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Health & Lifestyle Pages (site map lists page contents) Chinchilla Behavior: Relating to People and Other Animals
Chinchilla Introductions and Group Dynamics/ Chintelligence and Communication/ Dental Health/ Exercise and Play Grooming, Fur and Skin Health/ Healing: Ailments & Remedies/ Nutrition/ Origins and Wild Chinchillas Today


*
Environmental Stress (attitude and behavior determinants, basic ways to prevent stress, potential stress factors)
*Anti-Social Behavior (biting; urine-spraying- single female chin syndrome; rearing up and chattering teeth; hostilely pursuing, cornering, fur-pulling)
*Facts About Discipline
*Behavioral Rehabilitation: Addressing Biting and Urine-Spraying

Continued on next page:
*The Red Print: Please Read First
*Adoption Source, or Background, and Behavioral Expecations (pet breeder, ranch, pet store, rehoming, rescue)
*General Characteristics of Behavior
*Routines (exercise, sleep and covering cages)

Continued on next page:
*Initiating Bonding, A Hands-On Approach (first contact procedure)
*Relating to Your Chinchilla (chin scratches or grooming, playtime bonding, catching and handling)

Continued on next page:
*Relating Articles
*Compatibility With Other Animals (chins and buns don't mix)
*As Classroom Pets -and- Are Chinchillas a Good Pet for Children? (pets for kids)


ENVIRONMENTAL STRESS
(attitude and behavior determinants, basic ways to prevent stress, potential stress factors)



The Attitude & Behavior Determinants
(temperament, treatment, environment)


Often, the people who give the most online advice are not the same people who spend hours every day working with high-strung, oversensitive or troubled chins, and that's why these chins are so often overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed as the rare exception. Thus, it's easy for some people to
over-generalize from their experience with very mellow, well-adjusted chins and they may not see the need to address the subject of stress and its consequences, because indeed, those mellow, well-adjusted chins are more adaptive and resilient. But this is not representative of the common experience, as chinchilla rescue workers and anyone who's been on a forum and watched chinparents recycle the same old stress-related health and behavioral problems can attest to.


When we refer to environmental stress, we mean anything external to the chin that affects him: how he's treated and cared for, what his environment is like, and not just the physical environment but who and what is in it. Throughout our years of rescue work, which includes networking with rescuers internationally, we've come to realize that chinchilla health and behavioral problems are frequently rooted in a single cause: STRESS.


As stated in Critical Points, "Because they are highly intelligent, chinchillas can easily become stressed or bored... They cannot just sit, caged, for hours on end without sufficient environmental stimulation, exercise or interaction." There are a wide range of health (stress weakens the immune system, increasing vulnerability) and behavioral problems which in reality are only SYMPTOMATIC of the cause, the real problem: environmental STRESS.


Symptoms of environmental stess include, among other things:
whitish eye goop, smallish or squashy fecal droppings, fungus, anti-social behavior(chasing and pulling fur, biting, urine-spraying) directed at the chinparent or cagemates (causing conflicts), lethargy, acting depressed and withdrawn, weight loss, persistent dominance mounting, excessively marking territory with urine, fidgeting behaviors such as obsessive chewing of cage bars, hammock, water bottle, etc., and neurotic behaviors such as fur biting, pacing in circles or somersaulting.



Besides being affected by environmental stress factors, a chin can also suffer from health and behavioral problems that originate with the chin himself, internal factors, such as when a chin has a particular sensitivity to a certain brand of dustbath that gives him eye irritations, or when a chin is recovering from a recent operation, illness or injury and the stress of recovery (especially if not on pain medication) causes him to fur bite or to act anti-social in self-defense. In the event of the latter, when a chin is in recovery from something stressful or traumatic, extra measures should be put into place to ensure maximum comfort, security and tranquility; providing TV helps ease stress and boredom. It is very important to rule out any potential internal cause before assuming and addressing a health or behavioral problem from the environmental stress angle, because a chin that is ill or suffering should see a vet without delay.


This section on Environmental Stress takes a broad approach, so that the chinparent can apply their analytical skills and intuition to troubleshoot within the context of their particular situation. Often chinparents don't realize there is an environmental stress factor at work until after one of the aforementioned symptoms develops, sometimes in a serious or chronic way, and then the focus is often on "how do I make it stop" (treating the symptom) rather than "what is causing this to happen" (addressing the real problem). To resolve a stress-related health or behavioral problem, it's necessary to pinpoint and address the underlying cause, because treating the symptom (fur biting, weight loss, change in fecal droppings, anti-social behavior, etc.) in isolation of understanding and correcting the actual problem usually fails and can even make matters worse. Foresight and prevention are best, of course.


This section is not intended to suggest that all chinchillas are super-fragile, neurotic, nervous wrecks. Generally speaking, chinchillas are adaptive, resilient animals, HOWEVER, some are more susceptible to the consequences of environmental stress. By examining the determinants that shape a chin's attitude and behavior, we can better understand and potentially predict how environmental stress will affect a particular chin's ability to adjust and cope in life situations:

TEMPERAMENT
...whether the chinchilla is easy-going, high-strung, etc. Chinchilla temperaments generally tend to mellow with age. For instance, a chinchilla with a naturally high-strung (should be regarded as NFB) or oversensitive temperament is more likely to be negatively impacted by environmental stress than a chinchilla with a calm, easy-going, mellow temperament. Behavioral rehabilitation can reassure a high-strung or oversensitive chin and help him gain confidence in his ability to cope.


Males fall into three general types: typical Alphas, extreme Alphas and Betas
Alpha males (both typical and extreme) have a stronger dominance and mating drive than Beta males, who are more submissive and less driven (but not altogether disinterested!) to dominate in M/M relationships or to mate with females. In our experience, about 75% of all males are typical Alphas: they only mount to establish dominance and determine social rank among other males or to attempt mating with females.


The extreme Alpha, however, is persistent (mounts relentlessly, even after rank is established) and/ or aggressive in his mounting (rough grooming that pulls head fur or biting about the head, neck and ears) and usually requires neutering to achieve (non-reproductive) compatibility with either sex; sometimes the single life suits him best.


Females can of course be dominant or submissive too, but asserting dominance and maintaining social rank and order is more characteristic of the male chinchilla (the guardian) than the female (the family maker); female chinchillas tend to be more territorial, especially when carrying or caring for young. The degree to which a chin, male or female, is dominance driven can change, especially with regard to mellowing with age.



TREATMENT
...how the chinchilla has been cared for (his needs on all levels) by people, both past and present. If the chinchilla came from an abuse or neglect situation or if he was treated well, given a LARGE cage and frequent
exercise and is now relegated to a small cage and is given little attention, this type of thing will have a direct bearing on the chin's current outlook and attitude. If a chinchilla was handled roughly by their previous chinparent, say it was a man as opposed to a woman, he may then generalize about the human sexes and practice anti-social behavior towards men only in a new home.



ENVIRONMENT
...what kind of environment the chinchilla has been in (underactive, moderately active, overactive), both past and present
  Underactive- e.g., largely ignored, almost nothing to do or play with, no sounds, music, nothing to watch, etc.

  Moderately Active- e.g., regular out-of-cage exercise time and bonding, an exercise wheel, variety of chew toys and TV at night that's not too loud, some quiet and solitude for daytime sleep, etc.

  Overactive- e.g., prying pets, constant loud or intimidating noise and traffic, frequent rough handling, disregard for the chin's need for daytime rest, his basic needs sometimes neglected, etc.

It's important to realize that an environment of perpetual, unrelenting boredom (underactive) is just as nerve-wracking and stressful for a chinchilla as one that is noisy and chaotic (overactive), and both cause similar health and behavioral problems. For instance, fur biting is common in chinchillas from either an underactive or overactive environment. A moderately active environment is best, some activity and noise is stimulating without being overwhelming or stupefying, it desensitizes the chinchilla just enough so he can cope with change or the unexpected without being traumatized by things like thunderstorms, visitors, when their chinparent takes a trip and they get a pet sitter, or a ride to the vet. The chinchilla's curious, intelligent mind craves some environmental stimulation but BOTH chaos and boredom are problematic.


When a chinchilla comes to a new home from a previous environment that was underactive OR overactive, he'll need a few days to a week in a calm, relaxed setting with soft music, some mellow TV, the First Contact Procedure and no other household pets prior to being brought into the mainstream of a moderately active household. Covering his cage, as described on Routines, will help him feel more secure. He'll also need at least a week, maybe more, to settle in and feel safe and comfortable with his new chinparent before being introduced to a new cagemate.


This transitional period is necessary because the chin from an overactive environment will need a chance to rest his nerves and regroup and the chin from an underactive environment isn't prepared to handle a lot of stimulation all at once. Too much, too soon can overwhelm the chin from an underactive environment and lead to acute shock. It will take some intuition on the part of the chinparent to determine when their new chin is ready for more environmental stimulation, a larger cage, etc., but it's always best to start out with less stimulation or a familiar cage size and then work up from there to allow the chin to gradually transition to an improved lifestyle.






Basic Ways to Prevent Environmental Stress

Read this section on Environmental Stress thoroughly and ensure your chinchilla has a moderately active environment in which all his needs (The Essentials) are met with unfailing reliability. The Essentials include regular out-of-cage exercise, daily interaction and sufficient daytime rest. A LARGE cage to accomodate running and playing, a variety of chew toys, at least one hideaway per chin and a cage wheel will help decrease stress and boredom inside the cage while TV during waking hours will provide environmental stimulation when the chin isn't actively engaged in out-of-cage exercise and interaction. Also, covering the chin's cage (as described on Routines) will go a long way in providing a sense of security and privacy that greatly reduces stress.


Providing distractions (chew toys, wheel, TV) to prevent boredom is crucial. Chinchillas are far too intelligent to be caged for long periods of constant, stupefying boredom and when they have lots of time and nothing interesting to do, they may obsess or instigate trouble which can easily lead to
neurotic behaviors such as fur biting, pacing in circles or somersaulting, fidgeting behaviors such as obsessive gnawing of cage bars, hammock, water bottle, etc., or cagemate conflicts.


Introduce any MAJOR change, such as a change of chinparents, an introduction to other chins or a complete change of environment- new home, people, cage, unfamiliar noises and household pets, etc.- slowly if at all possible. Having a "familiarity connection" helps, such as when a chin moves from one home to another and both homes have TV for him to watch, or if the chin's cage and accessories make the transition with him.


Gradual adjustments are best
and this can prevent acute shock, an uncommon but very real phenomenon most familiar to tenured rescue workers. It is brought on when a chin with low stress tolerance feels overwhelmed by abrupt, MAJOR change/s and perceives his situation to be inescapable, hopeless, and completely overpowering of his ability to cope; and he fails to survive the adjustment. Acute shock may happen right away (heart attack), as an immediate reaction to intense stress, or the chin may expire days or even a week or two later when his heart just gives out from the strain of cumulative, prolonged stress. If addressed early, the condition may not result in death.


Chins, like other animals, live very much "in the now," and that's why they're not always good at waiting things out and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when things look very bleak. Sudden, overwhelming change, especially a lot of change all at once, or going between extremes like from an underactive to an overactive environment, can sometimes be too much. Chins with low stress tolerance include those that are high-strung or oversensitive, that have come from an abuse situation, or that were previously kept (especially for a long time) in a very underactive or overactive (chaotic) environment, per the attitude and behavior determinants described in the previous section. Symptoms of acute shock range from extreme lethargy to extreme activity to seizures, but those symptoms are only indicative of this condition when they occur within the context of MAJOR, stressful change/s.


The chinparent needs to allow their chin time to become familiar with something, to give it a fair chance, to adjust, to decide, because it is very typical for chins to be reluctant or suspicious of change or of something that's new or unfamiliar. Whether it's a change in diet, a new cage accessory, a bonding approach, etc., a chin's initial reaction, whether for positive or negative, should not be assumed to be his final opinion. This sometimes reserved and cautious approach undoubtably derives from their position as a relatively powerless prey animal, it's also why they appreciate routines so much, because what is safe and familiar is comforting and doesn't challenge their ability to cope.


It is very important to realize that this does NOT mean that any change is bad and that anything new or improved should be withheld, chinchillas can and do adjust if allowed the time to do so and only then will their preference for the old or the new become clear. Especially if a chin is being transitioned from something harmful or unsafe, like a bad diet or an unsafe wheel, to something better, then it is absolutely necessary to see to it that the changeover successfully takes place. Be assertive, don't allow your chin to continue being exposed to something that's bad for him just because he appears to reject the new when in reality, he only needs a chance, some TIME, to adjust.


Chins normally enjoy non-threatening change in their environment, sometimes they just need time to adjust and some chins adjust more quickly than others depending on factors like their age, health and temperament. For instance, an older, high-strung and sight-deficient chin will be more likely to begin fur biting (from stress) when an additional household pet is introduced than a younger, mellower chin whose sight is intact and who can better assess and adjust to the change. It's also a good idea to invite your pet sitter over a few times to become acquainted with your chin before going on a trip and leaving him entirely in the pet sitter's care. If the chin will be staying at the pet sitter's while you're gone, take him over there to get acquainted with the pet sitter's environment prior to dropping him off for a prolonged stay.


Changes such as a new cage location, a new movie or TV show, a new wheel or different type of hay or chew toy are usually welcomed with great enthusiasm and enjoyment, albeit sometimes after the chin's had a chance to assess and adjust; change can make a chin's life more interesting, exciting and fulfilling. If something is changed and the chin has been given awhile to adjust (it can take time!) but it becomes clear that the change is causing the chin to exhibit stress-related health and behavioral problems, then the change (just be sure you've pinpointed the real problem, that it's not something else!) should be treated as an environmental stress factor and adjustments should be made.





Potential Environmental Stress Factors
(health and nutrition, loneliness or boredom, personal safety and security)


Chinchillas in captivity are entirely dependent on their chinparent for everything, they have no freedom to run, forage or hide, no control over the environment they exist in and this complete powerlessness can be difficult and overwhelming for a small animal of prey. The pet chinchilla's complete dependence on people for their care is what makes the following list of potential stress factors so wide and varied. The ability to make changes, to address an environmental stress factor, IS completely within the chinparent's control, and it is their duty to be observant and aware of how the chin is affected by his environment so that appropriate changes can be made if the chin becomes affected by a stress factor.


Once the attitude and behavior determinants that directly influence a chin's ability to adjust and cope (temperament, treatment, environment) have been assessed, it should be easier to see what the potential environmental stress factor that is causing the condition (fur biting, whitish eye goop, etc.) might be. Bear in mind that what is a stress factor for one chin may not be for another. For instance, a high-strung or oversensitive chin may be more bothered by noise while sleeping than other chins would be. Or, a group of chins that have never had other chins close by and then find themselves in full view of chins right next door (proximity is the issue, seeing other chins across the room or more than a few feet away is normally not a problem, but seeing them right next door often is) may start having internal cagemate conflicts.


It may take some TIME and observation to pinpoint what the REAL stress factor is or there may be more than one stress factor at work. Once pinpointed and addressed, it may take TIME again for the condition (fur biting, eye goop, etc.) to clear up, improvement is not always "instantaneous."


This list is NOT all-inclusive, and as stated previously, the Environmental Stress section takes a broad approach because the chinparent should apply their analytical skills and intuition to troubleshoot within the context of their particular situation. Follow the hyperlink within the point made for further elaboration:



HEALTH AND NUTRITION

An abrupt change in diet
Deprived of adequate rest (chins need some quiet solitude during sleeping hours)
Insufficient out-of-cage exercise time (exercise is vital and a chin may act out if deprived of it)
Deprived of dustbath
Feed or hay that is soiled or moldy
Cage too small and confining, a LARGE cage that allows for some running and jumping is a MUST!
Poor diet that causes malnutrition (unsuitable pellets, i.e., those meant for other animals and not chins; unhealthy or too many treats; no hay, etc.)
Unreliable availability of or inappropriate essential items (pellets, hay,
distilled or filtered water, dustbath, chew toys, etc. Note that fresh, hay, pellets and water should ALWAYS be available for consumption, do NOT ration pellets!)




LONELINESS OR BOREDOM
Grieving for a cagemate that has departed.
Fur biters are often particularly intelligent and sensitive to an underactive or overactive environment.
A single chin will require much more daily attention, interaction and bonding with their chinparent than those with a cagemate.
Quarantine, sickness or recuperation should not consist of keeping the chin closed off from any interaction or environmental stimulation. Even under normal circumstances chinchillas need distractions in their environment that keep them occupied when they're not actively engaged in interaction and out-of-cage exercise time. For this purpose a variety of chew toys, a cage wheel and TV are all strongly advised, although in some cases a wheel may not be feasible for a chin in recuperation.
Boredom is a very common environmental stress factor because people often underestimate how intelligent chins are and their need for sufficient interaction and environmental stimulation. Chins that are bored may gnaw on water bottles, their cage wheel or bars or their hammock just for something to do.




PERSONAL SAFETY AND SECURITY
Temperature too hot and/or humid
A big change, like a new pet (dog, cat, etc.) in the household, moving to another city or state, getting rehomed
Too frequent or improper handling
Not being reassured upon arrival, see Initiating Bonding, A Hands-On Approach
Not enough hideaways (tube, hammock, house- no plastic- and one hideaway for each cohabitating chin can help prevent cagemate conflicts)
Fear of other household pets (owls and foxes prey on chinchillas in the wild) or visiting strangers
Using introduction methods that jeapordize the chin's safety or violate their territorial nature
Territory not secured (cage fully exposed to the epicenter of household noise and chaos, full view of chins right next door that violates territorialism, marauding household pets)
Overcrowded conditions
Occasional or frequent neglect, abuse by people
Cagemate conflicts (dominating cagemate or insistent mate). Weight loss can result when a bullied cagemate spends his time defensively backed into a cage corner, afraid to seek nourishment. See Maintaining Group Compatibility: Preventing Conflicts, Causes






ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR
(biting; urine-spraying- single female chin syndrome; rearing up and chattering teeth;
hostilely pursuing, cornering and causing fur slip/ fur-pulling)

Read through Facts About Discipline and Behavioral Rehabilitation for an understanding of how to address anti-social behavior directed at people. See Maintaining Group Compatibility for information about anti-social behavior and chinchilla group dynamics.


We refer to the behaviors described in this article as anti-social because they're chiefly used to repel people or other chins, and sometimes other household pets. By nature chinchillas are gentle and friendly toward people, this has been routinely noted: historically by those who hunted them for the fur trade, by those who have studied them in the wild (these wild chinchilla photos speak volumes to that effect), and by those who own or breed them today in captivity for pets.


Chinchillas are herbivorous prey animals, they aren't prone to be aggressive or confrontational, especially with predators (humans) where they do in fact recognize that they are at a disadvantage, being comparitively weak and powerless. That's right, the "ferocious" looking chinchilla before you is not mounting an offensive, does not want to "attack," and his behavior is NOT a sign that he dislikes you. He is just on the defensive and his anti-social behavior is meant to communicate, as in the case of a small child who acts out because he cannot put his predicament into words, that he is either physically injured and suffering pain, is afraid, or is sufficiently stressed and upset.


Chinchillas travel in herds in the wild and are therefore inclined to be sociable with other chins. They will, however, demonstrate anti-social (defensive) behavior toward other chins if they feel threatened based on previous bad experience, if the othe chin provokes them with anti-social behavior first, or if they feel they must defend their territory or members of their group.


Anti-social behavior may appear by intent to be an offensive maneuver but it is in fact defensive. In our experience working with hundreds of chinchillas from all backgrounds since 1997, we have never met a "mean" chinchilla, there is ALWAYS a reason for the anti-social behavior, a past or present provocation coming to bear on the current situation. For instance, a chinchilla with past negative experiences with people (neglect, abuse, being subjected to environmental stress) or other chinchillas (being the victim of anti-social behavior) may generalize from that past experience so that sometime in the future when he feels confronted by another person or chinchilla, he'll act out preemptively with anti-social (defensive) behavior. It will appear that there was no provocation, but indeed there was, just not immediately preceding.


Anti-social behavior is usually learned as a result of bad past experiences, but sometimes this behavior is instinctual to a high-strung or oversensitive chin; they are more likely to overreact in self-defense. A chin cannot "unlearn" anti-social behavior, but it can be successfully addressed through behavioral rehabilitation or by using time-outs in an introductory session. Anti-social behavior isn't always rooted in the past, though, sometimes it's the result of a problem in the present, like an evironmental stress factor or the chin may be stressed due to recovering from a recent operation, illness or injury, especially if not on pain medication. As the section on Environmental Stress relates, some chins are more temperamentally sensitive to stress than others.


We define chinchilla anti-social behavior as any of the following: dominance mounting (it is instinctual for males to want to establish social rank but it becomes problematic when carried to the point where there is persistent or aggressive mounting), biting, urine-spraying, rearing up and chattering teeth, hostile pursuit, cornering and causing fur slip/ fur-pulling. Fighting itself may be injurious (involves biting) or non-injurious (involves a combination of the other, less severe behaviors).


It is also worth noting that when afraid, a chinchilla may release an odor from his anal gland, which is "a scent gland located in the opening of the anus" (ref- Lioncrusher's Domain). The odor isn't particularly pungent but it is definitely noticeable within a range of about 2-3', and has been described as the smell of "burnt almonds." We jokingly refer to this as "mad chin farts" and it's one of many "warnings" that a chin may give leading up to biting or urine-spraying, in fact, most of the anti-social behaviors are signs pointing to the possible or eventual deployment of those two ultimate defenses.


Dominance Mounting occurs between chins and is covered in a different section.




Biting

In the many years that we've worked with hundreds of chins, including unsocialized ranchies and rescue chins from neglect and abuse situations, we've met maybe a half dozen chins that were true biters, that is, that REALLY bit and pierced skin rather than just nibbled or gave a pressure bite. There are three types of biting: nibbles, pressure biting and biting itself, and pressure biting (in an urgency context) and nibbles aren't actually biting or anti-social, they're part of normal chinchilla communication and are just described here alongside biting for comparitive purposes:


1) Nibbling is not anti-social behavior, it's a normal, non-offensive mode of communication and should not be reacted to adversely. Nibbling can involve light or firm contact, but it's not insistent to the point of almost piercing skin, and it's done in a positive, amicable context. Chins nibble each other while grooming to demonstrate acceptance and affection and they may do the same with their chinparent, especially during chin scratches. Kits will nibble just as a baby explores his environment by putting things in his mouth, all you need to do if the nibbling becomes a bit too rough is to give a simple admonishment like, "gentle, honey, gentle" and pull your hand back a little as a deterrent.



2) Pressure biting is definitely firm and insistent contact, but unlike with an actual bite, the skin isn't pierced. On some occasions, as in the context of stress/ fear, it may come close and leave a bruise. Pressure bites can happen in one of two situational contexts:

A) When a chin is expressing urgency: Like nibbling, pressure biting (in the context of urgency) is not an anti-social behavior, it's a normal, non-offensive mode of communication. When a chin needs to urinate, wants down to play, to go back to his cage, etc., he may put his teeth carefully on your hand or around your finger and squeeze firmly but without intent to harm, just to impart a sense of real urgency. In this case, try to figure out what the chin wants and comply, there is no need to discourage pressure biting when done in this context, after all, how else is a chin supposed to express urgency?

B) When a chin is expressing extreme stress or fear: In this context, pressure biting becomes anti-social enough to warrant using the "No Bite" technique immediately to discourage future attempts. Pressure biting in the context of stress/ fear has the same motivation and intent as a chinchilla attempting to give an actual bite, only the chin doesn't pierce skin either because he realizes that people really can feel it when he bites (some chins are very surprised that their bite is even noticed by the "giant" human) or because he's too timid or temperamentally mellow to persist with breaking skin. A chin who uses pressure biting in this context may need behavioral rehabilitation, especially if he bites often or uses other anti-social behaviors.



3) Biting itself indicates a chinchilla at his MOST stressed or afraid, when he is using the most persuasive, urgent means conceivable of communicating his feelings. As stated previously, some chins, in particular those who've had negative or limited experience with people, may not even realize that their bite will affect the "giant" human, but in any case, it is VERY important for the chinparent to calmly put the chin down and NOT to display anger, pain or fear. Such a display will only make the chin more afraid (of retaliation), and it will
reinforce the biting behavior, showing the chin in very dramatic terms that biting grants him power leverage whenever he is feeling helpless and upset in any way.

Provided that there isn't physical injury involved that requires immediate first aid attention, this anti-social behavior will need to be discouraged immediately with the "No Bite" technique. Biters should be considered a candidate for Behavioral Rehabilitation, and they need to be handled with gloves until they are socialized and no longer so deeply stressed and afraid that they want to bite.

Chinchilla bites are usually deep and piercing rather than wide and gouging. Biting directed at people is rare, but biting between chins is more common. Fight wounds (with other chins) should receive immediate treatment. Grinding or baring of teeth is a typical forewarning to biting, Nebula and Friends provides a good general guide to the warning signs of biting.





Urine-Spraying
(single female chin syndrome)


Males can spray urine but rarely do, it's almost exclusively a female behavior and is especially common to females with a high-strung or oversensitive temperament. Such temperamentally "difficult" chins may take more time to get to know, and may require more bonding effort on your part, but in our opinion these are frequently the most intelligent, fascinating and fun chins to know.


Urine-spraying occurs when a female rears up and expels a jet of urine, which can easily reach up to a few feet in length. The chin may stand on her hind legs for a moment and give a warning sound first in low buzzing tones, but there isn't always forewarning. Be aware that larger chins may have trouble projecting the urine and can end up with a wet bottom that will need dried off with a cloth and the chin given dustbath. The urine isn't harmful in any way, to people or other chins (although a shot in the eye can cause an eye irritation), but if you suspect that a female is going to spray urine anywhere near your head, keep your mouth shut! A chin that urine-sprays frequently should be considered a candidate for Behavioral Rehabilitation.


When a chin gets urine-sprayed, providing the chinparent is privvy to it, then he should receive a dustbath right afterward so that he can keep clean; chins get very dismayed if they're not able to clean up right after being urine-sprayed. If the chin is very urine-sprayed he might smell and be sticky, and in this case dustbath alone will not suffice. Wipe him down using a warm, damp cloth in a draft-free room, then towel or blow dry him completely before administering dustbath.


Some females that are high-strung or oversensitive can be rather quick to resort to urine-spraying, going beyond just warding off a perceived threat (person, other chin) to using it when a cagemate becomes a nuisance or to repel another cagemate in order to get to something first or to keep something for herself, like a treat or chew toy. Females that are near or in their estrus cycle (think "PMS"!) are sometimes more easily provoked and will spray urine accordingly.


Urine-spraying is also used by females as a way of "training" their mate (to let ladies go first, to be a better guardian, etc.). A male that runs over to his female when he should be taking a stand to ensure she feels safe or doesn't get caught is sometimes deflected with a reprimanding jet of urine; when people say that females "rule the roost" in an M/F chinchilla pairing, this type of "training" is one aspect of that. Some males try urine-spraying after being on the receiving end of it with their females, but this isn't necessarily a learned behavior.


Since chinchilla urine is darker in color, ranging from dark yellow to having a reddish-orange hue, it is easy to spot when sprayed outside of the cage. Urine that is sprayed will be at a distance, unlike the usual urine marks that may run down the side or corners of an uncovered cage, and these urine spraying marks can be an indicator of the current social climate between cagemates.



"SINGLE FEMALE CHIN SYNDROME"
Urine-spraying towards people often results from being exposed to a chaotic household or from other environmental stresses. This is especially true in the case of a female housed alone who must do all her own guarding, and who consequently tends to become paranoid and develop stress-related behavioral problems, especially frequent urine-spraying or other hostile displays (even biting), as a result. We've seen this frequently in the course of our rescue work, owners dropping off their "impossible" single female chins, and other rescuers have corroborated our observation. Eventually we had to to give this phenomenon a name, something dark and ominous sounding... "Single Female Chin Syndrome."


Chinchillas "stand guard" for each other when in groups (two or more), this occurs mainly during sleeping hours or when something stressful is going on (moving, travelling, strangers in the house, etc.). Posture or position in the cage usually reveals who is on "guard duty," in this photo the chin in the protective posture is guarding. When two chins are resting side by side, they may both be on guard duty. Chinchilla males usually assume the guardian role in M/F cagemate situations, in M/M or F/F situations they may take turns or one chin may prefer to do most of the guarding.


Because males are more instinctually equipped for the protective or guardian role, and because a female caged alone has no one else to even share guard duty with, she is at a particular disadvantage and may feel very vulnerable and stressed because she must overcompensate to fill the guardian role. The SFC has to be "on" all the time in order to do all her own guarding. Consequently, this can make some oversensitive or high-strung SFC's very defensive and prone to anti-social behaviors such as urine-spraying.
Not all SFC's have SFCS, but for those who do the best (non-reproductive) solution is to get the SFC a female companion.





Rearing Up and Chattering Teeth

These two behaviors often occur together, but won't necessarily. A chin that rears up is getting into position to potentially spray urine and a chin that is chattering his teeth may potentially bite, especially if the chattering becomes more like a grinding sound and the chin is baring his teeth. A chin who is threatening to bite should be examined immediately to rule out the possibility of physical injury, the chinparent can use gloves to handle the chin for that purpose. Often when these behaviors (rearing up and chattering teeth) are used together it's because a chin feels trapped or cornered and he feels compelled to pull himself up high and put on an intimidating act as a last ditch effort to ward off the person or chin that he feels threatened by. For instance, if a cagemate is being subjected to occasional dominance mounting and he's had enough of that, he may rear up and chatter with his teeth in a warning manner to reject the antagonizer's advances. Chinchillas also make a number of gruffing and barking sounds which are part of their natural communication and which are often not used in the context of anti-social behavior, see Communication.


There is also a "pshaw" swipe that sometimes occurs when chins are reared up and facing each other. It can happen when the situation seems at a standstill, or when one chin is testing the other to see if he really wants to continue the confrontation. The "pshaw" swipe is the act of one chin swiping his paw across the face of the other in a leisurely manner, sometimes getting it into the other chin's mouth, but we've never seen the opposing chin take advantage of this opportunity to try and bite during a "pshaw" gesture. The results vary, perhaps the "pshaw" swipe is only meant to break the tension, because afterward the chins may calm down or press into more heated conflict.





Hostilely Pursuing, Cornering and Causing Fur slip/ Fur-Pulling

Hostile pursuit occurs between chins, and this is almost always bad news, because a chin who is hostilely pursues is very apt to bite and that's why fur slip occurs, because fur is pulled (released by fur slipping) from the victim. Hostile pursuit is NOT the same as when a chin runs about his cage for recreation and fun, it's only hostile pursuit when there is one chin who pursues and another chin who flees. It is important to pay attention when the sounds of vigorous running occur, because when a chin is hostilely pursued within the limits of his cage, things can turn deadly, see
Maintaining Group Compatibility. The aftermath of hostile pursuit is sometimes evident by tufts of slipped fur lying about.






FACTS ABOUT DISCIPLINE

Also see: General Characteristics of Behavior and Communication, and Relating to Your Chinchilla


Chinchillas do NOT respond to negative chastising, i.e., physical (corporal) punishment- hitting, smacking or flicking which can easily lead to wounds and abscessing- or reprimands by shouting or similar displays of anger. Such "discipline" is neither suitable nor effective in relating to chinchillas, it will have the opposite desired effect. Because chinchilla anti-social behavior directed at people is defensive in nature and most often rooted in fear, frustration or stress, when the chin receives a hostile reaction to his attempt to communicate these feelings it justifies his need for a stronger defense and the behavior will worsen, even escalate. Also, never blow on your chin's face as a form of "punishment." According to our exotics specialist vet, chinchillas can catch a virus from people, such as cold or flu.


A chin that bites or sprays urine may appear to be "vicious," may seem to be offensive and hostile, but in reality the anti-social behavior communicates the chinchilla's intense feelings of vulnerability, demonstrates that he's feeling defensive for some underlying reason that needs to be pinpointed and resolved in order for the anti-social behavior to stop. When the chinparent addresses the underlying motivation for the anti-social behavior, the chin will finally be able to feel reassured that he is now in good hands, relieved of what's troubling him and secure in his environment.


Chinchillas will only reform anti-social behaviors when you use a positive approach as opposed to a punishing approach, (see Behavioral Rehabilitation) and that requires maturity, love and PATIENCE but the results can be truly miraculous! As long as you've always given positive attention and positive reinforcement when they're good, then warning them about something they shouldn't get into or saying "no" in a serious but not intimidating way when they're misbehaving will not be taken adversely. If you find yourself saying "no" all the time then chances are you probably need to make an adjustment, like do a better job chin-proofing so your chin isn't tempted by hazards that require constant verbal warnings; that's destructive to bonding and unfair to the chin who should be free to explore in a safe environment.


Some chinchillas are gruff, moody characters that are very vocal in their attitude. In our experience, these chins are always the most interesting personalities, and ultimately the most soft-hearted, likeable and misunderstood. Our Sherlock was a good example of this. He was a neutered male with a strong territorial instinct and tender devotion to his three quite high-strung females. Even after his death, an apparent heart attack, they were still a perfectly harmonious group as a direct result of his influence and uniting leadership. When one of the chinparents would approach the cage door, he would dutifully come forward to assess the situation, and gruff if one of his girls moved ahead of him since that overstepped his authority.


When we handed out treats during out-of-cage exercise time he was happy to let his women go first, but if the cage door was opened, that was Sherlock's cue! He'd rush up, gruff... and then turn and run like heck! It was absolutely hilarious, his instinct leading him to demonstrate verility and devotion to "the herd" in that obligatory manner. The girls, of course, were always genuinely impressed by this display. They'd demonstrate their respect for his leadership by standing back in awe of Sherlock's manly "ferocity."


So what of Sherlock's gruffing, was that "vicious" behavior? No. Because he was a cuddly sweetheart with us the rest of the time we knew this was just an act and respected it because it kept him happy and maintained harmony in his group. In fact, we would support harmony in that group by acknowledging Sherlock's gruffing with praise for his noble leadership. When he'd come back after the initial display of ferocity, we'd tell him what a good boy he was for "defending" his ladies and then offer a hand, palms up, for him to sniff and approve of before we would enter his domain to clean up, give them food or hay, or a scratch behind the ears or under the chin.


For every cage of more than one chin (same or opposite sex) there will always be a more dominant chin who behaves similarly to Sherlock. That's the "guardian" chin. If you acknowledge and respect his authority then you are reinforcing the group bond, the security and happiness of the group as a whole. As long as you know the guardian is only gruffing for role playing or from a feisty personality and is not afraid, frustrated or stressed by anything in his environment, then it's okay to be affirming when he gruffs. Tell him he's a good boy and offer your hand palms-up, and honestly, he'll sit back and look so content, so pleased to be understood and loved!






BEHAVIORAL REHABILITATION: ADDRESSING BITING AND URINE-SPRAYING

Also see these articles that have a direct bearing on this section: Environmental Stress, Anti-Social Behavior, and Facts About Discipline (the three preceding articles on this page)


Behavioral rehabilitation (BR) can begin once it has been ascertained that the chin's anti-social behavior is not caused by and will not discontinue by adjusting potential stress factors in the environment. BR is often necessary with chins that have experienced past neglect, abuse or abandonment by people. BR can also help soothe some chinchillas that are just naturally high-strung (should be regarded as NFB) or oversensitive.


Firstly, remember that owning a chinchilla requires maturity of character: NEVER display temper, do NOT get loud or move in a loud or boisterous manner around a chin that's already terrified (anti-social behaviors are actually defensive). Chins are highly intelligent, if you act consistently they may come to understand what you mean but they don't speak fluent English or read minds- don't expect them to. BE CALM, BE PATIENT.


Remember, with chinchillas their anti-social behavior is caused by fear and bringing in corporal punishment compounds the fear. It'll take maturity and unselfish compassion on your part to look past the behavior and realize that this little animal is just scared silly and that no matter how intimidating they manage to appear, they're not really "bad, psycho, vicious."


The only way to address anti-social behavior that can't be resolved by addressing an environmental stress factor is to love them out of it, using empathy, gentleness, calming reassurance, and persistent affection- NO corporal punishment. Depending on the chin and their circumstances it can take time, but BR does work because calming the fear will silence the anti-social behavior.


Behavioral rehabilitation can actually start as soon as you meet your chin, it can become part of the bonding process that you share: Do this every day, no more than twice a day, for at least ten minutes at a time during the evening, the chin's natural waking hours:

1) If the chin is biting, start by handling him carefully, needless to say, don't put yourself in a position to get bit, wear thick cloth gloves for now.

Female chins that have lived singly for awhile before being rescue/ rehome
d are especially likely to spray urine when relocated. Before picking up a chin who sprays (males can but rarely, this is primarily a female defensive behavior), have ready a container of Baby Cornstarch Powder (no Baby Powder, nothing containing talc!) that can be purchased from the grocery store baby section.

When the female rears up to spray, squirt the cornstarch at her lower extremities, it may take a couple squirts and you need to take aim at the chin's LOWER half only, DON'T get the powder in her nose or eyes. Eye irritants can be flushed out using Natural Tears, nothing else unless vet prescribed.

Scoop the chin up gently with both hands and hold him/her on your lap, in a quiet place away from noise and distractions.


2) While holding the chin, kiss (dry kisses!) his tummy and toes (just in case he's worried, this demonstrates that you won't eat him) and then rub his tummy, under the chin, behind the ears or on the forehead; find what he likes best and do that most. Then speak softly, soothingly, things like "good boy/ girl, good -name-, good -name-" and "good boy/ girl, you're my little angel, I love you."

Use loving praise and sweet talk in a reassuring tone, quiet the fears, calm the anxiety and keep crooning in a loving way. Remember, this will not be perceived by the chin as "rewarding" the anti-social behavior, it's resolving their fear and replacing it with trust, security and love.



3) Continue holding, massaging and soothing the chin every day for at least ten minutes at a time, until you feel confident that the biting chin is relaxed enough to be picked up without gloves, and the urine-spraying chin has ceased that defensive behavior.

Then work up to the point where you can kiss the biting chin on the cheek or forehead and he wouldn't even think of biting you, and the urine-spraying chin should reach a point where she no longer backs into a corner and rears up, threatening to spray.


4) Make out-of-cage exercise time an extension of the BR time and then let the chin approach you. You should move slowly around him, allowing him to take the initiative- see Playtime Bonding.


5) Give him TV during his waking hours! This is a tremendous rehabilitative tool for chins with behavioral issues, see The TV Attraction.


6) Provide a setup that is relatively quiet and peaceful (away from prying pets, excessive traffic) and cover his cage with a sheet (as described on Routines) for privacy and security. You can choose to play some classical music very softly in the background. The BR process works, but it takes time, sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks or more than a month- it depends on the type of anti-social behavior, what caused it and the personality of the chin. Gradually, your persistent love and patience WILL win him over and in time he'll relax, become calmer, curious and receptive to you as his fear and apprehensions fade away.



Once the anti-social behavior is gone and you've built a positive rapport, established trust and your chin is secure in the knowledge that he is safe and loved, then the only deterrent or reprimand you should need in the future is a change of tone in your voice and a "no" spoken firmly, not loudly or in a frightening manner.


There are exceptions to every rule, and the "No Bite" technique is intended for that. If your chin has been through BR or has been taught as a youngster not to bite (i.e., when you know that he knows the difference between nibbling and biting) but bites anyway, then use this technique. Again, the No Bite technique is only useful once a bond of trust and affection has been established, when the chin understands that you have his best interests at heart and feels secure and cared for in his environment- otherwise, this will make matters worse!!
1) Catch and hold him securely, putting your thumb on one side of his mouth and your index finger on the other side of his mouth, far back enough not to get bit but forward enough to be able to GENTLY squeeze just enough so that he's making a puckered expression similar to what a chin looks like when his incisors are checked for dental health.


2) Say in a low and firm tone, "no bite, no." DON'T shout. Single syllables are best to aid remembering.


3) DO NOT hold his face in this position for more than a few seconds because chins breathe through their nose and this could make it a bit difficult for him to breathe.


4) They understand by association- you're holding his mouth so that he can't bite, while saying "no bite" Once a chin has been reprimanded with the No Bite technique once, simply saying "no bite" in a calm and firm tone after that should be a sufficient deterrent, we rarely have to use the No Bite technique more than once or twice.