Degus have not been on the pet scene for long, but people are falling in love with these affectionate, sociable little animals. Degus come from the foothills of the Andes in South America and were imported into North America in the 1960s for research on diabetes – they get it quite easily if fed the wrong diet. Other names for degus are brush-tailed rat and trumpet-tailed rat – they have a tassel at the end of their tail. Unlike their distant relative the chinchilla, degus are active by day and sleep at night. They are very gentle and capable of dog-like behaviour if used to handling, and often they go out of their way to avoid biting which makes them good pets for children.
If you are getting a degu, consider getting two – or be prepared to spend lots of time with the one since these animals are very sociable and suffer from lack of company. Your degus should ideally be two females or two males – unless you want to breed them. It’s not a good idea to breed degus that are related: inbreeding multiplies faulty genes and makes animals more prone to illnesses. Even though degus are sexually mature at 3-4 months of age, breeding them (which essentially means leaving them in each other’s company – things happen very quickly from there) at that time is not recommended as thier bodies are still growing. Degus reach their full size at around 5-6 months. The female carries her pups for 87-93 days and should be provided with a nest-box with soft clean bedding in preparation for birth, and protected from stress. Consider putting her in a separate cage if she is normally housed with other degus – the more shy females can be bothered by the presence of other animals. Typically she will squat and waddle as it comes time for her to give birth. Degu pups, 6 to 10 in number, are born with fur and can wobble-walk after their mom very soon after birth. The father is active in keeping them warm as he huddles over them; degu families should be kept together for as long as the pups are raised. They are weaned at 4-6 weeks.
Degus love climbing, so a cage should have at least two levels or shelves on which they can perch, with ladders they can run up and down. Wooden or cardboard boxes will work as nests which degus love to line with shredded newspaper. There should be at least one exercise wheel in the cage. Degus keep their fur clean by rolling in dust, just like chinchillas. If a dust bath right in the cage turns out to be too messy, consider letting the degus run for a bit in a safe enclosed space such as the bathroom or even the bathtub with the dust bath available – it’s easily cleaned up afterwards. Providing timothy hay as well as non-toxic wooden chew-toys (as simple as wooden clothes pegs latched onto the bars of the cage) helps degus keep their front teeth trimmed since teeth continue growing throughout their lives. Degus are best scooped up with two hands – this is the most comfortable and the least threatening approach. Never pick up a degu by the tail – they deglove (peeling back of skin which is painful) easily, and the tail will have to be amputated if this happens.
Feeding degus is nothing like feeding hamsters or gerbils – or even chinchillas. Degus get diabetes if fed fatty or starchy or sweet foods, so a seed and dried fruit diet is definitely not for them. Chinchilla pellets contain more sugar than is good for a degu and are often mixed with raisins. A good diet for degus includes rabbit pellets or guinea pig pellets, timothy hay, and lots of greens: lettuce, dandelion, endive – they seem to like the bitter-tasking kinds of leaves. Vitamin supplements are not necessary with such a diet; in fact, vitamins added to the water nourish bacteria more than they nourish degus. As treats you can give a slice of apple or sweet potato or pumpkin seeds a couple of times a week.
Pet degus live anywhere from 5 to 8 years, with 10 being a ripe old age. A common problem that many otherwise healthy degus develop is the “slobbers” – either their incisors (front teeth) grow too long for lack of proper trimming, or their cheek teeth develop sharp edges from uneven wear. Either way, the degus have trouble chewing properly and drool because they can’t fully close their mouth. This problem is simple to correct for your veterinarian who will either trim the front teeth or file down the sharp edges of the cheek teeth. Keep in mind that North American pet degus are descended from a relatively small number of animals imported in the 60’s, so they are the result of inbreeding which is never a good idea as far as health goes. Due to this inbreeding, tumours can result as your degus age. Contact your vet if you notice any strange lumps or strange looking skin formations. Although old age and its diseases are inevitable, there is absolutely no need for a sick animal to be in discomfort – your veterinarian will show you how to give medication and care for your degu if it gets sick later on in its life.
By Veronica Gventsadze – Pets.ca writer