What Is a Chinchilla? Wildlife Habits, Conservation Status, & More

by Morgan Mulac

What Is a Chinchilla? Wildlife Habits, Conservation Status, & More


There are many reasons why chinchillas are such wonderful pets, including how fluffy they are, their friendly disposition, and how easy they are to take care of, making them popular among many pet owners. But what exactly is a chinchilla? In this blog we’re going to cover the basics of chinchillas, including their behavior in the wild, how they were first discovered, and more. 

Attribute Description
Native to Andes Mountains in South America (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru)
Family Chinchillidae
Species Chinchilla chinchilla and Chinchilla lanigera
Appearance Soft, dense fur; large, round ears; bushy tails; large, black eyes
Diet Wild: omnivores (twigs, berries, insects, and small eggs) In captivity: Herbivore (Hay, pellet food, and dried herbs)
Conservation status Endangered

Origin And History Of Chinchillas

Native Chincha tribes in northern Chile first discovered chinchillas in their native habitat of the Andes. While there’s no one account of when they were discovered, many accounts suggest that it was around 900 CE.

During the 19th century, chinchillas were hunted and their fur was exported for many years. Chinchilla fur was especially sought after in Europe, often being used in extravagant furs for European royalty.

Eventually the exporting became so serious that the Chilean government imposed a ban on trapping and exporting chinchillas. In 1914, however, Mathias F. Chapman acquired special permission from the Chilean government to capture a small number of chinchillas and bring them to California. Many experts regard this as one of the most impactful chinchilla conservation measures of modern times.

There are two living species of chinchilla that we’ll be discussing in this blog, and those are Chinchilla Chinchilla, more commonly known as short-tailed chinchillas, and Chinchilla Lanigera, also more commonly known as long-tailed chinchillas. Both of these species are a part of the rodent family.

How Did Chinchillas Get Their Name?

Chinchillas got their name from the Chincha people in the Andes Mountains, who first discovered them and had used chinchilla pelts for various purposes, especially for warmth in the harsh climate.

Since people still hunt wild chinchillas in South America, the short-tailed chinchilla and long-tailed chinchilla species are considered endangered species. However, long-tailed chinchillas are bred for a variety of uses now so the risk of going completely extinct is lowered.

What Are Chinchillas Used For?

Even though domesticated chinchillas are usually bred for the purpose of keeping them as pets, they are sometimes bred for other purposes such as scientific research due to the similarity of the anatomy of their ears to that of humans' ears.

Wild Chinchillas Vs. Domestic Chinchillas

Two wild chinchillas under a rock

There are many differences between wild and domestic chinchillas, such as their diets and habitats, and similarities, such as how they interact with one another and other species.

Since most wild chinchillas are short-tailed species, we will be referencing those when referring to wild chinchillas.

The biggest difference between a short-tailed chinchilla and a long-tailed chinchilla is their size. As mentioned earlier, a domestic chinchilla has a weight limit of about a pound and a length limit of about ten inches, but a wild chinchilla can reach nearly twenty inches in length and up to three pounds.

Another large difference is their diet. A wild chinchilla typically eats a mixture of vegetation, such as leaves, twigs, and grass, and proteins like small insects and bird eggs. In contrast, a domestic chinchilla eats a very plain diet that is mostly composed of hay and pellet chinchilla food.

One similarity between both wild and domestic chinchillas is their sociability - while chinchillas as a whole are easily spooked since they have many predators, wild chinchillas survive by living in herds together so they can watch out for one another. Pet chinchillas similarly thrive when they have a cagemate they’re bonded to.

Physical Characteristics

There are a few defining characteristics of chinchillas that are not as commonly found in other animals, namely their velvet-like fur and bushy tail.


Chinchilla standing up


Chinchillas have extremely dense and soft fur due to the fact that they grow up to 60 hairs per follicle. This makes their appearance very fluffy in comparison to other small animals. Their build is most closely related to a mouse. They are also a bit larger in size and have stronger hind legs than mice, which makes them very agile jumpers.


A chinchilla’s lifespan can be based on a few different things, such as whether or not they’re in human care, their diet, and outside elements such as prey.

An average chinchilla lifespan in the wild is typically 8-10 years. The main factor that influences their lifespan is predators such as hawks, owls, and even humans.

In captivity and with proper care, a domestic chinchilla can live up to 20 years! While proper care is the biggest factor in their lifespan, the most important factor of their care is nutrition - ensuring you get food pellets that provide them all the necessary nutrients and a good quality hay is vital.

Another important aspect to their lifespan in captivity is the ability to treat diseases and ailments such as malocclusions and heat stroke. 

Chinchilla with old lady

Behavior And Social Life

This section of our guide will provide you with a comprehensive guide on the behavior of chinchillas, as well as how they interact with each other and with humans as well.

Are Chinchillas Very Friendly?

In their natural habitat, chinchillas are considered herd animals and are very friendly with one another. This is why many recommend owning more than one chinchilla and bonding them if possible.

When it comes to human interactions, it is important to note that due to the fact that chinchillas are prey animals like guinea pigs, they can be highly skittish at first, but once they are able to trust you, they can turn into extremely friendly animals. Please keep in mind however that each chinchilla is different, and some might be less friendly than others.

We advise you to avoid cuddling with your pet chinchilla, as it has very delicate bones, but there are many other techniques you can use to bond with your chinchilla such as sitting in a playpen with them, giving them chinchilla-safe treats, and petting them gently.

If you notice that your chinchilla is exhibiting any signs of aggression or hostility, it’s important to look at their environment and see if there’s anything present that could agitate or stress them out. 

Chinchilla pet

Normal Diet In The Wild

A wild chinchilla's diet differs significantly from that of a domesticated one, and the most important difference is that wild chinchillas consume more omnivorous foods than their counterparts. In addition to the berries and seeds they consume, they will also consume insects and eggs from small birds.

Wild chinchillas are omnivorous in nature, but also share many characteristics with domesticated chinchillas concerning their diet, as they eat grasses and vegetable leaves native to their environment.


Before we discuss how chinchillas reproduce, it is extremely important to understand that we HIGHLY discourage any kind of breeding unless done by a professional. There is a great deal of danger and even death associated with backyard breeding of chinchillas.

Female chinchillas typically come to sexual maturity at 8 months of age and when bred are pregnant for approximately 111 days. They typically have 2-4 kits per litter and if constantly bred can have up to 3 litters per year.

Chinchillas can breed at any time of year, but May–November is considered their official breeding season. 

Baby chinchilla with mother

Are Chinchillas Endangered?

Both C. Lanigera chinchillas and C. Chinchilla chinchillas are considered endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is due primarily by illegal hunting. Wild populations of chinchillas (C. Chinchilla) are more at risk from human activities such as commercial hunting as the bans are harder to enforce up in the mountain ranges where they live.

In 2008, both species were considered critically endangered. However, due to many conservation efforts’ positive impacts, their population size has grown enough that they are no longer considered critical.

Are Chinchillas A Good Pet?

Having learned a bit about chinchillas and their characteristics as an animal, it's time to consider whether they would make a good pet for you.

A number of factors (including the cost of the supplies you will need) should be taken into consideration when it comes to caring for chinchillas as pets, as proper care is paramount to ensuring that these pets live a long and healthy life.

A proper chinchilla cage is the most important step in preparing your living space for your new pet. For a single chinchilla, a cage should be no less than 4' x 4' x 3' and ideally should be multi-leveled to allow the chinchilla to jump around. Furthermore, a proper cage should be made of metal, preferably galvanized or powder coated steel, as plastic and other materials can be harmful if consumed.

As mentioned above, one of the most important aspects of chinchilla care is their diet. A domestic chinchillas diet consists primarily of timothy hay, and supplemented with chinchilla food pellets. Treats like goji berries can be given in moderation at 6 months of age and older. Typically, the average adult chinchilla will only need about 2 oz of water a day, but should be given unlimited access to a water bottle at all times.

Monitoring your chinchillas' health is another essential aspect of caring for them. Finding a good exotic vet and getting an appointment within 48 hours is recommended so you’re completely up to date on any long-term health considerations.

Toys are also an important factor to taking care of a chinchilla. Items like pumice stone and apple sticks help file down your chinchillas teeth, while running wheels like the Chin Spin ensure your chinchilla gets proper exercise.

If you’re adopting a baby chinchilla from a breeder, it’s important to make sure you know the basics of baby chinchilla care, as they are a bit different than caring for an adult chinchilla. 

Chinchilla on a cage stepping into human's hand

Legal Considerations And Responsible Ownership

It is important to look up any regulations for owning chinchillas because depending on your location, you may either need a permit or are forbidden from owning a chinchilla.

Not only should you look at your country and state regulations, it’s also important to look at county specific laws regarding chinchilla ownership.

Chinchilla Near You

There are many options for finding a chinchilla near you, but not all options are created equal. The best ways to find chinchillas near you are shelters, breeders, and rehoming groups or sites.

We cannot in good faith recommend places like pet stores, as most are not well-equipped or knowledgeable in chinchilla care and cannot ensure you are getting a healthy chinchilla. 

Chinchilla on white background

Chinchilla Ownership With Quality Cage

Now that you know what chinchillas are, where they come from, and some of the basics on how to take care of them, you can confidently make the choice of pet ownership with your new lifelong friend. For more information on quality chinchilla care, feel free to check out our other blogs like this one on the site.


Is A Chinchilla A Rabbit Or A Rat?

Although chinchillas have similarities to both rabbits and rats, they are their own animal that is more closely related to a guinea pig. Part of the confusion of chinchillas being rats may come from the similar species called a chinchilla rat.

Are Chinchillas A Good Pet?

Chinchillas are great pets for those willing to take on the responsibilities involved with owning an exotic pet, such as specialized vet care, specific dietary requirements, and helping your chinchilla get the needed exercise to remain happy and healthy.

Is A Chinchilla A Mouse Or A Rat?

Chinchillas are actually rodents that are native to South America. They are not related to mice or rats but are similar in size to a guinea pig. Chinchillas make great pets because they are small, quiet, and easy to care for. They also have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, so they can be a long-term commitment.

What are chinchillas used for?

Even though domesticated chinchillas are usually bred for the purpose of keeping them as pets, they are sometimes bred for other purposes such as scientific research due to the similarity of the anatomy of their ears to that of humans' ears.


Have Questions About Chinchillas?

Email us at cages@qualitycage.com 

Author Bio: Morgan Mulac

Morgan has been a professional copywriter for over five years. Morgan also happens to be a chinchilla owner for many years. Now she is merging her two passions to create chinchilla expert care guides to help other chinchilla owners.
Morgan loves all things artistic and enjoys making others happy through her art and stories.


1 comment

  • Mechell Burkley

    Loved the story.

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