Chinchillas – Health Conditions

Common conditions of pet chinchillas include bite wounds, respiratory diseases, overgrown and impacted teeth, gastrointestinal stasis, bloat, diarrhea, skin problems, reproductive/genital issues, and heat stroke.

Bite Wounds

Bite wounds are common in chinchillas that are housed with other chinchillas. They can also occur due to an attack by the household cat, dog, or ferret. Because of their dense fur, skin wounds are often missed. Dog bites can be fatal to chinchillas due to the damage a large dog can do to a small, fragile chinchilla. Bites from other chinchillas, dogs, and cats are often infected with various bacteria, especially Pasteurella multocida, which commonly lives in cats’ and dogs’ mouths. If left untreated, the infection in the wound can quickly enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, causing a fatal infection.

Bite wounds are true medical emergencies that require immediate veterinary attention. Bite wounds are treated with antibiotics and thorough wound cleaning (for which anesthesia may be necessary).

"Bites from other chinchillas, dogs, and cats are often infected with various bacteria, especially Pasteurella multocida..."

Respiratory Disease

Respiratory diseases are often seen in pet chinchillas. A relatively minor respiratory problem left untreated can rapidly progress to pneumonia, which can be fatal. Conditions such as overcrowding, poor ventilation, and high humidity in the chinchilla’s cage environment may predispose to pneumonia. Common signs of respiratory disease in chinchillas include lack of appetite, lethargy, difficulty breathing, nasal or eye discharge, and swollen lymph nodes.

Pneumonia and other respiratory problems are treated with antibiotics. Chinchillas that are lethargic and have stopped eating require aggressive therapy in the hospital, including fluid therapy, medications, and force-feeding.

Overgrown and Impacted Teeth

Chinchillas have open-rooted or continuously growing teeth that grow 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) per year. Chinchillas have one upper and one lower incisor, plus four upper and four lower cheek teeth (premolar and molar teeth) on each side. The teeth must align or meet precisely to wear properly against each other. Malocclusion occurs when the teeth do not meet properly and therefore do not wear correctly, leading to overgrown teeth and poor chewing capabilities. This can happen with either the visible front teeth (incisors) or the back molars you cannot see. These overgrown teeth may start to cut into the tongue, cheek, or lips, leading to difficulty eating, decreased appetite, weight loss, drooling, eye problems, and pawing at the face.

Chinchillas can also develop abscesses (bacterial infections) involving incisors or cheek teeth. Dental overgrowth commonly occurs in chinchillas that do not eat hay as the main component of their diet. Some chinchillas may also have an inherited condition where their teeth do not align properly.

Hay is essential for chinchillas to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract and grind down continuously growing teeth. Chinchillas that do not eat hay do not wear down their teeth properly, hence the surfaces of their top and bottom cheek teeth (premolars and molars) may form dental spikes that cause ulcerations on the cheeks or tongue. Once these teeth hit each other, they have no further room to grow, so the roots of these teeth can become impacted in their jaws from the pressure of the top and bottom teeth hitting each other. Typically, all or nearly all the back teeth become impacted over time, resulting in a great deal of pain when the chinchilla initially tries to chew any hard food and, ultimately, soft food as well.

If you suspect problems with your chinchilla's teeth, you should immediately seek help from a veterinarian familiar with chinchillas. Anesthesia is often needed for a thorough evaluation of the mouth. Skull radiographs (X-rays) are critical to truly assess the chinchilla’s dental structure and potential abnormal tooth position or abscessation.

"Infected teeth need to be removed, sharp spurs on the surfaces of the teeth need to be trimmed/filed, and anti-inflammatory medication prescribed for pain."

Infected teeth need to be removed, sharp spurs on the surfaces of the teeth need to be trimmed/filed, and anti-inflammatory medication prescribed for pain. In the past, nail trimmers were used to trim overgrown teeth; due to the risk of causing fractures to the teeth and jaw, the use of nail trimming equipment is strongly discouraged! Most veterinarians now trim the teeth using a dental drill designed to cut through teeth without injuring them or the surrounding gums. Long-term anti-inflammatory medication and soft food are generally indicated for teeth that are impacted but not infected or loose.

Dental disease is generally chronic in chinchillas and will likely need several visits to stabilize.

Gastrointestinal Problems

Gastrointestinal (GI) stasis refers to a slowing down of the passage of food through the stomach and intestines when chinchillas stop eating for several reasons, including dental disease, inappropriate diet, overheating, or other stressors. Once the animal stops eating, the normal population of bacteria that inhabit the GI tract and help with digestion changes, allowing toxic and gas-producing bacteria to overgrow, making the animal even more uncomfortable. Regardless of why the pet stopped eating, GI stasis is a potentially life-threatening condition that must be treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Treatment for GI stasis includes fluids (generally administered subcutaneously or intravenously), syringe feeding, pain relievers, and GI motility-enhancing drugs, as long as there is no physical GI tract obstruction. In addition, the cause of GI stasis (e.g., dental disease, overheating, stress, etc.) must be identified and treated.

In addition to GI stasis, chinchillas are prone to bloat, accumulating large amounts of gas in the stomach and intestines. Bloat can be secondary to GI inflammation, changes in the normal bacteria in the GI tract (dysbiosis), GI stasis, or in rare cases, intestinal obstruction or torsion (twist of the GI tract). Affected chinchillas have distended, sometimes painful abdomens, and they may be weak and lie on their sides. With severe bloat, they may have difficulty breathing.

Treatment of bloat is generally supportive and similar to GI stasis, except in severe cases where a tube must be passed through the mouth into the stomach to relieve gas pressure. The prognosis for severe bloat is poor

"Affected chinchillas have distended, sometimes painful abdomens, and they may be weak and lie on their sides."

Chinchillas sometimes develop diarrhea. Diarrhea is not a disease but rather a sign of disease. Rodents have digestive systems designed to digest large amounts of fiber and easily develop diarrhea due to diet changes, incorrect usage of antibiotics, stress, and diets low in fiber or high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Veterinarians will try to determine the cause of diarrhea by using one or all of the following: diet evaluation, diagnostic testing, such as microscopic examination of the feces, fecal cultures, radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and in some cases, exploratory surgery.

The treatment for diarrhea depends on the cause. Parasites are treated with deworming medication. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. An inappropriate diet is corrected by switching to a more appropriate, higher-fiber diet.

Skin and Fur Problems

Chinchillas also are susceptible to numerous skin and fur problems, such as ringworm (a fungal skin infection), fur chewing, and hair loss. In males, fur can become wrapped around the penis, inside the sheath, referred to as a penile hair ring, leading to irritation or constriction of the penis.

Heat Stroke

As native inhabitants of the high Andes mountains, they are very comfortable at temperatures of 35o - 45oF (2o - 7oC). The optimal environmental household temperature should be 55º - 68ºF (10º - 20ºC) and definitely below 80ºF (27ºC). High humidity should also be avoided, as chinchillas DO NOT tolerate humid conditions at all. Temperatures above 80oF (27oC), especially if high humidity is also present, can easily lead to fatal heat stroke. Signs of heat stroke include panting, high body temperature, open-mouthed breathing, and reluctance to move.

Heat stroke is an emergency condition requiring immediate veterinary treatment. The chinchilla is immediately cooled with tepid (not ice-cold) water baths, cool water enemas, various medications, intraperitoneal fluids (fluids placed directly into the abdominal cavity), and intravenous fluid therapy. Care must be taken not to chill the animal too much, as a rapid body temperature drop could cause a fatal reaction.

Chinchillas discovered with heat stroke at home should be sponged down with tepid (but not cold) water, cooled with a fan, and brought to the veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

Reproductive Problems

Reproductive problems in female chinchillas are uncommon but may quickly become a critical scenario when presented. Female chinchillas that are having a vaginal discharge need attention right away. Female chinchillas do not ‘go in heat’ like dogs. If there is a vaginal discharge or swelling in the lower abdominal cavity, she may have developed a pyometra, a condition where the entire uterus is filled with pus. This disease requires immediate antibiotic treatment and an ovariohysterectomy (uterus removal).

"If there is a vaginal discharge or swelling in the lower abdominal cavity, she may have developed a pyometra, a condition where the entire uterus is filled with pus."

How can I tell if my chinchilla is sick?

Certain signs of disease in chinchillas are specific to certain diseases. Unfortunately, clinical signs are often vague and non-specific, such as anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases, including pneumonia, overgrown/impacted teeth, cancer, and even kidney or liver failure.

ANY deviation from your chinchilla’s normal behavior is cause for concern and requires immediate veterinary attention.