Keeping pet chipmunks in the UK

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Is a chipmunk the right pet for you?

If you ever come across a chipmunk in the UK I guess it will already be the pet of someone you know, or perhaps for sale in a pet shop. It would be great if you actually know someone who has a chipmunk, as I'm sure they would be keen to tell you all about their experiences.

For me I researched quite a few pets, before I discovered you could own a chipmunk in the UK. I read as much as I could find on the Internet, and went to see some at a large pet store before deciding they were right for me.

I have to say, there is a lot of conflicting views out there, about how they behave. I found some basic things hard to find out, for example: until I got my first chipmunk, I had no idea what time they went to bed. I know they are not nocturnal, but I really thought they would be up and around in the evening. I think this idea came from a story I was told by a pet shop owner in Minehead. He told me he had a customer who had one pet chipmunk, which liked to sit on his shoulder whilst he watched TV. Most of my chipmunks are in bed by about 5pm, but they seem to stay awake in their nests until about 9pm. Yes, most of them will sit on my shoulder, and can even fall asleep for a short time.

Don't go for looks

Chipmunks look really cute and fluffy, they might even come up to the wire on their cage to greet you in a pet shop. But they have not been domesticated for very long, so they should be thought of as semi wild. Not that they are vicious towards their owners, but they can be independent, often resenting being picked up, and not the sort of pet you can cuddle any time you feel like it. They can be tamed, not to do tricks, but to respond to their names, learn the names of different foods, and get used to running over and sitting on you. In fact most of my chipmunks seem to be quite intelligent, and capable of solving problems. Problems which are normally related to satisfying their strong curiosity, and to gain access to more food. Some can be tamed more than others and it's easier to tame a young chipmunk, possibly one that has been handled regularly by a breeder prior to them being fully weaned.

They normally have very distinct personalities, and they can even seem to get in a bad mood, infrequently though. Because of these variations it makes it hard to know if you are going to have the same experience of owning one, as someone else you know with one. Theirs might be really tame and thrive on human attention, but yours could be more distant and nervous. Where you get your first chipmunk can make a difference to how easy it can be to tame. Buying from a breeder or from someone you know will give you the history, and even some idea of its personality. There is less chance of this if you get yours from a pet shop, and it becomes very much a case of pot luck, even down to the sex.

So you may see one in a pet shop, and they all look appealing, but if you get one be prepared for a long term relationship. Chipmunks are not the sort of pet you can leave in a cage to forget about. If you put in the time, you will be rewarded with a very loving pet. My chipmunk Tyke had the freedom to go to all the safe parts of my home, and would start his day on a shelf in the bathroom just watching me, until it was time to jump on my shoulder and be taken to another room. Sue, the dominant female, and the chipmunk I've had the longest, comes to greet me when I come home. I mustn't fool myself, although this mimics the faithful dog coming to meet her master, I suspect she only wants to be first to check through any shopping I've brought back.

Young children

Chipmunks are probably unsuitable as a pet for a small child. I don't know, perhaps you have a young child that is particularly mature, and will be just as interested in the chipmunk in seven or more years time. I am a mature adult, and it was only at this time in my life that I felt I could offer a secure long term home to any pet. Young children can change as they grow, and have different interests over time.

Perhaps you have a young daughter who is your little princess, she has seen a chipmunk and must have one. Unless she is the sort of child that would not look out of place on that old panel game 'ask the family', try to steer her thoughts on getting a video game game consol instead. At least she can change games when she gets bored.

I spoke to a retired primary school teacher today, who related the horrors and grisly demise of successive school hamsters. All at the hands of those little butter would not melt in their mouths, human kids. In the end he fought back, and refused to let the school force another pet hamster on his class, and the bloodbath was over.

Party times and precious things

If your the sort of person that likes to have parties, play music with loads of people around, unless you live in a place so large it has it's own wing to separate the chipmunks from the party, perhaps these early to bed pets might not be for you. If you have spent your life amassing a collection of the finest thimbles and numerous other delicate and priceless ornaments, reconsider keeping chipmunks. Chipmunks are not intentionally destructive, they are fast and when let out of the aviary they will get to every part of the room possible. They have just got to check out everything, in fact keep a chipmunk and you may never have to dust that high picture rail again, but all your hanging pictures will be at wonky angles.

If you have a garden the answer could be to build a large aviary, perhaps one that is outside, with access for them to take shelter in a smaller indoor space.

Other pets

I have read that chipmunks are not bothered by some other pets. People who keep Chinchillas seem to get on OK, and birds. I can't see that fish would cause any problems either.

Cats on the other hand seem to be the worst kind of pet to expect to share a home with a chipmunk. There are plenty of sad stories of a chipmunk meeting its end from the family cat. Cats it seems cannot resist a tasty chipmunk, and given time the pet cat often gets the chipmunk in the end.

Space

One thing you must have if you want to keep a happy chipmunk, is a lot of space. These animals mostly run around as fast as they can, brimming with vast amounts of energy. Only slowing down at midday for a rest. Then its normally off again rushing round all afternoon, culminating in a fuel top up of food just before washing themselves and going in to their nest boxes. They seldom leave their nest boxes at night until the next morning, unless they hear a strange noise.

They have three main quests in life, first is to gather and store as much dry food as they can. I was amazed to discover enough stored food in one nest box to keep a chipmunk going for over a year. This is very squirrel like behavior, and never stops all year round. They are late night snackers, and can often be heard in their nest boxes munching away on their well stocked supply of food. But you have to listen carefully, as they are not at all noisy in the evening or through the night.

Their other activity is grooming themselves, often when they first wake up, and after digging a particularly ambitious tunnel getting themselves absolutely covered in mud. They then spend the next half hour or so meticulously grooming themselves. It looks very cute when they wash their faces, and fluff up their tails. Most of mine love to dig, especially if the soil is damp. This is very natural for them, you must make an effort to provide your chipmunk with a place to dig. Apart from being quite messy at times, as they scatter soil underneath them, and behind them, like a demented muck spreader, it can occupy them for hours, and before they disappear below ground, it's great to watch. They will also make short work of any plants you have in the house, indiscriminately biting off leaves and stems.

Most of my pets also like running in their wheels, so much so, when they first started to do it I thought they might be bored. I still don't know why some of my chipmunks spend so much much time running around in a wheel, when they have all those branches and tunnels, tubes and me to climb over. But with the freedom to chose between running around my home, or running on their wheel in an open cage, they can pick the wheel.

They also love towels, especially if just washed and slightly damp. It's a race to see who can be first to rub the underside of their chin along the towel. Often looking like a furry toboggan, as they push themselves along with their rear legs. They have scent glands under their chins, and like to mark territory.

 

 

If you take the plunge and get a chipmunk.

I would recommend that you invest in building the largest aviary. you can give them. I think they are called aviaries, because sometimes they seem a bit like birds, the way they perch or balance, and leap across the room. Respect them by letting them have somewhere quiet to sleep, away from draughts, and strong sunlight. That means no music playing, or television where they sleep. They have no idea what you might be watching on the telly and can interpret some sounds as a possible threat. Old cathode ray tubes can emit a buzz that really drives a chipmunk bonkers. We can't hear it, but they can. They like a nest box which is dark inside, and mine all seem to like theirs high up in the cage. This is contrary to how they live in the wild, underground in tunnels or in piles of rocks. But this behavior of nesting high up probably only applies if your aviary. is indoors. If you build an outside aviary. with a sealed base, filled with soil, they may very well want to dig their own nest tunnels. I've never kept chipmunks outside, as I have no garden. But they love basking in the sun, and gazing out of windows, especially if there is something happening outside. Although named Siberian Chipmunks, they like comfort, and often flop out on a warm blanket on top of a radiator in the winter. Preferably with their cheek pouches stuffed with seeds and nuts. Probably because they can have a snack without needing to move. In fact my chipmunks like to run round filling up their cheek pouches, then head straight for their exercise wheel. Happiness for a chipmunk seems to be running in their wheels with an on board supply of food, truly food on the go. It's worth building your own aviary, rather than buying a ready made one. You cannot make an aviary. too big for a chipmunk, even if you only have one. Floor to ceiling is great, and they will use the whole of the space. But, building your own aviary will take longer than you think, and cost more than you expect. Build your aviary. before you get your first chipmunk, for reasons I'll explain on another page.

You also need to allow your chipmunks what's called free range, if you keep them indoors. The term 'free range' just means you have to let them out of their aviary once a day for a run around. Let them out for as long as you can, they will occasionally return to their home to store any food they collect. After getting your chipmunk home, for the first couple of months keep it in it's aviary. You are likely to be tempted to let your chipmunk out for a run. It may bite the aviary mesh to demand to be let outl, he or she will make you feel like a prison warden But what you're trying to do is teach your chipmunk that it has a place it can call home. One big benefit of your chipmunk knowing it has a place of its own, is it makes it very easy to get your pet back in the aviary. when its bedtime. Most of the time mine go 'home' of their own accord. It can be very hard to catch a chipmunk that is not really tame or does not want to go back to its aviary quite yet. Nearly all of of them hate being picked up from above, but offer them your sleeve to jump on, and more often than not they will be happy to go for a ride on you. I find there is rarely any need to pick up a chipmunk with your hands, I can only think of the times when I need to inspect one of mine for a health check, or move them out of danger. Also, knowing where they are at night, means you have the freedom to move around your home, without fear of stepping on them or otherwise hurting your little friend. Because chipmunks have an independent nature, if you let your chipmunk out too early from its brand new aviary, they could try to nest somewhere totally unsuitable, outside the aviary. Yes, this has happened to me, after lovingly building a custom luxury nest box all day, Sue was having none of it, and wanted to sleep in an old boot in the hall. That's gratitude for you.

I hope the last few chapters help you get closer to deciding if a chipmunk is right for you. Because they need to have some free range about once a day, for at least a couple of hours, this could cramp your style if you're out at work all day. You will hardly see anything of your pet, and he or she is likely to become very board. Although chipmunks can be very wary and cautious of humans, they will soon think of you as a cross between a magic giant moving tree, and mobile nut storage unit, and if nothing else, some strange creature that magically seems to produce food at the right times. When you get used to each other, and you have made your home safe for a chipmunk to run around in, you can start to relax and really enjoy your new pet. Once the aviary is built most of the hard work and expense is over.

On most of the other pet chipmunk sites I've looked at, you often read that chipmunks are easy to keep. I agree with that, once you have got over the setting up of their home, and made your home as safe as possible, chipmunks can occupy themselves, but also respond well to human contact.

In the mornings, especially with the young ones, it's almost as if they have been on charge overnight, and they wake full of life, ready for another big adventure. When you let them out on free range, they act as if they have never been let out, and everything needs exploring, at best they will use you as a bridge on their rush out of the aviary. You can look at this as your very own mini rush hour. As your chipmunk becomes an adult they can get very used to routines. lf you follow time patterns, they wall quickly learn when to expect certain things to happen.

Apart from what I call clean mess, which are seeds and nuts, I think chipmunks are very clean. You can keep them in the main room that you live in, as they have no strong smell. They will automatically learn to to use the same place to toilet. When a little more mature, they also urinate in the same place. Toilet is normally done in a corner, and sawdust is appreciated or wood cat litter.

They are hardy and rarely pick up diseases. Baring accidents, you may never have to take yours to the vets, but find out where your nearest vet is, one that is used to chipmunks, before you get yours. They will sometimes make huge leaps from one perch to another, and misjudge the distance, taking a fall. Although worrying to witness, so far for me they always carry on unhurt, except for their pride. As they become adults they will have honed their acrobatic skills, and will hardly ever misjudge a distance, or work out the wrong surface resistance for different landing surfaces.

I would not call them noisy pets either. Although they use sound to communicate with each other, you can go all day without hearing a peep out of them. If they see a predator, maybe a bird flying by a window, they can start a high pitched loud whistle for a few minutes. I guess this is to warn other chipmunks to take cover. If you have a female chipmunk, be prepared for a bi annual event. Twice a year (spring and autumn) a mature female will chirp continuously throughout the day. She is trying to attract a male, in fact as many as she can. The chirping can be quite persistent, and really often does go on almost continuously. She will hardly touch food, and perch in various places, where I guess she thinks she can be seen by all, as if the noise wasn't enough. If you have one female it's not that bad, it's only for two days a year. But if you have several females, they will all want to attract a male on separate days in the spring and autumn. But if your neighbors can hear this noise, they'll most likely put it down to a smoke alarm battery needing replacement. What are the chances of them knowing it's coming from an amorous chipmunk, unless they've seen them bouncing up and down in your front windows

Regular jobs

There is not all that much you need to do on a regular basis to keep your chipmunks happy and healthy.

Daily jobs, are fresh water, and about 30g of Supa Chipmunk muesli. The Supa Chipmunk muesli is a food made for chipmunks, and contains everything they need to keep going. But life would be boring just having the same food each day, so you may want to supplement their food with a daily choice of fresh fruits.

Weekly jobs could be wiping down the surfaces in their aviaries, and cleaning their toilet area. They are nice clean animals, so you don't have to clean out the whole aviary.

Every six months give the aviary a more through clean. It's also a good opportunity to move branches, rope ways and tubes to different positions in their home. Gives some variety in their home.


 

Keeping chipmunks might seem a lot of work compared to a hamster for example, but for me there is no comparison to any other pet I've had before, or know of. Chipmunks not only look good, they are graceful acrobats, have cheap running costs, and reward you with hours of free entertainment. Best of all, because they live for so long, you can with patience, build up a really special relationship with your pet, much more than I ever thought you could with such a small rodent.

Lastly if you do get a chipmunk, invest in a robust vacuum cleaner, it will get lots of outings, sucking up husks of discarded nut shells.