|Range of Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla chinchilla.
Chinchillas are two species of crepuscular rodents, slightly larger and more robust than ground squirrels. They are native to the Andes mountains in South America and live in colonies called "herds" at high elevations up to 4,270 m (14,000 ft). Historically, chinchillas lived in an area that included parts of Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile, but today colonies in the wild are known only in Chile. Along with their relatives, viscachas, they make up the family Chinchillidae.
The chinchilla (whose name literally means "little chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who once wore its dense, velvet-like fur. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their ultra-soft fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised.
Both species of chinchilla are currently listed as a critically endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to a severe population loss approximated at a 90% global population loss over the last 15 years. The severe population decline has been caused by chinchilla hunting by humans. Until 1996, they were listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. By 2006 they were listed as Threatened, and in 2011 they became Critically Endangered.
The two living species of chinchilla are Chinchilla chinchilla (formerly known as Chinchilla brevicaudata) and Chinchilla lanigera. C. chinchilla has a shorter tail, a thicker neck and shoulders, and shorter ears than C. lanigera. The former species is currently facing extinction; the latter, though rare, can be found in the wild. Domesticated chinchillas are thought to have come from the C. lanigera species.
Distribution and environment
Formerly, chinchillas occupied the coastal regions, hills, and mountains of Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia. Overexploitation caused the downturn of these populations; one scientist claimed in 1914 already that the species was headed for extinction. Five years of fieldwork (published in 2007) in Jujuy Province, Argentina, failed to find a single specimen. Populations in Chile were thought extinct by 1953, but the animal was found to inhabit an area in the Antofagasta Region in the late 1900s and early 2000s. The animal may be extinct in Bolivia and Peru, though one specimen found (in a restaurant in Cerro de Pasco) may hail from a native population.
In their native habitats, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are agile jumpers and can jump up to 6 ft (1.8 m). Predators in the wild include birds of prey, skunks, felines, snakes and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defensive tactics, including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten. In the wild, chinchillas have been observed eating plant leaves, fruits, seeds, and small insects.
In nature, chinchillas live in social groups that resemble colonies, but are properly called herds. Herd sizes can range from 14 members up to 100, this is both for social interaction as well as protection from predators. They can breed any time of the year. Their gestation period is 111 days, longer than most rodents. Due to this long pregnancy, chinchillas are born fully furred and with eyes open. Litters are usually small in number, predominantly two.
Roles with humans
The international trade in chinchilla fur goes back to the 16th century. Their fur is popular in the fur trade due to its extremely soft feel, which is caused by the sprouting of 60 hairs (on average) from each hair follicle. The color is usually very even, which makes it ideal for small garments or the lining of large garments, though some large garments can be made entirely from the fur. A single, full-length coat made from chinchilla fur may require as many as 150 pelts, as chinchillas are relatively small. Their use for fur led to the extinction of one species, and put serious pressure on the other two. Though it is illegal to hunt wild chinchillas, the wild animals are now on the verge of becoming extinct because of continued illegal hunting. Domesticated chinchillas are still bred for fur.
Chinchillas are popular pets, but require much care. They should only be purchased by experienced pet owners who are aware of their needs. Chinchillas must have extensive exercise and dental care, due to their teeth continually growing all throughout their life span, and since they lack the ability to sweat, temperatures need to be carefully controlled. They should be kept in an environment of 60–70 degrees ºF.
The animals instinctively clean their fur by taking dust baths, in which they roll around in special dust made of fine pumice, a few times a week; they do not bathe in water. If they get wet they should be dried off immediately or else their fur will grow fungus and they can possibly get a skin infection. Their thick fur resists parasites, such as fleas, and reduces loose dander, making chinchillas hypoallergenic.
In scientific research
Chinchillas have been used in research since the 1950s. Since the 1970s, the prime interest in chinchillas by researchers is their auditory system. Other research fields in which chinchillas are used as an animal model include the study of Chagas disease, gastrointestinal diseases, pneumonia, and listeriosis, as well as of Yersinia and Pseudomonas infections.
Chinchillas live active lives and can recover well from physical injury. Treating any bone fractures or wounds in chinchillas is done much in the same way as with any other animal. In treating wounds, they should be cleaned and ointments used for simple wounds. If a wound is dressed then it may be necessary to put the animal into a neck collar to prevent licking at the wound.
Fractures are problematic because chinchillas will want to sit on their hind legs and eat with their front paws, so many types of injuries will disturb their natural eating behavior. An animal with a cast may be comforted by hand feeding.
If a limb fracture does not heal properly a vet may recommend an amputation. Chinchillas are able to live happily in captivity if an injury results in the need for amputation of an arm or leg.
Chinchilla breeders sometimes report seeing their animals have convulsions. Typically this happens only irregularly and then only for a few seconds, and not more than a few minutes at the most. Convulsions are a symptom that can have many causes, including a brain problem such as hemorrhaging, a vitamin or dietary element deficiency in the diet, or some kind of nervous system injury. If convulsions are observed after chinchillas mate then it is not unlikely that they are related to a circulatory problem.
As a general treatment for all kinds of convulsions, taking extra care to keep the animal's stress lowered is the best response. Giving vitamin B, cardiac medication, or a calcium injection may be indicated.
Some chinchillas who are kept in groups have stress convulsions during feeding if they see other chinchillas getting food first. It helps the animals to be fed their food in a way that allows them to either be first or to not see others eating when they have to wait their turn.
Infectious diseases are better prevented than treated. Prevention strategies should include keeping the chinchilla accommodations clean, giving them a climate matching their natural one, providing an optimum diet, and immunization when appropriate.
Listeriosis is not a typical chinchilla disease but in group housing conditions, it can spread as a digestive tract disease in a community. If it is identified then all chinchillas in the community should be treated. During and forever after treatment hygiene standards should be raised.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections are widely distributed in nature and can affect chinchillas like many other animals. They can cause wide deaths in populations of chinchillas and spontaneous abortion in pregnant chinchillas.
Respiratory tract infections can be caused by many pathogens but regardless of cause, usually result in difficult breathing and a nasal discharge. Young chinchilla are more likely to be affected and these infections are unlikely to result in an epidemic even if transmissible.
Gastrointestinal disorders are observed as either constipation or diarrhea. These are almost always the result of a problem with the diet, but if the diet is optimal, they could be the symptom of an infectious disease. Problems with diet should be excluded before other treatments, and perhaps the regular food stock should be discarded and replaced on the presumption that it has spoiled. Constipation in chinchillas is difficult to observe in groups because it may not be obvious than an animal is not contributing to the population's waste. If it is identified, mild treatments include feeding paraffin as an oil to soften the feces. An experienced hand may massage the chinchilla to assist with a bowel movement.
Chinchillas are easily distressed and when they are unhappy they may have physical symptoms. In protecting their health care should be taken not to disturb them, and lots of things disturb them. Humans who monitor the chinchillas can often have intuitive ideas about recent changes which might be disturbing chinchillas who exhibit new symptoms, as chinchillas are sensitive enough to physically react when something new is bothering them. It is not appropriate to suddenly change a chinchilla's regular diet, especially when they are sick, as this upsets them. Sick chinchillas may quit eating if they are stressed, which can make them even more weak.
Chinchillas which live in communities and are breeding must not be disturbed in February to March or from August to September as they are especially sensitive in these breeding seasons. Chinchillas are social animals and are likely to be upset to have their breeding mate changed in breeding season. They are known to be disturbed by a change of diet in these times, so care should be taken by breeders that the food given at the beginning of these times is in large supply and can be given without change for the duration of the season.
Chinchillas may be treated with chloramphenicol, neomycin, or spectinomycin for digestive problems. Sulfonamides dissolved in drinking water may be used. Colistin can be an effective antibiotic.
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