Chinchillas have very sensitive digestive systems so feeding a good quality diet appropriate for chinchillas is essential to their health. In the wild, chinchillas are naturally adapted to eating a diet of vegetation that is high in roughage. They are not designed for rich or fatty diets and such diets can easily cause serious digestive upsets. Instead, feed your chinchilla quality chinchilla pellets supplemented with plenty of fresh grass hay.
Chinchilla Food Options
Pelleted diets are better than a mixture of loose items. Loose mixes may be nutritionally balanced while in the bag but only if your chinchilla eats all of the parts of the mix (and chinchillas are prone to picking out what they like from a mix).
Look for a pelleted, formulated diet specifically for chinchillas that is 16-20% protein, low in fat (2-5%), and high in fiber (15-35%). If it is impossible for you to get a good quality chinchilla diet, many experts suggest substituting a good rabbit or guinea pig pellet with similar characteristics but this should only be done temporarily and in emergency situations. Online stores should be utilized if your local pet store does not carry a quality chinchilla formula. Chinchillas have specific dietary requirements that are different than other rodents and their health will suffer if they are not fed a quality, chinchilla specific food.
If you choose to feed a loose item mixture (with pellets, seeds, corn etc.) keep in mind that there is concern that feeding corn can cause digestive upset and bloating but many chinchilla foods contain corn as an ingredient. Scientifically speaking, little is understood about the ideal chinchilla diet beyond the need for lots of roughage but since corn is starchy and likely largely indigestible for chinchillas whole corn should be avoided as a treat or the main part of a diet.
It can be hard to avoid corn (ground corn, corn meal) in pellets. Look for a diet where corn is listed far down the list of ingredients, if at all, so that you know it will only be present in small amounts.
How Much Do Chinchillas Eat?
Most chinchillas will eat one to two tablespoons of pellets a day. While they are not prone to overeating, for freshness it is a good idea to feed a small amount of pellets at a time. Feeding a tablespoon (per chinchilla) in the morning and again in the evening (when chinchillas are most likely to eat) seems to work well, but can be adjusted as needed. Some people just feed a couple of tablespoons in the evening. Try to be consistent whatever you choose to do, as chinchillas like routine. A small food hopper or heavy ceramic dish is the best way to keep the food from getting dumped or soiled. Chinchillas will hold their food in their tiny paws and may leave pieces laying around their cage.
Even when you choose a high fiber pelleted diet it must still be supplemented with hay to ensure your chinchilla gets plenty of roughage (fiber). This roughage in hay helps keep teeth in good condition and the digestive system functioning properly. Feed as much good quality grass hay (orchard, timothy, etc.) as your chinchilla wants each day.
Hay should be cleaned out and fed fresh on a daily basis to keep it from becoming soiled or moldy. Pressed cubes of hay can be given but it is recommended to still feed some loose hay as it has more long strand fiber (and chinchillas seem to enjoy playing with it, too).
Alfalfa hay should not be fed exclusively to most adult chinchillas. Alfalfa is high in protein, calcium, and oxalates and too much could possibly lead to urinary and other problems (it is good for growth, breeding chinchillas, and as a treat). Don't feed any hay that is damp, smells musty, or is discolored, regardless of what kind it is.
Chinchillas should be given very little in the way of treats (never more than a teaspoon a day). Raisins and dried fruit are favorites but are also high in sugar so they should be fed in very small quantities and infrequently.
Try not to feed more than 3 or 4 raisins per week. Rose hips are another recommended treat as they are high in vitamin C and other nutrients (check your health food store or online). Most commercial treats for chinchillas will be too high in sugar and fat and are best avoided. Check with your vet if you are unsure about anything you are feeding your chinchilla.
Though we don't normally think of twigs and branches as anything special, your chinchilla will likely view them as a terrific treat. Twigs from apple trees and other safe trees can be given to your chinchilla. Make sure any wood you use has not been treated with pesticides and do not offer branches from toxic trees, including trees that have fruit with pits or stones, evergreen wood, and others.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT