To understand chinchillas' dietary needs, it is important to remember where they come from... the arid regions in the high Andes. The food that they are able to find there, to a large degree, consists of dried plants, grasses and seeds. This makes it easy to understand why the key to a chinchilla's diet is that it be nutrient-poor and contain a lot of bulk roughage.

While chinchillas themselves are extremely hardy little animals, their digestive systems are quite delicate. In fact, a chinchilla's diet plays a very important role in maintaining a healthy and alert animal.

A good Chinchilla diet usually can be thought of as consisting of four parts:

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A chinchilla's regular diet consists of a pellet that looks like rabbit food but it contains specific nutrients a chin needs. Do not use rabbit food - it contains hormones.

Most pet owners are able to purchase commercial chinchilla pellets from a pet store or local breeder. While the actual contents of the pellets may vary from brand to brand, the basic ingredients include wheat germ, alfalfa meal, oats, molasses, soybean oil meal, corn, and added vitamins and minerals. Since chinchillas eat with their hands, chinchilla pellets are usually longer than guinea pig or rabbit pellets so that the chinchilla has something to hang on to.

Your pet will eat as much of its pellets as he/she needs so you may refill the feeder when it is empty, but if the chin starts to get fat and lethargic, he should be put on a diet. 1 kilogram of pellets should feed your chin for a month. This comes down to 35 grams per day. Or, alternatively : 1 lb of pellets will last about 20 days when feeding a single chinchilla.

An adult chinchilla will eat about two heaping tablespoons of pellets per day. Chinchillas will only eat until they are full, so over-feeding is not usually a problem. Some people recommend that chinchillas be fed twice a day, once in the morning and once again in the evening. Others suggest only once per day, some say morning, others say evening. Whichever you choose, the key is consistency to prevent stress.

Pellets can be offered in either a hopper type feeder that attaches to the side of the cage or a small ceramic bowl. The advantages of the hopper feeder are that it can't be tipped over and it's easy to fill from the outside of the cage. If you do offer food in a bowl, ceramic bowls are best because they are heavy enough to prevent being tipped over and they can't be chewed like a plastic bowl.

If you do have to change brands or types of pellets, keep in mind that chinchillas are creatures of habit and have delicate digestive systems. Make the change as gradual as possible, mixing in the new pellets in with the old. Each day add slightly more of the new pellets to the mix so that the entire change over takes a couple of weeks. A chinchilla may actually discard the new pellets at first, until it gets used to seeing them every day.
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Your pet should have unlimited access to hay or alfalfa. The blocks (cubes) of alflafa can be used, but many are very hard and not fresh. By no means replace the pellets as your chin's main diet.

While pellets may provide most of a chinchilla's nutrition, hay provides the necessary fiber. The hay, either alfalfa or timothy, can be either loose or in small compressed blocks of alfalfa about one inch by one inch by two inches. Chinchillas like both types, so you may offer either or both. The important thing is that the hay MUST be free of chemical sprays and the hay MUST be free of mold. To be mold free, the hay must be fresh and must have been properly dried and cured. To see that the hay continues to remain free of mold, it must be stored in a dry place.

Hay cubes can be purchased in small amounts rather than 50 pound bags which is really a more practical way to purchase hay for the pet owner. When offering the cubes to your chin, you may want to break the cubes into smaller pieces so that your chin can grasp them easily and pick them up while eating. Even if left unbroken the cubes are no match for a chinchillas sharp teeth. Loose hay can be offered in a ceramic bowl (separate from the pellet bowl).

An adult chinchilla will eat about a handful of loose hay or one pressed cube of hay each day. Besides eating their pressed hay cubes, chinchillas will also use them as play toys to push around their cage. Since chinchillas will only eat as much hay as they want, you don't have to worry about giving them too much.

Any other type of "hay" is bermuda grass. If you have bermuda grass in your lawn that hasn't been treated with chemicals or fertilizers, you can wash it off thoroughly and offer a handful to your chinchilla. It is almost a tonic to chinchillas and helps to clear up any digestive problems.
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Supplements (and "treats")

In theory, chinchillas only need their pellets and hay. However, part of the fun of owning a chinchilla is giving it those little special treats from time to time. In fact, there probably isn't a pet chinchilla owner who doesn't give a chin treats. The main thing to remember about treats is the word "moderation." Treats are fine in moderation, but too many can easily upset a chinchillas delicate system.

Chinchilla's enjoy a wide variety of treats (these should only be given with moderation). Give your pet only one type of treat a day. An adult chin may have 1-2 raisins a day, or two nuts. you do not want to give your pet too many treats because the fat he collects on his body will shorten his life.
It's tough to say "no" to a cute chinchilla who knows how to beg. Just remember that most chinchilla health problems are related to an improper diet which is rich in too many goodies.

So, once you've hardened yourself to give your adult chinchilla less than a teaspoon of treats per day (and even less for youngsters), you need to decide what to offer your chinchilla. Chinchillas, like people, are individuals with their own particular favorites when it comes to treats.

If there is one treat that nearly all chinchillas love, it is raisins. A half of a raisin can be a great training aid when trying to teach a chinchilla a particular behavior. There doesn't seem to be much a chinchilla won't do for a raisin. Again the rule is moderation, only three or four raisins per week, and even less for youngsters. In fact, for young chinchillas, don't even give them a whole raisin, only a half at a time. An occasional raisin also helps to prevent constipation in chinchillas.

Other treats, includes things like a small slice of apple (about as much as the size of a sugar cube), a small bit of orange, a grape, a blueberry, and a small carrot or celery slice. Dried fruit, provided it doesn't have sulfite preservatives, can also big on a chinchilla's hit parade. Rolled oats (and not the kind with the Quaker on the box, since it has preservatives), and spoon size shredded wheat are both very popular and are good if your chin is showing signs of diarrhea from too many rich treats. Sunflower seeds are a great treat and can add sheen to a chinchilla's coat. Buy the raw black oil sunflower seeds available for bird feeding. Some chins learn to take the seed from the shell, while others eat the shell and all, without bad effects.

Corn, cabbage, and lettuce are "no-no's" as since they cause gas and are very hard on a chinchilla's tender digestive system.

Try different treats from time to time and before long your chinchilla will have taught you its likes and dislikes. Feed treats either by hand, or place them in separate small "treat" dish. If treats are mixed in with a chinchilla's regular pellets, the chinchilla will pull out and throw away the regular pellets looking for the "hidden" treats.
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Another item that should be mentioned with regards to dietary supplements is wood. Chinchillas are rodents and, therefore, have large , strongly recurved incisor teeth that grow throughout their life. A chinchilla needs to constantly gnaw to keep its teeth worn down. Wood is both soft enough that chinchillas won't damage their teeth, and is yet hard enough to keep teeth worn down to proper size. The best types of wood are white pine and apple. In fact, a large piece of white pine board in a chin's cage can serve a couple of purposes. It can give a chinchilla something to gnaw on as well as a place to sit when a wire bottom cage becomes uncomfortable on the chin's feet. Another nice thing about white pine boards is that they can be found at any lumber store. Certain types of wood are actually poisonous to chinchillas and should be avoided. The "bad" woods include cedar, eucalyptus, plum, plywood, cherry, fir, spruce, or redwood. If you make a house for your chinchilla, use white pine so that it can double as a "chew toy." Some owners provide their chinchillas with a pumice stone, but wood is probably more common. In fact, may pet stores now provide "flavored" wooden chewing blocks for small animals including chinchillas.

There are times when a chinchilla's diet does require special attention, such as when very young, pregnant, nursing, or when recovering from disease or illness. These special situations are beyond the scope of this discussion. You can get additional information about these special situations from your breeder or from books about chinchillas.

It is important to make sure your pet eats his pellets. If it seems like he/she is only eating the supplement and treats, remove both for a day or two so he has to eat the pellets.

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Chinchillas need fresh water. Water should be changed at least every other day. If not changed, water can grow bacteria that are harmful to chinchillas. Chinchillas can drink standing water from a bowl, but this really isn't practical. The chinchilla will tend to foul its water or tip the bowl. Therefore, a water bottle that hangs on the side of the cage is much preferable.  

Water bottles, including the small tube, should be thoroughly cleaned with hot water between water changes. It is easiest to have two water bottles, this way they can be rotated. While one is in use, the other can be washed. A dishwasher provides an easy way to clean water bottles, however, a small brush is still needed to clean the tube.

Regular tap water is fine. Some breeders recommend adding vitamins to water others don't. If chinchillas are fed an otherwise adequate diet, additional vitamins should not be necessary. Also, it is felt that adding vitamins might affect the taste of the water and the chinchilla may, therefore, not drink enough water. Vitamins added to water can also speed up bacterial growth. Therefore, it is suggested that nothing be added to a chinchilla's usual water supply unless some additional dietary supplement is actually called for.

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