Guide to Degus

Degus are lovely, entertaining little creatures. However, if you are thinking about getting a couple, then be warned that they are very messy little devils and they need a special diet. While they can be friendly and handable, those that aren’t can give you a nasty bite!

The background to how degus became household pets is from the 1950’s. They were transported to Europe and North America from Chile, where they live from the West Coast to the Andes Mountains.

The primary reason for this transportation was that in the 1950’s, degus were used in laboratories for tests relating to diabetes. This is because degus are naturally diabetic l – they lack the ability to digest sugar in their food. Even the sugars in an apple, can lead to eventual death. See more about their diet in the relevant section.

Never try to catch a degu by his tail. In defence against their natural enemies, degus can loose the end of their tails. The result is a bloody injury, and the end of their tail never grows back again. If left untreated, a degloved tail can get infected.

Degus in captivity often live 10 years or even more. The hair is tweed brown coloured, the tummy has a cream colour and they have lighter circles around the eyes.
They have long whiskers, and their big ears are dominant. The hind legs are shorter than their forelimbs. Each has five hair-covered fingers that degus often nibble on, so their claws do not grow too long.

The teeth of a healthy degu are yellow or orange coloured. White teeth are an indication of a serious disease. Degus’ teeth become orange a couple of weeks after their birth because of the reaction of chlorophyll from green plants with degus’ saliva – this reaction also makes the degus’ saliva orange.

Degus are sociable animals, so it is best to keep at least two animals. Never keep one degu, as it will not be happy and will not live as long as it could have if it had a same sex friend. If kept alone, it could become depressed, and cause it to become aggressive.

Degus are very vocal and have a large spectrum of sounds which includes beeps, whistles and squeaks. Ours tend to squeak at us when it is food time!

Diet

The Degu is herbivorous. In nature, he eats various plants, bulbs, farm crop, leaves and bark from trees and bushes. Try to give them similar food. Don’t give degus any sugar, and very little carbohydrates and fats. If you overfeed these foods to degus, you can cause serious problems to them, which are similar to diabetes.

We feed our degus the following combination of food as advised by our vet: 70% hay (timothy hay is best); 15% hard vegetables – carrots, green beans etc – and cucumber and 15% chinchilla pellets. Now and again we also mix in good quality guinea pig food and uncooked pasta.

Housing

Degus like to climb and have fun. An ideal cage would be a three tier wire cage, like those made by terenziani and used for chinchillas and rats. However, the wire base should be removed (the cage sits in a metal base) to prevent bumblefoot (see below).

As degus do like to make a mess kicking out hay and bits of food, you can use perspex secured to the lower part of the cage to stop you having to clean the area outside their cage every ten minutes!

For suitable bedding, we either use a paper based cat litter such as biocatolet or carefresh supreme or a cardboard bedding such as EcoPetbed or Financard. In our experience, in some cases, woodshavings/sawdust can cause respiratory problems which can kill.

Also add a little hay to cover the floor of the aquarium and some paper for nest material. Clean the housing out about once a week. The more degus who live together, the more often you will have to clean it.

If your cage/aquarium is big enough, leave a dish filled with chinchilla dust in there. Like chinchillas, degus need a daily ‘bath’. If their house isn’t big enough, make sure you place their ‘bath’ in there for at least 10 minutes a day.

Because degus are susceptible to various ailments, do ring around and try to find a vet who has plenty of experience with small rodents and is interested in finding out about Degus even if he/she has not seen one before.

It is worth doing this before you need one in an emergency. Degus seem to be generally robust little rodents but there are certain conditions that you should be aware of.

Health

Diabetes: Degus cannot metabolise sugar; therefore, if they eat too much of it they can become diabetic. The first sign of trouble can be that your Degu gets very fat. They will drink more water than normal and towards the end may become very thin.

Diabetes is always fatal and cannot be treated in small animals. Don’t feed your degu any food that contains sugar. That includes fruit, and raisins. Don’t let your degu get too fat – it is not kind to feed an animal treats until it becomes obese and dies young. If you have a fat degu reduce the amount of pellets and cut out all treats letting the animal eat mainly hay.

Bumblefoot: Having to walk on wire surfaces continually can cause this painful condition. The degu may have difficulty walking and might show pain while on his feet. Remove wire-mesh bottoms from chinchilla cages and try to provide a solid wheel. See you vet for a suitable treatment.

Liver Disease: If Degus are fed too much fat, they will contract liver problems. These can have similar symptoms to Diabetes in that they animal may drink lots of water and get very thin after being quite fat. Don’t feed your degus too much food that is fatty, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts and nuts.

Mouth Disease: Degus are very prone to infections of the mouth. Make sure that the water bottle is kept spotlessly clean.

Inbreeding: Because of the small population of Degus in the country inbreeding inevitably occurs. This can cause many health problems in the babies and should be avoided.

Cataracts: Cataracts in Degus are a genetic condition and the symptoms are greying of the eye and sight problems in older Degus. Degus have whiskers which prevent them from bumping into things and a good sense of smell and so should manage fine.

Eye Infections: We have had a spate of eye injuries with degus in the past, this has been caused by two things, firstly sand baths. (Make sure you clean out your sand bath daily as they will climb in and kick hay, bedding allsorts into the bath.) This can get into the eye while they bathe.

Secondly – their teeth. If your degu has recurring eye problems (such as a white discharge) and your vet has looked inside your degus mouth and his teeth seem fine, an x-ray should be carried out. This way the vet can see if the root of the teeth are growing upwards and causing pressure on the eye socket.

Degus have what is called an open root – if the back teeth aren’t used constantly (by gnawing and grinding on lots of hard foodstuffs and hay) they keep on growing – inside the mouth as well as up towards the eye sockets and down through the jaw (the same as chinchilla and in some cases, guinea pigs).

By giving your degu lots to gnaw on – like timothy hay and hard foods – you are doing your best to keep their teeth healthy – as well as their general health too.

It must be stated here that there is no substitute for good veterinary advice when treating your rodents. If you know of a good specialist in this field please email us with their details.