Degus - Things You Should Know

6_degu_colour_72The degu is a small South American rodent. There are four species although only one, Octodon degus is commonly seen in captivity. In the wild it is found in the hill and mountain areas of Northern and Central Chile.

Body length is approx 10-15 cm with a further 10-15 cm tail length. Adult bodyweight ranges from 170-300 g. They have a dense brown fur (including the tail) and large prominent ears.

Gender differentiation is essentially as for other rodents. In young animals the distance from anus-urethra is used, being longer in males. Later, more obvious penile structures develop. Some references suggest that the testes are intra-abdominal (in the belly). In general this is not true. However, when stressed the testes may be drawn up within the body.

Gestation (pregnancy) is approximately 90 days and young are born fully furred with eyes open. However, there are reports of some litters (average 6-7) being born only partially furred and only opening eyes after 2-3 days. These discrepancies in reports must reflect the secretive nature of these animals as they have been kept as laboratory animals for many years.

They are weaned after 2-4 weeks. Sexual maturity is reached between 6 weeks to 20 months but generally they are mature at around 6 months old.

For their size they are relatively long-lived and can live for 6-7 years.

Although they make excellent pets and rarely bite, handling can be difficult as they are extremely quick and will slough the tail skin if caught or handled by the tail. Should this happen the protruding vertebrae will fall off or be removed by the animal itself and the wound will heal well without assistance.


Degus should never be kept on their own. If kept in mixed gender groups they will breed readily. If this is not desired then they should be kept in single sex groups or males should be castrated. All-male groups will not fight unless there are females within 'scent'.

Unusually for rodents degus are very vocal and males especially will 'sing' each evening emitting high-pitched whistling sounds.

They enjoy climbing as well as burrowing. They are also excellent chewers and can be very destructive 'Houdinis'.

A large chinchilla-type wire mesh cage should be provided. It should be tall enough to allow climbing and a deep litter of paper or hay/straw will allow digging or burrowing. Boxes should be provided as they do require hiding places.

Flooring should be solid and covered in a very deep layer of paper to avoid ulceration and infection of the feet (pododermatitis).

They must be kept very dry and should not be kept warmer than 20°C.

What should I feed my degus?

They are hystricomorph rodents and have a similar dentition (teeth) to chinchillas and guinea pigs. The molars (back teeth) grow continuously so they do require a high fibre diet or dental problems will result.

Other problems associated with a low fibre diet include hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) and a 'diabetes mellitus'-like syndrome.

It is generally recommended that they are fed good quality hay supplemented with chinchilla pellets. Simple carbohydrates should be avoided.

Their vitamin C requirement is not known. It is possible that they do have similar needs to guinea pigs so it does no harm to supplement with small amounts of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) sprinkled on the food. However, many colonies do very well without this being added.

They should be given branches (especially from fruit trees) to gnaw on.

Are there any special diseases I should be aware of?

As mentioned earlier, dental disease can result from inappropriate diet and they will present in a similar fashion to chinchillas with weight loss and sometimes excess salivation should they develop overgrown molars. As with chinchillas, overt spurring of the molars is not the major feature of this syndrome. Whenever dental disease is suspected the skull should be radiographed (x-rayed) to assess the changes in the molar roots and to give the owner an accurate prognosis. Abscessation of the molar roots will occur and this may present as a nasal discharge. In the author's opinion most suspected cases of upper respiratory infection are actually caused by dental disease.

Used and/or modified with permission under license. ©Lifelearn, The Penguin House, Castle Riggs, Dunfermline FY11 8SG

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