Degus—small rodents that occupy Chile, from the coastal plains to the mountains—make great pets. In the wild, they live in communities of up to 100, much like prairie dogs, and dig elaborate burrow systems comprised of food storage spaces and sleeping nests. These social animals are one of the few rodents that are actually awake during the day (diurnal), adding to their domestic appeal. And while they may doze off here and there, once they get used to your schedule, these little creatures will run to greet you when you come home, ready to play.
Common Name: Degus
Scientific Name: Octodon degus
Adult Size: The degus can grow up to 5 to 7 inches long, with a 6-inch tail. They can weight between 6 to 10 ounces.
Life Expectancy: Up to 10 years.
Difficulty of Care: Intermediate. These animals are playful and curious but need social interaction and exercise.
Degu Behavior and Temperament
Similar to hedgehogs and other wild rodents, degus are easily tamed when handled from an early age. They do best housed alongside other degus (in same-sexed pairs) due to their instinctively social nature and their diurnal behavior. Degus are playful and curious, but without social interaction and the opportunity for exercise, they can become aggressive and neurotic.
Some degus will actually talk to you in a chitter chatter, but their high pitched screech is usually reserved for stressful situations or for someone who has swiped their food. Once trained, degus will actually come to you for a cuddle or belly scratch.
Don't pick one up by its tail. A built-in anti-predator mechanism allows these rodents to shed their tails in an emergency situation. This is often quite painful for your pet and, unfortunately, the tail will never grow back.
Housing the Degu
Degus need a large cage to live in. A minimum of 24 by 18 by 24 inches should house two degus comfortably. If you can go larger, definitely do, as multilevel cages built for ferrets or chinchillas are ideal. Degus are avid chewers, making it necessary to source an enclosure made of wire, as they can eat their way through wood and plastic. A degu enclosure should also have a nesting box to replicate the burrows they dig in the wild. A 6- by 8-inch wooden box with a flat roof to sit on should work. Provide nesting material in the form of tissues, paper towels, hay, or shredded paper. Paper-based bedding is safer and just as absorbent when changed out regularly.
As with other small animals, avoid using cedar or pine shavings, as the scent can be toxic.
Degus need a solid surface exercise wheel (11 inches in diameter is a good size for most). Thick branches also make great playscapes for climbing and cotton ropes work well, too.
Since degus are determined chewers, providing them with lots of opportunities to chew thwarts boredom. A variety of woodblocks and chew toys specifically designed for rodents should be offered and changed out often. Willow balls and toys made for rabbits or parrots work great for degus, as well. A mineral or salt block designed for rodents also makes a nice distraction while providing your pet with the extra nutrients it needs.
Food and Water
Degus eat a diet high in roughage and low in carbohydrates. So, the basis of a good degu diet is a combination of high-quality chinchilla or guinea pig pellets and a rodent block. Make a nutrient-rich grass, like Timothy hay or alfalfa, available at all times and supplement with the following fresh vegetables:
- Sweet potato (peeled and uncooked)
- Leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, and parsley)
- Green beans
- Dandelion leaves (make sure they are pesticide-free and only offer in small quantities)
For occasional treats, opt for sunflower seeds, peanuts, and whole nuts in the shell (but don't go overboard due to their high-fat content).
Use a heavy ceramic dish for a water bowl—one that can't be chewed. A water bottle with a metal tube works, as well, but purchase a chew guard for it. And make sure your degu has clean, fresh water available at all times.
Avoid giving your degu cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, as their systems can't handle these veggies in excess. Fruit should also be avoided due to its high sugar content.
Common Health Problems
Due to their natural insulin resistance, degus are prone to diabetes. However, you can prevent the onset by watching your pet's weight and limiting fruit and sugary foods. Rodents given an excess of sweet treats will die young, so even if they beg, keep your pet's diet healthy. Two tell-tale signs of diabetes onset are fat rolls and the development of cataracts.
A solid bottom floor and solid shelves (rather than wire) should be provided in your pet's enclosure since degus are prone to bumblefoot. If sores develop, your degu will need to be treated with antibiotics and it may take a long time to heal.
Mouth and dental diseases are also common in domesticated degus, but proper husbandry practices can prevent this. Make sure to always provide low-quality chewing forage and chewing blocks to wear down the spurs that can form on your pet's teeth. Watch out for pawing, eating difficulties, and weepy eyes; contact your vet if symptoms arise.
Like chinchillas, degus can suffer from dry skin and need regular dust baths to keep their skin and coat in good condition. Provide your pet with a shallow bowl containing an inch or two of chinchilla bath dust. Leave this in the cage for a half an hour to give it ample time to roll around, and then repeat bi-weekly.
Degus can also suffer from respiratory illnesses and injuries due to fighting. But a conscientious owner who provides an adequate living environment and care should prevent these mishaps.
Purchasing Your Degu
Degus breed like mad, so breeders and pet stores sometimes have plenty of domesticated degus for sale, but you have to look carefully as they are not a commonly stocked rodent. Adopting an unwanted degu is a better option, however. Whichever route you choose, ask questions regarding the upbringing of your new pet and observe it before purchasing, noting any signs of illness. Also, check your state laws regarding ownership regulations.