Origin, Kinship and Life in the Wild
Degus are a quite young “pet-species” as they were introduced to households as pets in the 1980s. Now they are rapidly growing in popularity.
When they were first discovered scientifically in the middle of the 18th century they were thought to be members of the squirrel family. In fact their pattern of life shows similarities such as hoarding food supplies.
Now the degu is a member of the family Octodontidae which comprises some other rodents from South America as well. To be accurate, this family contains 9 species placed in 6 genera. Members are found in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, occupying habitats ranging from coastal scrub at sea level to barren rocky outcrops at around 3500 m elevation. Degus live in Chile inhabiting different areas and are often seen as pests since they often more or less destroy crops and plantations. Degus in the wild will live in groups of about 5 to 10 animals. You will find more information following this link:
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Octodon_degus.html

In the wild, degus build complex burrows that provide shelter during the night and in cases of danger.
Degus feed on grass, herbs, bark, roots, foliage, and grain seeds using the morning and evening hours to graze. They communicate with fellow degus using a broad range of noises including high pitched whistles (as a warning) and low chuckling sounds (greeting). Moreover, they show an interesting body language.
Strangers or other degu groups will not be tolerated in the territory. This fact should be kept in mind when trying to socialize new groups from different origins. Quite often newcomers will be fought fiercely. Anyway, this does not mean that socialization cannot be a success; you just have to follow some rules.
Degus are a very active and curious species that love climbing, gnawing, and digging.
Unlike other rodents that are nocturnal, degus are active during the day and will (normally) sleep at night.
A degu will grow to a body length of up to 15-20 cm (6-8 inches). The fur is very dense and brown in colour, tinged with cream. The stomach area is cream or nearly white coloured. The areas around the eyes are often cream as well. The long hairy tail (about 5 inches) ends in a tuft. When a degu is captured by the tail, the skin may tear off at a special ring of thin skin near the base of the tail, allowing the degu to escape. Later, the degu will chew off the exposed bone at a narrowing of the vertebrae (very little bleeding results from this). The tail will not grow back. So, please NEVER pick up a degu by its tail!

Recently “blue” (degus with a dark grey coat) and sandy coloured (very rare) degus can be found in pet shops. Black and white degus were reported as well, but so far not actually seen by the authors.

Degus as Pets
There are some questions and some food for thought you should keep in mind before buying a degu:

- Do all family members agree to have degus as pets?
- Degus normally don´t like to be handled; therefore their suitability for children is very limited
- Is there anyone in your household who could be allergic (degus, bedding, hay or anything else)?
- Degus need daily care; beside provision of food and water you should check whether all animals are healthy. The cage must be cleanded on a regular basis. Tame degus appreciate time you spend with them.
- The lifespan of your degu will be about 4-6 years, sometimes even longer – a quite long time of responsibility.
- You will have to provide a cage appropriate to the species with a lot of opportunities to climb, gnaw and run. Your degus should live in the largest enclosure you can afford which means you need some money and room for housing. Once you have furnished the cage, running costs for food and bedding are quite low.
Keep in mind that visiting your veterinarian in case of an emergency could be quite expensive!
- What happens during vacation? Could anybody care for your degus as long as you are not at home?
You don´t have any objections or doubts? Then your degus could actually move in!

Degus must never be kept alone as these animals need the social structure of a degu group to be safe and sound. Groups of either male or female degus will get along but they may fight to establish a hierarchy. The fights should settle after establishing who the boss is. Male as well as female groups will fight to establish a hierarchy but severe problems are more likely in mixed groups. The worst combinations are two or more male degus with one or more females.

Where Do You Get your Degus From?
Pet stores offer degus, you may find private degu offspring offered in the small advertisements of your newspaper or on the internet. You can also find degus waiting for a new home in animal shelters.
As these “degu emergencies” represent an increasing number, these poor animals are exceptionally close to our hearts.
 

Sexing Your Degu
Please double check the sexes of the degus you adopt! Of course, it is a matter of practice and experience but these criteria will help you to successfully sex your degus:
As male degus have intra-abdominal testes you won’t find any scrotum to help determine the sex. Both sexes have a cone appendage that is not a sexual organ but is used for urinating only.
On females the space between the anus and the urethral cone (mentioned above) is quite close together. It amounts to a few millimetres shaped only. On the male this space is normally about a centimetre apart showing a longitudinal skin fold (in young males it is not easy to see). On closer examination of the female you can find the vaginal entrance transversal below the urethral cone. The vaginal entrance is normally firmly closed, opening during mating season only.

Accommodation
The Cage

Your degus are rodents, notorious chewers – with body and soul. This fact should be kept in mind choosing the right cage. Many commercially available cages have plastic base areas, never buy any of these cages; your degus will soon eat their way out of this type of cage!! Not to mention that plastic fragments are not very healthy…
What are the alternatives?

Degus are extremely active and like to climb; therefore, we recommend cages with the outer measures of at least 100 x 50 x 100 cm /39" x 19" x 39" (width x depth x height) for 2-3 degus.
You may find cages measuring about half the size we recommend in older publications, but our experience showed that a spacious, diversified accommodation is of great importance for the degus' well-being.

Aquariums do not provide the necessary height, but they may be used as basis for a self-made cage if the base is large enough (about 100 x 50 cm/39" x 19" inches). As second hand aquariums are often quite cheap, an aquarium based cage might be a good choice. One idea is to fit a mesh extension to the aquarium.

An appropriate terrarium will be expensive but it’s very nice to look at. With a terrarium you must be more creative fitting out the room inside because there aren’t many opportunities to secure seats, platform shelves or other equipment. With terraria you should keep an eye on adequate ventilation. The air grilles should be very robust; degus are able to gnaw away aluminium!

Suitable are some of the all-mesh cages offered for birds, other rodents like chinchillas or marmots. You should see that the distance between the bars is not too wide; otherwise you will find your degus exploring your house. The cages must not have plastic base areas or other plastic equipment. Always keep in mind that plastic toys, ladders or nest boxes are not only chewed to bits, but are also dangerous for your degu! Just imagine what splinters of plastic could do to the stomach, gut or just the mouth of your notorious chewing friend.

Of course it is possible to build a cage all by yourself. The only thing you need is some craftsmanship.
Following this link, you will find photos, examples and a detailed description how to construct a nice degu cage (unfortunately, the text is German; in case of any problems please contact the members of the degu forum): http://www.degus-online.de/kaefiganleitung.htm

Ideal Location
Degus in the wild are normally diurnal (active during the day); however, you should know that they are not at all suitable for bedrooms. Many degus show irregular pattern of sleeping, resting and activity periods, not at all taking heed of the time.

Degus don’t like noise, cigarette smoke or draft but they like to be involved in the owner’s life. Protect them from potential enemies such as cats or dogs. Degus like to take sunbaths; however, direct sunlight can lead to often deadly heat stroke. Always provide the opportunity to retreat into cooler areas and shade!

Equipment & Accessories
A cage should provide several layers to divide the territory in different parts. Beside shelves or something like that as seats (they should be affixed in a manner that a degu cannot fall from the highest point to the lowest), the cage should offer a lot of variety.
Branches, roots, clay pipes, clay flowerpots, cork, bamboo and stones are examples for useful accessories that may be used to provide an interesting environment. Pipes and cork can be hung up so that the degus have to reach them climbing.
Some owners put a wheel in the enclosure. If you do so, make sure that it is secure and big enough.

A sand bath is most important for the degu´s well-being. It is not necessary to use sand offered for chinchillas. You may use bird sand without coarser particles or fine play sand.

One or more drinking bottles or a good situated water cup must be in the degus' cage. Some degu owner’s use feeding bowls as well; others just sprinkle it into the bedding or onto the shelves.
Degus are often very jealous when it comes to food, fiercely defending the feeding bowls. Therefore, you should either provide multiple bowls or place food in different areas.

For bedding you may use wood shavings (aspen), straw or hay. Make sure that you don't get cedar shavings as their aromatic oils are very harmful to your degus' health. Hay is popular for nest-building as well. You may also offer plain toilet paper or tissue.

Avoid placing anything made of plastic the cage!

How to Accustom Your New Degu to Their New Home
Your new degus will often be very shy during the first days in their new accommodation; stay calm and move slowly when approaching the cage. Just give them time to settle!
Never try to grab your degu or force it to stay; even though degus rarely bite, your risk to get bit if tehy feel threatened in danger. The magic word in terms of taming is “patience”. Most degus will approach you soon as they are extremely inquisitive.
Nearly all degus like taking treats from your hand, or using you as a climbing-tree. However, most do not like being petted or handled all the time, please be respectful of this.
Of course you may also find some specimens that love being petted or having their ears, nose or armpits scratched.

Your first steps may include sitting in front of the cage avoiding abrupt movements. Speak quietly and calmly to your degus and place an arm into the cage. By all means avoid grabbing a degu from above as this resembles how a predator would act in the wild. Offer treats or food in your hands instead. Often degus start climbing your arms and shoulders quite soon exploring you like a playground. Please note that their personalities differ, some might never get tame.

Care & More
When the degus´ cage is cleaned out regularly, degus scarcely smell. How often the cleaning is needed depends on how many degus you have, how your cage is equipped, and how they behave.
As a rule degus will need to be cleaned out once a week.
During the cleaning of the cage it is best to place the degus in a carrier or spare cage. First take out the branches, toys, etc. so that you have better access to remove the bedding. The last traces may be removed using a vacuum cleaner. Wash the cage thoroughly with a sponge using warm water only. Intractable facings of urine scale might be dislodged using water with some vinegar. Dry and leave to air the cage for a short time; then add a good layer of bedding and replace the other contents. Sometimes degus neet to re-establish the hierarchy after a thorough cleaning. Sprinkling some old betting on top of the new helps to avoid fighting. Finally, return the degus to their home.

Drinking bottles and feeding bowls should be cleaned and refilled daily. Vegetable leftover have to be removed the following day to avoid moldering. Look out for these leftovers as they are sometimes hidden.

The sand bath should be changed when soaked with urine – damp sand is not suitable for keeping the fur and skin healthy and in good condition.

While handling your degu, assess the state of health. This should be done on a daily basis.

Feeding
Degus are accustomed to a very meagre food and their digestive tract is adapted to this kind of nutrition. Degus are quite prone to developing diabetes so it is best to avoid too much sugar. Treats or feed containing large amounts of sugar and/or fat like nuts or fruits should not be fed regularly.

The main component of a healthy feeding is fresh hay of very good quality. Your degus should have unlimited access to it.
Meanwhile, there are some ready-to-use mixes on the European market, but so far they are not accessible for degu owners in the USA. You may mix different types of food to get your individual degu food. As a basis you may use guinea pig food mixed with dried vegetables and herbs. Some chinchilla pellets are also suitable. Keep in mind that it should contain only few or no nuts/sunflower seeds or sugar-rich components.
Grain should be used rarely as it is quite high in energy and starch may disturb the microbial flora of the digestive tract.

Instead of fruits (rich in sugar), it is better to use vegetables, herbs and grass for enriching the feeding. Suitable, for example, are pepper, chicory, apple tree branches with leaves, carrots and their leaves, hazelnut branches, and willow branches.
Some vegetables such as carrots and beet root may lead to yellow or even reddish urine, don’t mistake it for blood! All green things should be fed in reasonable amounts.

Degus need free access to water at any time!

More information about feeding: http://www.degus-online.de/feed.htm

Breeding
Imparting the offspring is not easy and in animal shelters and private households there is already a huge number of degus that urgently need a new home.

By the age of 6 weeks (females) and 12 weeks (males), the degus may become mature. After gestation that averages 90-93 days the female gives birth to a litter of 4 to 6 baby degus (but there might be litters from 1 up to 12 babies). The offspring will arrive fully developed with full fur, open eyes, and the ability to walk around after a short period of time – perfect miniatures of the parents.
After 5 or 6 weeks the babies are weaned; by this time there are fully independent.

Neutering
It is possible to neuter a male degu, although the risks are quite high (mainly because of the general anesthesia). We recommend using neutering only in circumstances with no other opportunity.
Look for a veterinarian who is familiar with degus or at least with rodents. After being neutered the male should be kept separated from the females for about 6 weeks as he might be fertile for this period of time.

Health & Diseases
Most diseases in degus have to be regarded as emergencies as these small rodents don’t have energy reserves and will often die because of exhaustion and shock. Don’t wait; visit your veterinarian in any case of unclear symptoms! Diarrhea, apathy, loss of weight, and anorexia are some of the symptoms that should raise your alarm.

A common disease in degus is the diabetes associated cataract. In this condition the pupil looks milky grey and the degu will become inevitably blind (there may also be other reasons for a clouded lens, like some other disease
or eye injury. See a vet, he can exclude these). Normally the degus get used to it and show no limitations. A first symptom of diabetes may be an excessive water intake. Diabetes in general may be inherited or acquired. Unfortunately our knowledge about diabetes in degus is quite poor. Diabetes is known in wild living degus as well; this was one reason to use them in research.
Risk factors are genetic predisposition, overweight and to some extent sugar containing food. For this reason we recommend a diet low in sugar and fat. Once a degu is diabetic even more emphasis should be put on a diet low in fat and carbohydrates. Unfortunately there is no therapy so far.
Most degus will live to old age although they are diabetic, but some degus will die within a short period of time.

Other diseases or injuries that are found frequently in degus include respiratory problems, broken limbs, bite wounds, overgrown teeth, and diarrhea.
You may find some more information following this link (in German): www.degus-online.de

The Degu-Forum
The forum
is meant to provide information, exchange and help for degu owners and people who would like to adopt degus.

The corresponding address you may use: Sabine Gehrsitz; webmaster@degus-online.de

 

More information

Feeding Blue degus/sandy-coloured degus
Neutering Degu-FAQ

Download this site: http://www.michaelgoetz.net/degubooklet.pdf

This site was translated by Sandra and Dunja. Thank you!