By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
In the same family as chinchillas and guinea pigs, degus are rodents that live in large communities in complex underground burrows that they dig in the grasslands of Chile.
Degu Appearance and Behavior
As big as a guinea pig but with brown fur and a long, thin tail, degus look like oversized gerbils. They have round, squat bodies, weigh between a half pound to a pound, and grow to about 10-12 inches long, from nose to tail tip. The tip of their tail has a tuft of black fur, while their bellies are covered in tan fur, and they have bristly hair on their hindfeet.
These small rodents are extremely smart and can adapt to both nocturnal (night) and diurnal (day) sleeping patterns. They also develop medical conditions such as diabetes, separation anxiety, Alzheimer’s-like signs, and ADHD-like behavior, making them excellent laboratory models to study these illnesses.
Not until the past decade or so did they become popular as pets, like their relatives, chinchillas and guinea pigs. Some states, however, such as California, Alaska, and Georgia, as well as certain areas in Canada, prohibit the owning of degus, as they are considered invasive species in these states. Individuals interested in owning a degu should check with their locale as to whether ownership is legal.
Degu Activity Levels and Personality
Unlike many other rodents such as hamsters and chinchillas that are active at night, degus are active during the day and sleep at night, making them more suitable as pets. Pet degus live, on average, 6-9 years with proper care and nutrition. They have excellent vision and can actually see ultraviolet (UV) light – an adaptation that likely has a social function in the wild, as their urine and the fur on their stomachs reflect UV light.
Degus are very gregarious and energetic, forming close bonds with their owners and with other degus. They recognize other degus and their owners by sight and sound and will often stand up on their hind legs in their cages to indicate that they want to get out when they see their owners. They communicate with each other through an extensive vocabulary of more than a dozen sounds that baby degus learn from their parents as they grow. Degus will chatter, squeak, and make warbling noises, depending on their mood.
Many degus are happier when housed with other degus; however, males should not be housed with other males, especially if a female is within sight, as they will fight. Ideally, degus that are housed together should be introduced to each other at as young an age as possible. If not, they should be introduced to each other gradually — first in separate cages next to each other and then through short, supervised visits. Only after showing that they can get along should degus be placed in the same cage.
To become tame and comfortable with their owners, degus must be handled daily while being offered small treats so that they don’t nip. It’s important, however, not to pick up a degu by the tail when handling it, as the skin and the tuft of hair at the tail tip have been adapted to easily come off to enable wild degus to avoid being captured by predators. If tail “shedding” occurs, degus may chew on the injured tail and may develop infections. Degus may be safely handled with one hand over the back, behind the front legs, and another hand under the hind end. They should be held close to your chest or on your lap, as they don’t like having their legs dangle.
Due to their tendency to bite if not handled often, as well as to their propensity towards tail injury with rough handling, degus are not good pets for families with very young children, but they can be great pets for elementary school-aged or older kids as long as they are supervised by an adult. In addition, given that degus are prey species, they can be kept in homes with other pets, such as cats and dogs, as long as these naturally predatory animals are kept away from degus and are never around them unsupervised.
Finally, degus should never be housed with other rodent species — such as hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, or guinea pigs — or with other small mammals, such as rabbits, as these animals carry diseases that they can transmit to degus and vice versa. Plus, they may end up fighting over territory or other resources.
Building the Habitat: The Best Cages and Toys for Degus
Since degus have continuously growing teeth, they have a constant need to gnaw and must be housed in secure cages on which they can’t chew their way out. The larger the cage, the better. Metal, multi-level cages meant for chinchillas or pet rats are usually fine for housing degus.
Different cage levels satisfy degus’ need to climb and run. Wire mesh cages provide good ventilation and should have solid-bottomed floors and ramps connecting the levels so that degus’ little toes don’t get caught in the mesh. Plastic-bottomed tanks meant for smaller rodents are not suitable, as degus may chew right through them. A nest box, such an upside down wooden or cardboard box or a heavy ceramic flower pot placed on its side, inside the cage, should be offered so that degus can hide and burrow.
Cages should be lined with paper-based bedding to cushion degus’ feet against pressure sores and should contain a wheel to run in for exercise. Commercially available paper bedding or shredded recycled paper is ideal, as it is not toxic and is digestible if eaten. Wood bedding is indigestible and often contains oils that are potentially irritating to degus’ skin. For a single degu in a cage, cage bedding should be spot-cleaned daily and fully replaced weekly. If more than one degu is housed in a cage, it may need more frequent cleaning.
Degus also need wooden toys on which to chew to keep their teeth growth in check, as well as dust baths, offered two to three times per week for a half an hour each time, to keep their fur coats shiny and not greasy. Commercially available dust meant for chinchilla bathing and offered in a heavy ceramic crock is fine for degus; they seem to enjoy rolling around in the fine dust to keep their fur clean. Dust should be removed in between baths, or degus may soil the bath with feces.
They prefer living at temperatures from about 65-75°F, as they cannot sweat and become overheated at temperatures close to 80°F.
Finally, degus do need time every day out of their cages to run around and get exercise. Degus should never be left out of their cages unsupervised, as they are curious, adventurous, and fast, and tend to get into trouble by chewing on wires, baseboards, and anything else they can get their continuously growing teeth into. They should only be allowed to venture out into a “degu-proofed” room where there are no loose wires to chew on or tiny spaces to crawl into and get stuck.
Diet: The Best Foods for Degus
Degus are herbivores (vegetable-eaters) that eat leaves and shrubs in the wild. As a consequence of feeding on high fiber grasses in the wild, degus’ gastrointestinal tracts are intolerant to sugar. When fed too much sugar, degus develop diabetes and as such have been used as research models for understanding human diabetes. Thus, pet degus should not be fed sugary treats but should be offered commercially available rodent pellets or blocks (those made for rats are generally fine) along with leafy greens, such as dark lettuces and dandelion greens, plus vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, and carrots, and unlimited amounts of grass hay such as Timothy or Orchard grass. Alfalfa hay should be given only occasionally, as it is too high in protein and calories and may lead to obesity.
Hay is essential not only to provide fiber to the intestinal tract but also to help wear down continuously growing teeth as it is chewed. Food should be offered twice a day in heavy, non-tippable bowls.
Not only sugary foods, such as fruit or treats containing molasses or honey should be avoided, but also high-fat seeds or nuts. These types of foods should only be offered as occasional treats. Finally, degus should be provided with fresh water in a sipper bottle daily, and food dishes should be cleaned with hot, soapy water every day.
Degu Health Concerns
Degus are generally hardy rodents when cared for and fed properly. If they are fed an appropriate diet, they do not need supplemental vitamins or minerals. They also do not require vaccinations. To keep them healthy, however, all newly purchased or adopted degus should have a complete physical examination by a veterinarian familiar with this species. Degus should have annual examinations after that and should see a veterinarian whenever they show signs of illness such as lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss, or weakness. They also may require periodic grooming, such as nail trimming, every few months, either at home or at the veterinarian’s office, if the owner doesn’t feel comfortable trimming.
Although degus can be kept generally healthy with proper care and preventative check-ups, they are prone to developing certain conditions, such as diabetes, due to their sensitivity to dietary sugars. They also develop cataracts (milky, hazy looking lenses in their eyes), often as a consequence of developing diabetes. Young degus may also develop cataracts as a result of a congenital eye defect unassociated with diabetes. Regardless, all degus with cataracts should be checked for diabetes.
Due to their continuously growing teeth, they are also prone to developing dental problems such as overgrown or impacted teeth and dental infections and abscesses. Degus with dental disease may salivate excessively, have trouble eating (drop food from their mouths), eat less or not at all, and lose weight. If dental disease and other medical problems in degus are recognized by a veterinarian early on, they may be treatable. Overgrown teeth may require trimming, and dental abscesses may necessitate surgery, as well as antibiotics and pain relivers. Diabetes, however, can be very difficult to treat and may ultimately lead to fatal complications such as kidney failure.
Degus may develop diarrhea if fed an excess of greens and not enough fiber (hay). Correcting the diet often will resolve the problem. If not, the pet should be seen by a veterinarian, or dehydration may ensue.
Occasionally, degus will develop respiratory infections from bacteria and viruses that cause runny noses, wheezing, and even difficulty breathing from pneumonia. Degus with these signs should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Finally, if a male and female degu are to be housed together, the male should be neutered. Degus reach sexual maturity after about six months of age, and females can give birth to litters of 1-12 babies after 90 days of pregnancy. They also can become pregnant again immediately after giving birth. So, unless you want to end up with a dozen degus, have a degu-savvy veterinarian neuter the males, or house the males and females separately!
Where Can You Get a Degu?
Degus are available for adoption from rescue facilities where they end up often when frustrated or disappointed owners, who loved the novelty of having a pet degu but who were ignorant about the care these animals require, leave them. Degus also are sold in pet stores in states in which these pets are legal to keep. Individuals interested acquiring a pet degu should contact a veterinarian comfortable with degu care before they purchase or adopt the pet so that they can learn about what having a degu entails before they bring one home.
Potential owners should consider whether they have the space, time, and resources to care for these adorable rodents before they get them so that both they and their new little pet enjoy and thrive in their new relationship.