“My chin doesn’t like to be held!” “I’m afraid of hurting him.” “How can I get my chinchilla to walk onto my hands?”
Learning proper handling techniques should be at the top of any owner’s list. One of the number one reasons for permanent neurological damage, physical damage, and death in the pet chinchilla comes from mishandling. There are countless sad stories of someone squeezing a struggling chinchilla, dropping them from standing position or high areas, or having the chin jump from the owner because they are not properly and securely handled.
Why can handling cause permanent neurological damage? You may have heard that chinchillas should NOT be handled around their rib cage because they have a floating rib cage. This is a myth and completely false. No mammal or animal with a thoracic cage (rib cage) has a floating rib cage. Floating ribs are a common anatomical feature and these occur as the last ribs which are unattached to cartilage or any other ribs. A floating rib cage would be one that has no attachment to the sternum and no firm attachment to the spinal column. If a rib cage were formed like this, it would defeat the physiological purpose of the anatomy of the rib cage itself. The thoracic cage or rib cage serves as a protection for the heart and lungs as well as an enclosed chamber for breathing. It needs to be fully enclosed and held in place so that when the primary muscle for inhalation contracts, the diaphragm, it will create negative space in the thoracic cage that allows the lungs to fill…pulling in air from the external environment. So, if chinchillas don’t have a floating rib cage, why is it still not advised to hold them around the chest area? Chinchillas, like many saltatorial locomotors, have reduced forelimbs and very mobile shoulder blades (scapulae). When a chinchilla is squeezed around the rib cage, the shoulder blades are pressed against the spinal cord. This can cause nerves to be severed or severely damaged and can even lead to spinal cord compression and damage. This will often cause seizures and irreversible neurological damage. The ribs also compress easily and it is easy to damage the lungs irreparably leading to loss of life. The ribs themselves are not, however, easily broken despite their fragile appearance.
Why is the base of the tail ok?? Aren't we taught from an early age to NEVER EVER EVER grab an animal by it's tail? Well, chinchillas are rodents. Their tails, like other tailed animals are going to contain a continuation of their spinal column known as their caudal vertebrae. The vertebrae by the base of the tail, closest to the body are thickened and quite strong. The spinal cord of mammals terminates at the lumbar vertebrae above where their hips are located, so at the tail you do not risk spinal cord damage. There are still nerves located into the tail, but the tail is not a sensory organ of the body, so the innervation is actually at it's lowest point within the tail. The last anatomical feature that makes the tail acceptable is the very large, thick, and varying lengths of ligaments and tendons. These structures are composed of connective tissue and have a lower blood supply, so the risk to damage to their cardiovascular system from grasping the tail is non-existent. The ligaments (bone to bone connections) and the tendons (bone to muscle connections) are extremely strong and difficult to tear without twisting. They are composed primarily of dense regular connective tissue which has fibers running in a wavy single direction which makes it really really good at stretching. At each vertebral joint, ligaments and tendons are surrounded by joint capsules that are largely composed of dense irregular connective tissue. This tissue has fibers running in twisting and twirling patterns and this helps resist twisting tears. Lastly, we need only look at how a chinchilla uses its tail in the wild to know it is strong enough to hold the full body weight of the animal. As a saltatorial locomotor, chinchillas do a lot of hopping and jumping. They like to use rocks to ricochet off of and change direction. While their hind legs give them the force needed to push off the rock, the tail is used to direct the entire body off the rock and stabilize them in the air. The entire body's weight has to be pushed and redirected by the tail! That is one strong tail!
Where is the base of the tail? This photo clearly shows where the tail should be grasped. The base of the tail is the point of the tail closest to the body. Typically we grasp the base of the tail just where the body fur ends and tail fur begins.
An easy way to slowly get used to grasping the tail is to run your dominant hand down the chinchilla’s rump and then grasp the base of the tail. This method is demonstrated with a calm chinchilla in the following video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7IZphyvEWo BE AWARE!!!! When you grasp a tail, the chinchilla cannot slip the tail or get away. This often triggers a prey response to the tail grab. It is a high pitched scream accompanied by rapid protrusion from the anus of a white scent gland. The scent gland gives off a burnt almond or vitamin smell. The scream accompanied by this glandular secretion is meant as a second form of defensive escape to deter predators. This reaction does NOT mean the animal is in pain or being harmed. It is a typical prey reaction and if you release the animal, they learn that this behavior sets them free and will only give a more pronounced reaction with future captures. This video shows an aggressive chinchilla to demonstrate this fear reaction. It is important to note that she is not being harmed in any way. This chinchilla is actually out of two very docile and sweet chinchillas and she does not bite, but she is vocal and visually aggressive and defensive. She got a treat for her participation and told me off the whole time she was munching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6humYpIQWeI Lastly, these are some photos of chinchilla tail holding to demonstrate further that it does not cause harm. BE AWARE!! These photos without context can be shocking. No animals were harmed in these photos. Please also note that suspending a chinchilla by solely the tail should only be done in short stints and is not a suitable form of tail holding and carrying. Moving with a chinchilla from one place to another requires the body to be supported with a firm grasp of the tail. Tail hold with body supported by arm:
Tail hold to demonstrate no pain! Please note that this is a photo of just one MOMENT. The animals are not carried around extensively like this or swung around. Care is always taken during handling these delicate animals. If these animals were being hurt, they could very readily and easily bite the handlers.