Furnishing adequate housing, a good diet, and considerate care will minimize disease in chinchillas, as with any other animal.
Heart and Blood Vessel Disorders
Heart murmurs that range from mild to moderate are sometimes seen in chinchillas, particularly young chinchillas. Usually these murmurs are not associated with any heart disease that needs treatment. However, if your chinchilla does have a heart murmur, you should be aware that the potential for the development of heart disease may exist.
Eye and Ear Disorders
Common eye and ear disorders in chinchillas include conjunctivitis and otitis media. Ear trauma is also common, due to the chinchilla's delicate ears.
Conjunctivitis is an eye disease seen in some young chinchillas. It may be caused by a foreign body getting into the eye or a bacterial infection. Nursing kits may get conjunctivitis from direct contact with their mother if there is an infection in the birth canal. Chinchillas may also develop conjunctivitis if the dust from their baths gets into their eyes. Infected eyes may be blood-shot, swollen, and have a discharge. Infections usually are treated with topical antibiotic ointments or drops. Dust baths should be removed until the conjunctivitis is completely gone. As a preventive measure, dust baths should be avoided with pregnant females about to give birth in order to keep newborns from getting dust in their eyes or mouth.
This ear disease may occur in young chinchillas after a respiratory infection or trauma. Scar tissue can enclose the healing ear canal and trap wax and debris inside. The eardrum may become thickened and swollen. The swelling may progress to the inner ear, which will result in the chinchilla becoming uncoordinated, being unbalanced, or circling and rolling. Surgery may be necessary to reopen a closed ear canal. Regular cleaning, in addition to antibiotics, can help ensure that the ear canal remains open until healing is complete. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to safely clean the ears.
The chinchilla's large, delicate ears are easily hurt, most often from bite wounds or, if exposed to extreme cold, frostbite. Treatment includes cleaning the wounded area with antiseptic solution and antibiotic ointment. Closing cuts with stitches in the ear is usually not effective and not recommended. If severe damage is present, the damaged part of the ear may need to be surgically removed. If wounds are left open, the proper antibiotics should be used to lower the chances of infection.
Digestive disorders are among the most common disorders that occur in pet chinchillas. The cause may be infectious (such as a bacterial or viral disease), but noninfectious causes, such as changes in the diet or a diet that does not provide adequate nutrition or roughage, are also likely to cause digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, or bloat.
Loose or watery stools occur in chinchillas with intestinal disorders caused by nutritional, bacterial, protozoal, parasitic, or stress-induced illnesses. Animals with these disorders may die quickly without signs or, in longterm cases, show a range of signs including lack of energy, loss of appetite, rough hair coat, staining near the anus, hunched posture, listlessness, dull eyes, dehydration, weight loss, stomach pain, excessive gas, fever or lower-than-normal body temperature, and diarrhea or constipation. The feces may look bloody or include mucus. Straining to have a bowel movement can lead to the lower part of the large intestine slipping out of place. Sudden changes in diet and the giving of inappropriate antibiotics can affect the bacteria that normally live in your chinchilla's digestive tract, causing digestive problems.
Treatment of diarrhea is similar for most causes. Dietary roughage (such as hay or straw) should be increased and grains and concentrates decreased. Although feeding Lactobacillus bacteria, in the form of yogurt with active cultures, is often recommended to help reestablish normal bacterial flora, the active cultures generally do not survive in the digestive tract. Instead, it may be beneficial to use probiotics with Lactobacillus. Several are readily available and can be added to the food or water of chinchillas. Giving the chinchilla fluids is very important. If your chinchilla will not drink water, then you need to get a veterinarian to provide fluids by injection.
There are many bacteria reported to cause gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines) and diarrhea in chinchillas. The most common sources of these bacteria are a contaminated environment and spoiled food. Protozoa such as Giardia are often present in apparently healthy normal chinchillas. These parasites may cause inflammation of the intestines and diarrhea. The disease signs occur under conditions of stress, poor sanitation, or at the same time that bacterial infection is causing inflammation of the intestines. A veterinarian can perform tests to find out if your chinchilla has any protozoa.
Gastroenteritis may also be caused by rapid changes in the chinchilla's normal diet. Diets low in fiber and high in carbohydrates, fats, and protein can cause medical problems. Feed or drinking water can also be contaminated by bacteria, molds, or chemicals. Vitamin A, B complex, or C deficiency may result in gastroenteritis. Young kits often develop diarrhea if their mothers cannot produce enough milk or after the use of milk replacers.
More common than diarrhea, constipation most often occurs from a lack of dietary fiber and roughage. Dehydration, environmental stress, intestinal obstruction, obesity, lack of exercise, hairballs, and pregnancy may also cause constipation. Signs include straining to have a bowel movement and having fewer of them. Droppings are thin, short, and hard; have an unpleasant odor; and may be stained with blood. Longterm cases may lead to twisting, blockage, or displacement of the intestines. To provide relief, dietary fiber can be increased by providing alfalfa cubes, or mineral oil can be added to the feed. Persistent constipation may be due to several internal physical abnormalities. A veterinarian may be able to feel these or identify them on x-rays. Surgery may be required in such cases.
Bloat can result from sudden dietary changes, especially overeating. It has been reported in nursing females 2 to 3 weeks after giving birth and may be related to hypocalcemia, a life-threatening imbalance of calcium metabolism. Gas production from the bacterial flora in unmoving bowels quickly builds up within 2 to 4 hours. Affected animals have no energy, difficulty breathing, and a painful, swollen stomach. They may roll or stretch while attempting to relieve their discomfort. Treatment by a veterinarian is usually required and may include passage of a stomach tube or insertion of a needle into the stomach to relieve gas build-up. Nursing females may respond favorably to calcium gluconate given intravenously.
Stomach ulcers are common in young chinchillas and are frequently caused by eating coarse, fibrous roughage or moldy feeds. Animals with stomach ulcers may not have an appetite or show no signs. You may not know that your chinchilla had an ulcer until after it has died and your veterinarian does an examination or necropsy (animal autopsy). Therefore, prevention is very important and includes providing appropriate types and amounts of dietary roughage and feeding commercial pellets formulated for chinchillas.
Lung and Airway Disorders
Infections of the respiratory tract can occur in chinchillas. The most common cause is a bacterial infection. Choking also poses a serious hazard in chinchillas because they lack the ability to vomit.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Humid, crowded, and poorly ventilated housing conditions contribute to a greater chance of respiratory disease in chinchillas. Bacterial infections of the nasal sinuses and mucous membranes are seen more often in young or stressed chinchillas. Signs include sneezing, a discharge from the nose, and conjunctivitis. In severe cases, animals can die suddenly. Untreated animals may progress to pneumonia (see Chinchillas: Pneumonia) or death. Diagnosis is based on signs and tests performed by a veterinarian. Treatment includes appropriate antibiotics and general supportive treatment, including gently soaking the nose and eyes with warm water compresses and removing any crusts. Prevention includes keeping young chinchillas in a warm and draft-free environment, maintaining good husbandry and sanitation, and separating affected or carrier animals from healthy ones.
Pneumonia is usually associated with bacterial infection. Housing in cold, damp environments may lead to lowered resistance. Signs of respiratory distress include a thick, yellowish discharge from the nose, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia may be accompanied by eye infections, fever, weight loss, loss of energy, depression, or loss of appetite. Wheezing sounds from the lungs may be heard with a stethoscope. Sudden death from bacterial infection may spread quickly among animals. Diagnosis is based on signs, examination, and finding the bacteria in nasal or eye washes. Treatment usually does not work in severe cases, but your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics or intravenous fluids in some cases. In addition, supportive treatment includes warm, dry housing and stress reduction.
Chinchillas do not have the ability to vomit and may choke when the airway is blocked by a large piece of food or bedding. Females may also choke when eating the placentas after delivering infants. Particles from these foreign bodies can irritate the lower respiratory tract and quickly lead to an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. This may be noticed as drooling, retching, coughing, and difficulty breathing as the chinchilla attempts to dislodge the foreign body. If untreated, choking may lead to asphyxiation and death.
Skin disorders in chinchillas may be caused by bacterial or fungal infection but can also result from behavioral issues such as fur chewing.
Ringworm, which is caused by fungi called dermatophytes, does not occur often in chinchillas. Small, patchy areas of baldness are seen mostly around the ears, nose, and feet, but can be found on any part of the body. Areas that are affected appear as irregular or circular-shaped, crusty, flaky skin with reddened edges. The disease is transferred by direct contact or by contact with items such as cage bedding, feeding equipment, or toys. Diagnosis is based on appearance, veterinary examination, or by finding the fungus in or on infected hairs. Some animals may be carriers and show no signs themselves. Effective treatment consists of 5 to 6 weeks of oral antifungal medicines. Isolated skin lesions may be treated effectively with topical antifungal creams applied daily for 7 to 10 days. Antifungal powders may be added to the chinchilla's regular dust bath. Prevention includes decreasing the potential for stress, isolating affected animals and quarantining any new additions, and adequate sanitation. Ringworm is contagious to humans and other animals.
Abscesses in chinchillas may occur after bite wounds or other trauma sites become infected. An abscess can be caused by several common bacteria. It may remain hidden under the animal's thick coat and only become evident after it ruptures. Ruptured abscesses should be completely drained and flushed with an antiseptic solution recommended by your veterinarian. Appropriate topical antibiotic creams may be applied as needed. Unruptured abscesses should be assessed by a veterinarian. They can be surgically removed and appropriate antibiotics given. Abscesses removed surgically often heal better than those that are lanced, drained, and flushed.
Currently thought to be an abnormal behavior, up to 30% of chinchillas may chew their own or each other's fur, resulting in a moth-eaten appearance. Fur chewing may be partly due to boredom, stress, malnutrition, warm or drafty environments, or increased hormonal activity. Mothers tend to pass this disorder to their offspring, and affected chinchillas usually have a nervous disposition. Hair loss is observed along the shoulders, flanks, sides, and paws. The affected areas appear darker due to the exposed underfur. A variety of approaches have been used to control the behavior. These include decreasing room humidity and temperature, changing the diet, and applying povidone-iodine ointment to the skin. Anything that causes the chinchilla stress should be removed or reduced. Papaya cubes or tablets may help prevent hairballs and potential intestinal blockage. Ask your veterinarian about use of these products.
Disorders Affecting Multiple Body Systems
Some disorders affect more than one organ system. These are known as generalized or systemic disorders. Many are infections, but they can also be metabolic or hormonal problems.
Infections across multiple portions of your chinchilla's body may follow untreated bacterial gastroenteritis (see Chinchillas: Diarrhea), although other bacteria may also cause it. Animals may not show any signs and die suddenly or they may develop nonspecific signs such as loss of appetite and weight loss, inactivity, rough hair coat, and diarrhea. If these signs occur, a veterinary checkup is recommended. Diagnosis is based on finding certain bacteria in blood or affected organs. Treatment includes appropriate antibiotics and general supportive care.
Chinchillas are very sensitive to sudden changes in their environment, especially temperatures above 80°F (27°C). Signs of heat stress include initial restlessness followed by rapid breathing, drooling, weakness, very high fever, congested lungs, coma, and death. To treat heat stress, the animal should be cooled down slowly and carefully with cool water baths and provided with general supportive care. Your veterinarian may provide intravenous fluids and corticosteroids for additional supportive care. To help prevent heat stress, make sure that your chinchilla's cage is placed away from direct sunlight.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa Infection
Found in unclean drinking water and the cage environment, Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria may cause infections in chinchillas with weakened or immature immune systems. The infection may be passed by direct contact or contaminated fecal droppings. Young kits may get it by nursing from an infected mother. Signs include loss of appetite and weight, depression, diarrhea or constipation, ulcers in the eyes or mouth, skin blisters containing pus, conjunctivitis, genital swellings, inflammation of the breasts, abortion, infertility, and acute death. A veterinarian should evaluate these signs and will also look for typical internal signs. Diagnosis is based on finding the bacteria; treatment includes appropriate antibiotics. To prevent infection, improved general animal husbandry and sanitation are required and disinfection practices should be intensified.
Listeria monocytogenes Infection
infection may occur when chinchillas live in environments with poor sanitation and contaminated food or water. It is seen most frequently in colony animals raised for fur, although it sometimes occurs in individual chinchillas. A chinchilla usually gets this infection by eating droppings with the bacteria in it. While Listeria can infect many species of animals and humans, chinchillas are particularly susceptible to it. The infection may occur in the intestines, bowels, and the brain. Signs, if present, include loss of appetite, depression, weight loss, constipation or diarrhea, and stomach pain. If the infection gets into the central nervous system, additional signs include droopy ears, twisted neck and head tilt, loss of coordination, circling, and convulsions leading to death. There are other internal signs a veterinarian would be able to find. Any organ may be affected. Diagnosis is based on finding the bacteria. There is no effective treatment for chinchillas showing signs of illness. Animals found to have the infection should be removed and attention given to cleaning the environment, water, and diet. Chinchillas not exhibiting signs can be vaccinated against it or treated with antibiotics that protect against the disease.
bacterial infections are uncommon in chinchillas kept as pets. Being exposed to wild rodents that are carriers of the disease is the most likely source of infection. Chinchillas can also get the disease by eating infected droppings or from their mothers either prior to birth or through milk while nursing. Infected pets may show no signs. Infection may spread quickly, causing chinchillas to have loss of energy, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, constipation or diarrhea, or to die suddenly. There are other internal signs a veterinarian would be able to find. Diagnosis is based on finding the bacteria. Treatment of sick chinchillas does not work. Affected animals should be removed and attention given to cleaning the environment, water, and diet. Exposure to wild rodents should be eliminated.
Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders
Disorders that affect the central nervous system are not common in chinchillas. However, they may occur in animals as a result of infections by parasites, viruses, or other infectious organisms. Disorders of metabolism may also cause neurologic signs.
Chinchillas may be infected by a roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, normally found in raccoons. Chinchillas get it by eating feed contaminated with raccoon droppings. Infected chinchillas may show a variety of central nervous system signs, including loss of coordination, head tilt, tumbling, paralysis, lying down, coma, and death. There are tests a veterinarian can perform to diagnose this disease. There is no effective treatment. Prevention includes appropriate husbandry and adequate sanitation practices. The roundworm can be passed to humans and cause a fatal brain disease.
Certain protozoa (single-cell parasites) cause a disease called necrotic meningoencephalitis in chinchillas. Infections are rare. Signs may include poor coordination, inactivity, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, difficulty breathing, a blue color to the skin, and a pus-like discharge of the nose. Your veterinarian will examine the chinchilla for additional internal signs. Active infections can be treated in some cases with antibiotics.
Herpesvirus 1 Infection
Human herpesvirus 1 infection has been reported in chinchillas. Signs include conjunctivitis and various neurologic signs, including seizures, disorientation, and inactivity, progressing to death. A veterinarian can determine other internal signs. Diagnosis is based on the signs and tests performed by a veterinarian. Treatment is not likely to be effective. Chinchillas may serve as a temporary reservoir for human herpesvirus infections.
Thiamine (vitamin B1) is required for normal carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis. Deficiency of this vitamin causes damage to peripheral motor nerves that is often reversible when thiamine is restored to the diet. Affected chinchillas may show neurologic signs such as trembling, circling, convulsions, or paralysis. Your veterinarian can treat this deficiency with injections of thiamine or B-complex vitamins. Sources of natural thiamine include leafy vegetables, high-quality hay, and wheat germ meal, or supplements can be added to the diet (1 milligram of thiamine per kilogram of feed) if needed.
Bone and Muscle Disorders
The bones of chinchillas are thin and relatively fragile, so fractures are common. Other disorders include muscle spasms caused by dietary imbalance.
Broken legs commonly happen when chinchillas accidentally catch their legs on wire caging or when the leg is grabbed. Healing begins quickly, within 7 to 10 days. See a veterinarian immediately for treatment. During the healing period, the chinchilla should be placed in a small cage or enclosure to limit its movement. To prevent potential limb injuries, caging should have solid floors or mesh openings no wider than ½ by ½ inches (15 by 15 millimeters).
A dietary imbalance in the ratio of calcium to phosphorus or phosphorus deficiency may result in severe muscle spasms in young or pregnant chinchillas. Muscles of the hindlimbs, forelimbs, and face are affected. Treatment with calcium gluconate, given by a veterinarian, is recommended. Prevention is accomplished by feeding a well-balanced, nutritionally complete diet formulated for chinchillas.
If you intend to breed your chinchillas, you should seek the advice of your veterinarian or a qualified breeder on selecting the best chinchilla matches for breeding because some matches should be avoided. Breeding animals should have access to a fresh commercial pelleted diet and adequate roughage, and colonies should be screened carefully for any physical defects that may be inherited (see Chinchillas: Breeding and Reproduction of Chinchillas).
Poor reproduction may be due to any of several possible causes, including malnutrition, abnormal sperm, hormonal imbalance, infectious disease, lack of experience, lethal genes from inappropriate crosses, or poor conditioning. Infectious and dietary factors are often the causes. Very fat females produce smaller litters. Matings between or among chinchillas with matched genes for White and Velvet coat color should be avoided.
Abortion or Resorption of Fetuses
The sudden ending of a pregnancy may be caused by improper handling, trauma, poor nutrition, bacterial infection, fever, or interruption of the blood supply to the uterus. Chinchillas may also resorb fetuses during early pregnancy if stressed. At term, suddenly startled females may abort. It is common for the female to eat the aborted kits. Abortion may take place unnoticed, but should be suspected if a female chinchilla suddenly loses weight. Often, a bloody vaginal discharge and staining near the anus are observed. A veterinarian should examine females after abortion and may provide treatment such as gently flushing the reproductive tract with an antiseptic solution and giving antibiotics.
Retained or Mummified Fetus
A fetus that dies late in pregnancy may be delivered along with the live young, remain in the uterus, or become mummified. If a dead fetus is not delivered, the pregnant female may neglect her live kits and become increasingly depressed as toxicity develops. A fetus that dies early in the pregnancy is normally resorbed without complication, but loss of fetal fluids may lead to mummification. A mummified fetus can remain within the uterus for a long time and prevent further pregnancies. Causes are thought to be similar to those for infertility (see Chinchillas: Infertility), with poor conditioning or infection being the most likely. All female chinchillas should be examined as soon as possible after giving birth to determine if any fetuses were not delivered. X-rays should be taken to provide a definitive diagnosis. A female not able to pass a retained fetus may require cesarean section, but chinchillas usually respond well to this procedure.
Difficulty Giving Birth (Dystocia)
Dystocia is an abnormal or difficult birth. This is very rare in chinchillas, but may be observed with an abnormally large or misplaced fetus or in young females bred too early. Poorly conditioned females may also develop a condition in which uterine contractions weaken or stop, or they may lack sufficient strength to deliver the kits. If labor continues for more than 4 hours, a veterinarian should administer a medicine that helps labor progress. If the chinchilla continues to experience difficulty giving birth, a cesarean section should be performed.
A placenta or fetus that is not delivered may lead to bacterial contamination and inflammation of the uterus. Chinchillas with metritis may not walk normally and may have loss of appetite and weight, inadequate milk production, high fever, swollen and discolored genitals, and a vaginal discharge containing mucus and pus with an unpleasant odor. Kits are at risk of infection through contact with infected discharge. Early detection and treatment are essential because affected females can develop a severe, fatal bacterial infection with sudden deterioration and death. A veterinarian can give medicine that causes uterine contractions and forces out the infected debris. The veterinarian will then clean and disinfect the reproductive tract and the uterus. Antibiotics and general support are also provided.
Pyometra is a large accumulation of pus within the uterus. It may follow an episode of metritis or retained placenta, but is sometimes seen in unbred females. Signs include a rough hair coat and a vaginal discharge that may stain the genital area. Often, affected females are no longer capable of successful breeding and should be removed from the colony. There is no effective treatment for pyometra. An ovar-iohysterectomy, the removal of the ovaries and uterus, is recommended.
Lack of Milk
Advanced age, genetic factors, infection, or poor nutrition may cause inadequate milk production. Kits not receiving enough milk are vocal, restless, lose weight, and may die. Following pregnancy, the female's mammary glands should be examined for milk production. If females have not begun to produce adequate milk within 72 hours, oxytocin (a hormone that can help to stimulate milk flow) should be given by a veterinarian. Allowing kits to nurse from compatible nursing females or guinea pigs may be an option necessary in unresponsive cases or large litters. Otherwise hand feeding may be necessary.
Inflammation of the Mammary Glands (Mastitis)
The mammary glands of nursing females should be observed frequently for injuries caused by the sharp teeth of nursing kits. Minor wounds can be treated with topical antibiotics and warm compresses. More serious wounds can lead to infection. When this occurs, mammary glands are warm, firm, enlarged, and painful. Milk may be thick or bloody and clotted. Appropriate antibiotics are needed, and kits may need to be nursed by other nursing females or hand fed.
In male chinchillas, a ring of hair may surround the penis within the foreskin and cause serious complications. Affected males may be observed grooming excessively, straining to urinate, and frequently cleaning their penis. Hair rings often develop following sexual intercourse. Treatment includes lubricating the penis or mild sedation to help with gentle removal of the hair ring. Your veterinarian can demonstrate the best technique for hair ring removal. You should routinely check male chinchillas for hair rings, especially any males that are used for breeding.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian); Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM