An Introduction to The American Chinchilla
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by Sherri Talbot The American Chinchilla is one of three Chinchilla rabbit breeds, named for the small, South American rodent with similar salt-and-pepper gray coloring. These include the Standard Chinchilla, the American Chinchilla, and the Giant Chinchilla. The Standard Chinchilla rabbit was the first of the three, bred in France and introduced to the United States. Once here, the demand for bigger rabbits to be better used as meat and pelt animals resulted in the American Chinchilla. Giant Chinchillas are a cross between the American Chinchilla and the Flemish Giant and tend to have a bone structure more like their Flemish heritage than its Chinchilla side.
American Chinchillas — or AmChins as they are sometimes called by breeders — are large, quick-growing rabbits, with the standard male weight running from 9 to 11 pounds and the female weight running from 10 to 12 pounds. The American Chinchilla is known for its high meat-to-bone ratio, providing more meat for its size than many meat rabbit breeds. This made it a popular choice for breeders until the decline of the fur trade in the 1940s. After that, numbers began to decline, and it is now considered “critically endangered” by The Livestock Conservancy.
Despite their size, they are generally mild-mannered. The does make excellent mothers, and the males will sometimes even co-parent alongside them. Litters can be large, with the first-time mother having 7 or 8 young and subsequent litters being even larger. Does have 8 to 10 nipples and are usually able to feed their brood, though in cases with exceptionally big litters, the smallest should be watched to make sure they are getting enough milk.
The babies are often initially black, and it can be a week before they begin to show the four-ring coloring that American Chinchillas are known for. While not exclusive to chinchilla rabbits, the layered, gray fur they are known for is the only accepted coloring for these breeds and was specifically selected to make them look more like their namesake rodents. At first viewing, American Chinchillas appear to have a textured gray coat but when one blows gently in the fur, there will be four distinct bands of color forming a “bullseye” pattern.
Some initial flaws in the AmChin coat can show up early. In rare cases, a litter might produce a pink baby. This can be a sign of a mixed breed rabbit or a sign of a recessive gene — called the “C” gene — which produces albino coloring in the litter. There is debate over the severity of this flaw. Those raising rabbits for meat are unlikely to have concerns since the meat-to-bone ratio and the health of the rabbits remain unchanged. However, those looking for distinctive pelts, or with plans to exhibit their rabbits at sanctioned rabbit shows are likely to be disappointed if they discover their breeding stock carries the gene.
Another pelt issue that can occur in chinchilla coloring is known as “wide band” coloring. This results in a pale gray rabbit, rather than the darker, textured look one would expect. In general, they are considered to be less desirable than the standard coloring. Again, these rabbits are not necessarily unhealthy, but it is seen as a flawed trait for the breed.
American Chinchillas are a good choice for beginning breeders. AmChins are social and the males especially often make excellent pets. Their coats are short and don’t usually require special grooming. Body makeup means they do well in large cages, hutches, and colony environments. Due to their size, cages need to be bigger than the norm — the American Chinchilla Breeders Association suggests a 30″ X 36″ cage, at least 30” high. Does should be able to lay down comfortably even when they have litters, and should have a spot to get away from the litter when they become more active and begin to leave the nest box.
American Chinchillas are also a great choice for those interested in colony-raising rabbits. They tolerate cold temperatures well, provided they have adequate cover. If given the choice, they will often remain outdoors during snow and rain, taking cover from winter weather only when ice begins to build up in their fur and feet. They are more likely to need shelter from heat and humidity, struggling to stay cool in the summer by finding shade and stretching themselves out in shallow ditches in the ground. Does raised together will often assist each other with raising young and — while there may be some mild scuffles over dominance — most does placed together at a young age remain together without issues.
Whether it be for pets, rabbit shows, meat animals, or for commercial use, American Chinchillas are an excellent breed for any rabbit lover to consider. While their large size can be a deterrent for some, their calm, social personalities more than make up for it. Their endangered status can make them difficult to find in certain parts of the country, but it is worth the search. The American Chinchilla was once the most popular rabbit in the country and, with all of its benefits and charms, could be again.
SHERRI TALBOT is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered livestock breeds and educates on heritage breeds, sustainable living and the importance of eating locally.
Originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.