Animal Library: Degus

Please enjoy this information based on our experience, but we no longer breed the animals below, or have any contacts for them.

Degus

(Degus) (Brush-tailed rat, Chilean squirrel, or trumpet-tailed rat) (Octodon degus)

Degus are relatively easy to breed and maintain. You can still occasionally find them in privately owned pet stores, exotic auctions, or listed by hobby breeders. Many exotic breeders have chosen to stop breeding these critters because the costs of producing these animals (food, space, and labor) are higher than what the average pet buyer is willing to pay. Another challenge that breeders face is finding unrelated breeding stock. It is quite common for many animals in a given geographical area to all be related. The cost of bringing in new bloodlines (airline is the only legal way to ship mammals) is prohibitive to most breeders especially when compared to the typical retail value of these animals. We predict that these critters will also become harder and harder to find as new bloodlines become unavailable.

Habitat and Origin

  • There are three species of degus but the most common and most prevalent is the Octodon degus species (Nowak).
  • The “Octodon” portion of their Latin name comes from a figure eight pattern in their teeth. Some web site sources we found say it is a pattern of wear in the enamel on the surface of their teeth and other sources indicate the figure eight pattern can be seen in the enfolded edges of the molars (Najecki).
  • The closest relatives of the degus are the guinea pig and chinchilla, all of whom are in the suborder Caviomorpha in the Order Rodentia. There is some controversy as to whether degus are actually more closely related to rabbits, hares, and pikas (Order Lagomorpha) or to the chinchilla and guinea pig family (order Rodentia). Degus physical characteristics closely resemble other rodents, but DNA evidence supports that they are more closely related to lagomorphs (Degu Myths).
  • Degus are most common mammal in Chile where they are considered agricultural pests. They are found throughout the lowland and west coast plains. Some sources say they can be found up to 3,000 meters (Najecki) and other sources say they can be found up to 12,000 meters (Nowak) in the Andes Mountains.
  • Degus typically live in small social colonies similar to prairie dogs. They are ground dwellers living under rocks and hedges and in burrows. They often share their burrows with the chinchilla rat Abrocoma bennetti (Najecki).
  • They make elaborate nests using twigs and it is believed that their status within the degu community is related to the size of their twig pile (Lelived).

Physical Characteristics and Habits

  • Degus are diurnal (unlike mice and rats which are nocturnal) so they are most active in early morning and late afternoon.
  • Degus have been used extensively in medical research to study human sleep/wake cycles and circadian behavior. (Najecki, Debra).
  • Our degus have approximately a six inch body and six inch tail. Our degus are about the size of a small guinea pig. Females are typically larger than males.
  • The tail has a thin covering of fur along the shaft with longer fur on the tip making the tip resemble a brush.
  • Degus have very sharp, front incisors. The normal color of their teeth is a bright yellow or orange color. Very light color teeth are a sign of an inadequate diet or a sick animal.
  • They are normally easily tamed if they are handled from an early age. They are very social and curious so they will come up to you and peer out at you through the bars of their cage or they will come up to your hand if you place it in their cage. Degus seek out human interaction and they may even try to communicate with you with their various chirps and squeaks. They learn about their environment by sniffing and tasting so it is always good to use a bit of caution if they act overly curious about your fingers. If you smell good the degu might assume you will taste good as well.
  • Never chase or grab a degu. The degus’ main line of defense when it feels threatened is to bite and it can deliver a very nasty bite.
  • We recommend buying from a breeder or pet store that is comfortable handling their animals. If gloves are necessary to handle the animal they will most likely be even more afraid in a new environment.
  • Some degus love to take a dust bath similar to chinchillas.
  • Degus are reported to live up to 15 years in the wild. Pet degus typically have a much shorter life expectancy probably due to the fact that their natural diet is not easily replicated. If a degu develops cataracts it may only live from 6 to 7 years (Leliveld) but if it is in excellent health it may live up to 10.

Personality and Social Structure

  • Degus have a personality that might be described as a cross between a squirrel and a rat. They are very active, curious, and quite intelligent.
  • Degus are very social animals that make a variety of chirps, squeaks, and whistles similar to a guinea pig. They will communicate to both their cage mates and human care givers. Different noises are used to express different needs such as wanting out, a treat, more attention, or that they are happy. Some degu enthusiasts describe a particular noise as a “weep” (Leliveld) but this is not a sound that we typically hear our degus make.
  • Most degus are not reasonably quiet but we do have a couple that will sit and chirp for extended periods of time.
  • It is generally recommended that degus be kept in pairs. A male and female pair or a male and two females are good breeding combinations. Animals of opposite sex are more than likely going to breed! If you do not want babies two females are recommended.
  • There is never any guarantee that two animals will get along. The best way to minimize fighting is to obtain animals that were raised together or animals that are young and close to the same age. It is always best to make introductions as gradual as possible.
  • Two females are most likely to be cohabitate the best. Some males may get along fine but even young males raised together may fight to the death when they reach adulthood.
  • Some degu enthusiast report that single degus are more depressed and as a result they get diseases more easily. Lonely degus may become aggressive or self mutilate by chewing the fur off their feet and tails (Najecki). Our degus are all in pairs or trios so we do not have any personal experience with single animals.
  • Single animals may do fine alone are given plenty of human attention and interaction.
  • You must be very careful when introducing one degu to another. It is best to have them in a wire cages next to each other or a glass cage divided by wire. The degus will get to know each other’s scent through the wire. After a week or so the degus can be introduced to each other. They may bicker and squabble to establish their social order. If the fighting continues for very long or becomes overly aggressive they may need to be separated because they just don’t like each other.
  • Just because animals are social in the wild doesn’t guarantee that any two animals will get along in a confined space where one can not get away if fighting begins.
  • Degus are able to recognize various voices or sounds. They become particularly excited to those sounds related to their feeding time or treats.
  • We believe degus make excellent pets if they are handled properly. Many people who enjoy rats as pets like degus because their personality is very similar but they do not have the strong pungent odor and naked tail which are the most offensive characteristics of rats. Degus are fun to watch, have charming personalities, and they love attention.

Cage and Equipment Requirements

  • We have used large glass aquariums (15 gallon or larger) with a tight fitting lid as well as wire cages. Degus love to play and explore so a large cage or a cage with many levels is ideal for these inquisitive critters.
  • Wire cages should have wire with a width no larger than 1/2 inch or babies may escape and they should have a deep pan so that bedding is not kicked outside of the cage because they do like to dig in their bedding.
  • Degus are exceptionally good jumpers and climbers and they will enjoy climbing the walls of a wire cage.
  • Habitrails or other plastic tubes and tunnels systems, or cages with plastic should not be used as their primary enclosure. Degus chew through plastic quite easily and within no time the plastic will have to be replaced.
  • If a plastic water bottle is used inside the cage it should have a metal guard that totally encloses the bottle.
  • Like all other rodents, degus teeth grow continuously. They need gnawing materials such as pieces of untreated, raw pine boards. They love to chew on willow, birch, or apple tree branches. I also give my degus a pumice stone that is sold in pet stores as chinchilla chew blocks.
  • Degus enjoy running on a large 10 to 12 inch wheel but as with wire bottom cages there is always a risk that their feet, legs, and tails may become caught and twisted in the wire.
  • Other accessories may include clay flowerpots, toilet paper tubes, and objects to hide under. We recommend staying away from toys or other items made out of plastic.
  • Pine or aspen shavings or some other wood product are the most commonly used bedding for degus and other small animals. Never use cedar shavings because the oils and dust from cedar can be harmful to small mammals.

Food, Water, and Temperature Requirements

  • Degus’ natural diet consists of twigs, grasses, bark, and tubers. Degus do seem to prefer grain if it is available.
  • It is very difficult to mimic the degus diet in the wild. Most breeders use an alfalfa based pellet (chinchilla, rabbit, and guinea pig foods) as the base for their diet. Some breeders prefer to feed pellets alone and other breeders tend to feed more of a variety of foods.
  • One example of a degu diet is a mixture of 40% chinchilla pellets and 40% guinea pig pellets, and 20% rodent block.
  • Other breeders feed their degus the same diet as they feed their chinchillas. The chinchilla pellets are supplemented with ½ teaspoon of whole grain conditioner consisting of rolled oats, barley, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and calf manna.
  • Degus typically do not overeat but they may take food from their dish and hide it for later.
  • Leliveld recommends giving small amounts of sweet potatoes and carrots to provide Vitamin C and to add a fresh component to their diet. Dr. Adolf Maas, an exotic veterinarian, also recommends additional sources of Vitamin C. Fresh parsley is another good source of Vitamin C.
  • Many sources of degu information say that degus cannot metabolize sugars and that all sugars should be removed from their diet. However, the degus diet consists mostly of cellulose and plant starches which are eventually broken down into sugars through the digestive process.
  • Their natural diet does not contain berries or fruits which contain concentrated sugars. So, even though the body can process or metabolize these foods, it is very important to monitor the amounts of sugar in the diet outside the pelleted foods mentioned above. They may become diabetic over a period of time because their bodies are not accustomed to high concentrations of sugar.
  • I recommend staying away from sugar containing treats such as fresh fruits or dried fruits, including raisins. Shredded wheat squares, a few peanuts, sunflower seeds, hay cubes, or timothy hay would be a more suitable treat.
  • Degu breeders or hobbyists with large numbers of degus will often feed a slightly different diet to their colonies than individuals with only one animal or a few animals.
  • Degus require plenty of fresh drinking water. We suggest mounting the bottle on the outside of the cage or using a metal guard that completely encloses the bottle. Leliveld recommends hyper chlorinating the water to prevent mouth diseases but we have not found this to be necessary.
  • Keep your degus out of drafts and direct sunlight. A comfortable room temperature is perfect for degus. Since degus come from a cool mountain environment they can withstand slightly cooler temperatures than other small rodents.

Care and Handling

  • A degu is able to shed its tail as an escape mechanism. The degu will twist and spin and the skin of the tail will slip off exposing vertebrae and tendons. The wound does not bleed but it is quite a disturbing sight.
  • The injured tail should be monitored for signs of infection or complications but the injured tail does not normally require veterinary attention.
  • The degu or its cage mates will chew off the remainder of the tail. The damaged tail does not grow back.
  • An experienced small animal handler may be able to safely pick up degus by the base of the tail. One hand holds the tail and uses it as steadying device or as a way to lift the animal so that the other hand may be slid under the degu. However, we recommend using this method with extreme caution.
  • Tame and friendly degus can be scooped up in your hands.
  • Never startle or grab a degu. Degus can inflict a severe bite if they feel scared, threatened, or if they are aggressive.
  • Aggressive degus can be scooped into a large cup, feed scoop, or other container, but one must be careful that the degu does not jump out.
  • One handling solution for difficult animals is to use an eight-inch nylon fish net (Najecki). Most degus will quickly learn to become comfortable with the transferring device.

Reproduction & Health

  • As mentioned earlier, degus teeth should be yellowish-orange in color. It is reported that the chlorophyll in the greens of their diet reacts with an enzyme in their bodies and produces color in their teeth.
  • Cataracts and diabetes are the most common health problem of degus.
  • Both conditions are known to spontaneously develop making degus good models for these conditions in medical research (Najeck).
  • Too much sugar in the degus diet can contribute to the degu developing diabetes. The degu will drink more water than normal and will not live as long.
  • Mouth diseases have been reported as another health concern for degus (Leliveld). We have never experienced mouth diseases in our colonies.
  • The sex of the degu can be determined by looking for a distinctive spacing between the urethra and anus in the male.
  • The female’s urogenital openings and anus are very close together and almost touching.
  • The male’s urethra is penile shaped and the female’s is more conical.
  • Baby degus can be easily sexed by two weeks of age.
  • The gestation period for degus is 90 days. Babies are born fully furred and if their eyes are not open at birth they will open within 72 hours.
  • Degus have a single baby or they can have as many as 13 babies per litter with an average of 5 babies per litter.
  • Both parents and other female cage mates will care for the babies. The babies can be weaned as early as four to five weeks of age.
  • Degus typically reach sexual maturity by about 6-9 months of age but some degus can breed as early as 8 or 9 weeks of age (Leliveld).
  • Degus, like many other small rodents, have a post-partum estrus, which means they are capable of rebreeding right after the babies are born. If the degu does not rebreed immediately it may wait until after the babies are weaned or even take a several month rest from reproducing.

Other Resources

  • Husbandry and Management of the Degu (Octodon degus). Debra L. Najecki and Barbara Tate. Lab Animal Magazine Volume28, No 3. March 1999.
  • Degu Info
  • Degu Info (Heinjan Leliveld)
  • Degu Mania
  • Degu Myths 1999-2003. DeguMania and AniMania

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