Degus are small rodent-like animals from South America and are closely related to the guinea pig and chinchilla. They look rather like large gerbils, although, degus are not actually rodents at all. They are more closely related to rabbits than gerbils.
Degus come from the lowland, west coast plains of Chile where they inhabit the west slopes of the Andes mountains up to an elevation of 1,200 metres. They live on grass and other green vegetation, bark, seeds and fruit. Degus feed on the ground, but will climb into the branches of small shrubs and trees. They are active during the day and all year round. They construct elaborate, communal burrow system and live together in small colonies.
Degus can live to be around 15 years old in the wild, but in captivity their life span is often shortened because it is hard to replicate their specialized diet of bulbs, twigs, etc. Degus are also prone to cataracts and mouth diseases. Degus behave much like gerbils. They take naps throughout the day, they play with each other, and they like to dig. Degus are more vocal, though, rather like guinea pigs. They make a variety of noises including weeping, warbling with happiness, and shrieking when alarmed.
Degus are great pets for older children and adults. Theyâ€™re friendly, inquisitive and easy to look after. With lots of attention they can become very tame. Degus are very intelligent and love to play and explore. They usually live between six to eight years in captivity.
Degus are part of the rodent family and love to chew everything. Therefore, itâ€™s essential that you buy an appropriate cage from which they canâ€™t escape. A wire cage is a good choice but itâ€™s important that it has a solid (rather than mesh) base to prevent your pets developing problems with their paws. Alternatively, you could keep your degus in a large gerbilarium or even in an aquarium with a suitable top.
Degus are very active, like to climb and need space to exercise. Ideally, their cage should have several levels or shelves as degus love to bound around from one level to another! Keep the cage out of direct sunlight and damp spots and away from anything which may cause rapid temperature fluctuations such as radiators or draughts. Degus donâ€™t like high temperatures so donâ€™t keep them in an overly warm room.
You should provide a large wooden nesting box full of hay for them to sleep in. Clean branches from stone-less fruit trees such as an apple tree will provide entertainment as will gnawing blocks. Cuttlebone is great for chewing on and provides calcium. Wooden and woven toys made from natural materials are always welcome â€“ youâ€™ll find these in your local pet store.
It is recommended to keep degus in pairs, as degus are highly social animals. For a pair, a 15 gallon aquarium or larger (with a tight-fitting screen lid) is advisable, or, you can also use those large wire cages with ramps often used for chinchillas and ferrets. You should include a water bottle and a food dish. For bedding, you should use a non-toxic litter. You can give the degus cardboard boxes to hide in with tissue paper to make a nest with. Things to chew on like toilet paper rolls are fun to play with and keep their teeth worn down. If the cage is large enough, you can put some non toxic branches for them to run around on. You can also supply them with a tail-safe wheel to run on.
Degus have slightly more specialized diets than other common pets firstly because they lack the ability to digest sugars. Their species has developed in a part of the world where their foods do not usually contain sugars, and so their bodies have evolved accordingly. They can become diabetic if fed too many sugars, which eventually leads to cataracts. We recommend providing a simple guinea pig mix, along with hay. An occasional treat could be pieces of sweet potatoes, carrots, a few sunflower seeds, or a bit of peanut. Don't give your degus any fruit or any other sugar-holding treats. Try to avoid starchy foods also. Some people just stick with the mix and hay diet and don't give treats. Whatever works for you is fine as long as the degu is kept healthy.
Degus are also prone to mouth diseases, and their water should be changed daily.
Degus are very social animals and can become very tame if handled from an early age. However, they do best if kept with other degus because of their social nature. They are playful and curious. Without social interaction and opportunity for exercise, they can be aggressive and neurotic. Degus are diurnal (active during the day). In the wild they live in communities (much like prairie dogs) and dig an elaborate system of burrows to live in.
When you take your degus home, allow them a few days to get used to their new surroundings without being disturbed. You should then start talking to them quietly so that they get used to your voice. The next step is to introduce your hand into their cage and perhaps offer a treat. Once theyâ€™re comfortable with you, you can pick them up. Hold your pet close to your chest so that itâ€™s facing you with one hand over its back and the other hand supporting its bottom. Itâ€™s important that you handle your pets regularly to develop their confidence and maintain your relationship with them. Degus do wriggle a lot but once theyâ€™re at ease with you, they may sit on you and allow you to stroke them.
Never pick a degu up by its tail. This could harm your pet and is very painful. A degu has the ability to shed its tail much like a lizards, but a degu's tail doesn't grow back.
Female degus can become sexually mature as early as 8 or 9 weeks old. To avoid health risks and unwanted babies it's important to accurately sex and separate degus no later than two months of age. Degus are generally hardy animals, but if they are fed sugar they may suffer from diabetic-related illnesses, such as cataracts, weight-loss, kidney damage, blindness, and loss of circulation. Mouth problems include overgrown teeth and white teeth. Be alert and consult a vet if you notice signs of illness or injury.
Your degu's teeth shold be an orange-yellow color, not white. If they are white, he is probably very sick. The colouration is due to the fact that the chlorophyll in the greens that they eat reacts with an enzyme in their bodies and produces an orange organic fluid in their saliva.
Your degu will benefit from a weekly bath in chinchilla dust just like chinchillas do. Simply put some of the dust in a wide dish and let them roll around in it, and their fur and skin will be much healthier and cleaner.
Degus are usually very clean creatures. Your degusâ€™ cage and toys should be thoroughly cleaned at least once a week using a pet safe disinfectant.
Deciding the sexes of degus is much harder than other rodents. The most distinguishing characteristic is the spacing between the urethra and the anus. In the female, the urethra and anus are very close together, while in the male a bit of space can be seen between these openings. In mature animals, the male urethra takes on more of a penile shape, while the female urethra is more conical. Female Degus are usually larger than male ones.
Degus become sexually mature at the age of 6-9 months, although there have been reported cases of 8-9 week old females being impregnated. Degus have a fairly long gestation period - about 90 days - and the young are born fully furred and with their eyes open. The average litter size is 5 or 6. Both parents help care for the young. Degu pups stop nursing at around 4 weeks, and can usually be safely weaned at 5 or 6 weeks old.
Degus, like gerbils, have a post-partum estrus, which means they can mate as soon as they give birth. If they do not mate at that time, they will probably not come into estrus again until they have weaned the litter.