Where do degus come from? When did they first become pets? What do degus eat? How sociable are degus? What do degus like to do? We’ve all the degu details you need to help you become the perfect pet parent to these intelligent, curious, and endearingly entertaining members of your family.
Here’s what’s covered in our degu Q&A:
- What is a degu, what does a degu look like, and where do they come from?
- When did degus first become pets?
- How long do degus live?
- Are degus awake during the day?
- Are degus good pets for children?
- What do degus eat?
- Where should pet degus live?
- Are degus social and do they need company?
- What do degus like to do?
- How do degus communicate and how do you know if your degus like you?
- How do you make friends with a degu?
What is a degu, what does a degu look like, and where do they come from?
The degu is a member of the Octodontidae family of rodents. They’re in the sub-order caviomorpha, which means they’re related to guinea pigs and chinchillas – although recent studies show that they may actually be closer in relation to rabbits. An adult degu is around 15cm long and has a 15cm tail with a little tuft at the end. Their coat colour ranges from mid to dark brown with a light cream belly and white feet.
Degus originate from Chile and, in the wild, live from coastal plains to the Andes mountains in groups of up to 100, where they dig complex burrows to hide from predators, complete with highly organised nests and food stores.
When did degus first become pets?
First discovered in Chile in 1850, degus were initially brought to the UK in 1950 to study diabetes (degus are unable to regulate glucose concentrations and are prone to developing diabetes mellitus when fed on diets high in sugars). Unsurprisingly, they’ve recently been taken to heart by lovers of lively and sociable small animals.
How long do degus live?
With the right nutrition, suitable accommodation, company, care and kindness, pet degus can live for around five to nine years, so are quite a long-term commitment.
Are degus awake during the day?
Unlike many small furries, degus are diurnal, which means they are active during the day. They love human interaction and enjoy living in busy, active homes.
Are degus good pets for children?
Degus love interacting with humans, but they don’t really like being handled a lot so they’re not ideal for young children. As with all small exotic pets, degus have complex needs and require more looking after than a child can offer. An adult should always be responsible for ensuring degus are properly cared for so they can enjoy their life as endearing and entertaining members of the family.
These sociable, speedy rodents have very different needs from other small furries and providing the correct diet is an essential part of keeping them healthy and happy.
- In the wild, degus survive on grass and other green vegetation, bark, and seeds. In fact, compared to other rodents, degus need to consume large amounts of fibre – at Burgess, we refer to them as ‘fibrevores’
- That’s why hay should make up a large part of their diet. Each day, you need to provide a minimum of their body size in high quality feeding hay to enable their digestive systems to function properly. Chomping on plenty of fresh, tasty hay will also help your degus’ dental health by keeping their continuously growing teeth at the correct length and shape
- Degus also need a low fat, low sugar diet. They can’t digest or metabolise sugar and carbohydrates and they’re very prone to diabetes. That’s why they need a low-fat, low-sugar diet. Avoid high fat foods such peanuts and sunflower seeds, along with foods that are high in sugar, such as fruits
- Foods formulated for other species such as rabbits, hamsters and gerbils are also not suitable for degus. Neither are chinchilla muesli mixes that contain dried fruit – these can result in selective feeding, where pets just pick out the unhealthy bits and leave the rest, leading to an imbalanced diet. Burgess Excel Chinchilla Nuggets are suitable for degus. Naturally high in beneficial fibre and rich in vitamins – including Vitamin C for healthy skin, coat and gums, Vitamin A to maintain healthy eyesight and Vitamin E to maintain a healthy immune system – an egg cup-size portion daily (per degu) will provide all the nutrients they need
When it comes to safe and scrummy snacks, your degus will also enjoy Excel Gnaw Sticks, which are made with made from 100% natural field-grown ingredients, produced in the countryside – willow, apple, and hazel sticks – and are great for your degus to chomp down on
Along with their hay and nuggets, your degus will also enjoy a small daily handful of fresh greens such as dandelion leaves, broccoli, alfalfa, basil, and parsley. You can also treat them to a small cube of carrot, celery, pumpkin, sweet potato, or squash.
Fresh, clean water must always be available – without water, degus become seriously ill. Keep their bottle spotlessly clean and change the water daily. Ensure that your degus can reach and drink from the bottle with ease.
How degus get the nutrients they need
- Degus need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre moving through the gut at all times – these are known as digestible fibre and indigestible fibre. This is because they can’t get enough nutrition from fibre when it passes through their gut the first time, so they pass it through a second time
- Indigestible fibre is moved through their digestive system and excreted as separate, round, hard droppings. This type of fibre keeps the digestive system moving and their appetite stimulated
- Digestible fibre is moved up into an organ called the caecum – which is like a giant appendix. Good bacteria in the caecum ferment the fibre, making it easy to digest. This emerges in the form of clumps of sticky droppings called caecotrophs
- Degus then re-eat the caecotrophs directly from their bottom and the essential nutrients are then absorbed when the digestible fibre passes through for the second time
- So, although it might seem rather strange to us humans, if your degus are eating their sticky droppings, it’s a very good sign!
Salad days – Find out what fresh foods are safe for our small furries to eat – and what foods are harmful and should be avoided at all costs >>
Where should pet degus live?
Degus are indoor pets who like to live at temperatures below 20°C. Anything warmer than this can make them distressed as these small animals cannot sweat and are prone to heatstroke. And, while they’re pretty resistant to the cold, they don’t like wet or damp conditions. They are also susceptible to respiratory infections, including pneumonia, and should be housed well away from draughts.
- Degus need a tall, wire cage with a solid roof (degus find movements from above very stressful as they associate this with predators) that's at least 93cm long, by 63cm deep, by 159cm tall for between two and four degus. These active, agile animals need lots and lots of space to run about along with different ledges, platforms and hanging ropes to scamper along. A stable rock formation can also provide additional climbing opportunities
- Tree branches like pear, apple, ash, beech and oak are great for furnishing their cage and degus love to gnaw on them
- The flooring should be solid and covered with a material suitable for burrowing, such as a mixture of peat, dust-extracted bedding and bark chippings
- Degus also need enough space for a deep layer of bedding on their cage floor for digging into. For degus, digging is a powerful natural instinct and is also great exercise for them. A digging box using organic soil and sand is sure to go down well. Clay piping can also be added to provide a tunnel system for further happy burrowing
- A cosy nest box or two – around 20cm long x 15cm wide x 15cm high – will also be required. Provide a pile of shredded paper for bedding so your degus can make a nest inside their sleeping box with it, just as they would naturally do in the wild
- A solid exercise wheel (not one with rungs) that’s 25cm in diameter should be provided to help them get their daily runs in
- Like chinchillas, degus need sand baths to clean their coats. A regular roll around in special chinchilla dust in a dust bath absorbs oils and removes dirt
- Toys, such as jingly balls, sisal, corn and seagrass toys are also fun for degus to play with – they also adore shredding things such as banana Leaves, cardboard, unbleached loofah and coconut shells
Are degus social and do they need company?
The first rule when keeping degus is never to have just one. These small pets need the company of at least one or two other degu chums (ideally from the same litter) or they will feel vulnerable and depressed, which will have a detrimental effect on their health. Degus like to do things with other degus – whether that’s playing a game of chase, taking a sand bath together, or cuddling up for a cosy nap.
What do degus like to do?
As degus are very active in the day and, in the wild, would spend lots of time foraging, digging, running and chewing, so you need to provide lots of enrichment to keep them happy and to encourage their natural behaviours. Keep them busy by filling a box with hay for them to dig into and munch on. Why not try:
- Scattering their daily nuggets ration around their cage and exercise area instead of feeding from a bowl. This is also a really good way to ensure that everyone gets their fair share
- Hide hay, pellets and greens in paper bags, cardboard tubes to give them some foraging challenges
- Try out some special activity toys suitable for small animals, such as maze boards and treat ballsthat you can put some of their nuggets in for them to forage for
- Provide your degus with some untreated softwood twigs will for hours of gnawing fun. Natural wood branches (safe woods include apple, hazelnut, pear, poplar, quince and hawthorn) provide three activities in one – an obstacle course, levels to climb on and something tasty to chew. Give them a good wash to make sure they are safe for your pets to nibble on and bake them on a low heat for an hour. Tasty Gnaw Sticks will keep them occupied as well as promoting good dental health
Naturally curious, it’s important to keep your degus mentally stimulated by providing new experiences and challenges – from adding new obstacles to clamber over to rearranging the items in their cage when you clean them out. Just make sure their home doesn’t get too cluttered so they can still run about freely.
How do degus communicate and how do you know if your degus like you?
Degus have a wide range of behaviours, which all indicate different things, and use a variety of sounds to communicate. For example, you’ll likely notice a chirping sound when your degu is ‘talking’ to you or to their cage mates. In fact, it’s estimated that degus use as many as 15 unique sounds to chat to each other, which you can listen to here >>
- An annoyed degu might chatter his or her teeth, which sounds like grinding. A rapid succession of squeaks usually signifies that your degu is worried about something, whereas warbling and chirping sounds mean that your pets are happy and content
- When your degus are feeling particularly playful or happy, they’ll run, hop, jump and twist to show just what a good mood they’re in
- Degus also use a variety of other methods to generate sounds including beating their tail rapidly on the ground to indicate excitement, drumming their feet as an alarm warning and tapping their head against the roof of a tunnel to communicate with each other through burrows systems
- Degus show affection towards each other by grooming one another – so if your degus start gently nibbling on your skin, don’t worry – it’s their way of showing they care!
How do you make friends with a degu?
The best way to form a bond between yourself and your degus is to take things slowly and build up trust over time. Speak softly and allow them to climb on your hand before attempting to pick them up. Hands swooping down on them from above will cause stress as it is natural for degus to run away from predators approaching from above. Degus should never be caught or held by their tail as they will lose them very easily.
Here are our top tips for building your bond with your degus:
When your degus come forward in their enclosure, stroke them gently under the chin. Don’t try to catch them, just offer a treat so they don’t associate you with being caught.
- Am I in danger? Degus think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might), but crouch down to meet them at their level
- What’s happening? Keep your approach slow and steady – small pets can be easily startled and will simply run for cover. Speak to them in a soft, happy voice as you gradually get closer
- That looks like it could be tasty! Offer some yummy nuggets so they learn to associate your approach with something good happening. If your degus won’t come close enough to take food from your hand, lightly toss the food to them whenever they come in your direction. Wait until they come a little closer each time before offering food again, while continuing to talk to them in a soothing voice
- I think I’ll risk it... If your pet does take the food, sit beside them and continue chatting to them. Then, offer them another treat. If your pet looks comfortable and doesn’t back off, you could try giving them a gentle stroke. Do this every day and your pet will begin to approach you, creating some magical animal moments
- On my own terms Timid degus may take a while to gain confidence, but every pet is an individual and it’s essential that they choose to interact with you on their own terms – and it’s that which makes it so rewarding. When your small pet decides that he or she trusts you enough to want to engage in some hand-feeding time with you it’s a great result!
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