The degu is a fairly new pet on the block and many people don’t even know what it is – imagine a large gerbil, or perhaps a small chinchilla with a long tufted tail and that will more or less do it. They are attractive little animals, more suited as pets for adults or older children as they can be quite difficult to hold, being very active and inquisitive. Before buying some degus – and you should really consider at least a pair, as they are not singletons in the wild – you must consider whether you have the room for the cage, whether you can afford the costs involved, whether you can give them the time they need and also whether you are prepared for an indoor caged pet which can live for an average of six or seven years. If the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’ then a little gang of degus are the pets for you.
Housing your degu
A degu loves to climb and clamber and as an adult can grow to around six inches long not including its tail, it needs a reasonably big cage. Babies are usually sold fairly young and their small size can be a little misleading, although hopefully a reputable pet shop will guide you towards the right habitat. They can be prone to bumblefoot, a painful infection of the feet and hocks, so a wire floor is not a good surface for them to live on, but on the other hand they do tend to gnaw, so they will be through a plastic floor in no time. A metal floor with a thick layer of absorbent bedding will fit the bill best, but it is important to keep the bedding clean as the degu is a clean animal and will not tolerate a dirty cage well. Although they like to live in small groups, sometimes they want their privacy, especially if a bit of a hierarchy problem breaks out, so they need places to hide for a while.
Getting to know your degu
Degus are quite shy but once they get to know you they are delightful, running to side of the cage and vocalising when they hear your voice or just a familiar sound, such as a door opening, which they associate with your arrival. They have a variety of sounds, a little like a guinea pig, and you will soon get to know what they all mean. When you first get your degus home, you should leave them for at least three days to settle down and then gradually get them used to you by putting your hand in the cage. Just place a special treat on your outstretched palm and be patient and don’t grab at them when they approach. They will soon get used to this and you will be able to pick them up. They like to be cuddled close to you, with a firm hold. They will soon do this for choice and there is nothing quite like a hug from a happy degu! Remember when choosing where to keep their cage that they can be rather noisy, especially if you have a group of males as they love a rough and tumble. Although they are active during the day and sleep at night they are a little like babies in that they do have wakeful periods through the night and won’t sit quietly just because you are asleep – so a bedroom is not a good place to house them.
They do have their problems, though
The degu was first domesticated for animal research purposes and this is mainly because they are rather prone to developing diabetes. They have less active insulin than most other mammals and so their sugar intake has to be watched carefully. Don't give a degu dried fruit as a treat, as its sugar level is too high – fresh fruit can be given in moderation, but a proprietary brand of food is the best choice, along with some hay. They need to chew because, like all rodents, their teeth grow constantly through their lives and need to be ground down. They suffer from most rodent ailments, but not excessively. Their main problems are the diabetes and also a tendency to shed the skin on their tails if they are in what they see as a stress situation. This is why you must never pull at a degu by the tail – in the wild, as a prey animal, they shed the skin to escape capture. This can lead to a nasty infection and it is not unusual for a degu to have undergone an amputation when it is quite young. This is not a dangerous operation, but it is painful and unnatural for the animal, so it is best to avoid the situation if you can.
Degus are pretty easy to keep and they love to be groomed with a soft brush but one thing they need regularly, rather like a chinchilla, is a sand bath to keep their coat in good condition. The sand should be put in their cage about once a week for them to roll in and they will show obvious pleasure, chittering happily to themselves while they bathe. But don’t be tempted to leave the sand in place for another time – they will definitely poo in it and a degu who has rolled in sandy poo is not a nice pet in a confined space! Other than that, they don’t ask for much, just a well balanced diet, some room to jump about, a few mates to play with and your love and attention.