What are Listeriosis?

Veterinarians and breeders are understandably concerned about chinchillas being infected with Listeria monocytogenes. It is capable of affecting several organs in your chinchilla, such as the uterus, liver, intestines, lungs and brain. It’s a zoonotic microorganism, meaning it can spread from animals to humans.

As you treat your sick chinchilla, you should be careful about handling him, then preparing food or touching your face and mouth. Chinchillas commonly contract listeriosis through the oral-fecal route. That is, they come into contact with the feces of infected rodents. Other avenues of infection include poor cage sanitation and infected feed. This bacteria (Listeria monocytogenes) is widely found in water and soil, which is why it’s so important to keep your pet’s cage impeccably clean. Even worse, it survives, grows and multiplies in low temperatures.

While listeriosis is common in the chinchilla world, it is potentially fatal to your chinchilla, with a 16 percent mortality rate. Once it appears in your herd, it will spread, unless you take swift action to isolate the sick pets. If listeriosis isn’t diagnosed and treated early, your chinchilla will eventually develop encephalitis and septicemia, which are ultimately fatal. Pregnant chinchillas developing the disease will abort their kits.

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Symptoms of Listeriosis in Chinchillas

When your chinchilla falls ill with listeriosis, you may or may not see symptoms. If you do notice them, they will include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Refusal to drink water
  • Constipation or diarrhea (diarrhea is watery, green and highly smelly)
  • Rectal prolapse (develops after straining to defecate)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Twisted neck or head tilt (torticollis)
  • Loss of control of bodily movements (ataxia)
  • Droopy ears
  • Circling
  • Convulsions
  • Respiratory distress

In some chinchillas, the symptoms will only be present for one to four days before death occurs. In others, the chinchillas don’t appear ill and die unexpectedly.

Encephalitis and septicemia generally develop in chinchillas sick with listeriosis. Females may develop uterine inflammation as well.

Causes of Listeriosis in Chinchillas

Only one thing causes listeriosis in chinchillas: Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria which is gram-positive in laboratory testing. Once your chinchilla has become infected, the bacteria interrupts the cecal (large pouch at the beginning of the large intestine) and intestinal barrier, beginning to group together and multiply in her liver. From there, the bacteria spreads to other organs.

Once the bacteria invades soil, water and feed, it’s free to move throughout your herd. One sick chinchilla can spread this disease to your other pets.

Diagnosis of Listeriosis in Chinchillas

While you may not know or understand what is making your chinchilla sick, when you take her to the vet and report her symptoms, the vet will form a presumptive diagnosis of listeriosis. Remember, it’s common in chinchillas.

Your vet may order blood work, which will help him to identify the exact bacteria making your pet sick. This is vital, because some antibiotics won’t work to eradicate the infection in your chinchilla. Even if she recovers, she may be a lifelong carrier of the L. monocytogenes bacteria. 

Once the lab has returned results that show gram-positive L. monocytogenes, your vet will prescribe the most appropriate antibiotic for your pet.

Treatment of Listeriosis in Chinchillas

Once your vet gets a positive diagnosis of listeriosis, he’ll prescribe either chloramphenicol or oxytetracycline to treat your chinchilla. Even these medications may not be very effective when your pet is showing clinical signs of infection and the disease has progressed too far for the medications to work and help your pet to recover. Because of the ability of this bacteria to spread from animal to human, your vet may decide that this treatment isn’t warranted.

The best time to treat your chinchillas for listeriosis is before they begin to show symptoms of infection. These chinchillas will be treated with prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics. 

Recovery of Listeriosis in Chinchillas

If your chinchilla has been exposed to  listeriosis, but hasn’t begun showing symptoms of illness, take her to be treated. Completely clean her cage; remove and discard all bedding, water, and feed and decontaminate (sterilize) her cage and living environment. The most effective solutions are chlorine-based (bleach) and iodine-based sanitizers.

Using either sanitizer as directed on the package, completely wash down, then rinse the cage before drying it with a clean towel. Replace old, infected food and bedding with fresh, clean food and bedding.

Once your chinchilla has contracted listeriosis, she may be a carrier of the bacteria for the rest of her life. If you adopt additional chinchillas, you’ll need to be extremely attentive to keeping their cage or cages clean and bacteria-free.