Many people who have enjoyed seeing Degus at RainForest while visiting the zoo often ask us about degus as pets. This page will address the subject of keeping the degu as a pet in your home.
Your Deguís Home.
One of the first and most important considerations is a home for your new family member. it is important to remember that babies will grow quite a bit, and degus are active creatures that like to climb. At RainForest we actually have an exhibit that is much taller than it is wide, this allows the animals to use the vertical space and makes them feel quite at home. A large rat or a chinchilla cage with the mesh floors taken out, or covered, is ideal, but avoid plastic bases as these can be chewed through remarkably quickly. Your local pet store should have several versions of these types of cages available.
Degus love to climb and chew so wood perches are ideal. The zookeepers at RainForest look for special pieces of driftwood or other heavy branches that can be placed in the exhibit to encourage climbing and chewing. Wooden toys and branches are good and you can also buy chews designed for Chinchillas, which are ideal. Degus claws are quite sharp and so it is worth having a piece of stone in the cage for them to rub them down on. You can also get stone parrot perches that are designed to keep claws worn down and these also work quite well. I have placed one so that they have to walk across it to get to the upper levels.
Degus need lots of exercise to keep them well, and should be provided with a large solid wheel that does not have spokes, which can catch feet and tails. These are getting easier to find in this country. Check out the Wheels page for more information. Degus enjoy a dust bath to keep their coats clean. You can buy dust for chinchillas and give your degus a large ceramic bowl with an inch or two in the bottom for a short period everyday. It is very amusing to watch them rolling about in it. Don't worry if they appear to be eating the dust, it doesn't seem to do them any harm. The dust bath shouldn't be left in the cage for too long or they will use it as a toilet.
Your Degus will also need two food bowls (to prevent squabbles), a water bottle, somewhere to put their hay (I use a large bowl as I'm afraid for legs with wire hay racks), and will appreciate a box to hide and build a nest in. Mine tend to rip up cardboard for nesting material or try kitchen roll torn into strips. More information on amusing your degus on the Environment Enrichment page.
The Degu has a very interesting and specific diet compared to many of the other small mammals we often associate with pet keeping. To understand why your pet degu eats what he does we can start with understanding what they eat in the wild. The degu comes from a very arid and harsh environment in South America, most of the animals have a wild diet made up most of low quality vegetation which needs a lot of digestion. When we bring them into captivity we greatly increase the quality of the food they are taking in, this can lead to obesity as well as diabetes. Taking care to provide the right food is actually easy when you understand the why behind what they need to be fed.
If you are lucky enough to have a great source of fresh wild grasses and hay this can easily form the staple component of your pets diet. Some pelleted foods can also be given as supplements, but please be sure to avoid "sweet feed" which is often manufactured with a large quantity of molasses. Guinea pig pellets are a readily available source of pellets and can certainly be fed lightly to your pets but they should not form the core of the degus diet.
Degus also benefit from small pieces of vegetables, particularly dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, which are stuffed with vitamins and minerals. Some degus can be fussy if they haven't been fed them as a baby but will often be persuaded to try with perseverance. Being in with a non-fussy eater will soon get a degu eating his vegetables as if someone else is eating it, it has to be good! Although many sites say do not feed fruit because of the natural sugar, fruit is usually digested quite slowly. You do need to be very careful about portion size. You wouldn't eat a bit of fruit the size of your head so don't give this to the degu - a person portion is paw sized and so is a degus.
Degus should always have access to a supply of clean, fresh water. It is often said that Degus should be fed bottled or boiled water, however it is more important that the water is fresh and the bottles kept spotlessly clean (bottled water is actually more likely to have high levels of bacteria in it than tap water in the UK). The suggestion that you sometimes see that water should be chlorinated using household bleach is just plain dangerous, and certainly does not apply in the UK where the water is already chlorinated.
Breeding your Degu
As is often the case with pet owners, baby animals are a happy accident or an intended project, either way knowing what to expect and to be prepared will allow you and your pets the best chance of success.
Degus will literally breed any month of the year, and is always the case young, healthy animals are the best suited to breed. For intended breeding acquiring animals of different lineage will certainly help produce healthy offspring. In breeding no doubt occurs in both wild populations as well as captive populations of many rodent species. While this may be both normal and natural finding two separate gene pools offers the greatest chance for healthy offspring.
An interesting fact of this species is it's natural propensity to use communal nests for several females. Wildlife biologists noted many years ago that this behavior most likely stems from the fact that the genes of a particular female are likely to be passed along even in the event she is killed by a predator before her offspring reach the weaning stage. Additionally communal nesting often takes place in areas of harsh environments as suitable nesting sites are often scarce. The obvious down side to communal nesting is the potential loss of all of the babies from several females should a predator discover the nest or a flash flood from a heavy rain floods the burrow etc.
In captivity it is not necessary to separate pregnant females as their natural instinct to use communal nesting will take over even in your cage at home.
Gestation is quite long for this species, up to 90 days. Litters tend to be smaller than that of similar sized rodents such as the rat or mouse, a female mouse may produce as many as 15 babies in a single litter while the female Degu will average approximately 4-6 young per litter.
Weaning for this species is generally a little longer than other rodents of similar size, generally around 4 to 5 weeks compared to the much shorter cycle of 21 days for mice or rats.