Whenever I try to introduce my chinchilla, Gary, to any of my friends or family, I swear the first question I always get is “does he bite?”
Since chinchillas are fairly small in size it’s easy to assume that they are going to be a nibbler or a biter. It’s also true that chinchillas eat a lot and need to grind their teeth down on chew toys to stay healthy. So, I don’t find it shocking that so many family members or friends have asked me whether or not our chinchilla is going to bite them.
Approaching someone’s pet can be scary or even traumatizing, especially for younger kids if/when bit. However, as is with most animals, biting and chewing all comes down to the socialization and temperament of the animal.
Many times animals will bite when they are uncomfortable or scared, as that’s the only way that they know how to communicate. That being said, sometimes animals will bite they are happy or satisfied. So how can you tell the difference and can you get them to stop biting?
It’s a good idea to begin the process of training your chinchilla not to bite by learning about your chinchilla’s temperament. This will help ensure that your chinchilla is not handled when they are upset or are not in the mood to be held. It will also help you understand if your chinchilla is a happy biter, similar to our cat Kalista, or if they only bite when upset if they bite at all.
So, to get things started let’s discuss the different types of chinchilla bites, what they mean and how you can avoid any bloodshed.
The first for of biting is considered “nibbling.” Nibbling, which is not considered chewing, is when a chinchilla softly or gently bites the same area repeatedly. Chinchillas will nibble while exploring, playing or may nibble simply to get information about their surroundings.
Nibbles should not hurt as they do not usually require much pressure for the chinchilla to get the satisfaction they need.
Younger chinchillas are known to nibble more than older chinchillas and may not understand the strength of their mouths. That being said, a younger chinchilla may mistakenly draw blood when nibbling as they may not fully understand that their owner is soft and squishy.
As the chinchilla grows older the chinchilla should learn which part of their human they can nibble on without drawing blood. Why would the chinchilla continue nibbling on you, you may ask? Well, it’s because nibbling is also a form of grooming.
Chinchilla mothers will groom their young by nibbling on their face, whiskers or fur. That being said, if you have multiple chinchillas you may notice that the most dominant chinchilla may groom the fur and whiskers of the other cagemates. You may also notice the dominant chinchilla actually trimming the other chinchilla’s whiskers. This is completely normal.
A dominant chinchilla will trim a subordinate chinchilla’s whiskers quite short This will not hurt the subordinate chinchilla but will signify who is in charge! Not to worry, any trimmed whiskers will also grow back over time.
Chinchillas may also choose to groom or clean human’s that they love. This is commonly done by chewing on their fingernails or lightly nibbling on their fingers. If your chinchilla starts exhibiting this behaviour it’s important to ensure that your chinchilla is not actually biting off pieces of your fingernails and/or swallowing your fingernails as this can cause some extreme damage to their digestive tract.
It took us almost a year before Gary felt comfortable enough with us to chew on our nails. Nowadays, anytime we put our fingers inside of Gary’s cage, Gary will come and nibble on our nails. I’ve personally never been bitten hard by Gary, nor have any of my friends or family to my knowledge making me extremely confident in introducing Gary to my friends and family.
If ever your chinchilla does bite you though, I would recommend softly tapping your chinchilla and saying “no.” It is important not to be rough with your chinchilla or to hit your chinchilla as this can traumatize them. Instead, only use one finger and quickly tap your chinchilla’s nose.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes when chinchillas get scared or defensive they will attack. This most commonly happens with new chinchillas, though bites will usually be preceded by some squeals, barks, shrieks or screams. Biting may also be preceded by your chinchilla lunging or standing up on their hind legs so they appear larger or more vicious than they actually are. This is where observation will come in handy. If you take note of any of these behaviours, make sure to leave your chinchilla alone until they cool down.
Take note of where your chinchilla’s safe spaces are and do your best not to remove them from these areas. Alternatively, let your chinchilla come to you and call them to you. Truthfully, every one of my pets has learned their name fairly quickly and all have responded to their names either by comes to the front of their cage/tank or by responding vocally to let me know they are around.
It may take some time before your chinchilla gets comfortable with you, as mentioned it took us almost a year before Gary felt “fully comfortable” with us. This will be especially true for chinchillas who have been in abusive situations or have not been properly socialized by their breeders. if you know your chinchilla hasn’t had the easiest life, make sure you take things extremely slowly, even if that means not picking up your chinchilla a few weeks.
Allow your chinchilla to acclimate to their new environment and try your best not to move quickly, make loud noises or spray any perfumes or fragrances around your chinchilla. Why these three factors? Well, not only can chinchillas be afraid of loud noises and fast motion, as they will think a predator is nearby, but chinchillas feel safer in places that smell familiar. Which is very similar to the way cats will scent objects in your house so things smell like them.
Chinchilla bites can be quite serious and may require stitches dependant on how serious the bite was. If you are bitten by a chinchilla make sure to properly disinfect the wound, apply an antibiotic and if the bleeding does not stop, visit a doctor.
SOMETIMES IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT
If you have multiple chinchillas they might be feeding off of each other’s energy. What do I mean by that? Well, chinchillas have emotions, just like you.
If a chinchilla has an off day, they may take their aggression out on you. The most common reason is that they got into a spat with their cagemate. The odd thing is, sometimes chinchillas can be happy with their cagemate for over a decade and then start fighting all of a sudden.
Again, in cases like this, it is a good idea to monitor your chinchillas to ensure that they are not biting each other aggressively or fighting. If you do notice that they are fighting, I highly recommend separating them for a few days if not a week, until they have fully calmed down.
Cagemates may then be reunited, however, there have been some cases where chinchillas will never get along with each other again.
That all being said, while a chinchilla does not have the ability to kill you, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the ability to kill each other. Unfortunately, chinchilla spats have resulted in the death of one or even both chinchillas if the fighting gets too serious.
I’VE HAD MY CHINCHILLA FOR YEARS AND SUDDENLY THEY BIT ME! WHAT HAPPENED?
First off, I’m sorry that happened. Second off, although less common it’s not unheard of that a chinchilla will become aggressive again, even if they have been properly socialized.
Little things can set off a chinchilla, as mentioned prior. However, one of the most common reasons a chinchilla may begin biting again after being socialized is a lack of interaction.
When chinchillas are ignored or left alone for long periods of time without being handled or cuddled they may no longer be used to human interaction. Now, that’s not to say that a day without attention is going to cause your chinchilla to bite you, however, if you aren’t spending a good amount of time or if you only interact with your chinchilla when feeding them this may happen.
Chinchillas, however, can be resocialized and will get used to you once more.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND A CHINCHILLA AS A PET FOR A CHILD?
No, I absolutely would not. As much as I love Gary and would love for children to be around him since he’s an adorable little floof, I know it’s not a good choice.
Children tend to be a bit too quick, handsy, jarring and loud for chinchillas, which causes them to bite children more often than adults. While a child can be taught to be gentler and slower, it really depends on the age of the child.
Chinchillas are gentler creatures than cats or dogs, who can take a bit more of a beating (not literally). That being said, chinchillas also require quite a bit of regime, lots of attention and quite frankly they need someone to keep a close eye on them in case they get sick.
Unlike cats and dogs, who will sometimes tell you something is wrong, chinchillas rarely (if ever) tell you that they are feeling unwell. Many chinchillas will hide ailments for weeks if not months, and oftentimes when a chinchilla is sick, owners will not know until it is too late.
THINGS TO NOTE WHEN TRAINING YOUR CHINCHILLA NOT TO BITE
It is important that you take the right steps to train your chinchilla not to bite you. As mentioned before, a great tool is to tap your chinchilla’s nose with one finger while saying “no.” Repeat this anytime your chinchilla bites you hard, but make sure that you do not shout or hit your chinchilla.
It is very easy to traumatize a chinchilla and even make them detest humans. Though in many cases a chinchilla can be rehabilitated, it can take a few years for that chinchilla to begin trusting humans again.
If you are concerned about bloodshed, I recommend wearing thick gloves.
It is also a good idea not to feed your chinchilla through the cage bars. This teaches/conditions the chinchilla into believing that every time a finger is near the cage food is nearby. This may cause the chinchilla to bite you mistakenly because they assume you are giving them food.
Lastly, it’s important that when you try handling your chinchilla that you pick them up in one swift motion. If your chinchilla is running around or ends up biting you, continue to try to pick them up in one swoop. Similar to conditioning your chinchilla into believing that every time there’s a finger around there’s food, chinchillas may bite you anytime you try to pick them up because they know it will make you not pick them up. Instead, let the chinchilla know that biting isn’t going to stop you from carrying on your daily chores (such as cleaning their cage) and that they just need to get past it.
I know that somewhat contradicts what I was saying in the “Aggressive Biting” section, however, the “I don’t want to be picked up” bite is usually not out of aggression. It will become clear fairly quickly if your chinchilla is nibbling you to get you to leave them alone or being aggressive because they are upset or terrified.
KEEP CHINCHILLAS AWAY FROM OTHER ANIMALS (AT LEAST AT THE BEGINNING)
This is especially important when you first bring your chinchilla home. It is extremely likely that your chinchilla will become fearful and may actually become aggressive towards you because of it.
Since wild chinchillas are always the prey, they will become accustomed to believing that all other animals in the house are predators. This may cause the chinchilla to run around their cage, make various noises or even attack their cage.
That being said, we clearly live in a multi-pet household, and although both of our cats are extremely docile we have a few rules to ensure the safety of all of our pets. Some of these rules include:
— The cats are never allowed in Gary’s room alone
— The cats are not allowed to stick their paws in Gary’s cage
— The cats must be sitting on a chair that is at least a foot or two away from the cage while watching Gary (if he’s in his raised cage)
— The cats must be lying down/wagging their tails while watching Gary when he’s in his cage that’s on the floor
— The cats are not allowed to “Meerkat” around Gary
— The cats are to be removed immediately if anything is suspect
In our experience, the cats and Gary get along very well. Gary is very curious about the cats and will often run-up to the front of the cage if he sees one of them. He has also trimmed Kalista’s whiskers in the past, though I’ve done my best to ensure that doesn’t happen as cat whiskers are much different than chinchilla whiskers.
Though chinchillas can be biters, it’s fairly easy and simple to train them out of the habit. The most important step though is to understand why it is your chinchilla is biting you.
In general, if a chinchilla is biting you out of aggression, leave them alone for the time being and allow them to acclimate to their environment. This is especially true for chinchillas who have just been rehomed or brought into your home.
If a chinchilla bites you whenever you try to pick them up and you’ve had the chinchilla for a while, make sure that you haven’t conditioned your chinchilla into believing that biting is the way that they get what they want. Instead, scoop up your chinchilla quickly and proceed with what you needed to do.
Most chinchilla bites should not hurt unless the chinchilla has been mishandled or is terrified. The majority of chinchilla bites should be nibbles that don’t break the skin, though if your chinchilla breaks skin please make sure to disinfect the area and if the area does not stop bleeding please go to the doctor and see if you need stitches.
All-in-all I’ve had really great experiences with Gary. I, personally, have never been bitten by Gary. I will, however, say that Gary loves to groom us, especially our fingernails.
So, pet parents. I’m curious, do your chinchillas groom you? What kind of biting does your chinchilla engage in the most frequently? Let me know in the comments below!