The ultimate guide to happy, healthy degus

What do your dashing, delightful degu friends need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our degu top tips! A close relative of the chinchilla, the degu is a gentle South American rodent that’s native to northern and central Chile. Looking rather like an oversized gerbil, degus have silky, grey-brown coats, rounded ears, a long, thin tail with a
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15th February 2024

What do your dashing, delightful degu friends need to be happy and healthy? Find out with our degu top tips!

A close relative of the chinchilla, the degu is a gentle South American rodent that’s native to northern and central Chile. Looking rather like an oversized gerbil, degus have silky, grey-brown coats, rounded ears, a long, thin tail with a tufted, black tip and bristly hair on their hindfeet.

Smart and speedy, degus are highly social, living in communities of as many as 100 individuals. They work together to dig extensive underground living quarters, which have tunnels leading to different compartments including nurseries, bedrooms and food stores.

Pet degus retain this innate desire to dig and so need a home that provides plenty of opportunities to get their paws in the soil – as well as another degu pal or two to join the digging crew.

Degus form close bonds

Writing on PetMD, vet Dr Laurie Hess says: “Degus are very gregarious and energetic, forming close bonds with their owners and with other degus. They recognise other degus and their owners by sight and sound and will often stand up on their hind legs in their cages to indicate that they want to get out when they see their owners.”

Describing degus as “cheeky and mischievous”, rehoming charity Wood Green adds: “They are not necessarily a first-time pet but can make a super addition to a family keen to take on something different and fun. Some degus really enjoy human interaction – they will take food from your hands and climb over you during free-range play time. However not all degus enjoy this, and many can find sudden loud noises frightening. Because of this they often suit families with slightly older children who are happy to take their time building up a relationship with their new pet degus.”

You’ll also discover that degus also have plenty to say. Dr Hess adds: “They communicate with each other through an extensive vocabulary of more than a dozen sounds that baby degus learn from their parents as they grow. Degus will chatter, squeak, and make warbling noises, depending on their mood.”

Degus are one of the newest pets

The RSPCA advises: “Degus have only been kept as pets for a relatively short time and experts are still learning about how best to care for them. As they're not commonly kept as pets, we recommend registering your degus with an exotics specialist vet who has experience in treating this species. They'll also be able to talk to you about the specialist care and resources they'll need to stay happy and healthy.”

Keep reading to find out:

  • Health – how do you know if your degu is in good health?
  • Behaviour – what activities does your degu need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
  • Companionship – does your degu need a friend?
  • Diet – what should you feed your degu?
  • Environment – what housing does your degu need?

TOP DEGU FACTS FROM THE RSPCA

  • Degus are diurnal, which means they're active during the day and sleep at night.
  • Degus are sociable – in the wild, they make communal burrows and live together in groups.
  • Degus are active – they spend lots of time digging and chewing.
  • Degus are very vocal – degus will chirrup and squeak at each other.
  • Degus have yellow teeth – their teeth are naturally a yellow-orange colour, and white teeth can be a sign of illness.
  • Degus typically live for 6-7 years in captivity.

THE 5 WELFARE NEEDS

As with all pet animals, every degu owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:

  1. Health – Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
  2. Behaviour – the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
  3. Companionship – to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like degus, chinchillas, rabbits, guinea pigs and gerbils, or to be housed alone for solitary species such as Syrian hamsters.
  4. Diet – a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
  5. Environment – a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.

Veterinary charity PDSAadvises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”


1. Health – how do you know if your degu is in good health?

A healthy, happy degu will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose, a glossy coat and be interested in what is going on around them.

If cared for properly and given the right nutrition, degus are generally healthy animals, although they can suffer from a certain illnesses.

Wood Green says: “Degus can be prone to dental problems. Unless they have inherited them from their parents, dental problems are usually due to a poor diet or even an inappropriate environment. Degus can be prone to diabetes – especially if they’ve been fed an unsuitable diet including sugary treats like fruits and chew bars. It can be managed by improving their diet.”

RSPCA advises: “It's worth familiarising yourself with the symptoms of common degu illnesses, such as vitamin A deficiency, liver disease, diabetes, tail loss, heat stroke, pneumonia and other respiratory infections.”

The charity recommends checking your degus every day for signs of illness or injury, such as:

  • Discharge from the nose
  • Wetness around the mouth
  • Opaque whitening of the eyes
  • White teeth as degus' teeth are naturally a yellow-orange colour; white teeth can be a sign of poor health. Degus' teeth grow quickly and should be checked at least every week to ensure they're the correct colour, length and shape. Only a vet should correct overgrown or misaligned teeth.

If your degu’s behaviour or their eating and drinking patterns change, take them to a specialist vet as soon as possible.


2. Behaviour – what activities does your degu need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?

Two of a degu’s favourite things to do are chewing and digging, so it’s important that they are provided with plenty of opportunities to gnaw suitable items, excavate, as well as foraging for food.

Why not try:

  • Scattering their daily nuggets ration around their cage and exercise area instead of feeding from a bowl to encourage natural foraging behaviour.
  • Hiding hay, food pellets and greens in paper bags and cardboard tubes to give them additional foraging challenges. You could even add some special activity toys suitable for small animals, such as maze boards and treat balls, that you can hide tasty nuggets in.
  • Filling a box with hay for them to dig into and munch on.
  • Supplying a selection of things to gnaw on such as Coconut Leaf Twists and Banana Leaf Balls wrapped in seagrass string for shredding and chewing.
  • Setting up a large exercise wheel with a good solid base (not one with rungs) to help your energetic degus get lots of running time in. It’s also lots of fun watching them hopping on an off to each take their turn!

Like many animals, degus prefer having a regular routine. The RSPCA advises of the importance of predictable lighting times: “Degus are naturally active in the day and rest during the night, so keep them in a room where the lights aren't left on until late at night, and where regular hours are kept.”


3. Companionship – does your degu need a friend?

A solo degu is not likely to be a very happy degu. Littermates will live happily together but, if they are not the same sex, make sure the male is neutered to prevent the patter of tiny degu paws.

The RSPCA says: “Degus will groom each other and enjoy sleeping side by side. Even with lots of human contact, degus need to live with other degus and can get depressed if they're kept on their own. Never house them alone unless you're advised to do so by a vet or clinical animal behaviourist.”

Wood Green advises: “Ideally, degus should be housed in same-sex pairs, or a castrated male can live with one or more females. Introducing degus to a new companion is possible but must be done with great care and patience. They can be extremely territorial and aggressive if it’s not done correctly.”

Rescue centres – such as Blue CrossRSPCA and Wood Green – are a good place to find a new degu friend as the staff will be able to tell you a bit about their different personalities. If your degu is a more confident sort, they may prefer a quieter friend, and vice versa. They’ll also be able to advise you on how to safely introduce a new degu to your resident degu.

NEVER keep degus with guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits or any other species as they all have different housing, nutrition and behavioural requirements.


4. Diet – what should you feed your degus?

The best degu diet should replicate what they’d eat in their natural environment. Wild degus like to munch away on grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, roots and stems. Pet degus need to eat food that’s high in fibre and is similar to what they would eat naturally.

Wood Green states: “Degus are herbivores – so they only eat plant-based food. Feed your degus a good quality diet to avoid health conditions like dental disease and diabetes.”

PLANNING AN IDEAL DEGU MENU

  • 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 hay will also help your degus’ dental health by keeping their continuously growing teeth at the correct length and shape.
  • Degus need a low fat, low sugar diet. They can’t digest or metabolise sugar and carbohydrates and they’re prone to diabetes. Avoid high fat foods such as peanuts and sunflower seeds, along with foods that are high in sugar, such as fruit.
  • Foods formulated for other species such as rabbits, hamsters and gerbils are not suitable for degus. Neither are 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 with Mint 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 – feed an egg cup-size portion daily (per degu).
  • Your degus will also enjoy a small handful of fresh greens such as dandelion leaves, broccoli, basil, and parsley. You can also treat them to an occasional small cube of carrot, celery, pumpkin, sweet potato, or squash. They’ll also enjoy some dried leaf-based forage, or dried wildflower forage, mixed in with some tasty, nutritious feeding hay.
  • You can include some yummy, healthy nature snacks such as a Forage & Feast Hay Bar or Meadow Munchies to add enrichment to your degus’ diet. These are great for hand feeding, helping you to build your bond with your degu chums.
  • 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.

THE FASCINATING WAY THAT DEGUS GET ALL THE NUTRIENTS THEY NEED

Although it might seem rather strange to us humans, if your degus are eating their sticky droppings, it’s a very good sign!

  • 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.

5. Environment – what housing do your degus need?

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 susceptible to respiratory infections, including pneumonia, and should be housed well away from draughts.

Wood Green says: “Degus love to explore and move quickly. However, if the environment is not safe for them, they can get seriously injured. Furnish your degus’ cage with fun activities to keep them occupied. Avoid any items that could trap their legs, or they could become tangled up in.”

YOUR DEGUS’ IDEAL HOME

  • 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 of vertical space with different ledges, platforms and hanging ropes to climb up and scamper along. A stable rock formation can also provide additional climbing opportunities.
  • 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.
  • Tree branches such as pear, apple, ash, beech and oak are great for furnishing their cage and degus love to climb up them and gnaw them. Give branches and twigs 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.
  • 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.
  • A cosy nest box or two 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.
  • Like chinchillas, degus need sand baths to clean their coats. A regular roll around in special chinchilla dust in a dust bath tub absorbs oils and removes dirt.

Wood Green adds: “Once your degus are settled with your daily routine and happy to feed from your hands, you can allow them some free-range time in a secure room. Ideally, this is the room that the cage is housed in. Make sure all wires are protected and any house plants are removed. Your degus will run around fast, so make sure the room is completely safe and secure.”

HANDLING YOUR DEGUS

“Always handle your degus with great care, as rough handling will upset them,” says RSPCA. “Never pick a degu up by its tail, as this is stressful and can hurt them. If you handle them, do so close to the ground, away from shelves or furniture, as they may try jumping off and could hurt themselves. Above all, be kind to your degus and be quiet and gentle around them. Never shout at or punish them, as they're very unlikely to understand and it could make them more nervous or scared.”

Wood Green adds: “Degus are naturally fast and wriggly animals, and many don’t enjoy being handled. Spend time slowly socialising your degus to help them feel safe and confident around you, and they may learn to enjoy being handled in their own time. Spend 10-20 minutes each evening talking to your degus and offering them a treat to encourage them to feed from your hands. Once they feel confident with this, offer them your arm to sniff and hop onto.”


When it comes to choosing the best food for your degu chums, Burgess Excel Chinchilla Nuggets with Mint is a nutritionally balanced food that’s ideal for degus.

At Burgess, all our foods for small pets is made at our factory in the heart of Yorkshire, using only ingredients that meet our stringent specifications. With a long tradition of supporting British famers, we actively source all our ingredients as close to our mill as possible. It’s no surprise that 92% of UK vets recommend our Burgess Excel small pets range!

Recently posting a FIVE STAR review, customer Elizabeth told us: “Pellets are crunchy, and my chinchilla likes the ones with mint. She eats every scrap.”

Our exceptionally tasty feeding hay is fresh and fragrant, nutritionally rich, barn dried and dust extracted to protect respiratory health. The Excel Meadow Hay Box is our biggest hay pack yet! Perfect for degus, it comes in a handy, resealable and fully recyclable box.

Are your degus Burgess degus? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.


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