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*Maintaining Group Compatibility (preventing conflicts, causes for conflict, the two kinds of mounting)

Continued on next page:
*The Red Print: Please Read First
*Introducing Chins: Precautionary Notes and Pointers (intro method warning)
*Cage Within a Cage (CWAC) Method of Introducing Chinchillas
*The Social Disposition Indicator: Negative, Positive, Inexperienced, Conclusion

(preventing conflicts, causes for conflict, the two kinds of mounting)

Also see: Anti-Social Behavior and Fights on Grooming, Fur and Skin Health

Cagemate conflicts are anti-social behavior (see that section for description and important details) that occurs within a group (two or more) after they've been cohabitating peacefully, after they're bonded. Conflicts can occur with any number or combination of chins (same or opposite-sex), at any age and regardless of whether the group is related (mom and daughter, brothers, etc) or has cohabitated for a long time without any problems.

Although chinchillas are herd animals in the wild and can definitely get along in groups of more than two in captivity, limiting groups to two, or pairs, greatly reduces the potential for cagemate conflicts. As more personalities are added, the potential for future conflict increases exponentially.

Cagemate conflicts, especially with bonded pairs, are NOT that commonplace in a stable environment where the chinparent pays attention to potential stress factors and provides enough distractions (a variety of chew toys, a safe exercise wheel, TV watching) to counteract boredom. Be aware that even with the suggested precautionary measures here, chinchillas must ALWAYS be observed for continued compatibility because the unforeseen can indeed happen.

Minor conflicts among bonded or recently introduced cagemates are those where non-injurious anti-social behavior occurs, for example, urine-spraying and dominance mounting may occur from time to time and that's harmless and normal, it's also normal for chins to gruff and yip at each other in an agitated way now and then, especially during grooming. As long as the minor conflicts are not persistent, as long as they happen very infrequently and neither cagemate begins to regularly exhibit signs of stress such as: squashy fecal droppings, weight loss, fur biting, acting afraid to venture out and make use of the entire cage, huddling in a corner with back to the wall, etc., then the cagemates will still be compatible and can remain together, of course with close supervision.

If the minor conflicts become more persistent or frequent, if one of the cagemates begins to regularly exhibit signs of stress or if the "victim" reacts adversely and reciprocates with anti-social behavior of his own that can cause the situation to escalate, then it's time to seriously examine the problem and see whether an environmental stress factor is at work. Usually by finding and resolving the stress factor, harmony can be restored and a major conflict (injurious fighting) can be prevented.

Major conflicts among bonded or recently introduced cagemates are those where intent to commit injurious anti-social behavior occurs. Conflicts are especially dangerous when they occur within the confines of the cage, where the pursued chin has no opportunity to escape his attacker. It is crucial to realize that once physical injury has been inflicted (wounds, missing digits, etc; fur slip and urine-spraying are not injurious), the attackerand his victim will NOT be compatible any longer, period, they must be separated and remain that way. They will not just "work it out on their own," regardless of whether they're related or whether they've been bonded for years, and attempts to force compatibility in such a situation will only result in more serious injuries and even death from injuries or stress.

Sometimes a conflict-causing event will make a bonded group reevaluate their situation and attempt to reestablish group order, a process that can lead to persistent dominance mounting which in turn can instigate fighting or an attempt to drive out a particular group member.

Preventing Group Conflicts

Also see Routines: Sleep and Covering Cages, "Preventing Problems Related to Territorialism"
Besides these precautionary measures it's also necessary to be aware of: Environmental Stress Factors

Chinchillas are Territorial!
(basic points, scent and the sexes, out-of-cage playtime and cage environment)

Territorialism: Basic Points

Always introduce chins before cohabitation to prevent potentially deadly fighting, and never use an introduction method that will threaten their sense of territorialism or put their safety in jeopardy. Some chins are much more territorial than others, it varies by the attitude and behavior determinants, e.g., whether a chin is easy-going or high-strung, whether or not he is accustomed to having chins outside of his group near his territorial range, or whether he was attacked in the past by another chin. Sometimes when chins are relocated, to either a new cage or a new home, one may barricade, staking territory, and that can instigate conflict.

It is not safe to assume that your chin/s aren't territorial, if you have more than one bonded group it is your responsibility to take precautions that will accomodate and respect their territorialistic instincts in order to prevent things like: territorial anxiety (and excessively marking territory with urine), persistent or aggressive dominance mounting that can lead to cagemate conflicts, or anti-social (biting, urine-spraying) behavior that some chins may direct at their chinparent to convey their extreme stress and agitation.

Territorialism: Scent and the Sexes
Contrary to myth, male groups and female groups can coexist in the same household, provided that they don't come into direct contact with each other or with each other's physical excretions (urine/ urine marks, fecal droppings, estrus or mating plug, etc.), and that they are prevented from seeing each other per explanation in the other four points. Behavior can be an indicator of gender, like urine-spraying being a mostly female behavior and reproductive mounting being a male behavior, but gender is confirmed by scent and this is only discernable by direct olfactory contact (and possibly by tasting another chin's fecal droppings) with the other sexes' physical excretions or from putting their nose to another chin's bottom for a sniff.

Adequate ventilation and air circulation, which are basic to chinchilla housing in general, will prevent the possible accumulation of urine scent (which is not normally pungent unless cleaning is inadequate) to the point where it is detectable and potentially problematic.

While awareness of the presence of the opposite sex doesn't seem to have an affect on the social order of all-female groups, it does affect males, especially unneutered Alpha males with their strong dominance and mating drive. Once the presence of the opposite sex is realized by an all-male group, it can lead to their competing for the right to mate by subjugating their cagemate/s, and this is done by dominance mounting. If the dominance mounting gets persistent or aggressive, it can result in retaliation (fighting, sometimes to the death) by the antagonized cagemate/s. In the case of an M/F group, the male will be inclined (less so if neutered, more so if not neutered) to mount his female/s in order to reassert his authority and control in the group.

Direct contact with scent is necessary for it to be potentially problematic, and scent is not detected when cages are covered, or between rooms or at the other end of the house. Most online advice derives from pet breeders who don't cover their cages, but we have covered cages since 1997 and even though the sheet around the cage catches that group's urine (scent) between changings, we've never had a problem housing unneutered male groups (we've worked with hundreds of chins) right next door to females provided that these four points regarding territorialism were observed.

Territorialism: Out-Of-Cage Playtime
Only let bonded cagemates out together for out-of-cage exercise time, DON'T MIX GROUPS. Chinchillas do have a social order and mixing groups (especially opposite sex groups) will cause confusion and instigate conflict. If different groups use the same playroom, sprinkle Baby Cornstarch Powder or Arm & Hammer Baking Soda (not talc, it's carcinogenic) on carpet urine stains and then vacuum the room well between uses, this will also remove fecal droppings. Clean the carpet periodically.

Chinchillas do have a territorial range or "comfort zone" that extends a few feet out from their cage in the directions they can see, and by instinct they want to guard and defend that immediate territory. For this reason, DO NOT USE THE CAGE ROOM AS A PLAYROOM! An outsider (intruder) wandering near other cages is in danger of getting bitten on the nose or toes, sometimes as a result of being encouraged to come closer (with ostensibly friendly baiting) by the irate caged chins, and the intruder's presence can instigate persistent dominance mounting (and fights) as the lead chin in the caged groups attempts to reestablish social rank and control in response to the territorial violation.

Territorialism: Cage Environment
We recommend covering cages, as described on Routines, also see that section for more on preventing problems related to territorialism: "A barrier between cages prevents knowledge of (and contact with) the opposite sex or other chinchillas right next door. This is a PROXIMITY and SIGHT issue, it's not about scent unless the chins are in direct olfactory contact with each other's physical excretions (urine/ urine marks, fecal droppings, estrus or mating plug, etc.), or are able to put their nose to another chin's bottom for a sniff.

"Seeing other chins across the room or more than a few feet away is normally not a problem, but seeing them camped right next door often is. Calm, easy-going, and not very territorialistic chins that are accustomed to this may not care, but even they may have a problem if they get different neighbors. Chins that are more territorial, high-strung, or not accustomed to having other chins right next door and who are suddenly confronted with this territorial violation may get very nervous and upset, exhibiting territorial anxiety (and excessively marking territory with urine), persistent or aggressive dominance mounting that can lead to cagemate conflicts, or anti-social (biting, urine-spraying) behavior that some chins may direct at their chinparent to convey their extreme stress and agitation."

Introduce major changes in their environment gradually whenever possible.

Chinchillas must NEVER be put in a position where they feel they must hoard, bully or fight for essential resources!! The chinparent must ensure- even if this means getting a bigger food dish, using multiple water bottles or checking their supplies a few times a day- that they NEVER run out of OR have to compete for the dietary staples of fresh, high quality hay, pellets (chinchillas will not overeat of their dietary staples, only treats) and distilled or filtered water. Watch for water bottle failure at the spout end, this will curtail their access to water.

Besides food and water, there are other essential resources such as hideaways and dust for getting clean. It's best to use two dustbath houses when giving dustbath to a group (two or more), and it's important to provide at least one hideaway (tube, hammock, house- no plastic) for each cohabitating chin because even well-bonded cagemates sometimes need an opportunity to "get away" and have space to themselves. With groups of more than two it is especially necessary to have multiple shelves, ledges or housetops to perch on.

A LARGE cage is VERY important, a small cage or overcrowded conditions can cause bonded chins to turn on each other due to the stress of severe confinement.

Give regular out-of-cage exercise time (reduces stress) and provide in-cage distractions: a variety of chew toys, at least one safe exercise wheel (with our groups of more than two, we provide two different types of wheels to prevent bickering) and TV during waking hours for environmental stimulation- these are ALL strongly recommended because long periods of boredom increases group stress and tension.

Have your pet sitter become acquainted with the chins prior to any pet-sitting. Leave the TV running on a low volume to keep the chins company while you're gone and be sure the pet sitter has their exotics specialist vet's number and knows what to do in case of emergency, such as how to keep the chins cool if the power goes out or the air conditioner fails in hot weather.

Some Common Causes for Group Conflicts

Also see: Environmental Stress Factors

Some of these points are inevitable or unavoidable, so don't use this as a "never do" list, just be aware of the conflict causing potential. There is ALWAYS a reason for a cagemate conflict, chins don't "go psycho for no reason," the chinparent should try to troubleshoot the environmental stress factor to determine what the cause is if it's not readily evident.

If something significant in their environment is changed, or the environment itself changes. For example: if key cage accessories are changed or removed (hideaway, wheel, etc.), if cagemates get a new cage or playroom, if their cage is moved to another location or the chinparents move to another residence, if another chin enters the vicinity of their cage, etc.

If cagemates are separated for more than 24 hours. After a period of time, a chin that has left the group, say for vet treatment, may be considered an outsider. If the group doesn't accept him back, re-introductions will be necessary.

If a female cagemate is near or in her estrus cycle. This causes some females to become highly irritable, whether in a same or opposite-sex cagemate situation. We had two sisters who were completely inseperable except during "PMS," at which time they'd spray urine at the other's face with very little provocation.

If scents change. Although chinchillas tend take their compatibility cues more from the other chin's behavior than from scent once gender has been established, it does factor significantly at times: if a cagemate is urine-sprayed (marked) by an outsider, is being treated with a topical medicine, has been given a wet bath, etc. Scent seems to matter more to chins that are especially territorial.

If a newcomer enters a cage of bonded chins without proper introductions.

If there is a territorial violation, overcrowding, if the cage is too small or if there aren't enough distractions and getaways in their cage environment, see Preventing Group Conflicts. Chins who live together, even bonded pairs, sometimes want their own space.

If the chinparent takes temporary leave and there is a "stranger" (unfamiliar pet sitter) in the house.

If one or all male cagemates reach the onset of sexual interest, about 6 months- 1 year old. Those who are Alphas (stronger dominance and mating drive) emerge at this point. A typical Alpha only mounts to establish dominance and determine social rank among other males or to attempt mating with females. In our experience, about 75% of males are typical Alphas. The extreme Alpha, however, is persistent (mounts relentlessly, even after rank is established) and/ or aggressive (rough grooming that pulls head fur or biting about the head, neck and ears) in his mounting and usually requires neutering to achieve (non-reproductive) compatibility with either sex; sometimes the single life suits him best.

The Two Kinds of Mounting

If a chin climbs onto the lower back of another chin from behind, this is called "mounting." Be aware that sometimes a chin will snuggle against or rest his head on the back of another, and this is NOT mounting. The more mounting that occurs, especially in breeding situations, the greater the likelihood for penile hair rings and penis prolapse. There are two kinds of mounting, which are basically indistinguishable when observed but are situationally defined by intent:

First, be SURE you know whether your chins are indeed male or female! Reproductive mounting occurs when a male mounts a female with the intent of impregnating. While dominance mounting may be a half-hearted gesture at times, reproductive mounting is always a concentrated, intensive attempt. When chins of the same sex mount or when a female mounts a male then it is dominance, not reproductive mounting (scent confirms gender).

Females are often not initially receptive to reproductive mounting, probably because it feels like dominance mounting to them as the act does require their submission and compliance for success. An unreceptive female may act coy, perhaps raising her butt in the air to make mounting difficult or impossible, or she may retaliate with volatile anti-social behavior directed at the male. Persistent or aggressive reproductive mounting can result in serious or even lethal fighting if the male is not closely observed and removed before the harm is done. Reproductive mounting may result in the female expelling a heat (estrus) or mating (copulatory) plug.

This occurs when there is intent to establish dominance or social rank over another chin. The expected outcome is that the subjugated chin will recognize the dominant chin as his superior and will submit to that chin's authority and control.

While dominance mounting occurs most often within M/M groups (two or more) because males in particular are instinctually predisposed to want to sort out social rank within their group (in nature the male of the species often competes with other males for the right to mate), dominance mounting can occur in ANY gender combination, in M/F and F/F situations as well. Besides being used to establish social rank and order, dominance mounting may be used to get another chin to move out of the way so that the one doing the mounting can have first or better access to the food bowl, a treat, the cage ramp or shelf, etc.

It is natural for a group's leading Alpha male (the Alpha with the strongest dominance and mating drive) to occasionally use dominance mounting to confirm and reinforce his authority within his bonded group. For example, when a group is in a new, stressful or uncertain situation, dominance mounting may begin in an attempt to reestablish social rank and reassert order and control, often regardless of whether anyone besides the lead Alpha seems to see the need for it.

Dominance mounting may result in consummation that causes matted fur along the backside of the subjugated chin, however, this type of mounting is not about sex drive, it's for dominance and that can provoke a cagemate conflict (fighting) if the chin on the receiving end is unwilling to submit or is being subjected to an extreme Alpha's overbearing dominance drive.

Dominance mounting in itself is NOT "bad," but dominance mounting does become problematic when carried too far by an extreme Alpha as opposed to a typical Alpha, who only mounts to determine rank or attempt mating.
An extreme Alpha is persistent (mounts relentlessly, even after rank is established) and/ or aggressive (rough grooming that pulls head fur or biting about the head, neck and ears) in his mounting.
An extreme Alpha male who is constantly dominance mounting will not just "switch it off" on his own, he'll need to be separated from his cagemate to avoid potentially deadly fighting, or lethal retaliation by the subjugated chin who is forced to assert himself for self-preservation. An extreme Alpha male usually needs to stay single or should be neutered to cohabitate peacefully with either sex.

Occasional dominance mounting is just fine as long as cagemates normally get along well and the subjugated chin is not behaving as if he's being bullied. A chin who is being bullied by his cagemate will show signs of severe stress that include: being afraid to venture about freely, even for food, thus incurring weight loss; often staying huddled in a place viewed as less accessible, such as when a chin spends most of his time in the corner with his back to the wall. Fur loss and bites (from fighting), especially, are signs that the pair need separated immediately. Once physical injury has been inflicted (wounds, missing digits, etc; fur slip and urine-spraying are not injurious), the attacker and his victim will NOT be compatible any longer, they won't "work it out on their own," they must be separated and remain that way.

Be aware that chins in an underactive environment may resort to frequent dominance mounting because sheer boredom is stressful and again, this can provoke conflicts. Males especially must be observed for continued compatibility after they reach the onset of sexual interest (about 6 months- 1 year old), because one may emerge as an extreme Alpha and terrorize the more submissive male. As chins age they usually mellow and their dominance drive also lessens. See Maintaining Group Compatibility for information on preventing persistent dominance mounting.

If dominance mounting between cohabitating males is NOT a frequent or serious problem, it's possible to discourage the more dominant (Alpha) male on these occasions by...

1) Catch the Alpha male in the act of dominance mounting so that when you react to his specific behavior he will be better able to make the connection between your objection and what he was doing.

2) Say his name and "No mounting" in a low, serious tone (chins respond more to tone of voice) and only if he persists should you proceed to the next step, the third step is the last resort and the goal is to get him to respond to your verbal command so that in future only the verbal command will be necessary.

3) Using a squirt gun loaded with water, squirt the Alpha male only ONCE, LIGHTLY, on the backside and repeat his name and "No mounting" in the low, serious tone of voice. It must be stressed that you should NOT soak the chin or use this deterrent multiple times in a day as the density of chinchilla fur easily traps water and being damp can lead to a case of fungus or pneumonia. After the chins have settled down, then take out the chin that was squirted, towel dry him, then allow both chins to finish up with dustbath.