Degus and their care
- Scientific name: Octodon Degus
- Origin: Chile
- Colour: Agouti (grey-brown) with lighter underside
- Longevity: 10 Years
- Gestation Period: 90 days
- Sexual maturity: 6-20 months
- Litter size: 4-6
The Degu looks like a cross between a small squirrel and a gerbil. They have fast become one of the most popular caged pets in the USA and UK but are relatively new here in Ireland. They make friendly and amusing pets but they do have some specific requirements. So, please make sure you can meet these requirements BEFORE buying your pet.
Degus originate from Chile where they inhabit the western slopes of the Andes Mountains. They can be found amongst the shrubs and rocks digging their burrows of many elaborate chambers. These chambers are used for nurseries and for food storage. Strangely, they share their homes with the Chinchilla Rat, who has a similar lifestyle to that of their own. Most of the time it seems that the two species are totally oblivious to each other, however it has been reported that a mingling of babies tended by one mother is not uncommon. The Chinchilla Rat is nocturnal, the Degus is crepuscular (having peaks of activity at dusk and dawn and other periods of activity and sleep through out the day). The word ‘crepuscular’ comes from the French word ‘ crepuscule ‘, meaning twilight.
The Degu was first introduced into the USA and UK in the 1960′s. Twenty adults were captured in Lampa, Chile, for use in medicinal and behavioural studies, they were taken to The Institute of Technology in Massachusetts. From there they found their way into the pet shops and our homes.
Degus are naturally very clean creatures with little to no smell if they are cleaned regularly. They are also very quiet, they do however have a wide variety of sounds to communicate with each other. The young weigh 15 grammes at birth maturing to 150-300 grammes. The young are born fully furred with their eyes open, but unlike other rodents with such a long gestation period, the young still need mother for nutrition, protection and warmth for the first week. Occasionally the young are born sparsely furred and with their eyes closed, there seems to be no scientific reason for this but the eyes do open after the first few days. The young are unable to retain their body heat (thermo regulate) for the first week, so it is vital that they have mum to snuggle up to.
In the wild the Degu relies on it’s eyesight and hearing to detect predators. They have large, bright, dark eyes and have excellent vision. They have large, kidney-shaped ears that are sparsely furred, they have excellent hearing. The fur is very soft and agouti (grey-brown) in colour. They have long whiskers and a small nose. Their long tail can be as long as the body, it is sparsely furred with a thick tuft at the end. They have four toes on all feet with an additional nail on both front feet.
The Degu has 20 teeth, consisting of 4 incisors, 2 upper and 2 lower that are bright orange in colour when they are adult. The incisors grow constantly through out life and therefore need to be worn down by gnawing hard objects. They have 16 cheek teeth, the surface of which bear a figure of eight shape lending itself to the scientific name Octodontidae meaning eight teeth.
Degus have sturdy, robust bodies but do not be fooled, they can squeeze through the smallest of spaces. They have extremely powerful legs for their small size and are capable of jumping several feet. They are accomplished climbers and can run at great speed, this makes them very difficult to catch should they escape!
Never pick your Degu up by the scruff of the neck or by the tail. Like many rodents the tail is an effective defence mechanism to allow them to escape from predators. The Degu can release or bite off it’s tail when frightened or cornered, the stump will heal but a new tail does not grow back. To lift your Degu scoop it up in both hands.
Choosing your Degu
It is important to select a Degu that is tame and allows you to handle it. The following are additional points to check for before making your purchase:
eyes – aears – are clean and dry with no discharge or dirt
skin – is smooth and healthy with no evidence of sores or dandruff
teeth – are aligned properly with the top sitting comfortably over the bottom set. If an adult, that they are bright orange in colour.
vent – imovement – that the animal is active, alert, sociable and eating
Degus are very sociable animals that need the companionship and interactions of their own species. A Degu kept alone will quickly become bored and is likely to mutilate itself by pulling out it’s fur and chewing at it’s limbs. Two females will usually live quite happily together, but if you have a large enough cage their is no reason why two males that are littermates will not live peacefully together, providing there are no females in close proximity. You too will benefit from having two as you will be able to watch them tirelessly grooming and playing with each other.
Branches for climbing apparatus and gnawing blocks need to be provided, apple, willow, poplar and hazel are all safe to use but do be sure they have not been treated with any kind of chemicals. It is an inherent Degu behaviour to carry sticks and stack them at the entries to their burrows as an indication of territory and ownership.
Your Degu will appreciate lots of toys to keep him amused: tunnels can be either plastic drainage pipes or the cardboard inserts from rolls of carpet at your local store. Ladders, ramps, nest boxes and balls will provide entertainment too. Cardboard boxes to hide in and chew can be given but make sure there is no glue, sellotape or staples that can hurt him.
An exercise wheel is a valuable addition to the cage as it will provide hours of entertainment and exercise. The wheel should be of solid construction not the metal bar type that can trap a tail or limb. Solid wheels can be hard to find that are big enough for your pet so as a compromise weave a piece of cardboard through the bars to prevent him from becoming injured.
Lastly, he will need daily use of a dust bath. A shallow heavy based bowl of sufficient size for your pet to roll in should be filled with 1cm of bathing sand. Bathing sand is available from all good pet shops but it is usually marketed for Chinchillas. The bath will keep his fur clean and in tip top condition. Do not be alarmed if he urinates in his bath as this is perfectly natural behaviour, he is marking his territory.
The cage, bowls, toys and bottle should be washed weekly and disinfected thoroughly monthly.
Degus are vegetarians and can be offered a wide variety of fresh foods: apples, pears, apricots, bananas, grapes, melon and strawberries. Do not feed too many fruits as there is a danger of your Degu getting diabetes. Kale, spring greens, lettuce, carrots, cucumber and tomato’s can be safely fed. Wild greens such as dandelion, grass, shepherds purse and grounsel are a few. Always remove uneaten fresh foods daily to prevent digestive upsets from eating rotten food. Seeds are a favourite too: sesame, sunflower and pumpkin.
Never feed sugary treat sticks such as those bought at a pet shop, they will only lead to obesity and diabetes. If you want to feed your pet treats he will like nothing better than the occasional peanut and raisin.
Good quality fresh hay should always be available to your pet.
If your Degu receives the correct nutrition and husbandry he will almost surely remain in good health and it will increase his longevity.
Unfortunately sometimes your pet may become sick like any other animal. It is always a good idea to ring around your local vets to find a practice that is familiar with Degus, BEFORE making your purchase. A sick Degu will deteriorate very quickly and will need veterinary treatment immediately. A healthy Degu is active, alert, bright-eyed, and inquisitive. A sick Degu looks ruffled and dull, he will sit in the corner of the cage hunched up and will probably not eat. Take time each day to sit and observe your pets, any abnormalities will then be quickly spotted and rectified.
Once a week lift out your pet from the cage and check the points listed when first choosing your pet. If you are unsure or in any doubt about his health contact a vet immediately.