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BREEDING CHINCHILLAS

 

Sexual Maturity Age

Chinchillas can reach sexual maturity as young as 4 – 5 months of age. However, females should not be exposed to a breeding situation until they are at least one year plus and you are confident that they have reached full size. There are major risks associated with pregnancy and birth in immature animals (it can easily lead to the death of the female and/or the litter).    

The Mating Process

A healthy female will come into season every month, although she will not necessarily mate when this happens. It is quite normal for it to take a number of months before she will accept the male and in rare cases you will find a female that refuses to breed with a particular male (you may need to try 2 or 3 males before you find one they like!). When she does come into season the male will try to mount her and is normally ready before she is. If, as a result of this, serious aggression develops between them (usually the female being the more aggressive as she tries to stop the male), in a non polygamous breeding system the male may need to be removed for 24 - 48 hours hours or a hideaway provided. It may take 3 - 4 days for the mating to take place or it does not happen. The genitals of the female sometimes become reddened when she is in season.

Breeding activity can seem frantic at times, although many breed with the minimum of fuss and owners are not aware of it until well into the pregnancy or by the birth of a litter (surprise litters are not uncommon even amongst experienced breeders especially when there is only one kit!).They may mate a number of times, normally during the night. Always make a note of the date of any possible breeding activity so, if she does become pregnant, you have an idea of the expected delivery date which will allow you to prepare for the birth.

Signs include:-

  • The male trying to or succeeding in mounting the female
  • The male following the female around the cage making exciting squeaking type noises and wagging his tail
  • Lots of fur in the cage which could indicate breeding activity
  • Look for a stopper either in the cage or in the litter - this is a sure sign they have mated.       

The Stopper - When a mating has occurred, the female often produces a stopper. This is a narrow, white, pliable soft wax like plug, up to about an inch long that is expelled from the vagina. As it ages, it dries, becomes hardened and yellows. It is produced from a liquid emitted by the male during the mating which hardens in the female, it is believed that this is to increase the chances of the female becoming pregnant. Plugs are not always produced (especially in a breed back), can easily be missed in the litter and sometimes they eat it, so not finding a plug or part of a plug does not necessarily mean the female is not pregnant.  

Above left: Fresh stopper found in the cage early morning after a mating in the night. Above Right : Photo now includes 2nd part of stopper found some 7 hours later. At this stage they are still pliable, waxy and opaque. (Note: red is staining from newpapers and not blood)

Above : Same stopper 24 hours after it was first found . It has now hardened and become more translucent .

The Pregnancy

Chinchillas are pregnant for 111 days (normally only varying by a couple of days either side). There is no noticeable weight gain until about 2 months into the pregnancy. Weight gain is gradual after this period, with most be putting on in the last 3 – 4 weeks. Although it can vary, their weight increases by c.75g – 100g per kit full term.

Care should be taken when handling pregnant females (better avoided) since incorrect handling can cause the female to abort.

Lying on the side is not unusual in pregnant females (although this is also done by chinchillas that are not pregnant). In the later stages of pregnancy, females carrying multiple kits will appear noticeably larger and sometimes, at around 2 weeks from birth, it may be possible to see the kits moving (this is a rippling effect and should not be confused with shallow breathing). With single or small kits the pregnancy may go unnoticed. The female’s nipples will also elongate in readiness to feed her young.

Good diet is essential during pregnancy. This allows the female to sustain the pregnancy, ensure good size kits at birth and helps them to  feed the kits after they are born. A good quality pellet with a relatively high level of Vitamin E (minimum 50ius and preferably around 80ius) and quality hay should make up 99% of their diet.

Like many animals chinchillas have a v shaped double womb, A chinchillas can abort during pregnancy and although rare, they can sometimes reabsorb a kit that has died in the womb. If this happens during the later stages of pregnancy, then she may pass a mummified kit. This can be in the form of anything from a mass of fur/remains of bone to something that has some recognisable features of a kit.  The female can pass this at lots of different stages - while pregnant, not pregnant and even when or shortly after giving birth to live kits. This is a natural process and as long as there is no infection it does no harm to the female (if there are signs of infection then seek help from a vet and always remove any kit remains to prevent the female ingesting it). This should be a very rare occurrence (since 1990 I have had it happen once and that was with a female that had been ill). If this happens quite frequently you need to carefully look at diet and how the chinchillas are being handled etc..(bad diet being a major cause of breeding problems).

The Birth Process

Kits are born year round, although most are born between early spring and the end of the summer months. The cage should be prepared for the birth by removing any high shelving. It is preferably for the female to be placed in a cage that is around 15" - 16" high to avoid the risk of kits climbing and injuring themselves (or adults jumping on them from a height). The wire mesh needs to be LESS than 1” square otherwise new born kits can and will escape (it looks impossible but as with the adults the fur makes them look bigger than they are!). I place newspapers on the floor of the cage since this stops the newborns legs falling through the wire (they are a bit wobbly on their legs until they are dried and a few hours old).

To reduce the chances of chilling at birth (a major cause of death in kits), the temperature should be at least 60F or 15C and/or some source of heat (heat pad or infra red heat lamp) provided. I provide a heat pad for the birth and the first couple of weeks even when temperatures are relatively high since keeping young kits warm significantly increases their chances of surviving. I use a heat pad in the days leading up to the birth and you will also often see the pregnant females enjoying the warmth. Note: an area of the cage should be unheated so that the mother and kits can escape if they become too hot.

Suitable heat pads include i) Home made ones using a sweet tin with a low wattage light bulb in (do not use energy saving bulbs as they do not give off much heat) ii) infra red heat lights for animals (make sure the wattage of the bulb is not too high and it is placed not too close to the cage otherwise the heat can be too intensive)  and iii) also on the market now are pads that can be warmed up in the microwave (I wrap them in newspapers and place them directly under the cage so they are touching the cage wire - however, I find the heat given off from these do not last all night).

The average size of a litter is just under 2. Triplets are not uncommon, occasionally quads are born and more than 4 is very unusual. The largest litter I have had is 5 but that only happened after 20 year of breeding. At birth they were 41g, 45g 52g, 55g and 57g. Mum is an average size female normally weighing around 700g and she put on 375g during the pregnancy. All the kits required hand feeding until they were weaned.

Below - The litter at 1 day old. Four survived but unfortunately one died unexpectedly on day 2 .

Around 111 days , the female will go into Labour. Most kits are born in the early hours to mid morning although there are exceptions. Once you know what to look for, it is possible to spot the signs of a female being in early lab our (although some females show more obvious signs than others).  The female will go to the bottom of the cage and many become restless. Close to giving birth, the female will frequently go on her back legs and bend her head down checking to see if the kits are arriving and some will go on all fours and arch their back. The waters will break and the kit will eventually emerge (head first), wet but fully furred and their eyes should open very soon after birth (if not, use previously boiled water and a small piece of cotton wool, clean the area and gently try to open the eye). The female will fuss over the kit, licking and cleaning it and in return it is likely to make little squeaking noises as the mother does this. They are born fully furred with their eyes open. A healthy kit will be moving around then cage and trying to feed within an hour of birth, and within a day may be climbing the sides of the cage.

Breech births (tail first) can cause serious difficulties and if the kit does not emerge reasonably quickly then intervention is likely to be required.

With multiple births,  kits are normally born 10 – 60 minutes apart. If kits are born close together, it maybe necessary to help partially dry and help keep warm those kits born earlier to ensure they do not chill while the mother concentrates on giving birth. They can be dried with a clean piece of soft cloth or paper towels.

The weight of the kits can vary, but “normal” weights would be considered to be between 40g to 60g.  Kits much smaller than this has less chance of surviving and excessively large kits (70g plus) may cause birth difficulties. When all kits are born, the female will pass a placenta for each kit and, as in the wild and with most animals, she will normally proceed to eat part or all of them. 1 -2 raisins can be fed to the mother to help it pass through their digestive system. Some breeders prefer to remove the placentas to ensure that it does not cause digestive problems.

The birth process itself is relatively bloodless, with normally only a small amount of blood around the female’s vagina – excess or prolonged bleeding being a cause of concern. Passing and extracting the placenta (looks similar to the process of giving birth but usually much quicker) and /or eating it, often causes blood stains around the mouth and down the front of the female.

Above: New Born Kits - left: a fully dried, strong black velvet a few hours old (63g at birth)............ right: two very new born charcoal kits

Once they have given birth, she will come into season within hours. Unless a breed back is desired (a breed back being when the female mates after giving birth), the male needs to be locked out or removed for 3 – 5 days. After this period males can normally be reintroduced to the female and her kits without any difficulties. However, there are exceptions, the female may not accept the male back and although rare, there are occasions when the male will attack the kits. In polygamous systems the female are normally allowed to rear their litter without the male.

Breed backs are NOT recommended. It is extremely hard on the health of the female raising one litter while being pregnant and there is a real risk that during the process of the breed back the new born kits can be trampled and serious injuries and deaths do occur. Therefore, it is vital when breeding chinchillas that a spare cage is available for the male.

 

 
Raising the Litter and Hand Feeding

Most females give birth and raise their litters with no/minimal help. However, large litters or small kits may need some additional support. Within an hour or so of birth, a healthy fully dried kit will be moving around easily (they stumble about immediately after birth) and will be following the mother looking for milk. If a kit appears to have chilled at birth (lying down, still wet and being ignored), warm it up using a heat pad/ heat lamp/ hairdryer (warm setting and not blowing in their face)or immerse its body (not its head) in warm water and rub it gently. Even kits that appear dead may suddenly revive.

Warning signs of problems is if the kit is constantly away from the mother, has a hunched appearance and struggles to move and keep up with the mother. A well fed, healthy kit is active very quickly and normally has a curled tailed.

Below: Two well fed kits - note the curly tails

Large litters can present feeding problems for the female especially during the first few days after birth (the milk supply should increase as the days go on). With more than one kit, some fighting as the kits settle which side they are going to feed on is quite normal. Usually twins settle within hours, but with triplets or more it can take longer. If the fighting becomes serious (constant fighting, injuries being caused, a kit being picked on or not being able to feed) then it maybe necessary to rotate feed or “top” up mothers milk.  In rare cases (e.g. orphaned kits) it may be necessary to totally hand feed or an alternative is to foster a kit to another female with milk.

Rotate Feeding - kits are rotated in ones or two in about a 2 hour cycle so that the ones remaining with the mother can feed. Kits not with the mother need to be kept warm (on a heat pad or with a heat lamp) in a secure place (remember they are escape artists even when very young!).

Top up Feeding – one or all the kits are offered extra milk through a pipette or syringe whenever necessary (can be as much as every two hours when very young).

Hand Rearing  - Kits are totally hand reared with milk through a pipette or syringe. Initially this would need to be every 2 hours but as they get older and stronger the frequency of the feeds can be reduced.

Fostering –  a kit is  fostered to a female that has a single kit of a similar age or whose own kits are old enough to be weaned (in which case her own kits are removed and replaced). Although care must be taken, most females will not attach other females kits, however, some females or the fostered kit will be reluctant to bond. It may be beneficial to remove the fosters mothers own kit for a short while to encourage her to take care of the new one. Some breeders put a little vic on the kit to be fostered to mask its natural smell (I have not found that necessary). When fostering, I also initially offer all the kits additional top up milk as and when I believe it is needed, since it may take a while for the foster mothers milk to respond to the demands of the extra kit or her milk may have been decreasing if her own kits are ready to be weaned. I continue with us until I believe it is no longer necessary (sometimes within 24 hours other times for weeks).

Which method is used is often down to personal preferences and the circumstances (e.g. is it likely to be a short term problem, do you have a suitable foster mother, etc..). Sometimes a combination of these methods is used. There is not necessarily a right or wrong way and often you have to adapt as you go along. What works at one stage may not be appropriate later on - try to respond to the needs of the kits.


Hand Feeding Formula

There are a number of options available, probably the most commonly used and used by myself is EVAPORATED (not condensed) milk combined with previously boiled water. Breeders use different ratios but again as a guideline 1 part water to 2 parts milk when the kits are very young, then increase this to 1.5 water to 1 part milk after the first week. Some add a very small pinch of glucose to the mix and/or vitamin drops (a multivitamin such as Abidec for children is suitable).  The mix should be offered at blood temperature (kits do not like it cold) and should be prepared as if you were feeding a human baby (i.e.kept scrupulously clean and sterilised). Give the kit as much as it will take in each feed (but do not force it). Kits do become tired feeding from a pipette, so feed until they turn their head away , let them rest for a minute or so and then feed again (if there is more than one feed each kit in turn). Continue doing this until the kits definitely wants no more milk. Keep the milk at the correct temperature while doing this.

Some kits take easier to being hand feeding than others, but perseverance is often the key. Care should be taken that milk is not forced into the kit since it can go into their lungs. I find that at about a week old the kits may prefer to be fed via the pipette in their cage without being held. They appear more relaxed this way and it decreases the chances of milk getting into the lungs. At around 4 - 5 weeks, many will take the warm milk out of a shallow bowl (don't fill up a deep bowl because of the risk of drowning). there is normally a lot of spluttering at first but they then get the hang of it. As they get older (1 week plus), you can also add a small amount of first stage baby cereal to the milk (I use the porridge one for 4months plus). Remember, don't make the mixture thick (there should be no real noticeable difference in its consistency) otherwise the kits are of risk of dehydrating. This addition seems to enhance the taste as far as the kits are concerned. Sometimes the mothers will also take the milk from the bowl and even from a pipette.

After feeding, if the mother is not there to clean the kit, then gently wipe between their legs with a small piece of warm damp cotton wool to mimic the actions of the mother. This encourages the kit to defecate which is part of the natural feeding process.

Above: left: 3 week old Kit taking milk from pipette ............ right: His mother wants her share too!

Eating solid food – some kits will be seen to be nibbling at hay at a week old, nearly all kits will be eating solid food at around 3 weeks and will be eating a reasonable amount by the time they are a month old (only allow them access to pellets and hay). 

Growth of the kit – it is not unusual for kits to loose a few grammes one or two days after birth. After this, the kit should start gaining weight. Weight gain can vary significantly - some kits gaining only 1- 2g after the first few days in the first week of life, other gaining more. The rate of gain should increase as the weeks go by. By week 4, it should be about 30 or 40g a week .

Weaning – this is generally undertaken when the kits are a minimum of 7 - 8 weeks old and when they have reached at least 250g in weight. Kits are normally separated from the mother and then carefully monitored to ensure they continue to grow and thrive. 24 - 36 hours after the initial separation the kits can briefly be returned to the mum to ensure any remaining milk is suckled. If possible, kits are best weaned together initially. Personally I put similar age kits from different litters together - this normally causes no problems, although you need to be observant. This means they are then suitable to be re homed as same sex pairs. I have also returned kits to the mother after 3 - 4 days of the initial separation when I am sure she is no longer producing milk. However, if they are being re homed I always ensure they have lived without the mother for sometime before I will let them go. Remember, to avoid any unwanted pregnancies ensure males are separated from females by 10 -12 weeks at the latest.

Re-homing – kits, as long as they thrived and have continued to grow normally, can be re-homed from 3 months onward. They should be supplied with a quantity of their normal pellets (also true with adults) so that the diet can be changed over gradually to any new pellets over a week to 10 day period (gradually increasing the quantities of the new pellet to be fed).The new owners must be made aware of the correct dietary requirements otherwise, as well as possible digestive upsets, lack of the correct nutrients can lead to lower growth rates, undersize chinchillas and serious health issues.

 

When should you stop breeding from a female?

There is no easy answer to this question, it depends on the individual chinchilla. Amongst the reasons to stop are:-

  • If a female mutilates 2 litters she should not be bred with again - they are unlikely to stop (with a first litter it could be down to inexperience).
  • She consistently seems unable to look after her litters and lacks milk despite having the correct diet and being otherwise healthy
  • Difficulties/complications with previous births (Caesarian etc.)
  • She does not recover well after raising a litter (this can happen when a female is relatively young at 4 -5 years old although others may be fit to breed for a number of years after that. A strong female will not lose excessive amounts of weight when raising her kits. Some weight loss is quite normal (even up to around 50g in a large animal) but she should be back to her correct healthy weight within 1 - 3 months of her kits being weaned.
  • She has had a serious, long term illness that may prevent her from successfully carrying and/or feeding the kits.
  • Obviously if you are unable to re home any kits you do not want to keep to suitable long term homes, then it is irresponsible to continue breeding.