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Chinchilla Nutrition 101: Why do Chinchillas need a feed specifically for them?

I was asked to write about chinchilla nutrition and I thought…this will be fun!  I have been involved with feeding chins my whole professional career (over 20 years) and I have owned chins (just a couple at a time).  But as I start to write this, I am asking myself, where do I start? 

So let’s start by talking about why we don’t feed a pig feed or dog food to a chinchilla.    There are several types of digestive systems depending upon the animals.   Pigs, dogs, cats and yes, even us, have a similar but simple digestive tract.  Food digestion starts in the mouth where it is broken down into small pieces and mixed with digestive enzymes (for starches) in the mouth.   The food continues down the neck in a tube called the esophagus into a simple stomach.  The stomach collects food and mixes it with acids and different enzymes to help break down proteins into amino acids.  Once the food is throughly mixed, it leaves the stomach and is injected into the small intestine.   Here, the small intestine, the pancreas and the liver are all secreting more buffers and enzymes to finish breaking down the food in the beginning of the small intestine.   

So up to this point, the digestive tract has been tearing the food apart to an almost molecular level.   But in the rest of the small intestines, about 1/3 of the total GI tract volume, absorption of the nutrients (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, mineral, etc) is taking place.   What is not absorbed will continue to the end of the small intestine where it will meet the large intestine and a small blind bag called a cecum.  Humans have a cecum that we call our appendix and just like in us, it has very little function in all of these animals.  Any foodstuff that was not digested like fiber, etc. continues into the large intestine where most of the water is removed, a little bacterial fermentation is occurring and the indigestible fecal material is stored until it is expelled.

Ok so how does that compare to a chinchilla?    A chin has a similar GI tract as a pig or human except for two major differences, (which actually make it similar to a horse or rabbit).  First, the digestive tract of a chinchilla is one of the longest compared to its length of the body of any animal.  This allows the GI tract the chance to suck every little bit of nutrition out of the foodstuffs.   The second difference, and by far the most unique, is the cecum.  The cecum in a chin is very large and is full of bacteria and protozoa.   These micro-organisms (MO) have one job and that is to digest fiber.  MO will break down the cellulose in fiber and make an energy source the animal can use and also make several amino acids and b-complex vitamins that the animal can also use.    This is why the fiber part of the diet is very important in a chinchilla for not only does it help push the food through the GI tract but it also is the main source of energy for the chinchilla.  Since fiber is the main source of energy, it is very important that your fiber source is not so young that it is digested by the stomach but not too old for it will not be digested and not supply any energy.

Again, the digestive tract of a chinchilla is very long and can absorb almost all nutrition out of the feed.  This makes them a little different from rabbits and horses in that they will actually eat their own manure to get some of the nutrients back that passed out of the body.  This is a practice called cophagogy and it is quite normal.

So after reading this, hopefully, you understand more about the Chinchilla digestive tract and why we have a feed designed especially for chinchillas, such as Hubbard® Life Chinchilla Pellets and do not suggest feeding pig or cattle feeds. 

Our next blog about Chinchillas will look into the specific ingredient and nutrients that are needed to make a high quality pelt and to make lots of high quality babies. 

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Posted on 10/31/2013 by Dr. Ed Bonnette  |  Category: Specialty, Chinchilla
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