is a Degu? The jury is still out. The first Europeans to set eyes on
them in the eighteenth century regarded them as some type of squirrel.
That is now known to be way of the mark. More recently the consensus has
been that it is an aberrant rodent more closely related to the
chinchilla or the cavy, with which it shares certain similarities,
although the latest generic research does seem to suggest that it is not
a rodent at all, but a lagomorph and therefore more closely akin to
rabbits, hares, and pikas. But maybe we shouldn’t make too much of
this. Classifying organisms into strict zoological groupings is largely
a man-made discipline and there will always be a few species that cannot
be so conveniently pigeonholed. But, for the sake of this article, I
will continue to address them as rodents until more research yields the
referred to as Octodonts (on account of the shape of the grinding
surface of their molar teeth, which form a figure of ‘8’), the degu
is active and inquisitive (hallmarks of the worldwide success of
rodents). It is also rising in popularity. Five years ago few people had
heard of them, even less had encountered one, but now more and more
often it is offered for sale in pet shops.
Octodont family evolved in the early Oligocene (some 36 million years
ago). There are three species in the genus ‘Octodon’, of
which O. degus is the only one seen in captivity in Great
Britain. O. degus is slightly smaller than the other two species
in the genus. They rarely bite but, like many other rodents, the tail is
easily shed, so avoid grabbing or restraining it by the tail. If the
tail is grabbed, the skin and fur is stripped off (leaving the
degu apparently none the worse for wear), leaving just bare bones
behind. Sometimes the animal will bite of the naked vertebrae and
tendons. If it does not, the bone, deprived of blood supply, will drop
off. The tail does not re-grow.
the wild the degu is found in the Andes Mountains in northern and
central Chile. Reports in earlier zoological tomes that the species also
occurs in neighbouring Peru are thought to be a mistake due to an
escaped specimen having once been found there.
It is found in relatively open
habitat where it constructs a maze of burrows. Debris at the entrance
holes in the form of sticks, stones and droppings may serve as
territorial markers. It does not hibernate, but a certain amount of food
may be stored for winter use, when food is otherwise scarce.
some other rodents, degus are sugar-intolerant – they are especially
prone to diabetes – so the food must be free of fructose (fruit
sugars). In the wild they eat seeds, grasses and other plant material.
In captivity, rather than feeding ordinary rodent mix (which can be high
in sugar); give a good base food of chinchilla pellets to which may be
added a small quantity of Gertie Guinea-Pig™ or Charlie Chinchilla™.
Some people offer, as a treat, broccoli, sweet potato, raisins, or
sugar-free water biscuits. Obesity is another common cause of diabetes,
as it is with the human animal.
quality hay is essential, both as a food and bedding material, but
remember to replace it regularly before it gets damp or soiled.
has been suggested that Vitamin C should be added to the drinking water
every other day as this, whilst being beneficial generally, may also
help prevent mouth diseases, to which they seem quite susceptible.
As with so much about degus, that has yet to be proved.
But, even in fairly large quantities, Vitamin C is normally quite
safe. Being one of the
water-soluble vitamins, it breaks down easily in the body, unlike the
fat-soluble vitamins, which are stored in the body and can, in excess,
is a lot of controversy regarding the type of drinking water safe for
degus. This is a matter
that needs to be urgently clarified.
Some keepers suggest hyperchlorinated water (i.e. water
with added chlorine), whilst others adamantly claim that only hypochlorinated
water (water with chlorine removed) should be used.
Some even buy bottled or mineral water to give to their degus.
So what is the truth? Admittedly,
tap water does contain high levels of chlorine, but I have always used
tap water and never had any problems.
To date, I have not lost a single adult degu from this or form
any other cause, whereas at least one person I have spoken to, who buys
large quantities of expensive bottled water for his degus, has lost
several from various causes. If you are worried about the chlorine content of tap
water, I suggest leaving it to stand in a bucket overnight.
Chlorine is a very unstable chemical and soon evaporates into the
atmosphere. Matthew Wright
and I would welcome more information about the confusing and thorny
dilemma of degus’ drinking water.
provide the water in a glass drinking bottle, or open ceramic dish, as
plastic will invariably be gnawed.
Unlike plastic, there is no danger of the glass leaking harmful
chemicals into the water. Glass bottles, however, do not seem to be universally
available and you might have to visit several pet stores before you find
enjoy and occasional sand bath in chinchilla sand, available from pet
stores. A gnaw stone
(similar to that given to chinchillas) can help prevent the incisors
from becoming overgrown, and a cuttlefish wired to the inside of the
cage can strengthen teeth and prevent broken teeth.
incisor teeth are normally orange in colour.
A whitening of the teeth is usually indicative of a serious
roomy tall cage is required. The degu is very destructive to plastic and
wood, so the cage must be construct of weld mesh. The substrate can be
wood shavings, but make sure they are coarse with minimal dust content.
Excessive dust in the scatter material is irritating to mucus membranes
and can even precipitate pneumonia. Avoid pinewood if possible, as there
is some evidence this can harmful. Some rodent-keepers remain staunch
advocates of wood-based cat litters (in the form of wood pellets).
Personally I don’t like this material. I find that most rodents will
chew it into a very fine and unpleasant dust. In doing so, they ingest a
fair quantity of it and, being so desiccated, it can expand when it
encounters the moist environment of the gut and, perhaps, cause
the cage with a wooden sleeping box (which may need replacing
periodically), wide-diameter pipes (sections from sewage pipes are
perfect), and branches for climbing. Wood from (unsprayed) fruit or
willow trees is ideal. Scrub the braches well in mild soapy water to
remove moss, lichen, bird dropping, etc, and then allow it to dry before
placing in the cage. You can safely leave the bark on, as not only will
it provide occupational stimulation for the degus to strip off the bark,
but it provides valuable trace elements as well. And, of course, natural
wood is invaluable as a knowing aid.
droppings are dry and innocuous; degus are generally clean animals,
which will not offend the most house-proud of owners, and cleaning out
the cage once a week is normally sufficient.
I do not clean out the cage when the degu babies are present.
is common, with population densities varying from 10 animals per hectare
to 260 per hectare, although 40-80 per hectare is probably nearer the
average; and in some agricultural provinces it is considered a pest. It
should go without saying that a communal species such as this should be
kept in pairs or small colonies in captivity, not as single animals.
They seem more tolerant than most other rodents to the introduction of
strangers into the cage. If the cage is big enough, it is possible to
allow them to share with another species, but, since degus must not be
given standard rodent mix (for reasons I will expound upon in the
Feeding section), any companion must be able to thrive on the degus’
diet. Recently I had a pair of degus living in an indoor aviary with two
chinchillas and four African Striped Mice. This experimental mixing went
well, although the grass mice did seem a little rather intimidated by
their larger cage companions, and eventually I removed the mice.
Degus are diurnal, being most active
in the morning and late afternoon, and thus the species appeals to the
pet-keepers, who want to see their pet do more than just sleep.
communicate with a variety of high-pitched whistling and growling
prevents few problems and, even in young animals, it should be quite
easy to tell the sexes apart, the anal-genital distance being
approximately twice as far apart in males as in females.
In mature specimens the testes of the male are also clearly
captivity the degu seems to breed throughout the year, whereas, in the
wild, it appears to be a more seasonal breeder.
Sexual maturity is attained at about 6 months, although it can be
considerably earlier. My first pair of degus mated successfully at just 3 months of
age. Like the rabbit, the
female degu does not have a regular breeding cycle, but seems to be an
induced ovulator and thus it is the physical act of mating that
stimulates egg production. The
gestation period is 90 days. Litter
size varies from 1-10, but I venture to suggest that large litters are
rare, and 5-6 young is closer to the norm.
Babies are born fully furred with their eyes open and are capable
of running around almost immediately.
You can safely leave the father with babies, as he will not harm
them. Weaning occurs at
about 5-6 weeks of age, but the young should remain with their parents
for at least 8 weeks. Longetivity is between 5-7 years.
|By Russell Tofts|