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Your First Chinchilla

Martha Stewart Living Television

Chinchillas were thriving near the tops of the Andes Mountains in South America when sixteenth-century Spanish explorers first exported them to Europe. The small animal's plush bluish-gray fur became so popular that they were nearly rendered extinct by the 1920s. Breeders who began to raise chinchillas commercially in the early-twentieth century realized that their temperaments made them easy to domesticate, and today, they're kept as pets in many homes.

If you choose to bring a chinchilla into your own house, there are a few guidelines to remember. Chinchillas should be kept in a large wire cage, at least 24-by-17-by-17-inches in size. Equip the cage with platform perches, a water bottle, and an exercise wheel, and line it with newspaper shavings. Don't select a wooden or plastic-covered wire cage that a chinchilla will gnaw through. It's essential that you give your pet chinchilla a dust bath, sold in pet stores, at least twice a week.

Although they're social animals, chinchillas are also extremely territorial; if you adopt more than one, it's best to keep them in separate cages. Try pushing the cages together so the animals can enjoy each other's company -- without getting too close. Separate the cages in different rooms when removing one of the chinchillas; this prevents either animal from becoming too territorial. Male and female chinchillas will get along, but novice pet owners should avoid attempting to breed them.

Only use food made especially for chinchillas, and wash the water bottles regularly. When you handle a chinchilla, it's important to be very gentle. They scare easily, but respond well to being held in a calm manner. Don't attempt to pick up a chinchilla by the tail, which can be damaged easily, or by the fur, which will come out in handfuls when treated roughly. One interesting thing to remember: If your chinchilla becomes overly excited, you can pacify him or her by applying gentle pressure to the ear with your finger.

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