Posted: December 4, 2014, 1:10 a.m. EST
Degus are a rodent species from the central part of Chile. They are very similar to chinchillas and guinea pigs. In general degus are smart and friendly pets. In the wild, degus live in groups of roughly five to 10 and dig elaborate burrows similar to those of prairie dogs. They are very social and very vocal. They can make approximately 15 different sounds.
It is important for a young degu to hear his mother’s calls for proper emotional development. Degus are seasonal breeders with the breeding season in the fall. Females are pregnant for about 90 days, and the pups are born in the spring. Litters of two to 12 have been reported, but an average litter size is five to seven.
Degus are strict herbivores. In the wild, degus eat mostly grasses, leaves and shrubs with a high-fiber content. They will also ingest their own feces at night like rabbits do to extract as much nutrition as possible from the food.
Degus are fairly new as a companion animal, but they have been used as lab animals for about 20 years. The research animals have provided a large amount of information that will be useful in the care of pet degus. Just like rabbits, degus are very prone to dental disease. The cheek teeth and the long incisors at the front of the mouth are constantly growing. In the wild, degus are frequently chewing on grasses and other high-fiber plant material, which wears down the teeth. In captivity, degus need a high-fiber diet and plenty of hay to increase their chewing, which will wear down the teeth.
© Isabelle Francais/I-5 Publishing
Degu teeth continue to grow throughout their life, so a diet high in fiber is critical to keep the teeth worn to a proper length.
Without this coarse fiber and prolonged chewing, the teeth will continue to overgrow and cause serious dental disease. The cheek teeth and incisors may overgrow to the point that it becomes difficult for the degu to eat any food. In addition degus can develop elodontomas. Elodontomas are benign tumors of tooth origin (usually the incisor teeth) that can develop after tooth damage. The tooth damage is usually from chewing on the wire cage. Elodontomas frequently become large enough to obstruct the nasal cavity. This leads to respiratory problems, bacterial infections of the nose and sinuses, and bone damage. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to eat and difficult to breath.
In addition to preventing dental disease, high-fiber diets are also needed to prevent diabetes. Degus are very sensitive to sugar and develop diabetes easily when fed a diet with a high-sugar content. Degus with diabetes frequently develop cataracts. Most fruits and berries contain too much glucose for degus. Pet degus should be fed a commercial rodent food, a large amount of hay, and a small amount of low-glycemic vegetables. Degus are also prone to becoming obese if overfed, so it is important to monitor body weight and limit the amount of food fed.
Another common problem for degus is skin problems. If degus are kept alone, they will commonly develop hair loss from chewing the hair off of the inner thighs and front paws. This stress-induced behavior often progresses to self-mutilation in those same areas. In degus housed in groups, bite wounds and abscesses are frequently seen, especially if several males are kept in the same cage. It is better to have numerous females with one male.
Degus can make great pets. They are quite social and enjoy human company. They have a few health problems that can be prevented with a good diet and environmental enrichment. Plus they typically live for 7 to 10 years of age in captivity.
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