Breeding Runs and Colony CagingThe two methods of housing that will be presented here are for breeders who are housing an entire herd of chinchillas, or very experienced hobby breeders. The pros and cons of breeding runs and colonies will be discussed.
The use of breeding runs was developed several decades ago by ranchers, and has been modified and refined into the most commonly used breeding run set-ups today. It is still being used by ranchers, and also by large hobbyist and pet herds. It consists of usually 4-8 breeding cages, approximately 12"x18"x24", adjacent in a line, with a square wire "run" or tunnel at the top and back of each cage. The male is allowed access to the run through a small hole in the top/center of each of the female's cages. The females are fitted with a collar that is too large to fit through the hole, to prevent them from getting up into the run.
The advantage of a breeding run is to allow the use of an extremely high quality male on more than just one female, and also to cut down on the costs of having a male for each female. The male is usually given his own cage until he learns how to jump up into and out of the run, and then allowed access to the female's cages one at a time. Later he will have to go down into one of the female's cages for food and water. The male is usually allowed to do a breedback with the female after she has littered, and then the run hole is closed until the kits are weaned.
The disadvantages of breeding run use are the following. If the run is not closed shortly after a female litters, the kits can sometimes manage their way into the run and into another female's cage. This can be catastrophic if not caught quickly. Females often do not get enough exercise, and the subsequent obesity leads to sterility or low production. Males can learn to display aggressive behavior towards the females and get away with it since they can escape back into the run. Some males will not breed females in certain cages, or will selectively breed only certain females. From a herd management basis, the herd manager needs to make sure the male always has at least one cage to go into, so he is not "blocked out" of a cage for food and water. Females have a higher incidence of fur-chewing from boredom in a run than in a colony or pair cage. The male can spread infections from one female to the others.
Colony use is only for the very experienced breeder. I have found it desirable only in very specific cases. When establishing a colony, the breeder introduces several females and one male into a large enclosure, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. The animals must all be completely unfamiliar with each other, and the environment must be new to all of them. If one of these rules is broken, fighting will most likely be the case. The breeder has to be very observant, and know the individual temperaments well. Aggressive chinchillas must be removed quickly. The females need to be checked routinely for pregnancy, and removed when they are showing signs of pregnancy. Once all the females are pregnant, the entire colony must be dismantled and then a new one can be started. Problems that commonly occur in colonies is having a female litter in the colony. This often leads to the kits being killed by another female, another female wanting to take the kits as her own, or the mother aggressively going after other female to defend her kits, whether the kits are being threatened or not. If a new colony member is added after the colony is established, there is usually a problem within the first 48 hours, if not immediately. Social and territorial bonding is established quickly, and disrupting this establishment usually does not work. Colonies work well when a breeder has several good tempered females who have either never littered, or have stopped littering. Often the exposure to a colony environment stimulates them to start littering (again).
Some breeders have been successful in establishing colonies in which females are cooperative with one another, and some will even nurse the other's kits and help care for them, but personal experience has made me leary of advising this method to anyone without a vast amount of experience with their own animals.
One other instance in which colonies are helpful is when several kits are weaned at the same time. It helps the weanlings manage the stress of weaning to be in a social group with kits their own age. Males should be removed no later than 4 months of age, and females can sometimes stay together for longer periods of time. If the breeder plans to show, though, the chinchillas should be in their own cages at least 4 months before the show. Weanling colonies are positive for social development, but hard on coats, as there are frequent incidents of pulled fur. I found a positive influence on female's behavior by weaning into colonies or 4-6. The breeder need to make sure there is plenty of room when housing this many animals together. A 3'x4'x2' cage is sufficient for 6 weanlings, or 4 young females over 6 months. This size cage is also good for a breeding colony of 3-4 females and a male.
Whether using pairs, runs, or colonies, the success of maintaining a healthy and productive herd depends most on how alert and responsive the breeder is to early signs of problems.
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