Chipmunks: Care and behaviour

Chipmunks are a lot of fun to watch, because they're active and like climbing, but they're shy, easily stressed, and bite, so they're better suited as pets for adults, rather than children. They can be good company for retired people, because they come out in the day. Chipmunks can live from five to eight years, and some have lived as long as ten. They've only recently become popular as pets, and aren't truly domesticated animals, in fact many escaped pets have thrived in the wild, especially in mainland Europe. The European Union considers chipmunks an invasive, alien species, and has introduced regulations to prevent their spread in the wild. The best source of information on how these regulations affect UK pet chipmunk owners is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or Defra.

Chipmunk behaviour

Chipmunks sold in the UK are usually from Asia, and are sometimes called Siberian chipmunks. They're similar to the Eastern American chipmunk, in liking to climb, burrow and store food, taking it to their 'larder' in pouches, like hamsters.

They're pretty much solitary animals, marking their territory to warn off other chipmunks, but they do sometimes share burrows with another chipmunk in winter, when they hibernate in the wild. This is when they mate and produce pups. Gestation lasts around a month, and the babies are blind and hairless at birth. They leave the nest when they're a little over a month old.

Chipmunks kept as pets can't easily escape from other chipmunks they're housed with, so fights are more likely than in the wild.  Their natural behaviour is to attack an 'intruder', and they can inflict a lot of damage on one another. This means that you have to be very careful about putting chipmunk together. Adult males tend not to get on, especially if they can smell a female. Two females may get on if introduced carefully. A male and female may of course breed, and invasive species regulations mean that this is no longer permitted. Chipmunks get on better if they've known one another since they were young.

Chipmunks are very easily stressed, and don't like being handled. They really need a quiet room, and don't thrive if kept in a living room with TV and human inhabitants and visitors making a lot of noise, nor, as easily stressed prey animals, do they like having dogs or cats nearby. They also need darkness at night time, either from having the light out, or a blind or other covering to keep light out of their cage. They'll tend to hibernate if kept in a garage or shed, but can stay awake all winter if kept indoors.

You can tame captive-born chipmunks to some extent, so that they come to accept you and learn to be more relaxed about noises in your house, like the washing machine in the distance, but iwhether they're truly domesticated is questionable. Rabbits and guinea pigs have been kept for a long time as pets, so they've changed over time, and tend to suffer less from stress than their wild cousins. Captive-born chipmunks may be only a few generations away from wild chipmunks, and there are even unscrupulous dealers who will sell wild chipmunks to the pet trade. 

Their 'wildness' raises ethical issues as to whether they are suitable rodents to keep as pets. At the least, they should only be taken on by people who have researched their needs thoroughly, who can provide them with the space and resources they need, and who are skilled enough to prevent them from escaping.


Chipmunks need a lot of room because they're very active. Chipmunks housed together are also more likely to squabble if the cage isn't big enough, whereas a very large, aviary-type cage with a lot of hiding places allows them to get away from one other if they want to. Chipmunks can't easily be allowed to exercise in your living room, since they're difficult to catch and easily stressed if you chase them, and there's a risk of their escaping into the wild.

Chipmunks like to dig and gnaw, and are notorious escape artists. They can chew through wood and plastic, and escape through very small holes, so you need to be very sure that their cages are secure. They can be kept indoors in a wire mesh cage, in a garage or shed, or outdoors in an aviary with a concrete base. You need to avoid their escaping into the wild, competing with local fauna. Make sure you have an extra level of security by keeping them in a secure room, so if they do manage to escape from their cage, they still can't get to the outside world. If you're patient, they usually don't take long to take themselves back into the cage, where they have food and shelter.

You can furnish the cage with nesting boxes to allow them to store food and sleep in (at least one for each chipmunk), and branches and platforms for them to climb. They're less likely to be stressed if you give them plenty of bolt holes at different levels of the cage, and if there's a wall alongside one or two sides of their cage. They need to gnaw, so give them gnawing sticks, or expect their branches and platforms to get chewed.

They can use chopped hay for bedding. Leaves, shavings or peat are good materials for the floor. They use a corner of the cage as a toilet, so you need to clean this daily, though as scent is very important to chipmunks, avoid 'intrusive cleaning'. Chipmunks are likely to be upset if you clean the whole of the cage and replace all the bedding at once. As they tend to keep their nest boxes clean, you need to do very little housework yourself.


Chipmunks eat a mix of dry food with nuts (such as acorns, beechmast and chestnut) pulses and grains, as well as fresh fruit and root crops, and the occasional snack of mealworms or insects. You can buy special mixes, and supplement them with your own finds from walks in the woods, though introduce new foods gradually. Chipmunks come from Asian and North American woodlands, but will happily eat much of what is found on British woodland floors. Remove rotting foodstuff, and always make sure that your chipmunks have water in a water bottle.


The main ways to keep your chipmunk healthy are to keep its stress levels low, and provide a large, clean cage, with plenty to chew. As with all rodents, overgrown teeth can be a problem, and, as it's not easy to trim chipmunks' teeth, prevention is better than cure - always make sure they have plenty of objects to gnaw.

Chipmunks sometimes suffer from skin problems, especially mites. This is more likely to be the case with recently purchased chipmunks, so if you buy one, check to see if it has been treated for external parasites. Injuries from fights can be fatal, so again prevention is important, introducing them with care, and giving them plenty of space and bolt holes. It helps to find a vet with experience of chipmunks, because they aren't easy to handle.


Chipmunks need to be handled regularly from when they are very young, or they'll be almost impossible to catch as adults. They should always be approached gently and cautiously. Give new arrivals and young chipmunks time to get used to your voice and presence, and let them get used to your hand in the cage before trying to pick them up. Hold them in cupped hands, and keep your actions smooth and your voice gentle. You can use nest boxes with sliding doors to catch them without having to handle them. 


Chipmunks have bred successfully in the wild in Europe. Breeding them in captivity is no longer permitted, and in any case, they tend to become very stressed by the close proximity of humans when they're breeding. 

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