By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut
Degus are becoming more popular and can be fun and sociable pets but have some very specific care requirements.
The degu is a rodent, fairly closely related to the guinea pig and the chinchilla. They can live until 8-9 years of age when cared for correctly so this needs to be taken into account when choosing one as a pet. They originate from Chile and are awake during the day unlike many of the smaller pet rodent species meaning they can make great companions. They are not particularly keen on being handled so are not ideal children’s pets, but are very intelligent and can bond closely with their owners. In the wild they love to burrow and dig and can form complex tunnel systems.
It is important to get the correct diet for degus as they are unable to digest carbohydrates and sugars meaning they are prone to diabetes. Ad lib hay supplemented with specific degu diets are best with some green leafy veg and forage. Meadow or Timothy hay is best, Alfalfa hay should be avoided as this can lead to weight gain. Hay can be given in different boxes and tubes to provide increased mental stimulation. The specific degu diets can be provided in treat balls to help keep them active and their brain stimulated.
In order to keep degus healthy they need to be active and have the space to be active. Ideally wire cages with multiple levels giving them plenty to explore and a substrate at the bottom that they can dig and burrow gives them the best stimulation. Plastic based cages are not suitable, they are strong chewers and will easily gnaw a way out! Many toys can be added to give them more to do including tunnels, digging boxes with clean soil or sand, balls they can also chew and branches from trees including apple, pear, beech or ash. Chewing is important as, like rabbits and guinea pigs, they have constantly growing teeth which need to be worn down. Proper diet helps with this as hay is ideal for wearing teeth but plenty of gnawing is also necessary. Nesting boxes or ceramic pots can be used to give them a nesting space to hide. Exercise wheels are commonly used but try to get the largest diameter wheel possible to avoid any potential spinal damage. Care should be taken to keep degus below 20C, they can overheat readily in high temperatures. They can tolerate cold better but avoid extremes. They do not do well in the damp so wet areas must be avoided. Degus are sociable creatures and need company of their own species. They should be in at least pairs, obviously male/female pairs will breed so ideally they should be neutered or housed in same sex pairs or groups. Male groups need to be kept well away from females or can fight. They are vocal animals with a range of noises to communicate between themselves. They can also form close bonds with their owners, making them brilliant companions but also leaving them at risk of separation anxiety.
When handling a degu, care must be taken to never hold or pick them up by their tail, they have developed the ability to shed their tail to avoid predators in the wild but the remaining stump can lead them to further traumatise the wound and lead to infections. They should be fully supported when handled making sure their legs are not left to dangle as this makes them feel unsafe. They can bite and have powerful incisors so regular handling is needed to ensure they feel safe with being picked up and carried but it also means they are not ideal pets for younger children.
In order to stay clean degus require a dust bath, they use the dust to clean oils from their coat, this needs to be available at all times.
Dental problems can be an issue in degus, be aware of any drooling or wetness around their chins and if spotted, or if there are any changes in their eating, see a vet asap. Their teeth should be yellow rather than white, white teeth are actually a sign of a problematic vitamin A deficiency (which should not be an issue with correct diet). Respiratory problems can also occur, increased breathing rate, rasping and discharge are common signs of this. Degus are classed as ‘exotic’ pets so making sure your vet is an exotic specialist is the best way to ensure proper care. Any signs of lethargy, going off their food, weight loss, excess salivation or similar should mean a vet visit asap. Nail trimming may also be needed if not being worn correctly.
Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).