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Exotic Pets: The Octodon Degus

Updated on August 9, 2012

THE CUTEST, MOST UNUSUAL RODENT EVER!

Learn a little about this extraordinary, exotic pet native of the Andean Mountains in Chile, South America. Read about their natural history, habits, care, reproduction and, of course, the cuteness factor!

What is a DEGU?

Giant gerbil? Little chinchilla? Squirrel? Rat? What is it?????

The degu is a small, affectionate rodent that will mesmerize you and trap you with its charm. It's large bright dark eyes with long eyelashes are endearing. They have a bushy tail, large ears and soft, brown-to-gray fur (with a kind of orange cast). The belly hair is creamy in color. They sit up, sniff the air and you are under their spell...

It happens to be the most common mammal in Chile (about 100/acre), South America, living in the Andes Mountains at elevations of up to 3,900 feet (1,200 meters). They live in families of 10-15 individuals, tunneling the ground to make a network of rooms and passageways. Although pet degus are adorable, wild degus are frequently considered agricultural pests due to their widespread dispersion and preference for root crops (they take advantage of cultivated prickly pear cactus, wheat, vineyards, and orchards as abundant food sources, and can do considerable damage). Their natural habitat is semi-desertic, they are herbivores and active during the day.

Darwin mentioned seeing hundreds of them in the 1800's when he travelled to South America. They are, today, placed in the Order Rodentia (Rodents), Suborder Caviomorpha (also called Hystrichognahi or Hystricomorpha), Family Octodontidae, Genus Octodon (which contains only three species). For a while they were thought to be related to rabbits (which are not rodents, by the way)...

In the 1960s, the Degu was introduced into the US and the UK not as pets, but to be used in scientific research (they have problems with insulin production and were used in studies of Diabetes, initially). Eventually they made their way into pet stores and our hearts.

Before you buy one...

Remember to do your homework...as with any other pet...

Are they compatible with your lifestyle? Pet ownership should not be taken lightly. Degus live quite long for a rodent (8 years or more).

Can you bear the cost of owning them? Degus are not readily available and do not reproduce like other rodents (they have low fertility and long gestation periods - making them a lot more expensive than, say, a hamster).; there is also housing, feeding, toys, healthcare...Plus, they can't be kept alone, so you'll have to buy at least two.

Do you have the time needed to clean, feed, play with them? Degus are not very time-demanding, still...

Do you have enough space? Degus require a LOT more cage space than other rodents.

Do you have other pets? Will they get along? Will they see your degu as a meal? Will your degu see them as a threat?

Do you have children? You need to supervise them while playing with the degu for both of their sakes: they might drop the degu or let it jump down, causing injuries; degus are know to lose their tails if grabbed by them; they may bite, escape, etc...

Can you afford veterinary care, should you need it?

Are you ready to cope with the loss, when the time comes?

Housing your Degu

Degus are rodents, from the latin "rodere", which means "to chew", and they can chew through most everything! They are active, they are jumpers, climbers, and they are diggers!

Degus should be kept in large roomy cages with lots of frequently changed bedding (wood chips and timothy hay), for the animal to dig in. Plastic-bottomed cages will often be destroyed due to gnawing (although this can sometimes be avoided by supplying other materials for chewing) so housing a degu in all-metal cages is required. Also, because of their gnawing nature, plastic toys and other objects must be kept out of a degu's reach, because some plastics contain components such as plasticizers that are toxic when ingested.

Plexiglass and glass aquariums are OK, if they are big enough. They will need a wire mesh cover (available at the reptile section of the pet store) to fit the top. Sometimes you can fit a wire mesh cage on top of the tank to provide extra play space.

They need to exercise, so an exercise wheel (not plastic!) is a must! They may run as much as 3 miles a day!!!!! Make sure the wheel's floor is solid/flat or made of wire mesh (chicken-wire like), or your degu might get its feet through the spaces and get injured.

Provide them with frequent dust baths (Chinchilla dust bath is available in most pet stores). You can use a large jar sideways in the cage (contains the mess and the powder); let them roll in it for a while, then remove the jar.

Be specially careful with the water bottle. Degus will destroy them in one day if they are plastic. Mine is inside an iron box that leaves only the sipper tube (metallic) out. If they are on a wire cage, make sure the bottle is outside, where they cannot reach. The water bottle needs to be cleaned and checked daily. They may clog with little bits of food or wood chips.

The social nature of the degu can make them lonely, so it is not recommended to keep just one. Should that happen, you have to talk to your pet a lot, place the animal where it can take part in daily life of the household, and get them frequently out of the cage (degus like cuddling with humans, and can sit still and even sleep on laps if comfortable, but shouldn't be left running freely). Make sure is home is degu-proof before you let them run around the house.

Feeding your Degu

DO NOT FEED YOUR DEGU SUGAR! They do not produce insulin and will develop diabetes and glaucoma if you do...

Degus on a good, balanced, healthy diet will have bright orange teeth; bright, dark eyes; shiny coat; decent wieght (not too skinny, not obese); and, be active and happy.

The perfect Degu food is a mix of Guinea Pig and Chinchilla pellets; they have no sugar and provide the needed Vitamin C. Other rodent foods do not contain Vitamin C and may have substances that are toxic to degus. There are very few commercial brands of Degu Food.

They love fresh food, specially carrots, tomatoes, lettuce (NOT iceberg!), even though my degus are very finicky...they would rather have the dry pellets.

Feed them Timothy or Alfalfa Hay daily, for feed and bedding.

They also enjoy treats and they would kill for a RAISIN! Raisins are a degu's favoritest treat; something they enjoy out in the vineyards of Chile. Remember, though, they can't handle sugar very well, so it is ONE raisin, every once in a while!

What they cannot/should not eat: sugar, processed or cooked foods, chocolate or other candies, iceberg lettuce.

Reproduction and Raising Babies

From Hejna, M. and P. Myers. 2006. "Octodon degus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 01, 2008:

In the wild degus tend to breed once per year. The breeding season usually begins in late May (autumn in Chile), and the young are conceived in late winter to early spring (September to October).

The gestation period is 90 days, and litter size is typically 4-6 pups. The young are born with fur and teeth; their eyes are open and they are able to move about the nest on their own. Pups are weaned at 4 to 5 weeks, and become sexually mature between 12 and 16 weeks of age. Degus do not reach adult size until about 6 months of age, however, and they generally live in same-sex social groups until they are about 9 months old and their first breeding season occurs.

After birth, both parents protect and provision the pups. Degus nest communally, and groups of related females nurse one another's young. In the cage, the female remains close to the pups until two weeks after birth, and males have been observed to huddle with the young during this period without instances of infanticide. In the wild, male degus may spend as much time feeding and huddling with the young as females do. Pups begin to eat solid food at about two weeks of age, and venture out of the burrow at three weeks. Upon weaning at four to six weeks, the pups are able to live independently of the parents and form same-sex social groups until their first breeding season.

While Degus live for 1-2 years in the wild, in labs or homes their life span is 5 to 8 years.

Degu Health

1. Degus can become diabetic very easily. You need to restrict the sources of sugar in your degu's diet.

2. Degus can become stressed often without noticeable symptoms, like many animals. Humans simply have to learn how to 'read' a degu's behaviour (which will come as you get to know your degu).

3. Degus can develop cataracts secondary to diabetes mellitus onset. This is often a major indicator that your degu is diabetic.

4. Degus have a high tolerance for pain. For this reason, degus may not show pain if they have hurt themselves. Don't just assume that because your degu is not showing signs of injury after an accident that they are unhurt. Also, it could imply that if a degu is showing signs of pain, such as limping, their injuries could be more severe than it would outwardly appear.

5. Degus may require vitamin C supplementation in their diet. The jury is still out on this one, but check back here for updates. In the meantime, it's recommended to feed your degu guinea pig food as this contains a vitamin C supplement. Better to be safe than sorry- for more information, visit the diet section.

6. Degus shed their fur seasonally. This isn't a health problem as such, but it's important to be aware of this; a shedding degu is perfectly normal. Molting is a natural process whereby the winter fur falls out in order to make room for the shorter, finer summer coat. In the wild, this would also give degus the opportunity to remove any dirt and helps to minimise parasite infestation.

7. Healthy Degus have bright orange teeth. Teeth discoloration is sign of poor diet or disease.

From: Degutopia, accesssed Sept 1, 2008

Illnesses

Check the Illness Page on Degutopia for a tremendously informative chart on common Degu Illnesses (with laymen information and scientific references), their symptoms and treatments.

Here's a few tips on how to keep an eye on your degus' health:

1. Weigh your degu regularly- Keeping a weight record for each of your degus is one of the best ways to check their health. Often, the first sign of illness is a change in your degus behaviour, followed by weight loss.

2. Monitor drinking habits- It's a great idea to keep track of how much water your degus are drinking, as over-consumption can be a sign of diabetes, and under-consumption can cause problems such as constipation. Each day when you change the water in the water bottle, note down how much has been consumed (most bottles come with measurements printed on the outside). Remember that degus drink more in hot weather, so this might go up slightly during the summer.

3. Let your degus have a dustbath every day- Dust bathing keeps your degus fur in top condition and also satisfies an important behavioral need.

4. Keep an eye on your degu's behaviour- As mentioned, the first sign that there might be something wrong with your degu is that they do not appear to be their 'usual self'.

5. Check your degu's eyes- The eyes should be fully open, shiny and free from discharge or odour. They should appear dark, without any white or red spots- this can be a sign of cataracts or retinal problems.

7. Check your degu's feet- Looking at the underside of your degu's feet on a regular basis will help you to spot the early signs of bumblefoot such as sores or open wounds. You can then act to stop it getting worse by treating their feet and modifying the cage as necessary.

Degus on Youtube

You HAVE to see them in action: moving, chatting, screeching, eating, taking a dust bath...

USEFUL DEGU LINKS

There is an abundance of information on Degus on the Internet. Remember, though, to take it all with a grain of salt. Most people are lay and writing based on their own experience as pet owners. Some use a lot of scientific information and reference their sources.

Always get a "second opinion"...

LOVE A DEGU? WANT A DEGU? LIKE THIS PAGE? - Let us know!!!!!

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    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Hi!

      Love your site. Very interesting and lovely pictures.

      Check this out: I found another great degu merchandise shop:

      http://www.shirtcity.com/myshirtshop/merchandising...

      Soooooo cool. Love those shirts.

      Keep up the good work and enjoy your pets-degus are awesome!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Hi!

      Love your site. Very interesting and lovely pictures.

      Check this out: I found another great degu merchandise shop:

      http://www.shirtcity.com/myshirtshop/merchandising...

      Soooooo cool. Love those shirts.

      Keep up the good work and enjoy your pets-degus are awesome!

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 8 years ago from Royalton

      Are you a member of the Rodent Family? Please consider joining the Rodents R Us where all rodents happily join together to show off our incredible traits.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 8 years ago from Royalton

      Welcome to the Rodents R Us Group, a friendly group, where all rodents are welcome and treated kindly.

      Your lens and you, as a rodent expert, are now featured.

    • jasminesphotogr profile image

      jasminesphotogr 6 years ago

      I've never heard of these things. They are adorable!

    • profile image

      LisaMarieArt 4 years ago

      Thinking about buying a pair of these cuties as a birthday present to myself. Busy researching them extensively beforehand. Great information on this lens. Thanks

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I WANT TO BUY ONE PAIR OF DEGU AS PET. FROM WHERE CAN I GET THEM PLEASE let me know .. I really want to get a pair...

    • PopTopLady profile image
      Author

      PopTopLady 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Find a reputable breeder where you live or close by... Search the internet... Mine were bought from an awesome neighborhood pet store in Allston, Massachusetts. They have both passed away, after 9 pretty healthy years...and surviving hurricane Katrina in New Orleans!

    • nephthys lm profile image

      nephthys lm 4 years ago

      Awww, cute! This is a really neat and amazing lens! Kudos!

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