Degus originate from Chile and are related to guinea pigs. They were first domesticated to be used in research into conditions such as diabetes but have quite recently become popular as pets.

Degus are strictly herbivorous meaning they naturally eat only plant matter. Degus are diurnal - active during the day - and will adapt their behaviour in accordance with their owner's lifestyle. Degus make excellent pets though they have quite specific needs so it's vital to research them carefully first. They generally live for around six to eight years on average.

Housing your degus

Degus are very prone to chewing so should not be housed in a plastic cage as they will soon escape. Some owners house them in glass tanks but we do not recommend this. Tanks have limited ventilation and the lack of bars means the degus cannot climb and it's difficult to make good use of all the space for them. This can lead to them becoming bored.

All-metal, barred cages provide good ventilation and opportunities for the degus to climb and interact with you. There aren't many cages on the market sold specifically for degus but larger rat cages or those made for ferrets and chinchillas may be suitable. Just check the width of the bar spacing to ensure they cannot squeeze out.

As a minimum you should provide two cubic feet per degu but we recommend nothing smaller than 8 cubic feet for a pair of degus - more is much better. If the cage has a wire base, be sure to at least partially cover it or provide solid shelves so that the degus don't have to spend too much time on the bare wire as this can cause foot problems. Degus like to hop between ledges so generally prefer tall, thin cages to low, wide ones.

Your degus will appreciate cage furnishings such as branches, tubes, ladders, ropes, wheels (solid, not barred) and nest boxes. Cardboard boxes and empty toilet or kitchen roll tubes can be a source of great entertainment. The cage should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts. Never put the cage in a conservatory or sun lounge as degus can overheat quickly.

Substrate and bedding

It is very important to use the right type of substrate as the wrong material can have serious health implications. As a basic guide, paper and cardboard-based products are good (eg shredded paper, megazorb, finacard). Some paper based cat litters are ok but can be dusty or scented which isn’t ideal. Never use clay based litters, scented products or any product containing soft wood (eg wood based cat litters, sawdust and wood shavings). There is considerable evidence to suggest that these can cause liver and lung damage in small animals.

How often this bedding needs changing depends largely on the number of degus you have and how much space they have. As a general rule though, you will probably want to do a full clean once a week (including washing down the floor, shelves and bars of the cage) and a smaller clean in between in which you clean out toilet areas.

Degu diet

Degus have evolved to eat almost exclusively high fibre grasses. More easily digested foods such as seeds can make them overweight and it is extremely important that they are not given any sugars (including those in fruits) as they cannot digest them and can easily develop diabetes.

Your degus diet should be made up of around 80% good quality hay or grass, supplemented with a small amount of dry food and some fresh food. Chewing large amounts of fibrous material helps to keep their teeth in good condition. Without constant access to hay your degu may develop dental disease, which will ultimately be fatal. The dry food should be pellets made from hay, not a muesli mix containing seeds and carbohydrates. Check the ingredients to ensure that the food does not contain any sugars such as molasses or honey. Fresh food should be small amounts of greens such as kale, cabbage, cucumber and fresh herbs. Avoid carrot, apple and other fruits as these are high in sugar.

Be cautious of commercially available treats which tend to be high in sugar. Treats are available now which are dried plant and herbs which are suitable but avoid things like yoghurt drops and nibble sticks.

Water should be provided in a bottle (not a bowl which will soon get messy) and should be changed daily.

Companionship

Degus are highly sociable animals so it is absolutely essential for their wellbeing that they have company of their own species. Introductions can be difficult so if you find yourself with a single degu, be sure to seek advice when adding another.

Somewhat controversially, some people keep degus and chinchillas together. The company of another species will not replace company of their own kind but the two species can live very happily together, forming very close bonds.

Sexing your degus

Sexing degus is quite straightforward. Like all pet rodents, the females have visible genitals/urinary openings which can be confused with a penis. The important thing to look for is the size of the gap between this and the anus. In females, the two openings are very close together with no furred skin between the two. In males you will see a noticeable gap.

If you are not confident in sexing degus, be sure to acquire your pets from someone who is. Pet shops often mis-sex rodents and, although degus are not prolific breeders, they are hard to find homes for and there are many looking for homes in rescue centres so please do all you can not to add to the over population problem. If you find you have degus of both genders, please seek help from a specialist rodent rescue urgently. Bear in mind that pet shops, vets and rescues which do not specialise in rodents may not be able to determine the gender of rodents reliably.

Interacting with your degus

Degus are not as domesticated as some other pets so are less likely to enjoy being handled. With patience it is very possible to build a strong bond with your degus but don't expect to be able to pick them up and cuddle them straight away. Begin by making friends with your degus while their feet are on the ground by offering them treats (a small quantity of pumpkin seeds works well) and talking softly to them. You can initially encourage them to walk into a tube and then from the tube on to your hand or lap if they are nervous about being picked up. Once they are out you can get them used to being handled by scooping them with both hands rather than “grabbing” them. Always handle your degus sitting down, ideally on a bed or sofa so they have a soft landing if they jump. Never pick your degus up by or hold on to their tails as they can 'deglove' - shed the skin - as a defensive mechanism.

It’s important that degus get exercise and mental stimulation or they can display frustrated behaviour such as bar chewing or squabbling. Ideally your degus should be handled and given the chance to explore outside of their cage every day. This should be in a safe, secure area where things which may harm them such as heavy objects they might knock over, other pets, electrical wires, potential toxins and sharp objects are removed. Degus can find large open spaces intimidating so, at least initially, you might find it best to free range them in a smaller area. Sitting on the bed or sofa with them is ideal. Bear in mind that degus can get into small gaps and will seek to do so if scared. So be sure to check for gaps under furniture for example before letting them loose.

Degu health

Your degus should be handled daily and as part of this you should perform a health check. Check eyes and nose for any discharge, check for lumps, check the skin for any wounds, scabs or flakiness and listen to their breathing (noisy breathing could suggest a respiratory problem). Degus are especially prone to diabetes and dental problems so check that their eyes are clear (cloudy eyes could indicate diabetes) and monitor their weight (weight loss could be a sign of diabetes or dental issues). Loss of co-ordination, pawing at the mouth, drooling and increased thirst are also possible signs of illness.

Degus are classed as an exotic pet and your average vet may not have much experience of caring for them. So, before your degu gets ill, take some time to find a vet who is confident in their treatment.


This information is intended as a basic guide to caring for this type of animal. If you intend to get some degus please ensure you research their needs thoroughly and that you can offer them everything they need for the duration of their lifespan. If you have any questions which are not covered here you are very welcome to Email us.