Feeding Chinchillas and Degus.
Warning: Do not change your pet's diet suddenly. Always make changes slowly and one at a time to avoid digestive upsets. If your pet develops diarrhoea feed hay and pellets only and take him to see the vet - it may be nothing to do with his feed. If you have an elderly pet that has always done fine on the feed it is getting, it may not worth changing things at all. A good diet is essential to a long and healthy life, but cannot cure medical problems. If you have any concerns about your pet's health he needs to see a vet as soon as possible.
This is a new page about my thoughts on feeding small herbivores, most notably chinchillas and degus. Some of this differs slightly from conventional wisdom and is my own opinion. If anyone knows of any proper scientific trials into any of the issues here I would be interested: contact me. Also have a look at the rodents and chewing page and the teeth and emergency feeding page for more information about teeth health.
Make any changes slowly and one at a time
The majority of the diet should be good quality hay
Limit the amount of pellets fed
If you feed mix do not replace until every scrap has been eaten
All small rodents like and need fresh vegetables
Don't feed commercial treats except those made of dried herbs/vegetables
Dried grass and herb products are good supplemental feeds
Supplementary Vitamins and Minerals are not normally needed
Rodents have teeth that grow continually; not just their front teeth, but their molars at the back. This is because their diet is naturally tough and requires a lot of chewing - if their teeth did not grow then they would soon wear out. In captivity this means they need appropriate food that mimics their natural diet. Teeth problems can be very common, particularly in chinchillas and degus, but are also a risk in rabbits and guinea pigs. There's more on chinchillas on the emergency feeding for chinchillas page. The problem is likely to be a combination of their longevity in captivity, bad breeding and their diet just not giving the molars enough wear. There is little that the pet owner can do about the former, but you can prevent malocclusion due to poor diet.
Hay and Forage
Some people get very uptight about the relative merits of pellets, but the most important thing is plenty of good quality forage food such as hay. The majority of the diet for degus and chinchillas should be a good quality hay. If you rotate a number of different hays it will often get them to eat more - I usually have 3 or 4 different type in. I find that a good quality Timothy Hay such as Oxbow Western Timothy is liked best by small and furries and this encourages them to eat more. This type of hay cannot be grown in the UK and has to be imported which makes it quite expensive. It is possible to buy it in bulk on the Internet if you shop around. Try the pet shopping page for some online sources. You can get a range of different hays (Oxbow has an ever expanding range) which are suitable and other forage products such as dried grass and herbs which make a good supplement to increase forage in the diet.
Failing this you can also get UK grown timothy hay or a good quality meadow hay which can be bought from horse feed suppliers by the bale. Hay should smell sweet and not be dusty or musty when the bale is broken. For some reason the stuff sold bagged in pet shops for small pets often doesn't seem to be very nice.
Another type of forage that is very popular is alfalfa (or Lucerne). There is a lot of discussion about it being too high in calcium to feed daily, and again people tend to get terribly uptight about it. The theory being that the high level of calcium/oxalate can cause kidney or bladder stones. It's almost a folk lore thing passed down through web sites and the generations of guinea pig and chinchilla keeper. I'm not convinced that there is any good evidence that urinary stones are linked to calcium or oxalate in the diet from plant sources (over using mineral supplements might, however, cause a problem). In fact high levels of oxalate actually inhibit calcium absorption. Generally these are more likely to be caused by a problem, such as a tumour or kidney problem messing up the balance of calcium in the body. In humans the only proven dietary link seems to be too much sugar - so another reason to avoid the commercial pet treats. If you are concerned, then restrict it to a couple of times a week in fully grown animals (growing animals can have more). But it's certainly not something to get worried about as an ingredient in pellets provided the majority of the diet is made up of good quality hay/grass. Sometimes you have to make educated choices - I find Oxbow Alfalfa Nibbles invaluable in animals that are off their food, particularly chinchillas that aren't keen on hay - and in this case I will feed it daily as adequate grinding of teeth and improving appetite is a far higher priority.
Help my pet won't eat hay!
Chinchillas and degus are frequently quite dubious about eating hay, particularly if they haven't been fed good quality hay at a young age. It's like getting a child brought up on sweets to eat their vegetables. Ideas for increasing intake include:
Look at how much other food they are getting - they just may not be hungry enough.
For fully grown adults you may need to consider no treats and reducing the pellet ration for a while.
Try a different hay - chins in particular are inclined to turn their noses up at pet shop hay
Having a range of different types that are rotated might help encourage intake
Put hay in lots of places around the cage where they can have a quick nibble
Try hay and straw chew-toys - or make your own. For example, bunches of hay can be suspended or stuffed in toiled rolls.
I've never met a rodent yet that wouldn't eat Oxbow Alfa Nibbles - but see comments on frequency above
Some of the new herb forage mixes are very popular and encourage them to try new things.
With degus you can always try giving them a big lump of hay that they can hide in and nibble on at will - "food you can hide in!".
If your pet is eating poorly generally then a visit to the vet may be in order.
The pellets and mixed feed that are sold for Chinchillas and Guinea Pigs are designed to have all the nutrients that they need, but crumble easily and do not provide much wear for teeth, and are sometimes too high in protein and low in fibre. It needs to be bourne in mind that these foods were developed in the days when people kept rabbits for meat or showing, and then these were adapted for guinea pigs, and chinchillas were kept for pelts. So good growth and plenty of muscle and fur in youth where what was required, not long term good teeth and gut health into old age. There is a lack of good scientific research into what makes a good diet for pets, as there just isn't the same money in it as feeding cats and dogs, so it is often a case of trying to mimic what is believed to be a natural diet. In the wild these animals get a lot of exercise and graze continually on low quality grass and plant materials. I love Galen's Garden's description of the average rabbit being "the equivalent of a couch potato living on junk food, with or without good BUPA cover if things go wrong".
Mixed feeds look appetising to the owner, but can cause the additional problem of selective eating. The vitamins and minerals are often in the pellets - which are the bits most often discarded. This can be overcome by using a small amount and not replacing it until every scrap has been eaten, but it is important to make sure that disliked bits are not just dug out and discarded on the floor. Generally a pelleted food is a better idea. Try to buy a good quality feed, in an enclosed container and use by the use by date to prevent it loosing nutrients. When comparing pellets go for a pellet that is lower in protein and higher in fibre and always buy one sold in a sealed bag with a use by date stamped on it. Don't buy big bags unless you have a lot of animals as you risk them going stale once opened and always keep in a sealed container once opened. Make sure that you store them somewhere that cannot be accessed by wild mice or rats. We also had a problem with small moths one summer that would lay eggs on any food that wasn't securely in a sealed container.
Pellets are an important part of a diet as and, as previously mentioned, they contain the vitamins and minerals your pet needs. In fully grown adult animals of healthy weight the best idea is to limit pelleted food or mix to encourage more hay to be eaten. Pellets can also be hidden around the cage to encourage natural foraging behaviour.
The big question is just how much you should limit pellets. I give pellets every day to my degus and chins but in amounts that run out for part of the day. Degus tend to store any spare pellets, buried in the bedding like little squirrels - so just because a bowl is emptied it doesn't mean that all of it has been eaten - so don't automatically refill!
For degus the situation can be confusing as they are prone to getting diabetes. Often this happens is if they have been allowed to get fat and/or are fed lots of sugary treats and given little exercise, but also sometimes in animals that have always been well cared for. There is more on diabetes on the degu information page.
It's often recommended that they should be fed on guinea pig or chinchilla pellets or a mix of the two, preferably unmolassed. Molasses are very sugary and used to bind pellets and make them taste nice, so it is probably best to avoid them. But if you really cannot find an unmolassed pellet then the most important thing is to make sure that the degus get plenty of hay as well. I've always used Burgess Supa Guinea Excel with no problems and so wouldn't change from it now. It is also vital that degus are not allowed to get fat. This is another reason to feed them limited pellets and it's also a really good idea to get them a wheel for exercise.
There are some pellets designed specifically for degus coming onto the market which may be worth trying - but it's always worth getting onto forum or discussion group and trying to find someone who has experience of it first. Mistakes do sometimes happen in the development of new food. For example, avoid mixes or ones that have any grains or dried fruit in.
Chinchillas can also get diabetes and come from an environment where they have evolved to live on a very poor quality diet - so the advice for degus to limit pellets, don't feed sugary treats, don't allow them to get fat and make sure they get plenty of exercise also holds.
Recently there has been a discussion going on about the value of vegetables for chinchillas. Traditional wisdom is that fresh food upsets chinchilla's delicate stomachs and can cause bloat. It can sometimes be difficult to defend the position of feeding fresh vegetables to the cries of "your chinchilla will die horribly if they so much as sniff a grape", but in the wild they eat a range of including plant stems, leafs, roots, fruit and seeds. For more information on wild diet see the Save the Wild Chinchillas website. Frankly bloat is far more likely to be caused by lack of fibre in the diet, lack of exercise or an infection. There is much good evidence that diets rich in fruits and vegetables in mammals for prevention of cancer and heart disease and for good bone health - the latter is particularly of interest in chinchillas who are so prone to dental problems.
Some of us have started to introduce fresh and dried vegetables to our chinchillas diet. Dark green leafy vegetables are very good sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients/antioxidants and broccoli, dark greens and dandelions are often popular. Fruit such as banana or apple is often popular, but probably best fed in small amounts because of the sugar - banana can be a godsend with a chinchilla with a sore mouth after dental surgery though. Vegetables can be dried either carefully in an oven or using a dehydrator if chins are really fussy about fresh. Always make changes slowly and consider portion sizes carefully. Start off with pieces the size of a chinchilla or degu paw and work up to about half an inch.
There has also been a discussion on the use of a hay and veggies diet consisting mostly of hay, dried herbs and vegetables and fresh vegetables (with minimum pellets) for chinchillas with dental problems. Some chinchilla owners have been using this on advice of their vets to try to maximise wear on the chinchillas molars and increase the time needed between dental ops. Anecdotally it appears interesting - but always discuss something like this with your vet before trying it.For more information on these topics why not join in a discussion at chinchillas unlimited. There is a particularly good thread here. A diet containing fresh fruit and vegetables has been linked to bone health as it helps buffer the blood as an alternative to the body using calcium from bones.
Degus also enjoy a range of vegetables. Because of their potential issue with sugar it is probably best not to feed dried fruit at all. However human diabetics are allowed small amounts of fruit, which are digested slowly, so tiny scraps of fresh (about the size of a finger nail) very occasionally shouldn't be a problem.
One thing that is certainly true about vegetables (and hay as well) is that it is much harder to get a pet that is adult to try new things. Many chinchillas will just turn their little furry noses up at anything fresh. The trick is to just persevere. Put a small amount in and remove it if uneaten and try again another time. In my experience broccoli, fresh grass and dandelions are most popular - once they start to eat something you can usually get them to try something new if you persevere. Animals fed a range of different things from a young age seem to be more willing to try new things - they seem to decide that everything you've given them so far has been nice then it's worth trying anything that comes their way! Another trick that isn't always practical is to put them in with a non-fussy cage mate - particularly degus who will want whatever their cage mate is eating regardless of whether they like it themselves!!
Generally my advice on commercial treats can be summed up as: don't buy them. Particularly the stick seed treats and sugary 'yogurt' drops and grains that are far too high in sugar and calories and don't wear teeth. However, there are a number of specialist treats available that are suitable. These include different types of hay, dried herbs, vegetables and flowers.
I generally use small pieces of vegetables as treats. Dried fruit is another interesting issue. Raisins are generally fed to chinchillas and there is no doubt that they do love them. However they are very high in sugar and I would suggest not feeding more than one a day and only ones that don't have vegetable oil on them. They can be cut into at least 4-8 pieces with a sharp knife if you are training your chinchilla. Small treats work better for this anyway as they will run away and eat a larger one. Dried fruit of any kind is unsuitable for degus because of the sugar content.
Breakfast cereals are often given to small animals, but they are generally stuffed full of sugar and salt. The main ones that aren't are Shredded Wheat and Porridge Oats which are both suitable for chinchillas in small amounts. Degus are probably best with just oats - but beware as they can cause punch ups! I use my chinchilla pellets as treats for the degus as they like them so much (Beapher Care+).
It's worth bearing in mind that if you have a lot of members in your household your pet may be getting multiple lots of treats - try to come to agreement about how many treats and who will give them. Oh and keep treat pots away from small children and visiting adults who have had a drink as this only leads to spherical rodents. I have memories of a friend of mine feeding my gerbils an entire packed of sunflowers - luckily after a couple the gerbils were simply taking them and putting them in their food store!
Your pet should always have access to unlimited, clean water from a bottle. Bowls can get dirty and tipped over and shouldn't be used. Bottles should be cleaned and replaced regularly and never allowed to go green as the algae allows bacteria to grow. One way to remove algae is to put some rice and soapy water in the bottle and shake vigorously. Make sure it is rinsed well and all the rice removed when you have finished. Sometimes it is just easier to chuck and replace the bottle though! I wrap a sheet of paper around my bottles to keep the light out and prevent this but of course it's great fun to pull the paper into your cage and rip it up. In the UK tap water is fine - some people use bottled water but, since there are no standards for the quality of bottled water, it is actually more likely to contain harmful bacteria than tap. If you want to use a water filter ensure that the filter is changed regularly as these can also be sources of bacteria.
A while back there were some sites around that talked about putting very diluted chlorine bleach in water for degus. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES DO THIS. It is potentially very dangerous and UK water is quite safe for them.
Vitamins and Minerals
As previously mentioned pellets contain all the vitamins and minerals needed in the diet. Generally any kind of vitamin or mineral supplement is unnecessary and could result in a toxic overdose if not used carefully. Don't use salt licks as small herbivores have evolved to instinctively lick sources of salt which are very rare in the wild. Free use of a salt lick will result in them getting too much - it has already been added to their pellets.
Vitamin D is an important vitamin and is used to absorb calcium. In the wild much of the vitamin D will be produced by exposure to natural light but an animal living indoors will need to get this from their pellets. I've heard vets theorise as to whether lack of natural light may be in some way to blame for teeth and bone problems in small animals. Guinea pigs benefit from time out on the lawn grazing on their natural food in natural light. Degus love a sunbathe and if it is possible to get them in natural light then do so. Chinchillas are more of a complicated issue as they tend to sleep during the day and overheat very easily and shouldn't be put in the sun. It is possible to buy natural daylight light bulbs intended for birds and reptiles and I have one in with my degus and chin, but there's no way of knowing if this helps. Under no circumstances leave your pet with no way of getting out of direct sunlight and they could overheat and burn. And beware of the neighbours cat or urban foxes - never leave degus unattended even in their cage.
It's not uncommon for people to supplement calcium and phosphorus but I'm not a fan of this - they get plenty from their vitamins and other food and as already said high levels can be toxic.
It isn't kind to overfeed your pet and allow them to get fat - in many ways it's as unkind as underfeeding. There are a number of health problems associated with a pet being overweight:
Reduced ability to get around - leading to reduced activity and a vicious circle.
Finding it difficult to keep clean - particularly bottom cleaning.
Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, which will lead to ill health and reduced life expectancy.
Increased risk of fatty liver which is a serious condition where fatty infiltration of the liver interferes with its function.
Strain on joints and increased pressure on feet which can increase chances of Bumblefoot (nasty sores on the soles of the feet).
Warning: Under no condition starve or seriously reduce you pet's food. Small herbivores need to eat continuously to keep their gut functioning and should have access to good quality hay and clean water at all times.
As discussed above, you can cut out treats and reduce pellets encouraging your pet to munch on lower calorie good quality hay for more of the day to prevent and reduce obesity. Some brands of chinchilla pellets come in different versions such as 'growth' and 'maintenance'. Look at the ingredients and try to get a pellet that is higher in fibre and lower in protein.
However, one of the best ways of keeping your pet trim is to make sure that they get plenty of activity. This is particularly the case if you have one pet that is overweight and the other that is normal or underweight as can sometimes happen, for example when you have one with teeth problems. As previously mentioned chinchillas and degus really benefit from a wheel - see the wheels page for more information on getting a wheel. Chinchillas can also be allowed out in a suitably chinchilla proofed room. See the rodents and chewing page for more information,
Plenty of toys can also help to increase activity - see the environment enrichment page for more details. Animals kept on their own can often get a bit bored and depressed which can lead to them getting overweight - a friend will liven them up but you need to make sure that you have researched what sex/age is suitable and how to safely do introductions first. See the Introductions Page for more information. It's always amusing to see the difference that being introduced to a youngster makes to a rather staid middle aged animal.
One final thing is that sometimes an animal bullied by a cage mate can put on weight. It almost seems that they don't know when they will be chased away from food and so eat as much as possible just in case. I read an interesting study a while back about blue tits in the wild, which theorised this as the reason that dominant birds were leaner than others. If you suspect that there is bullying going on make sure that you have multiple sources of food in the cage and increase the number of hiding places to allow them to get away from each other.
Help my pet is loosing weight/won't eat!
I like to weigh your my pets once a month. Once they have reached their full adult weight, I try to ensure that they get enough food and exercise to keep their weight stable. An unintentional weight loss of more than10% (e.g. 60g for a 600g chinchilla or 30g for a 300g degu) should always be investigated by a vet as it can be an early sign of health problems.
If your pet is not eating at all and won't even take their favourite treat then the situation is urgent. They need to see the vet as an emergency as it is nearly always a sign of something serious and once the gut stops working and it is very difficult to get it going again. See the Teeth Problems/Emergency Feeding. and Rodents and Chewing pages for more information.
This page is really all my own opinion based on my own experiences, a lot of reading, talking to other owners and my evidence-based knowledge of nutrition. It is very easy to get terribly confused and uptight about what we feed our pets with all sorts of information from all sorts of different sources, with many people advocating certain feed regimes with almost religious zeal. Although a good diet can help improve the health of small animals the vast majority of illnesses in small animals are unconnected to nutrition. It's worth trying to give your pet the best diet that you can - but please don't think that if your pet gets ill then it's your fault. We all just do the best we can.
I remember a few years back being harranged on the guinea lynx forum for feeding supa guinea excel to my guinea pigs because it is alfalfa based. I was desperately trying to find out if anyone else had experienced the serious health problem that one of my piggies had. Several people there implied that it was my own fault for feeding such an inferior pellet. It really upset me, especially when no-one there seemed to have any idea about the real causes and just assumed that I must be mistreating him. My guinea pig's problems was sadly most likely due to a congenital heart defect and there was little that myself, or my vet could have done for him - but I really could have done with support at the time.
If you are concerned about your pets health always take him to a qualified vet who is experienced with small animals: anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot. However, not all vets are experienced with, or interested in, small animals so don't be afraid to find a second opinion.