A natural diet for chinchillas is based on the food that wild chinchillas consume because their nutritional requirements remain the same. The digestive system and continually growing teeth are optimally stimulated by a diet that mimics their natural food sources. This natural diet includes herbs, flowers, grasses, shrubs with their leaves, fruits, bark, roots, succulents with their fruits, and seeds (in very small quantities). However, it does not include processed or heavily processed plant material from pet stores. Depending on the season, these herbs, leaves, and grasses can range from being water-rich to dried, while water-storing plants (succulents) are available throughout the year. With the help of this natural diet, wild chinchillas primarily satisfy their thirst.
Chinchillas are folivores, which means they prefer leafy plants and specifically target the nutrient-rich but fiber-poor leaf tips. Therefore, when it comes to leafy vegetables like lettuce, alfalfa, dandelion, or wild herbs, the stems and midribs are often left behind, and the delicate leaves and parts are consumed first and preferred.
These small rodents and their digestive systems are adapted to eating frequently. However, this can only be realized when the food is not too rich and does not quickly and excessively satiate them. This way, their digestive system is not overloaded, and their teeth are perfectly worn down.
A chinchilla that primarily relies on concentrated feed, especially commercial feed like pellets and extrudates, faces several health issues. Initially, it may become overweight due to the high calorie content in these feeds, and it can become sluggish because of the extended and slow digestion process. However, over time, it may start losing weight because the digestive system can no longer function properly. The nutrients cannot be adequately absorbed, organs are affected, and the gut flora is disrupted. In the worst case, dental problems can arise because the teeth are not worn down properly due to inadequate chewing of the "pre-digested" feed and reduced food intake. Problematic commercial feed often leads to additional health problems such as digestive disorders due to dysbiosis, increased parasite and yeast populations, liver, urinary tract, and kidney diseases. These issues are exacerbated by the synthetic additives in commercial feed and the common practice of exclusively feeding dry food without providing fresh food.
The importance of fresh food is explained in detail here: Fresh food for chinchillas? (in German?
The disadvantages and problems of using pellets as the main food source are discussed in more detail here: A closer look at chinchilla pellets (in German)
As a result, chinchillas should be fed with food that can be consumed in larger quantities, doesn't quickly and excessively satiate them, and requires thorough chewing. Commercial feed often lacks these qualities. However, these criteria are met by roughage or dry greens, greens, and fresh food!
Since wild chinchillas (as mentioned earlier) also feed on these plants, a natural diet represents the optimal form of nutrition for them.
When providing a natural diet for our domestic chinchillas, it's essential to offer the same foods that their wild counterparts consume to keep them healthy. Here is an overview:
Certainly, here's the information for the first component of the diet:
High-quality, diverse hay (e.g., Black Forest hay) along with dried herbs, flowers, leaves, and twigs are the most crucial components of a chinchilla's diet. These plants should be provided daily in a variety of forms, ideally not just dried but also fresh, and as a diverse mix (at least 30 different plants) to ensure that the chinchillas receive essential nutrients and constituents. This variety also helps maintain adequate tooth abrasion and keeps the chinchillas engaged with their food.
TIP: Some particularly popular dried plants for the daily mix include horsetail, sorrel (herb and blossom), birch, nettle herb, echinacea, spruce sprouts, daisies, ginkgo, hibiscus, coltsfoot (herb and blossom), cactus blossoms, cornflower, poppy, dandelion (herb, blossom, and root), alfalfa, milk thistle, marigold, red clover, mallow (herb and blossom), meadowsweet herb, primrose, ribwort and broadleaf plantain, marigold blossoms, Jerusalem artichoke herb, willow leaves and bark, meadow hogweed, fruit tree leaves like apple, cherry, pear, and various berry leaves such as blackberry, raspberry, currant, mulberry, blueberry, and gooseberry
It makes sense to mix all the blossoms together and separately mix the herbs and leaves. Then, offer these two mixtures in two separate dishes. Stems can also be provided daily or regularly in a separate dish.
In online shops like Hansemanns.de, you can find excellent ready-made mixtures that you can use if you prefer not to mix them yourself.
As mentioned earlier, greens are a valuable part of the chinchilla diet. This category primarily includes wild herbs and grasses from meadows, as well as branches (including leaves, blossoms, buds, and bark). These plants should ideally be available to the chinchillas around the clock, just like dried ones. If fresh branches are not accessible, especially in winter, it's a good practice to regularly provide at least dried branches, which you can either purchase or prepare as a stock during the summer. Even in winter, you can still find fresh bamboo, blackberry canes, and bare branches with buds.
In addition to branches and wild grasses, you can also feed chinchillas kitchen herbs (e.g., basil, thyme, rosemary), edible houseplants (e.g., spider plants, Callisia repens/Golliwoog, or tradescantia), leafy vegetables, and greens (e.g., chicory, catalogna/dandelion salad, kohlrabi leaves, carrot tops, radicchio, arugula, endive, lettuce hearts), as well as purchased or self-grown cat/rodent grass (e.g., cyperus grass, wheatgrass, etc.). These foods can also be made freely available to the chinchillas and serve as a good substitute for meadows, especially during the winter months.
2.2.2. Juicy Foods
In addition to greens, chinchillas can be offered other vegetables and fruits. Some suitable options that are often well-received include apples, grapes, rose hips, and carrots. Some chinchillas may also enjoy cauliflower, broccoli, cucumber, tomato, pear, cherry, blackberries, hawthorn berries, and Jerusalem artichoke. Juicy foods should only be a small supplement to the primary diet mentioned earlier or used as treats.
Dried vegetables and fruits should not be fed to chinchillas.
Healthy, adult chinchillas do not require concentrated feed (energy-dense food with concentrated nutrients)! Only during periods of increased demand, such as pregnancy, nursing, illness, or old age, may concentrated feed be necessary in an individually tailored amount (e.g., 2-3 times per week, 1 teaspoon per chinchilla). The maximum amount temporarily allowed is 1 teaspoon per day per chinchilla.
Instead of relying on commercial feed like pellets in a natural diet, you can offer a diverse mixture of various seeds, which are consumed in very small quantities by wild chinchillas and can vary depending on the season in nature.
When mixing, focus on softer oilseeds (such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, cucumber seeds, melon seeds, flax, fennel, anise, and caraway) as well as well-tolerated, softer meal seeds like fine grass seeds (e.g., meadow grass, bentgrass, ryegrass) or amaranth. However, it's crucial to avoid including cereal grains in the mix.