degus as pets

Introduction

The Degu is a small rodent of the Caviomorpha order that is native to central Chile they are related to guinea pigs and chinchillas. Sometimes called octodon degus, daygoo or brush-tailed rat, they started out as research subjects for scientists and researchers, Degus have rapidly become popular as domesticated pets. They are herbivorous and very social mammals much preferring to live in pairs or groups. Degus require company, being on their own can make them very depressed or even cause illness in them. In the wild Degus can live in groups of up to a hundred. Collectively they make a complex maze of nests and burrows in which to live in and store food. When fully grown, they are about the size of an adult hand. They have dark brown fur with a cream belly, white feet and big round ears. Interestingly… they have ultraviolet reflective fur on their belly – This helps them in the wild, to signal each other when trying to avoid predators.

They typically live from around one to two years, however in the domesticated environment (our homes), degus can live as long as 9 years, but around 5 is more like the average.

What do Degus look like?

Fur

Degu’s fur is naturally a tweed colour which becomes lighter towards the under-belly, although thanks to genetic manipulations and cross-breeding, they can be found in black, blue (metallic bluey-black), tan and white. Colour varieties in higher demand and more common in mainland Europe in countries such as Germany, and it is not yet known the health implications of this genetic engineering. The hair is short and soft.

Some Degus may have white flanks, the area between the ribs and hips, which is believed to be a sign of infertility, although we could not find any research confirming this. Degu’s fur can not become wet as it may be become brittle and damaged, other than their water bottle nozzle there should be no sources of water near to them.

To help keep their fur dry and to clean them as water is not a option, they should be given access to a sand bath for around 30 minutes every day. Leaving the sand bath too long or giving one too often could also damage the fur.
Degus can sometimes shed their fur once or twice a year, in keeping with the seasons (longer fur in winter, shorter in summer).

This happens roughly between March and July in the United Kingdom, although this fur shedding has not been experienced by all Degu owners, as compared to the harsh temperatures in their natural desert environment the British seasons (especially considering your pet will be living indoors not underground) are not as drastic and so the need to shed fur may not be needed. Another reason for the observed differences in fur shedding could be evolution and adapting to the constant climate in housing, as over an average person’s lifetime a single Degu could be the cause of 50-60 generations of Degus.

Eyes

Degu’s have dark, big eyes, which are surrounded by a lighter area of fur. Degus eyes are placed at the sides of the head, helping them be more alert to predators in the wild and dangers in a domestic environment by expanding the field of vision, while still providing a perfect forward view for regular navigation. The eyes are inconsistent with rodents of the same habits i.e. burrowing, who normally have small eyes to avoid damage. The eyes can be subject to illness such as cataracts.

Ears

The Degus ears are of moderate size, around 3 cm in height, dark with little hair, apart from long strands of hair protecting the ear canal. The ears can get grubby very easily, and as they can not groom them themselves, are kept clean by other Degus in the habitat. Without this attention they can become very poorly, as it is very dangerous for humans to clean due to the thinness of the skin. They are shaped to gain as much aural information as possible, and stick up whenever the Degu hears a sound they feel to be threatening.

Mouth and Teeth

A Degu’s Teeth had a distinctive figure 8 pattern, similar to that of Chinchillas and Guinea Pigs which is why it is classified in the Octodon species. A Degu’s front teeth should be a yellow – orange colour. which is believed to be but not verified as being due to the chlorophyll in the greens they eat. White teeth can normally indicate a serious disease and a poor diet. The teeth are constantly growing, causing Degu’s to gnaw on everything and anything, so suitable toys and blocks should be provided. All together Degus have a total of 20 teeth, used for chewing, biting and gnawing.

Paws and Feet

A Degu’s feet has 5 toes on each paw, front and back, with rear claws curved and covered in brush-like bristles. One of the toes on each paw is shorter than the others and used in the same manner as a human thumb. If a Degu spends too much time on a mesh wire floor the feet can develop a problem called bumble foot which is very painful, so ledges and flat areas must be provided in your Degu’s cage. There are small lumps on the palm of the paws that are used for gripping items such as food when eating. A Degus paws and other features are not consistent with other burrowing animals.

Tail

Degus have a tail which grows to around 9cm in length, is scaly to the touch and has a small bushy tip. As a defence mechanism in the wild, the Degu will shed part of its tail, up to half of the tail, as a way of evading capture when a predator has hold of it. For this reason a Degu should never be handled by the tail, and is better off not being touched at all, as it can be extremely painful, causing a lot of bleeding and distress. This can become infected and will never grow back. If this occurs, usually the Degu will chew and stop the bleeding itself, but a vet visit is always essential. The tail is primarily used for balance when jumping and climbing, and regulating the body temperature by providing an area for heat to escape or be retained.

Nose and Whiskers

A Degu’s whiskers, like all other animals, are used for exploration when judging gaps and spaces to determine if it can fit through. Whiskers are very sensitive and should not be played with. The area of the brain used in scent detection is well developed providing a good sense of scent. The nose is hairless, with females believed to have a better sense of smell than the males due to testosterone having an effect of the strength of smell, although this has not been completely verified at the time of writing.

Male vs Females

Degus can have different personalities depending on their gender. Females are normally bigger than males, where as males will fight more often when kept together. In order to determine your Degus gender you need to turn it over to see the reproductive organs. This is a difficult task in itself, so a slightly easier way we suggest for the not most tamed of Degus would be to use teasing with a treat to make your Degu stand up against the cage bars for a slightly better view.

Do not be fooled by the cone sticking out where the genitals would normally be, this is only used for urination and not reproduction, a Degu keeps its penis withdrawn and you will only see during grooming or reproduction.

The difference between a male and a female is hard to see. The Degu at the top is male and the Degu below the female. When looking at both sexes there is a conical appendage sticking out, this is not a penis, but where the Degu urinates. In males, they are around cm apart (top picture), where as in females this is much closer at only around mm apart (the bottom picture).

Degus as Pets

Degus are great pets! They have many positives and attributes as pets – above all, Degus have very fun and bubbly personalities and are lovely pets to have. Unlike Chinchilla and Hamsters, Degus as pets are mainly active during the day increasing their value as domesticated pets even further.

Qualities

  • Huge personalities- Naughty, Cute, Clever, Playful and Cheeky!
  • Easy to Keep
  • Entertaining
  • Diurnal (Awake in the day time)
  • Intelligence
  • Simple Diets
  • Love of Human Company

Living Environment

Degus are happiest when living in temperatures below 20°C. Anything warmer can give them heatstroke and make them distressed. They are quite hardy to cold weather and the damp, but they

Degus as pets

Degus as pets

certainly  don’t like it. Degus are intelligent animals and as such need constant stimulation of their minds to keep them healthy and happy. Their cage should contain a variety of toys and games for them to play with.  Apple, pear, ash, oak and beech tree branches are great for furnishing their cage with climbing apparatus and helps simulate their conditions in the wild. Like hamsters, degus love a good run and as such they should be provided a wheel. The wheel should be about 25cm in diameter and

A solid exercise wheel, 25cm in diameter, should be provided to help them exercise. Clay piping can also provide a tunnelling system for them which is lots of fun and offers great enrichment. A good alternative to a wheel is a ‘flying saucer’. Degus need to take a sand bath to keep themselves healthy and clean. Pet owners can provide this by providing them with some chinchilla dust/sand in a pot big enough for them to roll around in. They especially love to take a sand bath after they’ve been handled as they feel the need to get rid of the oils and grease from human hands off their fur. Degus love digging so providing them with ample organic soil or sand will surely go down a treat with them. Treat balls are awesome for Degus and will keep them occupied for hours! Toys, like corn toys, sisal and jingly balls are also fun for them to play with.

Cages

Degus as pets will need an adequate home to keep them happy and healthy. Your cage will be the most important investment you can make for your pets because this is where they will spend the vast majority of their time. Ideally, you will build or purchase a degu cage that is as big as possible in order to keep them in humane conditions. According to Degutopia, the minimum size should be  70 Length x 70-100 Height x 45 Width cm.

Substrate

At the bottom of their cages, should be a lining of suitable absorbent substrate. This is to maintain hygiene and absorb moisture from their excrement and urine. There is a wide variety of different substrates you can use, each varies in effectiveness and cost. Sawdust should never be used as it causes respiration problems, as does any wood shavings originating from cedar wood.

What do Degus eat

Degus cannot metabolise or digest sugars and carbohydrates and they are prone to diabetes so it is very important to take great care when selecting their food. The best solution for Degu food is choosing a mix of chinchilla and guinea pig pellets. As with all captive rodents, their diets can be supplemented by suitable fresh foods fed in moderation. Degus should be provided with  hay available all  the time, ideally inside of a nest box.

Here is a list of fresh vegetables safe to feed Degus in moderation.

  • Fresh herbs (coriander, chives, oregano, mint, parsley, basil)
  • Carrot tops
  • Swede
  • Green beans
  • Fresh grass
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Cauliflower
  • Asparagus
  • Celery
  • Broccoli
  • Courgette
  • Leek
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Lettuce

Health Check

You should regularly check the health of your pet degus every few days. Degus should have yellow teeth. White teeth are a sign of vitamin A Deficiency. They should have nice clear and bright eyes and ears with glossy looking brown fur. Their rear ends should be clean with no signs of faeces. If degus don’t have enough to chew on they may develop overgrown teeth. Wetness around the mouth could indicate this. Discharge and difficulty in breathing could indicate a respiratory problem.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

From time to time we get e-mails requesting help on different aspects of Degu life. here is a compilation of such questions, so hopefully this information can help others.

To submit a question, please visit the contact us page. Please remember that were are not qualified vets and cannot legally give medical advice, although most websites do, and do not suffer the consequences of trying out guessed medication on some one else’s pets. At the first signs of illness take your pet to a qualified vet. No amount of research can compete with a trained professional.

Cage and Housing

Q. I don’t think I’d be able to look after two Degus at the same time, can I keep just 1?
A. NO! Degus are social creatures, they need company to stay happy and healthy. No amount of human interaction will make up for that.

Q. All I seem to find is wire cages, which most websites say are bad for my Degus, what should i keep them in?
A. Wire cages are perfect for your Degus as long as the base is solid, not mesh. Preferably a glass tank could form the bottom of the cage, but you cannot keep your pets in an all glass tank as this will restrict circulation, as well as shelves and fixtures inside the cage.

Q. How big should my Degu Cage be?
A. The bigger the cage, the better for your Pets! a general rule of thumb is 100 x 100 x 50cm for 2 Degus, doubling for each addition pair.

Q. Why does my Degu keep biting on the wire in the cage?
A. Degus bite the wire to try and ‘expand’ their territory, thinking they have a chance on escaping. This is normal behaviour, and can sometimes indicate your cage is too small or does not contain enough distractions.

Health

Q. Does my cage need an exercise wheel?
A. In short, YES! Degus need plenty of exercise to stay healthy, of which 99% will come from a wheel. It needs to have a solid base, not the mesh or barred ones you see in pet stores. You can find more information on our Toys and Exercise Page.  If you cannot find a good wheel, we have given instructions on how to make a Metal Wheel in our Create Your Own Range.

Q. Can my Degu be neutered?
A They can, although due to the health problems and risks of putting an small pet under anaesthetic, we highly recommend against it, and should only be used as a last resort.

Degu Relations

Q. My Degus keep fighting! what can I do?
A. Please refer to the fighting guide, and if all else fails, they may have to be separated

Q. Does a Degu have to live with other Degus, or can I move it in with one of my other pets?
A. Degus should only live with other Degus, any other living arrangements will result in deadly fights over territory, and incompatibility due to different sleeping patterns, dietary requirements and other factors.

Q. One of my Degus died and the other looks very lonely now.. is it possible to introduce a new Degu to the cage?
A. It certainly is! see our new introductions guide for more information. You should never let a Degu live alone, and despite difficulties in introducing new pets, every effort should be made

Further Tips