By Marty Hull, DDS
Below is a paper I wrote in fall of 2013 about Pro-C™, a chinchilla supplement we developed to help keep our chinchillas healthy. The paper is LOOOOONG! It has some history, tells some of what we have learned, why we do what we do and how to apply what we have learned so you can enjoy your chinchilla and have far fewer health issues.
The experience of owning chinchillas can be very rewarding if they are continuously healthy but can be extremely stressful and very expensive if they become ill. In many cases, if an illness has time to progress, a chinchilla will die no matter what treatment is provided.
Prevention: The secret to preventing most chinchilla illnesses is
(1.) Noticing the earliest signs that a problem is developing, and
(2.) Learning specific steps you can take to prevent a small problem from becoming a large problem. Teaching you how to do that is the purpose of this paper. You must learn to diagnose and to treat.
Learning along the way: I majored in biological sciences at Stanford University and then I trained as a dentist so I have a reasonable background in the health field. I practiced dentistry for 22 years, sold my dental practice and have been a full time inventor ever since. This change in careers has given me time to study, time to do research and time to learn a little more each year.
During my dentistry years, one of my patients was an orthopedic surgeon (Dr. Fred) who specialized in hand surgery. For a hand to function, all of the delicate structures in the hand must be able to slide freely. Any significant scar tissue formation during healing after surgery means failure because scar tissue sticks things together. More scar tissue forms if healing is slow or if the area infects. So rapid healing and resistance to infection are very important. Attempts to correct a failed surgery with more surgery will result in even more scar tissue so getting it right the first time is vital.
People with hand problems often have the same condition in both hands. Since hand surgery disables a hand, surgery is usually performed on one hand, then after that hand heals, surgery is performed on the second hand. Dr. Fred made an interesting discovery. He noticed if a patient happened to be taking Vitamin C, the hand healed more rapidly, infections were less frequent and the outcome was more successful. This seemed very important. He decided to run an experiment. He had patients take Vit C for one surgery and then not take Vit C for the next. For some patients, he reversed the sequence, the first hand was done without Vit C and the second while the patient was taking a regimen of Vit C. In both sequences, the surgery done when Vit C was on board healed the best. He did this for several years. He was impressed. I was impressed.
This was in the mid 1980’s when not that much was known about Vit C. It was not in wide usage yet. Since that time, it has been shown that Vit C is necessary for the production of some important proteins in the body like collagen. It helps strengthen the immune system and increases resistance to infection. It helps improve the integrity of mucous membranes and it may have some antimicrobial benefits. And when a little higher dose is used, Vitamin C has a harmless and natural laxative effect.
So, how does this relate to chinchillas?
We (Meadowbrook Chinchillas) have been involved with chinchillas for over 25 years. Our primary interest has been in the genetics of breeding chins and also in learning how to keep them healthy so we can spend more time enjoying them and less time worrying about them.
In 1998, a disease spread through our herd over the course of a couple weeks. We lost some high quality breeding stock. We felt very frustrated and helpless. It was expensive in lost animals and vet bills. We took of the animals to the vet. No success there. We had post mortems and lab tests done on some of the deceased chins. The conclusion was ‘heightened liver enzymes and elevated levels of giardia’. There were no other definitive findings. That did not tell us very much.
At that time, it was taboo for any breeder to mention that animals in their herd had either enteritis or malocclusion because it was felt (and still is) that any mention would damage reputation and sales. Almost no one talked about it nor wrote about it. As a result, there was very little information available about these types of problems. We did not want this to happen again. We decided to see if we could do something about it.
After some serious hunting, we came across a few very helpful resources. Three of the best were:
1. “Chinchilla Diseases and Ailments” by A.H Kennedy A fantastic book from 1952 (long time ago) but great in-depth research.
One point Dr. Kennedy made was even though giardia might be found in high concentration in a chinchilla post mortem, it was generally not possible to attribute the death of the chinchilla to the presence of giardia. This was a nice start because it contradicted the autopsy results.
2. Alice Kline’s “After Forty Years, Alice Kline Talks about Chinchillas” This is a wonderful source of information on chinchillas. Some of the information is dated because it was written a long time ago but her research and record keeping was outstanding and much of what she wrote is still 100% valid. Alice included a section on lactobacillus acidophilus, a probiotic bacteria that is normally present in chinchillas and in all herbivores. She mentions the possible use of lactobacillus as a preventive but focuses more on using it to help restore the intestinal flora after it has been severely damaged by antibiotic therapy used to treat infections. After reading this section, I started investigating lactobacillus acidophilus.
Digestion in the herbivore: Many of the bacteria that live in the chinchilla’s intestinal tract help break down food that the chinchilla could not otherwise digest. These bacteria use some of the energy from this food to grow and reproduce but most is left over for the chinchilla to use. This is a great benefit to the chinchilla so maintaining a healthy intestinal flora is very important. Lactobacillus is one of these beneficial bacteria. Lactobacillus has a very interesting trait. It produces a powerful antibiotic that inhibits many other bacteria. This antibiotic does not damage the beneficial bacteria that live in the chinchilla’s GI tract so lactobacillus does not impair digestion. It does inhibit most pathogenic (disease causing) microorganisms that normally live in all chinchillas. That is a big deal!!!
3. “Joy of Chinchillas” by Lani Ritchey BSc.AS et al. This book contains an important piece of the puzzle. The group associated with Lani Ritchey was using large doses of vitamin C to improve gum and jaw bone health in chinchillas. They were using between 2 and 4 grams of Vit C per day for up to a month and were seeing significant tightening of the teeth. This is a HUGE dose. It is equivalent to a 160 lb human taking between 200 and 400 x 1 gram (1000 mg) tablets of Vit C per day.
My conclusion: chinchillas can tolerate a very large dose of Vit. C. Like lactobacillus, Vit C has little or no toxicity in chinchillas.
After learning the above, it made sense to me that some combination of lactobacillus and Vitamin C might provide a health benefit. So I bought some. We first used it in a paste form when we noticed a chinchilla was showing signs of illness. We would shovel in as much as we could. Usually, it reversed the problem within 2 to 5 days. Almost no chinchillas died. This was encouraging. After a while, we started giving it to all of our chins a couple times per week to see if we could prevent a problem before it started. Mixing and feeding a paste using a popsicle stick to an entire herd took a lot of time so I started looking for a different delivery method. Since the vitamin C and the lactobacillus were both powders, making a tablet seemed like a possibility. I made a simple tablet press. Being an inventor and machinist has some benefits!! Most of the chins rejected the first tablets. They tossed them out of their cages. I tried flavorings and sweeteners but none worked. Since chinchillas have a great sense of smell, I tried attractants. I found one that worked. I included that attractant in the tablet mix. We started feeding the tablets to the chins. Most readily took a tablet, held it in their front paws and munched on it like an apple. That was easy. Over time, we noticed we were having far fewer illnesses and very good health in newborns and their mom’s. Since using the supplement was so easy, as soon as we noticed a change in health in a chinchilla, we just gave the chin a couple tablets and it usually resolved the problem.
This description is brief. The process took several years. Like Alice Kline, we kept records of our experiments, records of doses, records of what I mixed in each batch, records of how often we gave it to each animal. We became more observant and developed a consistent approach for using the supplement. We found what it will do and what it would not. I named it Pro-C because it contains a Probiotic (lactobacillus) and Vit C.
What we learned: If the passage of food through the chinchilla slows or stops or if the lactobacillus colony in the chin is damaged, pathogens, which are always present, can increase in numbers very rapidly. The result is disease. Death can occur within a couple days.
What to do:
1. Keep food moving through the chinchilla! The passage of food through the chinchilla dilutes any disease causing microorganisms so they are not able to increase to numbers great enough to cause disease.
2. Keep the lactobacillus colony healthy by supplementing it a couple times per week with new, live bacteria. The antibiotic produced by lactobacillus helps suppress pathogens even if there is a slow-down in digestion.
How do we do that: We give each chinchilla either 2 or 3 Pro-C tablets per week. Some chinchillas may develop soft droppings on 3 per week due to the natural laxative effect of Vit C so we give those chins only 2 tabs per week. We watch each chinchilla each day, check to see that all the food has been eaten from the day before, that a normal amount of water has been drunk and that droppings are normal in size, shape, color and moisture. Any change in food and water intake or change in droppings indicates a problem may be starting.
The chin’s droppings can go in 2 directions: (1.) They can become smaller, less moist, less frequent and light brown to tan in color. This indicates that digestion is slowing. It can be the result of a blockage due to ingestion of foreign material like hair from self-grooming, wood or plastic particles or it can happen if a chin is injured and has stopped eating as a result of pain from the injury. Or (2.) the droppings can become soft, runny, wet and may or may not be covered with mucous. This indicates there is a disease process starting. If we see any of these signs, we give that chinchilla 1 to 2 Pro-C tablets immediately and then check that chinchilla 4 to 6 hours later. We will usually give any cage mates an extra tablet. If droppings have not returned to normal in 4 to 6 hours, then we give that chin 1 or 2 more tablets and keep giving more tablets every 6 to 8 hours until we see improvement. Remember, there is no toxicity with either Vit C or Lactobacillus so you will not overdose your chinchilla. Once the problem passes, we return to the normal 2 to 3 tablets per week.
Intestinal blockages: During my early tests, I noticed that higher doses of Vitamin C can have a the same laxative effect in chinchillas as it does in humans. This characteristic can be very helpful. One of our chinchillas, Matisse, has a gorgeous, thick coat. He grooms himself constantly and develops hair ball blockages a couple times per year. When he starts to develop a blockage, the droppings become smaller, lighter in color and less moist; he tends to stay in the corner with his head and ears down. As soon as we see this, we give him several Pro-C tablets and within about 3 to 5 hours, he passes a large mass (hair ball) (see picture below) and then returns to normal. We have found the supplement is a harmless and effective way to clear most blockages before the chinchilla even shows any significant signs of physical illness. That has avoided many potentially major problems in our herd. The ruler in the picture is an 'inch' ruler.
If a chinchilla starts to show signs of a developing diarrhea, we give the chin a couple Pro-C tablets and continue as described above. It is not really necessary to know the precise cause as long as you recognize when a problem is developing and act quickly. If the diarrhea persists for a couple days, then it is possible the Vitamin C in the tablet may be contributing to the diarrhea or the lactobacillus is not concentrated enough to provide the desired benefit. In these cases, we switch to a concentrated powder form of lactobacillus to rebuild the colony more quickly. We mix ½ teaspoon of lactobacillus powder with ½ teaspoon table sugar and about 1/3 teaspoon of vitamin C powder (calcium ascorbate) , add some water so it is a paste and feed it to the chinchilla by hand using an eye dropper or a popsicle stick. We try to get this amount into the chin each day in 3 or 4 feedings. In some cases in the past, we had to continue treatment for 4 to 6 days, but the long term preventive program of giving each chin 2 to 3 Pro-C tablets per week has been very successful. Our chins almost never get sick. Over the past 10 years, we have successfully used this approach on many occasions to help sick chins brought to us by other owners and breeders. The tablets are currently available. I do plan to make both powdered Vit C and lactobacillus available in the future for those who want it.
Mucous membranes and skin are the two primary barriers to disease for all mammals which includes humans and chinchillas. Microorganisms can penetrate skin if it is cut, abraded or punctured. They can invade mucous membranes if the membranes are weak or if the disease causing organisms are powerful and in high concentration. Remember at the start of this paper, I mentioned Vitamin C helps with mucous membrane integrity. That is one of the greatest benefits of Pro-C. It makes mucous membranes more resistant to attack. Lactobacillus inhabits most mucous membrane surfaces. This includes the mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, sinuses, eyes, lungs, the intestinal tract, the urinary tract and the entire birth canal. Lactobacillus is one of hundreds of microorganisms that live on mucous membranes. The presence of a strong, healthy colony of lactobacillus helps reduce the numbers of pathogens that can get a foot-hold on mucous membranes.
Unexpected benefit: Fewer newborns die: A chinchilla kit develops in a sterile environment in the uterus. As soon as the kit moves out of the uterus, it is exposed to the microorganisms living in the birth canal. The kit swallows these microorganisms and within a short time, these first microorganisms take up residence on all of the kits mucous membranes. If pathogens are in high numbers in the mother’s birth canal, then more pathogens will become imbedded in the kit, the kit’s immature immune system provides little defense and a higher percentage of kits will die. If the birth canal contains a strong, healthy colony of lactobacillus, which is accomplished by starting pregnant females on a little higher dose of Pro-C a couple weeks before an expected birth, then lactobacillus is one of the first bacteria to imbed in the kit’s system. The lactobacillus inhibits pathogens. Fewer kits die.
Over the years, we learned that the expected death rate of newborn kits was 1 in 4. This was our experience in the early years. After we started supplementing with Pro-C, our newborn death rate dropped to more like 1 in 12. This decrease in death rate was not only a result of Pro-C. It was also due to our breeding practices. We generally don’t breed females until they are 1 ½ to 2 years old. We allow females to have no more than 2 litters per year and we don’t back-breed. If you are able to achieve an extremely low newborn death rate, it is not necessary to breed as often. More of your births will thrive as kits and on into adulthood.
So, what else do we do with Pro-C? If one of our chinchillas gets injured, cuts a foot on something in a cage, gets a puncture wound in an altercation with another chinchilla or has chronic eye infections from old age or onset of malocclusion, we increase dose of Pro-C and also rinse/soak the injured area with saline solution (salt water). I mix up table salt with tap water in slightly higher concentration than the salt level contained in blood.
For one cup of water, add 1 /2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon of salt. Stir it so the salt dissolves.
For 1 liter of water, add 2 ½ teaspoons of salt and stir.
Pour a little of the solution into a bowl or cup, heat in microwave till it is a little warmer than hot-tub temperature, and then soak or sponge the injured area with a cotton ball for 2 to 3 minutes. Do this a couple times per day until the injury heals. Immediately increase dose of Pro-C to 2 or 3 tablets per day, depending on severity of injury. If your chin won’t eat that many tablets, then feed using a powdered, more concentrated mix. Most injuries will heal quickly and without complication or infection. For chronic eye infections, if you wish to keep the chin comfortable and are not ready to euthanize the chin, clean the eye once or twice per week. Using the saline solution, wet the cotton ball and gently wipe it over the eye so the eye and fur around the eye are wet. Let it sit for a couple minutes. This will soften any build-up of eye matter. Once it softens, removed all eye matter by wiping with the wet cotton ball. It helps to gently massage around the eye. This expresses any fluid that has built up in the tear ducts and keeps the eye cleaner longer.
The salt solution kills many microorganisms, cleanses the wound site and is otherwise harmless. The Pro-C does not damage digestive function the way a broad spectrum antibiotic, like Baytril, does. For the past 10 years, we have not needed to use any commercial antibiotics and have enjoyed outstanding health in our herd.
The ingredients for Pro-C are expensive as is the equipment to manufacture the tablets. Each tablet contains approximately 115 mg of Vit C and an equal volume of lactobacillus. A Pro-C program may not be financially sensible for larger herds but may be well within the budget for smaller herds or for pregnant females only in larger herds. The cost per tablet is ten cents.
Pro-C is not a cure-all. It will not fix malocclusion. If your chin has delivery complications, a broken bone or other severe injury, that is the time for a trip to the vet. The sooner you get there, the better chance your chinchilla will have. But for many problems, the approach we use has worked wonderfully well.
Web sites: Meadowbrook Chinchillas www.chin-chillas.com and www.flyingsaucerwheels.com
If you wish to order Pro-C tablets, write to
Copyright: Marty Hull, DDS 2013 All rights reserved.