What I Learned About Degus After I Graduated From Vet School

Information about degu health is slowly entering the mainstream, and tooth ailments, diabetes and cataracts are some of the concerns.

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Hay is an important part of a degu diet. Via Tim Bartel/Flickr
Dr. Jerry Murray

When I went to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, degus were not a popular pet. Thus, degus were not covered in the exotic/small mammal pet class. They were not popular as a lab animal back then, so they were not covered in the lab animal medicine class either. They were not even covered in the optional zoo and wildlife medicine class. None of the traditional veterinary textbooks or veterinary journals covered them. Very little information was available on degus back then. I would have to wait 21 years for the third edition of “Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery” to come out (the pink book, 2011) to have a reference book that included degus. It was about that same time when I saw my first degu patient, so I had to read and learn as much as I could about degus quickly.

Basic Degu Information

Degus are a small rodent that originated from the country of Chile in South America. They are quite similar to chinchillas and guinea pigs. Degus are strict herbivores. In the wild, they eat mostly grasses, leaves, shrubs and a small amount of seeds. This is a high-fiber and low-carbohydrate diet. They will also ingest their cecotrope feces at night, just like rabbits do. This helps them extract as much nutrition as possible from the high-fiber diet.

Degu Tooth Troubles

The most common problem of pet degus is dental disease. The cheek teeth and the incisors at the front of the mouth are constantly growing. In the wild, degus frequently chew on leaves, shrubs and grasses. This abrasive fiber material helps wear down the teeth. Pet degus need a high-fiber diet and plenty of hay to increase their amount of chewing in order to wear down the teeth. Without this abrasive fiber and extended chewing, the teeth will overgrow and cause serious problems. Early signs of dental disease can include drooling, pawing at the mouth and lack of eating. In severe cases, the teeth may become so long that the degu may be unable to eat.

Degus are also prone to odontomas just like prairie dogs. These are benign tumors of tooth origin. They can develop after tooth damage, and the tooth damage is typically from chewing on the bars of a cage. These are usually associated with the incisor teeth at the front of the mouth. These tumors frequently become large enough to obstruct the nasal cavity. This will make it difficult for the degu to breathe through his nose. This can also lead to respiratory infections and bone damage. This will eventually make it difficult for the degu to chew and eat.

Degu Obesity 

In addition to maintaining normal teeth, high-fiber diets are also needed to prevent obesity and diabetes. Degus are prone to becoming overweight and obese if they are fed a high-carbohydrate diet or fed too much food. Thus it is prudent to monitor a degu’s weight and activity level. It may be necessary to limit the amount of food and increase the percentage of hay in the diet for an overweight degu.

10 Common Degu Behaviors 

Diabetes In Degu

Degus are also prone to diabetes. Signs of diabetes can include drinking a large amount of water, urinating large amounts of urine, bladder infections, weight loss, cataracts and death. Degus are very sensitive to sugar and simple carbohydrates. Most fruit, berries and treats contain too much sugar for a degu. Carbohydrates and sugar will lead to obesity and diabetes. Thus pet degus should be fed a commercial rodent food, a large amount of hay and only a small amount of vegetables that contain very little sugar.

Insulin injections, a high-fiber diet and an increase in the amount of exercise are the ways to treat diabetes. Unfortunately very little information is available about which insulin works well in degus. The natural insulin of degus is very different from human, dog or cat insulin. It is closely related to the insulin of guinea pigs. Degus are also prone to insulin resistance, so they may not respond well to insulin injections.

Cataracts And Degu

Cataracts are common in diabetic degus. It is often the first sign of diabetes that most owners notice. Cataract surgery may not be possible due to the extremely small eye size, but an eye drop (Kinostat) used for dogs with diabetes or the human medication sorbinil given orally might help improve the lens clarity and vision. Degus can also develop congenital cataracts. This will sometimes affect only one eye, and the blood sugar level will be in the normal range.

Degus can make great pets. They are quite social and usually enjoy human companionship. They do have a few health problems, but most of these health problems can be prevented with a good hay-based diet, exercise and environmental enrichment. With good care, this small rodent can live for 7 to 10 years in captivity.

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Critters · Lifestyle