|Degu Information (reprinted and edited)
What is a Degu?
A Degu (pronounced Daygoo) is a small rodent with tweed brown colored hair. They are classified
as mammals related to guinea pigs and chinchillas, but many people now believe that they are in
actuality closer in relation to rabbits. The tummy has a cream color and they have lighter circles
around the eyes. They have long whiskers, and their ears are quite big. A full grown adult is about
6" long with another 6" in tail with a bit of fluff on the end of the tail. Think gerbil, only bigger!
The teeth of a healthy Degu are orange colored. Light yellow or white teeth are an indication of a
serious disease. Their Latin name is Octodon Degus. Octodon means "eight-toothed rodent" because
their molar surfaces look like a figure "8". They have open rooted teeth, these grow continually
throughout their lives.
Degu were transported to Europe and North America from Chile, where they live from the West
Coast to the Andes Mountains. The main reason that Degu are very prone to Diabetes is because of
the diet available to them in nature and how they have adapted to that. Degu were used for
research into Diabetes. This means that they need to be fed carefully - more details below. Degu
make perfect companion for older children with Diabetes, as the child’s pet helps them switch focus
from their own issues and not feel so alone.
Degu make good pets as they are friendly, intensely curious little animals and are awake during
the day. They will doze on and off during the day but once they get to know you they will come
flying over to see you when you walk into the room. They make a variety of sounds and seem to
have quite a complicated language. Their distress call is a high pitched beep beep sound. They
chitter when they are upset and will screech at each other when they are having a wrestling
match or someone swipes their food. Some Degu are more vocal than others and will come and
"talk" to you and tell you off when a treat isn't given as often as they would like.
Your average Degu do not appreciate being chased around the cage and forcibly picked up. They
prefer to come to you, climb on your hand or arm, and promptly use you as a jungle gym. They do
take time to warm up to you, and for you to earn their love and trust.
There seem to be varying reports of how long Degu will live in captivity. It is safe to say that most
Degu will live at least 5 years but may live for as long as 10 or more.
As a natural defense against enemies Degu can loose their tail. If a Degu is caught by the tail it can
loose the tip or the whole skin of the tail. It is called degloving. This causes the animal no
permanent harm but is unpleasant for both you and your pet and so you should never try to catch
a Degu by its tail.
One or Two Degus?
The Degu is a very sociable animal, and they can get quite lonely and depressed on their own. It is
best, if possible, to keep at least two pets. Two or more Degu of the same sex are a good idea but if
male Degu are kept together they should be kept away from females, as they will fight when the
female comes into season. It is not a good idea to keep an unneutered pair together - female degu
give birth to quite a large number of babies (up to 20) and get pregnant again straight after giving
birth. The baby females can also get pregnant quite young. It is not uncommon for rescues to hear
of people who got a pair, let things get out of hand and have dozens of Degus looking for a new home.
Sadly rescues seem to find it difficult to get the little fellas homes so please don't breed.
A male degu can be neutered if you find an experienced vet. They are unlikely to have done a lot of
Degus but look for one with experience in neutering chinchillas, who is willing to find out about
neutering degu. Introducing degu can require time, patience and either two cages or one separated
by a wire mesh divider to give them plenty of time to get used to each other. However, neutered
male - female introductions seem to be the most straightforward, simply introduced in a neutral
environment and then put them in a cleaned out cage. But do not rely on it being that easy. It is
not a good idea to introduce male Degus to an existing group as this can interfere with the existing
pecking order and cause fights which can be fatal.
Your Degu’s Home
When getting a home for your pet it is important to remember that babies will grow quite a bit and
degu are active creatures that like to climb. A large rat or even a chinchilla cage is ideal, the
bigger the better. The only disadvantage of this setup is that your Degus may kick their bedding
out of the sides of the cage so a mesh cage fitted on top of a 20 gallon or larger glass tank is also a
good idea. However, a tank on it's own doesn't really provide the exercise that they need as they
aren't great diggers. Remove the mesh bottom from chinchilla cages as Degu made to walk on mesh
flooring develop a painful foot condition called Bumble foot (see Health Section below).
Degu love to climb and a climbing frame designed for parrot cages, an old belt strung across the top
of the cage, fruit tree branches and other parrot toys also make great toys for Degu. Your Degu will
need something to chew on to keep their teeth worn down. Wooden toys and branches are good and
you can also buy chews designed for Chinchillas, which are ideal.
If possible, Degu should be provided with a large solid wheel that does not have spokes. Wheels with
spokes can catch feet and tails. Mesh wheels are also acceptable.
Degu claws are quite sharp and so it is worth having a piece of stone or a brick in the cage for them
to rub them down on. You can also get stone parrot perches that are designed to keep their claws
short and these also work quite well. Place them so that the degu have to walk across it to get to the
Degu like a dust bath to keep their coats clean. You can buy dust especially designed for Chinchillas
or use clean play sand, and give your Degu a large ceramic bowl with an inch or two in the bottom
for a short period everyday. It is very amusing to watch them rolling in it. Don't worry if they
appear to be eating the dust, it doesn't seem to do them any harm. The dust bath shouldn't be left in
the cage for too long or they will use it as a toilet, unless you are trying to potty train them and are
willing to clean the dust bath every day.
Besides a large cage and bedding, your Degu will also need a hay rack, food bowls (please use two to
prevent squabbles), a water bottle and will appreciate a nesting box to hide in. Cardboard boxes
with a hole cut in the side is fine. Do not use plastic houses, they will eat them. Wooden houses will
need to be cleaned weekly.
Feeding your Degu
The most important part of looking after your Degu, is to feed them correctly. They cannot cope
with sugary foods and in the wild live on a very poor diet, so are designed to eat lots of poor quality
food, such as dried plant materials that takes a lot of digestion. Degu that are given lots of sugary
treats such as breakfast cereals, cake, biscuits and dried fruit may get diabetes.
Although we restrict the glucose (sugar) in our Degus diet they do in fact have glucose in their
systems. Glucose is a simple monosaccharide sugar that is a building block for a number of other
carbohydrates. For example, starch and cellulose are both made up of glucose units, each in a
different structure. When the degu digests complex carbohydrate in its diet (starch from grains in
pellets, cellulose from hay and other plant material) it is broken down into glucose and released into
the blood. So the obvious question is why do we then restrict simple sugars in the diet if their food is
broken down into glucose anyway?
The answer is about blood sugar levels. It takes quite a bit of time to break down complex
carbohydrates into simple sugars and them to be released into the blood stream, and in addition
Degus browse almost continually. This results in a constant low level of glucose being released into
the blood. If the blood level of glucose gets too high, then the hormone insulin is released to
encourage the cells of the body to absorb the glucose. There are receptors on the cells that detect the
insulin and tell the cell to take up glucose.
When a large amount of simple sugars are eaten in the diet they all get into the blood very quickly.
This results in a large rise in the blood glucose level and a large release of insulin. If this happens a
lot then, over a period of time, the number of receptors for insulin on the cell surface drops and the
cells do not respond as well to insulin. This is known as insulin resistance. Ultimately the cells will
not respond well enough to insulin to get the blood sugar level down to a safe level and this is type II
diabetes (type I diabetes is when the body cannot produce insulin at all). High levels of glucose in
the blood can cause all sorts of problems including damage to the eye seen as cataracts and damage
to the liver, kidneys, immune and nervous systems. As degu have evolved in an environment
where their diet is very poor and takes a long time to digest, they seem to have lost the ability to
cope well with blood sugar levels that fluctuate at all. This may be why they are very prone to type
Additionally, Degu do not have stomach acid like humans do. They ferment their food, as cattle do.
The complex balance within the stomach can be seriously disturbed by too much sugary foods and
an imbalance can lead to death.
The main diet should be a mixture of Guinea Pig and/or Chinchilla pellets, short of ordering
specialty food for degu (one company is called Brisky). Pellets prevent your pet from picking out
the bits that they like and leaving the bits that are good for them! However, when buying
Chinchilla pellets check the ingredients and make sure that they do not contain large amounts
molasses, which are full of sugar and so not good for your Degu. Calcium chews sold for Chinchillas
are also a good idea.
It is best if your Degu have fresh hay available to them at all time. Degu like to munch all day long
and so good quality hay should make up a high proportion of their diet. Timothy hay is best, but
they can also have grass, alfalfa, clover and/or dandelion leaves and small pieces of vegetable but
no fruit as this is high in sugar. Large amounts of roughage are essential to wear their teeth (which
grow continuously) correctly. Adult degu should have their pellets restricted so that they have
only hay to eat for a few hours a day. This also stops them from getting fat, which can also lead to
Degu should always have access to a supply of clean, fresh water. It is often said that Degu should
be fed bottled or boiled water however it is more important that the water is fresh and the bottles
kept spotlessly clean.
All small rodents benefit from fresh vegetables in the diet. Some degu can be fussy if they haven't
been fed them as a baby, but will often be persuaded to try with perseverance. Dark green leafy
vegetables such as spring greens and broccoli are particularly good sources of vitamins and
minerals but a range of different colors is good for them. Fresh (but not dried) fruit can also be fed
but be sensible about the size of piece (about the size of a tic tac) as it does contain natural sugar.
If in doubt take your pet to the vet. Phone around and try to find a vet who has plenty of experience
with small rodents and is interested in finding out about Degu, even if he / she has not seen one
before. The book (Diseases of Small Domestic Rodents by V.C.G Richardson) says that they can be
considered as scaled down Chinchillas for medication purposes. Some guinea pig knowledge is also
useful as with the Ovarian Cyst discussed below. It is worth finding a vet before you need one in an
emergency and maybe take your Degus in for a checkup. In this way, you can decide whether you
like the vet and they seem interested before you have a sick degu on your hands. Degu seem to be
generally robust little rodents but there are one or two conditions that you should be aware of.
Diabetes: Degu appear to be naturally insulin resistant and can become diabetic. The first sign of
trouble can be that your Degu gets very fat. They will drink more water than normal and towards
to end may become very thin. Diabetes is always fatal and cannot be treated in small animals.
Don't feed your Degu any sugary treats or let them get too fat. They may like, even demand, treats
but it is not kind to feed an animal treats until it becomes obese and dies young. If you have a fat
Degu reduce the amount of pellets and cut out all treats, letting the animal eat mainly hay. Never
allow the supply of hay to run out as degu need to munch pretty much continually to keep their
stomach working well. Good treats are bits of vegetables, the occasional sunflower or pumpkin seed.
Bumble foot: Having to walk on wire surfaces continually can cause this painful condition. The
Degu may have difficulty walking and might show pain while on his feet. Remove wire mesh
bottoms from chinchilla cages and try to provide a solid wheel.
Liver Disease: If Degu are fed too much fat, they will contract liver problems. These can have
similar symptoms to Diabetes in that they animal may drink lots of water and get very thin after
being quite fat. Don't feed your Degus too much food that is fatty, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts
Mouth Disease: Degu are very prone to infections of the mouth. Make sure that the water bottle
is kept spotlessly clean. If your degu is having problems eating, is pawing at her mouth, drooling or
has weepy eyes then suspect teeth problems. As with chinchillas, their molars can grow spurs
causing lots of pain. There is limited information available about degu teeth problems but
information on chinchillas is relevant. Do a search on google for the words chinchilla and
malocclusion. Degu have smaller mouths than chinchillas and so it can be much more difficult to
work on them.
Cataracts: Cataracts in Degus may be due to diabetes or a genetic condition and the symptoms are
greying of the eye and sight problems. Degus have whiskers which prevent them from bumping
into things and a good sense of smell and so should manage fine. They usually occur in older Degus
but can also younger Degus.
Fur Chewing or Biting: You often see Degu with chewed tails. In chinchillas, fur chewing is said
to show boredom, stress or lack of fiber. So make sure that your degu has plenty of toys and hay to
eat. If a tail is damaged they may also chew at it, or it may also be due to lack of feeling in
extremities due to diabetes. Degu can also fur chew, chewing the surface off an area of fur.
Dry Skin: Degu tails can become quite dry looking. It is ok to use baby oil, cocoa butter or Aloe
Vera on the tail. If you do it before a dust bath, the dust will stick though. Chinchillas can suffer
from fatty acid deficiencies that can cause dry skin and Degu may as well.
Injuries: An injured degu should always be taken to a vet. This is particularly true in the case of
fight injuries which can become infected, or broken limbs. Damaged tails are common and degu
should never be caught by their tail. These usually heal well, but it is worth getting the vet to
check them just in case.