Should I get my chinchilla a wheel so they can be happy?
A common question asked by chinchilla owners is "which wheel is best and what wheel should you get for chinchillas?" There has been a lot of money put into marketing for exercise wheels for small animals, but this is not always the most appropriate form of stimulation and exercise for an animal. There are several things to consider with chinchillas for their physiology and their anatomy that determine if a wheel is a suitable option for them. 1. Locomotion Chinchillas locomotion (how they move) is done by saltation. Saltation is derived from the Latin word “saltus” which means “leap.” Saltation is locomotion that is discontinuous and generates a hopping motion. Animals that move by saltation have physiological adaptations for these movements. Most notably, the hind limbs are approximately twice as long as the front limbs. This makes them suitable for leaps and bounces, but not continuous forward momentum as required for running. Many four legged mammals like dogs, cats, rats, and many species of mice move in a tetrapodal or quadrupedal locomotion. This motion is going to generate the ability to run or walk on flat surfaces in a continuous fashion. The limbs are usually balanced in length and move synchronously allowing for an even gate and is very suitable for running and walking in continuous forward momentum.
Tetrapodal/Quadrupedal Locomotion vs. Saltatory
So, while some mammals are physiologically designed to run, chinchillas are not. What we have seen in several cases with chinchillas is they are prone to tripping or losing balance if they get their exercise wheel spinning too quickly, and while it is uncommon, there have been several reported cases of the chinchillas being flung across the cage and hitting the side so hard they suffer internal organ damage and die. In other cases, because the feet are not designed for running, the calluses on their feet can be worn off from running and/or pressure sores are created leading to wounds on the feet that can quickly become infected and develop into bumblefoot. So, if running is not ideal...how do you ensure your chinchilla is going to get adequate exercise and stimulation? First, it is important to note that your chinchilla is descended from BURROWING Chilean chinchillas (as described in the Journal of Mammology back around 1930 when an official description was finally written on them) and not from the mountainous high up rock climbers (these would be Chinchilla brevicaudata which DO NOT exist in captivity per a scientific population genetics study conducted on wild and domestic chinchillas in the early 2000s). Burrowing animals spend most of their time living within the burrow system they make which is composed of small tunnels and chambers only large enough for the chinchillas to sleep in and/or turn around in. They feel secure with more hiding spaces, tunnels, and ledges. Basically, you can make their cage more like a burrow for them as a system of tunnels and ledges and houses with chew toys and this will provide much more appropriate stimulation and exercise for the chinchilla.
Appropriate exercise model for chinchillas
2. Hormonal Controls - Fight or Flight! Part of the neurological system known as the autonomic nervous system is one that is under “automatic” control and is involuntary. Things that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system include things like pupil dilation and constriction in response to changes in light, movement of gastrointestinal muscles for digestion, release of saliva in anticipation of food, and your fight or flight response in situations that are dangerous or require more mobility. One key hormone (a chemical signal) that will be released in times of danger is called epinephrine, or more commonly referred to as adrenaline. This hormone is produced naturally in the body from the medulla (center tissue) of the adrenal gland which is an endocrine organ that sits just above the kidneys. During times of danger or when heightened awareness is needed, this system is active and either producing epinephrine or primed to release it. When chinchillas are running, this is typically when they are outside of their burrows and foraging for food or running from predators. As you can imagine, over time, evolution has assisted them in heightening awareness so that when a chinchilla runs or is running, adrenaline is pumping through their system. This can often feed into a panic response for a chinchilla even if they are just running on a wheel and cause them to attempt to run faster, this is usually when they can lose their balance or fall and get flung across the cage. If your chinchilla uses their wheel incessantly, you need to remove the wheel for their own safety as they are likely experiencing panic and feel the need to run. This is NOT an enjoyment of exercise response, but rather a hormonal fear triggering response that compounds with the running activity which will increase blood flow and delivery of epinephrine to the tissues of the body. Does this mean that every single chinchilla will experience terror and panic when using a wheel or running? No, but it is a common response when you look at the physiology of chinchillas as a species. A good thing to consider is that not every animal will respond to stress in the same way...just as some dogs require medication for loud sounds like fireworks on the 4th of July, many chinchillas are ill suited for running exercise and it should be avoided.
Fight or flight? It's hormonal!
3. Is this wheel safe? Most exercise wheels on the market today are ill suited for chinchillas and unsafe. Why is this? Because these wheels are designed for tetrapodal/quadrupedal locomotion and NOT for saltation. When running, the diameter of the wheel does not need to be excessively large and the chance of legs splaying outward to the sides is minimal, so spokes and other pieces to the sides of the running surface do not pose a massive hazard.
Since chinchillas move by saltation, their hind legs often kick outward to the side. Because of this, the wire wheels with spokes on either side are NOT suitable for chinchillas and pose a leg breaking risk. Consider if a leg goes off to the side in a fast spinning wheel and gets caught...that turning motion is going to continue with a caught leg and you will generally end up with a chinchilla with multiple spiral fractures along the leg.
Stand alone wire wheels with spokes are innapropriate!
Another popular wheel on the market due to availability and cost would be the plastic flying saucer wheels. While these wheels don’t pose the same leg fracturing risk the wire wheels do, these are still unsafe. Why are these unsafe? The plastic these wheels are made from is soft and not strong enough to withstand the forceful thumping from a chinchilla’s extremely strong hind legs. due to this, these wheels often tip over mid-run and have even been known to snap in half under the force of a chinchilla’s run. The ones that have snapped have cut chinchilla’s feet and legs and ended in costly vet bills and/or amputation of affected legs.
Plastic saucer wheels are prone to breakage and tipping
There are also what are called “silent spinners” which is a popular, readily available, mass produced brand of wheels. This wheel originally did not come in a large enough diameter. Chinchillas need 14”-16” diameter on a wheel, otherwise the running surface is too short causing their back to contort in a way that can lead to vertebral fusion and early onset of arthritis in the back as well as permanent damage to the vertebral discs. Now that this wheel comes in a large size, why is it still considered dangerous? For one, it is again made of weak and cheap plastic and has poor mounting hardware. This wheel is prone to falling over with a chinchilla inside, usually trapping them until an owner notices and can free them...resulting in a traumatized, often bruised chinchilla that is shaken up. These wheels are also easily chewed and break apart into chunks that can easily be ingested and lead to impaction and GI Stasis.
Short running surfaces lead to arthritis development
What wheels on the market are safe? There are several SAFE wheels if you do decide a wheel is a good option for you and your chinchilla. The following wheels in the order they are pictured are: 1. Chin Spin by Quality Cage Crafters 2. Silver Surfer Wheel by Chinchillas.com 3. Original Metal Flying Saucer Wheel by www.flyingsaucerwheels.com 4. Basic Spinner Wheel by Pandemonium Pets on Etsy
We here at RDZC Ranch do not recommend the regular, daily use of wheels for chinchillas. This does not mean, however, that you are not a good owner if you choose to use a wheel. Choosing a wheel is a personal decision and something you must decide on an individual basis. If you do decide a wheel is a good option for you and your chinchilla, stick with the safe options. Keep in mind that they are more costly and this is because a chinchilla is an EXOTIC animal. As such, you need to purchase specialty made items that are appropriate for your chinchilla, and not a run of the mill, cheap, pet store product that is marketed for common pocket pets. Buying a basic pet store wheel is the equivalent to giving your dog cheap “chicken” treats from China that regularly kill pets and are cause for continuous recalls.