Degu: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Degu in hands

Ales Veluscek / Getty Images

Degus are small, burrowing rodents native to Chile that make great pets. In the wild, they live in communities of up to 100, much like prairie dogs. These social, curious animals are one of the few rodents that are awake during the day (diurnal), which adds to their pet appeal. They are great nappers, but once they get used to your schedule, these little creatures will come to greet you, often looking to play or get some belly rubs. They crave social interaction and exercise.

Species Overview

Common Name: Degu

Scientific Name: Octodon degus

Adult Size: 5 to 7 inches long with a 6-inch tail, weighing from 6 to 10 ounces

Life Expectancy: Up to 10 years

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 in same-sex pairs with other degus and are instinctively social. Degus are playful and curious. If they do not get sufficient social interaction and exercise, they can become aggressive and neurotic.

Some degus will attempt to converse with you using chitter-chatter sounds. Occasionally, you may hear high-pitched screeches when threatened, stressed, or if they get their food swiped. If hand trained from birth, they may come to you for cuddles or belly scratches.

Degus rarely resort to biting unless feeling cornered or threatened. A degu nip while playing doesn't hurt or break the skin. It's only when it is in defensive mode, and it fears for its life that a degu will bite hard. Only then may it hurt and cause an injury.

Warning

Do not pick a degu up by its tail. A built-in anti-predator mechanism allows these rodents to shed their tails in an emergency. This is often quite painful for your pet, and, unfortunately, the tail will never grow back.

Housing the Degu

Degus need a large cage. A minimum cage size of 24 inches by 18 inches by 24 inches should house two degus comfortably. The larger, the better. Multilevel cages built for ferrets or chinchillas are ideal. The surfaces should be solid and not wire slats.

Degus are avid chewers. Make sure the enclosure is made of wire or metal; they can eat their way through wood and plastic. A degu enclosure should 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.

Warning

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). Thick branches also make great playscapes for climbing along with cotton ropes.

Since degus are determined chewers, chewing opportunities thwart boredom and keep teeth healthy. A variety of woodblocks and chew toys designed explicitly for rodents should be offered and changed out often. Willow balls and toys made for rabbits or parrots also work. A mineral or salt block designed for rodents is another nice distraction while providing your pet with extra nutrients.

Like chinchillas, degus 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 animal bath dust or bath sand. Leave this in the cage for a half an hour to give it ample time to roll around. Repeat dust baths biweekly.

Food and Water

Degus eat a diet high in roughage and low in carbohydrates. Thus, the basis of a proper 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. Provide fresh vegetables daily, such as sweet potato (peeled, uncooked), carrots, leafy greens (spinach, dandelion leaves, parsley), and green beans every day.

Avoid giving your degu cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Their systems can't handle these veggies in excess. Do not feed fruit; its sugar content is too high.

For occasional treats, you can offer sunflower seeds, peanuts, and whole nuts in the shell (sparingly, due to high-fat content). 

You degu needs clean, fresh water available at all times. Use a heavy ceramic dish for a water bowl or a water bottle with a metal tube that has a chew guard.

degus as pets illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Marina Li

Common Health Problems

Degus are generally healthy, but they can be susceptible to some conditions:

  • Diabetes: Due to their natural insulin resistance, degus are prone to diabetes. Telltale signs of this disease include fat rolls and the development of cataracts.
  • Bumblefoot: Bacterial infection that causes foot sores; it requires antibiotics for treatment.
  • Mouth and dental disease: Prone to tooth spurs; provide safe chewable toys to prevent this painful mouth condition.
  • Skin conditions: Prevent dry skin; offer your pet a dust bath regularly.
  • Respiratory illness: Keep the enclosure clean to prevent unsanitary conditions that can bring on illnesses.

Watch for pawing, eating difficulties, and weepy eyes. Contact your vet if any unusual symptoms come up.

Is It Legal to Own a Degu?

Some places consider degus as a potentially invasive species and forbid owning them as a pet. In the U.S., they are illegal to own in California, Utah, Georgia, Connecticut, and Alaska. Before committing to buying one, check with city and state regulations where you live. Some places may require a permit or health certificate.

Purchasing Your Degu

Degus breed prolifically. Breeders and pet stores usually have domestic-bred degus for sale. They cost $25 to $100. You also try your luck rescuing a degu. Check adoption organizations like Adopt-a-Pet and your local humane society for degus that might be up for adoption.

Whether you go through a breeder, pet store, or adoption organization, ask them many questions: They should be able to provide you with the care schedule, a food list, and some background about where they got the animal.

Observe the animal closely before purchasing and look at its enclosure. Look for signs of illness, including discharge around the nose, a watery mouth, cloudy eyes, or foot sores.

Similar Pets to the Degu

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