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Caring For Pet Degus
There are several known sub species of Degus. Octodon degus is the type most commonly kept as pets, therefore the information on this site will focus on the species, Octodon degus.
Classification: Kingdom: Animalia
Species: O. degus
Binomial Name: Octodon degus
Common Names: Degu, Degus, Bushy-tailed Rat, Common Degu (The pluralism for Degu is Degus and a collection of Degus is referred to as a herd, a group, or a colony)
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The Wild Degus
Natural Distribution: The naturally occurring species of Degu is native to South America where it can be found living in small herds, consisting of five or more animals per group, on the lower slopes in the Andes Mountain range in Central Chile. They thrive best in a semi arid, scrubland environment but can also be found living in areas that have been disturbed by farming and grazing.
Natural Habitat & Diet: They are naturally found living in an arid, dusty volcanic, scrubland environment. Temperatures are extreme and can vary between 9 degrees Celsius and 30 degrees Celsius but these extremes are not ideal and can be detrimental to their health. Degus seem to thrive best when temperatures are not as extreme therefore 15 to 22 degrees is optimum. Degus are true herbivores. In the wild, Degus usually feed on the ground where they feed on grass, bulbs, tubers and other green vegetation but they will climb into the branches of shrubs and small trees to feed on leaves, bark, additional seeds, a few berries. Although they are herbivores they will occasionally eat insects or bird eggs if need be.
Personality / Social Structure: Degus are prey animals and being that they are quite active during the day, it is crucial for them to be constantly be on guard, ready to flee from danger. They live in social groups where they depend on one another for companionship and to be on the lookout for danger. The more eyes the better. Their herds are comprised of male and female animals that usually have a close family connection. Breeding is done within the group but occasionally, a female Degu will wander away from the herd hoping to meet and breed with a neighbouring male. She knows what she is doing when she decides to venture away from the group. Her mission is to become pregnant as this mating helps strengthen the family line limiting excessive inbreeding within the family group. After she returns to the group, she will breed with a male in the group and the herd will raise that litter as they would normally.
Wild Degus do not readily accept mature animals that are not a part of the social group. They do not appreciate uninvited guests and will defend their territory aggressively and they will chase the intruder away.
Each of the herd members have specific jobs to do that will help the herd thrive. The social structure of the group is more of a hierarchy and although it is lead by a dominant male and experienced female, the other members in the group are unusually considered as equals. Degus are not loud but they do talk a lot amongst their friends. They like order in the group and certainly won’t hesitate at telling one another whether they approve or disapprove of something. When they do not like something, they will often bicker but they seldom go into aggressive combat with one another. Usually, they argue over food, who gets to use the exercise wheel or the sand bath first, by using a repertoire of low pitched squeaks and chirps.
All members of the herd have specific roles when raising babies. Some act as sentinels, others act as babysitters. Dad is very interactive with his youngsters. Population growth is controlled by predation, environment conditions and food availability.
Sleeping habits and activity level: Degus are busy and extremely active, animals. They are naturally crepuscular, meaning that they seem to be more active primarily during twilight; the period immediately after the sun comes up and before the sun goes completely down. However, when housed in a stress free, captive environment and kept as pets they will readily adapt to their environment. Well socialized pets usually develop habits that tend to be similar to other diurnal animals but some still prefer to live a crepuscular or nocturnal lifestyle.
Appearance: The Degu's appearance is a little hard to describe. In a lot of ways, it looks like an overgrown gerbil crossed with a pudgy little squirrel.
A Degu's front legs are shorter than its back legs. They have five clawed toes on each of their four feet. The toes on their back feet are lightly covered in bristly fur. Their ears are quite large for a small animal of similar size. Their coat is short and silky. The natural or wild colour variety of a Degu is agouti or grey-brown tinged with bronze on the back and creamy yellowish tan to off white on the belly. In recent years, breeders have been working with colour genetics and have established lots of new colour varieties; e.g. Sandy, Blonde, Piebald, Blue and White colours.
Sexual Dimorphism: You can not verify the gender of Degus by simply looking at them. However, there are visual differences between the male Degu and the female Degu. If you closely examine their genital region, you will notice that there are two distinct areas on both sexes. One is an anus the other is a cone shaped bump or protrusion that houses and protects the genitalia. There is a larger space between the anus and the genital bump on the male. While there can sometimes be a bit of a space between the anus and the genital bump of the female, the space is usually much smaller than that of a male and often there is no space at all. On mature animals, there is also a small slit on the bump. If the animal is mature enough the slit/opening is noticeable and the male's opening will point towards the tip and belly, while the opening on a mature female will be on more of an angle, with the opening directed at her tail.
Having spent decades keeping and raising Degus, we are usually very accurate at determining the sex of a baby Degu. However even for us, determining the sex while they are immature or still small and not yet fully developed, can be challenging.
Adult Weight: When mature, both males and females weigh 220-250 grams (7 ¾ to 8 ¾ ounces).
Adult Size/Length: When mature, including head and tail, both male and female Degus measure approximately 25 cm to 31 cm (10 to 12 inches). Not including a tail, they measure 15cm (6 inches). The tail is an additional 7 -15 cm (3 to 6 inches).
Average Life Expectancy: They are considered a long-lived rodent and it has been documented that they can live up to 6-8 years in the wild. However, that is extremely rare. In the wild mostly due to predation they seldom live to more than a couple year of age.
Life in Captivity
Keeping a male versus a female: Males and females make equally good pets. When raised together they can live in same sex or mixed sex pairs. Opposite sex pairs or trios almost always guarantees that they will raise a family! If you do not want babies, it is probably best to keep them in same sex groups or pairs. We find that our males are sometimes a little more outgoing and adventurous than our females. This is probably because they do not to experience that many fluctuations in hormones levels that are often associated with wanting to raise a family or pregnancy. Males seem a bit more even tempered. I am fairly sure that if a female has never been bred it will still experience minor fluctuations in mood because of hormonal changes but these changes appear to be insignificant unless she is pregnant and the birthing time grows nearer.
Habitat - Housing / Cage Set-up: Degus do need to be housed in a chew proof cage. Like most rodents, their teeth continuously grow and they need to gnaw, so providing them with a plastic or wooden cage is not always ideal. Large solid bottom, open air metal or a glass tank fitted with a cage (open-air) topper is ideal. If you can adequately care for the cage and maintain a high degree of cleanliness, then the bigger the better. Obviously, a bigger cage will certainly provide more room for Degus and it is also much more interesting for the owner, who can design a variety of very interesting set ups. Whether the displays are natural looking or they are equipped with lots of safe, brightly coloured, commercially available pet toys, more room equals more fun for the animal and the caregiver.
The bottom of the cage should contain safe non-toxic, absorbent bedding or substrate and additional hay for tunneling and burrowing in. They construct an elaborate, communal burrow system for the colony to use. They move, chew and shred the hay and twigs to form new nesting sites all the time. Having a choice of a couple of nest boxes, large tubes or hide huts is another must for the Degu who does like to sleep in an out-of-the-way, private space.
Degus are quite active and need to run, jump, and climb. They like to explore and they do exercise a lot. Their cage should be equipped with a solid exercise wheel or if the cage can accommodate them, a few exercise wheels. We loosely fill our cages with lots of natural items such as fruit branches, wooden platforms etc. and we change them often because we feel that the changes help provide the animals with some extra stimulation and environmental enrichment. When setting up your habitat, be sure you have plenty of room for your Degu to comfortably access his food and water supply. We offer food and water in non-tip ceramic bowls. Our animals also have access to a water bottle.
Must have Accessories: Suitable chew proof cage, sleeping den, chew proof water bottle or non-tip bowl for water, dry clean bedding, good quality food and a food dish /dispenser, exercise wheel, a gnawing block, dust bath and a container to hold dust for bathing.)
Environmental Enrichment Activities - (Exercise/Toys): Provide levels and tubes for your Degus to climb, bounce, swing, play and explore while they are in their cage. Be sure that you change the cage set up often. This helps to keep them interested in seeing what is new. Wooden platforms and huts or safe untreated cardboard tubes stuffed with hay and twigs will be used to chew on and they will keep your pet entertained for hours. Degus love to run and will enjoy using any additional exercise wheels. Ideally the wheels should be a bit different to the one they are used everyday. A granite cooling stone is appreciated by many. A lot of variety of rodent safe toys should be provided and be sure to change these toys regularly to keep your pet playing with them.
Your Degu should be given time outside of the cage daily. They like to run around and explore. Always make sure the area is safe for your pet. Remove any exposed wires or extension cords and anything that may injure your pet or things the animal might accidentally damage while he or she is romping around playing. Ensure there are no places that it can access and get stuck in or in a place that you can not reach in to retrieve it. Degus like to bounce and climb on things so be sure that it is nothing too high for it to fall.
Temperature: The ideal temperature range to house a Degu in should be between 15 to 25 degrees Celsius. They can easily adapt to the ambient room temperature that is preferred by most humans, 18 -22 degrees Celsius. Due to their inability to sweat, they are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and can quickly develop heat stroke. Most Degus find it challenging to endure temperatures more than 25 degrees Celsius for long periods of time and the more the thermometer rises so does the risk of heat stroke. Especially during the summer months when high temperatures and heat waves are more likely, be sure to provide your pet Degu with cooling stones and lots of cool water. When high temperatures are expected, whenever possible, simply move the cage to a cooler area in the home.
Light: Degus should be housed in an area that is brightly lit with natural occurring light. Avoid putting your pets’ cage in direct sunlight as the heat from sunlight can cause your pets’ home to overheat and cause heat stroke for your pet. Degus require an equal balance of day light and nighttime darkness to thrive. When housed in a bright room, supplemental light is not usually needed. If the animal is housed below ground in a basement or a dimly lit room, they should be provided with a bit of additional bright indirect light for several hours per day. They should be always be kept in a draft free place, out of direct sunlight and never in front of an open window or entry door. Nor should they be housed close to heat or air-condition vents.
Humidity: They thrive best when the humidity level is between 40% to 60%.
Fresh Clean Drinking Water: Not all types of animals consume a large quantity of water everyday, but none-the-less, they all need to have access to clean supply of drinking water whenever they need it. Therefore, all animals must have access to fresh water ALWAYS!
Diet -The more fibrous the better: In captivity, their daily food supply should consist of specially formulated Degu pellets or a mixture guinea pig and chinchilla pellets and a constant supply of good quality hay, which must be made available always. Leafy greens should be added daily. Root vegetables, fruits and other sugary food and high glycemic items should also be included in their diet but they need to be limited, offered more so as treats, which are always offered sparingly. Be sure to read the food label to make certain that the pellets that you purchase, do not contain added sugars (molasses, honey, fructose, glucose, etc.)
Degus should be offered a fresh supply of high fiber vegetables, grasses leaves and other green leafy vegetable (ideally not too much from the cabbage family) DAILY!
Many weeds such as plantain and dandelion are a welcome treat but these weeds must be cleaned and free or insects, herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. Organic is a safer alternative.
As previously mentioned, fresh fruit can be offered as a treat but very sparingly and in tiny amounts. Fresh fruit is much better for your pet than dried fruit is because the sugar content is not as concentrated. Degus really love fruit but too much sugar is very unhealthy for them.
Degus should always have edible chew toys. These are necessary for keeping their teeth from overgrowing. Pressed hay cubes, organic fruit tree branches, twigs and pumice chew stones should be readily available.
Vitamins, Supplements & Treats: A varied diet is always best! A Degu’s diet which is primarily hay, supplemented with treats such as rolled oats, fresh seed, shelled nuts, fresh vegetables and a very small amount or fresh berries usually does not need extra vitamins. The constant supply of pumice chew stones will offer some extra minerals but being that Degus especially a nursing female can be prone to calcium deficiencies, calcium supplements may be required. Sprinkling a small amount of calcium powder on their pelleted food a few times a week will likely suffice but if your Degu eats a variety of things you will probably not need to add other additional vitamins or minerals.
Personality & Social Structure: Degus are crepuscular but in captivity they develop more diurnal tendencies; meaning that unlike nocturnal animals who are most active at night, captive Degus are mostly active during the day and around sunrise and sunset. They are especially active during the morning and later afternoon /early evening. They do not hibernate and are active all year round. They can be seen foraging for food, constructing their elaborate nests and digging tunnels during the daylight hours.
Degus are herd animals. They live in colonies that can easily consist of up to a dozen or so individuals. Most often the group members have a family connection but new, non-threatening, non-aggressive, young animals are often excepted and included as a part of the herd. Each individual animal in the colony has a role to play and is expected to fulfil specific duties.
Being that Degus have evolved to highly social animals they do not like being by themselves. They need friends. Degus will learn to appreciate their human counterpart and include their human friend in their everyday activities, but even though they do accept companionship from their human friend, they still prefer and enjoy the constant companionship that only another Degu can provide.
In a breeding situation, there are very few times that a mother needs to be separated from the herd. Everyone helps raise the babies! Every member of the colony has a role to play in rearing, protecting and educating the babies and they all help keep watch over the younger members of the group. They also have their own way of communicating with one another. While body language certainly plays an important part of communication between Degus, these furry little animals have their own language that consists of different sounds such as chirps, squeaks, and lower octave squeals. While they are not noisy or very loud, each sound is very distinct and if listened to closely, the sounds that they use seem to form clear Degu sentences that everyone in the colony including the human caregiver can easily learn to recognize. In a way, Degus have their own very distinct vocabulary.
Besides being highly social, Degus are extremely intelligent. They are constantly learning and it is well documented that they have very good memories. A Degu can be taught tricks and quickly learn to recognize peoples faces, smells and sounds. They will learn and remember who has been good to them and who has been not so nice. Being that they do talk and send signals to one another, they will tell everyone in their colony to be aware of an individual human. They are certainly not afraid to let you or other group members know how they feel by signally your approach with chirps and purrs when they like you but if you are not so nice, they will posture and let out more of a low-pitched squeal and rumble to the group to warn everyone that a not so nice person or animal is closer. ...So always be nice to your Degus!
When first introduced to new people or other animals they can be a bit hesitant at first. They are ‘creatures of habit’. When it comes to their social hierarchy, trust needs time to be built and they don't always take kindly to intruders. It can take a while for a Degu to warm up to a new person. This can vary between a few minutes to a few weeks but if or when they trust and accept a new human as a new group member; they form strong bonds and build long lasting connections. Not many species of small furry exotic pets show too much excitement when seeing their caregiver again, after he or she has been away for any extended period but Degus do!
Life Expectancy - A Long-lived Rodent: In the wild, the naturally occurring species of Degu could live for approximately 6 to 8 years or more. Some have been known to live more than 10 years. However, life expectancy in captivity is unfortunately a lot less. This is mostly because we humans often associate love with food and sharing that food with things we love and care about is not always a good thing for a Degu. In a sense, many of us pet enthusiasts try to humanize our pets but they are not designed to be human. Their dietary needs are quite different. They have not evolved to digest foods the same way that humans do. There are many human food items that they can not process and sometimes, because of our well-meaning intentions, we often unintentionally don't end up feeding them properly. By giving too much variety too often or offering too many treats too often, combined with the fact that they do not get enough exercise, many degus develop health problems. These health problems can go on undetected for quite a while and many pet Degus don't live past 5 or 6 years.
Some species of animals benefit by living in captivity but because Degus are like humans in that they enjoy eating and will try everything. However, that is not a good thing for them. They have naturally evolved by eating a limited supply of poorer quality, high fiber foods, that have a low sugar content. We may in fact be shortening their life expectancy, by as much as a few years, when we offer them things they should not be eating.
Grooming: Degus groom each other on a regular basis but they also prefer a waterless bath. A few times a week provide your Degus with a specifically designed small animal dust to roll in to bathe. Contrary to what we think of dust, a dust bath does not make the pet dirty, it helps absorb dampness and loosen or dislodge debris that could become lodged in a Degu's coat. If you provide a shallow bowl that contains a small amount of small animal dust bath the Degu will do the rest. He will roll and shake hoping to dislodge anything in his coat that should not be there. Remove the dust bowl after a few minutes and let it air dry for a day or two before offering it to your pet again. You can leave the bowl in the cage but it is almost guaranteed that your pet will dig and play with it until it is all over the cage. That is fun for the Degu but it can become time consuming to clean and it can get a bit costly.
Costs to Consider: A Degu, depending on the colour variety will likely cost around $30.00 each for a normal colour specimen and up to $150.00 for some of the fancier colours.
The cost to set up a suitable habitat can vary but you can expect to pay in the neighbourhood of $150.00 or more for a reasonably priced, decent set-up (including the cage, a few toys, sleeping dens, bedding, food, etc.)
Shopping List (Recommended Chew Proof Supplies)
Large multi-level chew proof cage
Pine or aspen shavings
Ceramic food dish
Edible chew blocks
Health Care: Every live animal can get sick or diseased or they can suffer from injury. Illness can happen at any time and at any age. People often ask us if you can catch anything from your pet. Yes! While it is not that common, you can catch things from any pet just like you can catch things from other people. It is also important to note that sometimes we can unknowingly transfer illness to our own pets! I can not stress enough that personal hygiene is probably the most important habit to get into. Before and after handling your pet and while caring for any pet be sure to wash your hands and keep your pets’ environment clean!
Sometimes specific species are prone to certain diseases and afflictions more than other species. (For example, Degus are often diagnosed with diabetes.) Cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, molds and funguses can negatively affect every living thing if they are left unchecked but sometimes these are things that we have no control over. Even under ideal conditions, there is not much that we can do to prevent these things from happening. Whenever an animal shows signs of illness or injury it is important to take it to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Preventative care usually makes a huge difference in the long-term health of your pet. Good nutrition, cleanliness, exercise and a regular veterinary check up are just a few things that we can do to help keep our pet healthy.
Parasites can be introduced to you pet through food items or by living in a dirty environment. But sometimes even the best cared for animal can contract parasites through other pets, soil or food. If you think that you pet has parasites bring a stool sample to your vet who can prescribe treatment. Never self medicate your pet.
Degus can develop dental problems. Like other rodents, their incisor teeth constantly grow and they need to chew things to help file their teeth down. If they are deprived things to chew they will inevitably develop tooth problems which could lead to surgery to fix any dental issues.
Skin diseases, funguses, pneumonia can be caused by excess moisture, humidity and dampness. While this may not be a direct result of your pets’ environment always keep your pet clean and dry.
(Excessive grooming is a common behavioural problem especially if a degus is stressed)
When a Degus becomes bored for extended periods of time, quite often they will spend too much time self-grooming or on grooming their herd mates. Sometimes some degus will begin to groom excessively, to the point that small bald spots will appear. Casually this is often referred to as barbering but more professionally it is diagnosed as psychogenic alopecia. Usually this is a behavior that happens when a degu is stressed or when an over attentive, dominant male becomes too focused on providing care for his herd (especially babies). It can also happen when the caregiver does not pay enough attention to socializing and interacting with their pets and by not providing enough environmental enrichment.
Degus need to keep busy. If they are not provided with things to keep them interested in, the lack of stimulation can cause boredom to set in which can stress them out. If their living situation is left unattended or if slight changes in their environment are not made regularly sometimes they start to fixate on grooming and before long, the time spent on over grooming may become a habit. This habit can be compared to a finger nail biter or a hair twirler in humans. While it does not usually cause illness or disease, it is not very attractive.
When/if bald spots start to appear, it is a sure sign that something is not right in their living situation. If not addressed quickly, overtime this can become a bad habit that is hard to break.
Captive degus that develop this type of behavioural issue usually starts off slowly. Often the caregivers are not even aware of it until small bald patches of bare skin start to appear. These small bare spots can show up randomly anywhere on a degus’ body but typically the areas that are usually affected are the back, abdomen, legs, flank, and chest. It is very common for nursing babies to develop bald patches in their flank area because of over zealous parenting.
If we notice bald patches we cannot immediately assume these spots are the result of excessive grooming. First, we need to examine the bald spot to make sure that there are no signs of illness (dry skin, scaliness, infection etc.) If you are not experienced with this, then a trip to an exotic animal veterinarian may be advisable. Once we determine that these patches are likely a result of behaviour issues, then we need to make the necessary changes quickly if we are hoping to curb the habit. Normally, with adequate changes, the fur will regrow. If the fur has had time to regrow should the degu starts to become bored again it is likely that the bald spots may start to show up again, you’ll probably notice that the bare spots will likely reappear in the same location on its body.
The best is way to discourage this bad habit is prevention. Offer your degus a lot of distractions and stimulation always. Always keep in mind that degus are thinkers and doers and therefore they need to be kept busy. Continually try to make minor changes in the degus habitat ever few days. Add extra exercise wheels. Offer a selection of chew sticks and nest building items. Try adding new or assorted styles of food bowls. Add pumice stones, toys, safe non-toxic branches and ramps to climb on. Sometimes a different type of natural safe bedding creates curiosity and gets them thinking. Simple things like stirring up the nesting area or simply changing the set up in their habitat is also an effective way to provide them with some forms of environmental enrichment. Although these slight changes might not seem like a big deal to us, they are a very big deal to a degu…when their habitat is disturbed they will spend a lot of time and energy rebuilding their home and fixing it until it becomes the way they want it. This activity usually helps stimulate them and they burn of energy which helps them from becoming bored.
If you suspect one of your degus may already be fur-pulling, it is important to immediately offer as much distraction as possible. Enriching its habitat should help it forget about grooming a bit. SO AGAIN ...Why not add a new exercise wheel? Maybe a few new safe climbing structures and ramps? Perhaps even a tin with a bit of safe sand for it to dig and roll in? Sometimes even just changing the location of its cage may offer it other things to look out at during the day? By spending more time socializing with your pet (a lot!) and with more things to investigate there is a good chance that the likelihood of your degu from becoming bored will be lessened.
If you enjoy interacting with your pet degu, why not try teaching him or her new tricks? Learning a new trick takes time and if you own a degu you already know how much they need to think things through! Degus are very trainable.
Sexual Maturity: Males: 10 to 16 weeks of age Females: 10 to 16 weeks of age
Suggested Breeding Age in Captivity: While sexual maturity occurs when they are around 10 to 16 weeks of age it is better to wait until they are 6 months old and fully mature before they are allowed to conceive and raise a litter. Before breeding any animal, it is important that the animal is in good health, excellent shape and in good breeding condition prior to introducing them for breeding.
Estrus Cycle: Captive Degus can breed year-round but wild Degus are seasonal breeders, ‘polyestrous’ meaning they have multiple heat cycles within a breeding season. A heat cycle lasts usually 1 to 2 days in duration and cycles every 16 – 26 days when the environmental conditions are ideal.
Gestation Period: Pregnancy lasts an average of 90 days.
Average Litter Size: Although the litter size can vary between 1 and 10 newborns but 6 is more common.
Weaning age: Baby Degus, called pups can be weaned into same sex groups when they are 6 to 8 weeks old. Sometimes a single pup or two grows quickly and can be weaned a week earlier.