Degus roll in dry dust in the wild to keep their coats clean, remove parasites and help when they are changing coat. This is a behavioural need and like chinchillas they must be provided with a sand bath in captivity to satisfy the same behavioural urges. Please ensure that you use sand that is appropriate for chinchillas as it is good quality and providing it is stored properly doesn’t become damp and lumpy. You can buy this from most pet stores and online pet supplies. Some degus have sand baths permanently available to them in their enclosure and if you choose to do this please ensure that you change the sand regularly as they like to use it as a toilet and that their skin and coat doesn’t become too dry because of over use.
Please do not add any kind of artificial scent to the sand bath in the misguided notion that this will help with degu introductions. Using essential oils or any other scent is toxic and dangerous. Masking their natural smells will only set them back with the introduction process not, as some believe, improve things. As has been mentioned, degus rely heavily on their olfactory senses and need to be able to smell and smell like their future companions if it is to be successful
To try and get a good understanding of our degus in captivity we should try and understand briefly how they behave and interact in the wild.
Degus are a diurnal mammal meaning that they are awake during the day and sleep at night. Although it has been noted that they sleep in 4 hour cycles especially during the dark hours. In the wild, degus live in social colonies that operate a strict hierarchy structure within burrows of 5 to 10 animals mainly comprising of female family members and between 1-3 males. They typically breed only once a year during the wet season in Chile which starts towards the end of the year, although they sometimes do breed twice a year depending on availability of vegetation. Multiple group members share parenting making them incredibly efficient and successful in raising pups.
Because degus are an incredibly social mammal they absolutely need other degus to be truly happy. They often have complex and difficult relationships with each other until the hierarchy has been decided. Because they live by a strict hierarchical structure in order to survive in the wild, being in groups is always safer. It is vital that this is also followed when they are kept in captivity.
Juveniles and also adults who are later introduced to unfamiliar degus often can and do go through long periods of disharmony deciding and challenging who will be the top degu, particularly during hormonal phases. This is perfectly normal and must be allowed to happen with as little intervention as possible from us. This rarely happens in the wild because they have such a huge area of space in which to escape from antagonists if they feel the need to do so. However, when they are contained in what is a very small area, even if you have what you consider a large enclosure, it can become intimidating which results in fighting. Once the order of hierarchy has been decided calmness usually descends although there will be periods where others in the group will challenge for top position. This can happen for a number of reasons, weakness shown by the dominant degu, health issues, a new group bought in even if they are living separately, or even a new enclosure. Please consider that if you have a group of males and then bring in a separate group of females, even if they are residing in a different area, your males may fight because they can smell the females and the natural need to breed and compete will take over in what was perhaps a calm group.
Territory claiming is very important to a degu but having said all of that a lonely degu has no real quality of life, becomes depressed and a human cannot ever be a substitute for other degus. When a degu responds to grooming from their owner it is not because they are truly enjoying it, it is because they are lonely and need company of their own kind. There have been accounts of degus who live on their own not surviving as long as they would have done and suffering with more health/behavioural issues than a degu who is part of a colony. They really need to live in groups of at least two but ideally more as degus can and do mourn when they lose their only companion so it is kinder and makes sense to have a larger group than two. Due to their complex dietary and behavioural needs they should never be housed with other species for company.
The best way to pick up a degu
Try not to approach your degu from above/over the head. Being a prey animal, they will think that they are being snatched by a predator and you will alarm them. You should never approach any small prey animal from above for the same reason.
Never pick a degu up by the scruff of its neck. This hurts and is unnecessary. You may see some vets do this but it is normally done to restrain them for examination purposes. Ideally, when they are being examined by a vet, you are the best person to hold them for your vet to assess them.
NEVER pick up or hold a degu by its tail. They are designed so that their tails come off when held/picked up by the tail (deglove) if they are caught by a predator, this then allows them to escape.
By far the best way to hold a degu so thats its comfortable is to encourage it to hop onto your hand. You can do this by laying your hand out flat with a tasty treat on it so that the degu will eventually hop onto your hand. This will take time and many attempts so that the degu learns to trust you. They are smarter than you think.
If you need to pick them up to move them from one location to another, using a carpet tube or any cardboard tube with both ends open is often the safest way, covering both ends with your hands when moving so that they don't fall out.
You can also scoop them up from underneath with an open hand either side of them and a thumb resting gently on the back of the neck for security if they are used to being handled.
How many degus?
Degus retain the same traits as their wild counterparts. In the wild they are bottom of the food chain and therefore prey to a number of predators particularly birds and foxes . As a result, they are very wary of any new situation and people who are unfamiliar. Like any animal you have to build up trust, this means letting your degus get used to you in their own time on their own terms. You can’t expect them to allow you to touch or stroke them immediately. If you try and force or rush them then they will naturally distrust you and once they think of you negatively, it can take many months before they stop hiding from you every time they see you. Once you bring your degus home please allow at least three or four days before you start to try and interact with them. They need to get used to new sights, sounds and smells including all other members and animals in your household.
Sometimes you do get degus from a breeder or owner who has handled the degus frequently and these are less likely to be wary of humans but you still need to take time to familiarise yourself with them.
Once they’ve settled in, sit near to the enclosure speak regularly to them in a quiet voice, or do something where you are near enough that they can see and smell you and can also see that you’re not going to try and hurt them. If possible, sit so you’re not directly facing them. This is to help them get used to your presence and for them to realise you won’t suddenly pounce on them.
You can put an old t-shirt that you have been wearing in with your degus, this helps them identify you with your scent. Olfactory (sense of smell) is the most important sense to a degu as their nose provides them with lots of information about the world around them.
For the first few days, the only time you should open the cage door is when you put food in. This is because you want them to identify the cage as belonging to them and safe.
Let them explore the cage without you watching their every move. Watching from a distance is fine but do not open the cage door and try and keep it as unobtrusive as possible. Let them settle in so they can get used to their new surroundings, uninterrupted.
Once you feel that they are more settled try offering treats through the enclosure to them. They may just sit and stare at you, or run but degus are curious so after several attempts, they’ll come and explore what you have. Once they are more confident taking treats through the bars from you, then you can go onto the next stage.
The next stage is opening the cage door and offering them treats without a barrier between you and them. When you think they are ready, you can try laying your hand flat in the cage. On your hand should be a few treats. At first they may take the treat and run to eat it where they feel safe. After a few days, or longer if the degu is timid, the degus will stay around your hand and eat directly from it.
Once the degus are confident eating from your hand, you could try moving the treats up your hand and arm so they have to actually climb onto you. But be careful, they are very good at jumping!
As you can see, all this is aimed at making your degus comfortable with you and convincing them that you are to be trusted. Try not to make any sudden movements or noises or else you will have to go back to stage one to gain their trust.
This is when they attack each other, kicking, biting and eventually rolling in a ball where they are locked onto one another. If this occurs, a towel or heavy gloves should be used to separate them immediately. They can and do seriously injure each other when they get to this stage sometimes resulting in death.
If you have any further questions please ask on the Degu Health & Behaviour group on Facebook. Please click here
Introducing yourself to degus.
Please read before attempting introductions:
In the UK, from the months of October right through to the end of April (Winter months for all other Countries depending on location) degus go through a high hormone peak. There is a myth perpetuated on several outdated websites and forums commonly known as "breeding season” it is a myth because degus can and do breed all year round, therefore we prefer to call it a hormone peak. Hormones play a huge roll in the behaviour of degus, as in all living creatures and should never be underestimated. The colder temperatures plus the diminishing daylight hours all have an impact on their circadian rhythms. They may sleep more, be awake earlier or later than in other months and their routines vary from other times of year. During this time, males in particular, but also some females, can be very testing and trying. Every aspect of their personality is magnified and they are generally more territorial, argumentative and moody. This can make introductions particularly hard. If at all possible, we try to avoid introducing new groups during these months as it very often fails and causes unnecessary stress and sometimes injuries to both degus and care giver. This isn't a good experience for them and often, they will remember the negative experience. This needs to be considered before starting introductions.
There are many guides on the internet discussing how to introduce degus to other degus but we have found through our collective years of experience that this is the most successful way.
Putting two cages side by side is not ideal. Doing this doesn't give them the impression that they are sharing the same enclosure space and that is what we are trying to achieve because we are trying to mix all of their personal scents as if they were already an established group, olfactory, as has been mentioned is the strongest sense that a degu has and plays a strong role in every interaction, either with familiar or unfamiliar degus. They can tell a lot about their conspecifics with one sniff, such as age, sexual status and a whole lot more. If is often easier and uses less house space to have one large enclosure vertically divided, or to connect 2 cages together and then using a vertical divide.
We have never found a horizontal divide in a cage successful for several reasons. Firstly, you are putting the degu/s on top and below one another, automatically creating a dominance hierarchy. The top degus will naturally assume the superior position and will often antagonise and urinate on the ones below. When degus urinate on each other this is a clear message that they are not happy which automatically creates bad feeling. Also, even with a double mesh divide in place in a horizontal position, there is the danger that feet and tails can be grabbed and bitten from below and the downstairs residents faces/paws can be bitten from above. This is not a natural position for a group who will hopefully live together in the future as they won’t be living above and below each other when they are a fully integrated group.
Separating a large cage vertically down the middle is the way that we have found works best. The vertical divide should consist of double layered mesh so that the degus can see, smell and hear each other but by putting the double mesh in, will ensure that no injuries occur when they decide to bite each other through the mesh.
They are now effectively sharing each others space, safely. We usually keep each group or degu on their own side for 2 or 3 days so that they can get used to the set up and mark their areas thoroughly. After this period of time swap them over so that they are now living in their neighbours area. There may or may not be a lot of posturing, angry noises, tail wagging and antagonism at the mesh divide in the beginning and this is to be expected. As time goes on, they should calm down as they get more used to the sounds, sights and more importantly, smells, from the other side. swap their bedding, toys and substrate from side to side every few days so that the smells can properly transfer. *Sand baths* are also shared. One side of degus uses it and then the other side. we use terracotta pots for putting their plants and hay into, we also swap these.
The key here is patience and not rushing. If they are rushed and you try to introduce them too quickly outside of the cage, then you will risk setting them back. They have very good memories and once there is an upset with a particular member of the potential group, then it won't be easily forgotten or forgiven.
You are looking for calmness at all times, ideally they will be ignoring each other and going about their daily routines, even some warbling and friendly noises at the divide before you proceed with any introductions. if there is any aggression then you must wait until they are comfortable with each other. We have often found that introducing a lone degu to a group quicker and easier but not always.
A degu on its own gets lonely and being colony animals, has a natural urge to be part of a colony/group, therefore they can be more willing to accept the other group or degu than if they are already part of a group. Sometimes this isn't the case as it really depends on the individual degu.
Once they are ignoring each other at the divide then it is time to start introductions outside of and away from the cage. There is some different views on this as some have said that in their experience, you can put all degus into one side of the cage as it smells of them all and after some dominance mounting they will readily accept each other.
We usually let them all meet in a neutral area that doesn't smell of other degus, using the same sand bath that they have all been sharing, for scent transfer and watch closely. If they are getting on well, after 15 minutes or so then return them to opposite sides of the cage, as they were and then do the same thing the following day. If there are any problems with *serious fighting* then immediately separate and try again after a few days when they have had time to fully calm down until there is some acceptance. If there is only dominance mounting and standing up on hind legs boxing then leave them but watch carefully to ensure that these antics don’t become serious.
Once they have been coming out for playtimes amicably for at least a week then try to put them all in one side of the cage to see how they react. Some will be quite happy. There is usually dominance mounting and some agonistic noises but you can usually tell if they are serious or not by watching and knowing your degus.
If you or they aren't ready, then go back and repeat the steps above until they are more accepting of each other. Some degus will only take a short time to accept their new companions, others will take longer. Again it really does depend on the personality of the degu, the sex, the age and time of year of those that you are trying to introduce. Once you have a settled group leave cleaning the enclosure out for several weeks. Cleaning the enclosure will remove all of their joint smells as a group and as they are incredibly territorial they may all try to claim a clean enclosure as their own which can often cause fighting. Once you do clean, be sure to keep some of the dirty substrate back so that you can put some back into the enclosure and they recognise the smells as their own. This isn’t necessary with established groups but is quite effective with a newly formed colony.
Pups of 6/8 weeks, usually integrate with older ones and are accepted much more quickly but not always, it will depend on the older degus temperament. We have found girls to be more accepting than boys overall but again there will be differences.
Please always remember that what will work for one degu will not necessarily work for others. We and they are all different and will react differently depending on many, many different factors. The only way that we or anyone could assess a situation is by knowing the degus and actually being there to see how they are behaving.
Please remember that patience is very important. Some introductions will be successful in a short time, others can take many months or even years. Success will also depend on you. How far you are prepared to let them go and also knowing when the time is right to separate or leave them is individual to every introduction. We have been guilty of separating them far too quickly and not letting them find their own level. We have learnt that interference or misinterpretation of their actions will only lead to a continuation of where they left off until their issues have been resolved. Unfortunately, we cannot create harmony for them, they have to be left to do this themselves. Sometimes intervening too quickly can cause more harm long term, than good.
We hope that this may be helpful and please remember that we have put this guide together based upon our experiences with our degus. There is no hard and fast rule but a lot of successful introductions happen because the keeper fully understands their animals and acts accordingly.
Whether you are new to degu keeping or have had them for several years, how do you decide how many degus to keep?
We already know that degus need other degus as they are a highly sociable species and to keep them on their own is unacceptable, but when it comes to colony members, what is the perfect number? Degus can and do live very happily in groups of 2 upwards. Please remember though; the larger the group, the bigger the cage requirement. Regular cage cleaning and general day to day care, including being vigilant for any health problems are all part of being a responsible owner.
These are the questions that you need to ask yourself:
How much time do you have? They are very time consuming and the more degus you have, the more you will need to give individual attention to.
Degus being social creatures need others of their own kind, so if you only have a pair of degus, what will you do if one dies? Will you have time and patience to introduce more degu(s) ?
Who will care for them when you go away on holiday or other trips? Can someone pop in to check on them a couple of times a day, or can they be transported to elsewhere for their care while you are away?
Do you have enough room/money for a very large enclosure? Or the room to accommodate several other large cages when colonies can't or won't live together?
Do you have a good size spare cage, or cages, in case of fighting?
Finances: How will you pay for them if several need vet treatment at once? Vet fees are expensive and if they need ongoing care/medication, the costs soon mount up. Food, hay, toys are all an ongoing expense too.
It is often very tempting to take on degus that find themselves in rescue or cute little pups at the pet store. People often think that one or two more won't make any difference. But we all need to remember that rescue degus often come with health or behavioural issues and pups are highly energetic that need lots of time spent socialising them. Everyone has their limits and it is your responsibility to know what your individual circumstances will allow when considering the welfare of your degus. Degus of different ages have different needs, and this very often is overlooked.
All degus need personal attention. They need to be weighed weekly, watched closely to ensure that there are no dental issues or other health problems and allowed out to play where they can be closely watched.
Sadly, there are still too many degus in rescue, lots are on their second, third or even fourth homes, often as a result of them being taken on without any thought or consideration to their long term needs.
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