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
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:
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
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
- 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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
Degus in the wild are normally diurnal (active during the day); however,
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
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!
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.
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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):
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;
Download this site:
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