the diarrhoea does not resolve in a day or so and if the animal begins to look a little woebegone and lethargic, it is time to examine the stools a little more closely. If the droppings are slime covered, or even linked together with ropey mucus, it may be a case of bacterial enteritis. This will certainly require a visit to the vet, who will prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic in the first instance. If this does not work, a sample of dropping will be needed, for microbiological investigation. The bacteria are grown in the laboratory and tested against various antibiotics, to find the best one. When this is identified, recovery is usually fast, although while the chinchilla is ill it will need special care and certainly should be separated from any companions.
Yersiniosis in chinchillas
Infection by the Yersinia genus of bacterium is relatively rare in chinchillas as it can only be caught from an infected rodent, usually in the wild. As most chinchillas are never in contact with wild animals and they are bred in captivity by reputable breeders, this infection is found very little in the population. This is one very good reason to ensure that your chinchilla is bought from a pet shop which you know and trust, or a breeder with a good reputation. Chinchillas are quite expensive animals to buy and any that is being offered cheaply should be regarded as a possible risk to any animals you already have. Yersinosis is very serious and one of the main problems is that there are scarcely any symptoms before the animal is very ill indeed. Its droppings will have been full of bacteria for a long while before the symptoms of general malaise, diarrhoea (or constipation) and fatigue show themselves and by then the internal lesions which are the actual cause of death will be very well established. If one of your chinchillas becomes unwell and you have recently imported an individual from an unknown source, you should isolate it at once, clean the cage where it has been before reintroducing its companions and call the vet as soon as possible. The vet will probably prescribe antibiotics and supportive therapy, but few animals survive this infection.
Bacterial infections can be so wide ranging in their effects and seriousness, but they share one thing in common. If you keep your animals scrupulously clean, in conditions in which they are comfortable and only source pets from a reputable source, these potentially very serious illnesses can be minimised, if not totally eradicated. If you keep more than one animal – and chinchillas do like company – then the secret is to isolate an affected animal as quickly as possible and do not reintroduce it until the vet gives the go ahead, even if it seems well.